Monthly Archives: October 2013

What really matters: contrast & balance

Bohar snappers, Egypt

Bohar snappers, Egypt

The research for my new book (publishing date May 2014) led me to one firm conclusion about composition, which is that two concepts dominate the theory: contrast & balance.  Contrast extends beyond the traditional well-known ideas of needing light against dark to perceive shapes, and of opposites in the colour spectrum to catch the eye.  For a start, colour unpacks into an incredibly diverse range of ideas, including psychological feelings, complementary and split-complementary matching, monochrome…the list goes on.  But what fascinates me is a third category of contrasts developed by a philosopher within one of the old European art schools.  We see these contrasts instinctively, but often sub-consciously and the list is as long as your imagination.  In the book, I will set out what I have learned about these myriad contrasts and how they apply to the underwater world.

Balance is an even bigger idea that revolves around the size, shape, weight, colour and implied movement of each graphic element in a photographic composition.  It is most easily described as a concept of visual weight and relative positioning, which I deduce to be fundamental building blocks for composition.  I’ll be explaining in the book how to grasp this idea easily and how to exploit it in underwater photography.

After a really interesting day yesterday that included a speaking slot at Dive Show 2013 and a few sessions on the British Society of Underwater Photographers stand, I woke up to a nice surprise that involves contrasts.  I tried a rather extreme (for me) experiment in August by turning a half-decent colour image of schooling bohar snappers into a monochrome image with very high contrast.  In post-production I turned the blue water almost to black and the grey snappers much nearer to white.  It was not entirely to my taste, but it just picked up a ribbon from the Photographic Society of America (one of 6 honourable mentions) in an international photographic art competition that attracted over 5000 entries from 62 countries.  This is far from the best image that I’ve ever made, but I’m heartily encouraged to keep experimenting!

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Developing a photographic style

Motor Bike on the SS Thistlegorm, Red Sea

Motor Bike on the SS Thistlegorm, Red Sea

I spent a year agonising about my next DSLR, or whether I would even get one with the micro 4/3rds format looking so impressive. There is so much technology on offer that it seems difficult to make a bad choice. So I worried less about the numbers (measurebating as Alex Mustard so eloquently puts it) and more about where my photography might go, now that I can devote time to it. Alex had already sowed a seed in my head years ago in an article that he wrote for Martin Edge’s book, The Underwater Photographer. It concluded with that most difficult issue for any photographer: with so many good photographers and great images out there, how do you develop a photographic style? Well, a few years after reading the article and on the cusp of upgrading my trusty D300, it finally clicked what should drive the camera choice, namely photographic intent and not technological edge. So I have at long last made a critical choice and acquired a full format camera. For the next few years it will be a combination of Nikon D4 and an Olympus XZ-2 compact. Oh, and the style that I would like to develop? Ask me at the Dive Show or keep following this blog…

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National Geographic win

Barracuda Explosion: recently published by National Geographic

Barracuda Explosion: published by National Geographic

I’m excited about the prospect of this year’s Dive Show at the NEC.  It’s one of those great crossroads of the diving world and you would struggle not to meet a thick handful of old friends as they congregate to see what’s new in diving, to lust after new gear and to listen talks about our undersea world.  I’ll be doing something slightly different this year.  For the first time I’ll be manning the British Society of Underwater Photographers stand, where I hope to meet and talk to plenty of like-minded photographers.  But I’ll also be giving another short presentation in the Photo Zone about the book that I’m currently writing: Winning Images with any Underwater Camera.  I’ll be using the image attached (and many others) to argue why composition matters more than technology.  I’m delighted to report that 2 days ago this image won another competition, this time one run by National Geographic.  What interests me is that the image is technically low average, with some over-blown highlights on the leading fish, and noise from post-processing to rescue my in-water exposure errors.  But I always sensed that it would generate interest and if you’re at the Dive Show on Saturday, drop in on my presentation at 10.20-1100 to hear me explain why.  If you’re there on Sunday, I would still love to see you at the British Society of Underwater Photographers, stand P12.

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room for another underwater photography book?

Viewpoint: an under-exploited aspect of image composition? Dive boat through Snell’s window at night

Martin Edge’s excellent guide illuminates so many aspects of underwater photography and introduces a vital foundation for composition.  But it struck me a couple of years ago that there are very few books (if any) out there for the underwater photographer that articulate both the high value of traditional theory and contemporary research into image composition.

We know the basics; image placement, light, colour and contrast.  But how often do we create technically sound images to be disappointed by a lack of critical acclaim?  Competitions are not the sole measure of success, but they do allow other people to critique your work, leading to an important question: what is it that makes images aesthetically pleasing?  There is a well-established body of artistic knowledge, but now some new research using eye tracking that lets us understand exactly how people look at images.  We are beginning to understand better how an image that we create correlates with what a viewer actually perceives.

With research for a new book now finished and writing well underway, Dived Up Publications will publish my book about this towards the end of May 2014 called Winning Images with any Underwater Camera: The essential guide to creating vibrant photos (ISBN 978-1-909455-04-7).  I intend to articulate an updated theory of underwater image composition, provide easy-to-remember practical reference models, discuss techniques to develop composition skills and provide a short package of Lightroom and Photoshop advice that relates directly to composition.  Critically, the book will serve compact, micro four-thirds and SLR users alike.  Why?  because composition is a supremely cost-effective way of improving any image whatever the camera!

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