Teaching Tips: Digital Underwater Photography

Teaching the PADI Underwater Digital Photography Course
by Ken Pfau (PADI Instructor – Seattle, WA)

We’ve all seen that email that says:

“Hey Ken, We just got back from Cozumel and OMG what spectacular dives! I tried telling my friends about the seahorses, the spotted eagle rays, and that turtle that almost ran over my wife! But my storytelling didn’t get the message across like I hoped. I think it’s time to get an underwater camera; what do you suggest?”

Or maybe you get an email like this: “Hey Ken, I just tried out my new underwater camera, and OMG my pictures suck! When’s your next class?”

As an underwater photographer, you know a good camera set up is only 1/3 of the equation. Proper lighting and composition make up the other 2/3rds. With that in mind, here are two important points to reinforce with your students:

#1 If you understand light you can create a photograph of any subject that’s interesting.

#2 You can’t rely on Photoshop to fix poor composition

Here are some fun and interactive exercises I use to help students understand these concepts:

After reviewing the fundamentals of camera operation: lighting, exposure, white balance, composition, etc.. I get people into the pool. We split the pool work into two sessions:

. . .this is where you break the rock stars out from the head bouncers.

On the first pool dive I have students concentrate on perspective and buoyancy. I have several props that I use for session one: toy foam fish, sharks, jack-in-the box antenna balls and other cool stuff that I float off the bottom with about 2’ of fishing line and a lead weight. No touching the sides of the pool, no sitting on the bottom, no planting on their knees; they need to hover. Hover and take a focused shot.

After we get the buoyancy down a bit I work on perspective. I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time looking at the top-side of a fish blended into coral, sand and mud. I have the students get low to the bottom and get a surface oriented view. Usually that means they need to hover with the head down and feet up; this is where you break the rock stars out from the head bouncers.

After a quick break, we load the photos up on a PC while talking about how to ensure the photo gear stays dry (I break out the air nozzle and attach it to my BC inflator hose for a quick dry). As we review each image I point out focus tips, effects of depth of field, white balance issues, and techniques for staying motionless.

On the second pool dive, I have students work on lighting and white balance. After students install the external flash, they’ll use the PADI white balance card to adjust the white balance for natural light. I review the shots underwater on the student’s LCD screens until I’m satisfied they have it right.

Even in our hygienic public pool there’s enough hair, fuzz, bits of who-knows-what to create back-scatter

Once they get white balance we work on lighting. I make each student work the flash all around the subject for lighting effects. Backlight for a halo effect, top lighted to show depth, side lighted, front lighted and so forth. I want them to get a feel of how just changing the position of the strobe will change the mood of the shot. After the dive we review the photos and let the students describe where the strobe was for each shot. It’s amazing to see that even in our very clean and hygienic local public pool that there’s enough hair, fuzz, bits of who-knows-what to create enough back-scatter to demonstrate why front-lighting seldom works in even the best conditions.

With the two basic principles of lighting and composition demonstrated each student is ready for a fun trip to our local open water hotspot to capture the image that sells their friends on diving.

Ken Pfau is an instructor in Seattle, WA who apprenticed at the prestigious Brooks Institute. Visit his blog: Ken’s Skooba Spot.

Need DUP 101? Read a recent Surface Interval explaining the differences between DUP1, DUP2 and integrating a DUP adventure dive into the AOW course.

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