In search of perfection
WHAT MAKES A GREAT underwater photograph? The British Society of Underwater Photographer Print Competition, sponsored each year by DIVER Magazine, is a contest that can offer clues.
A panel of three judges make an initial selection of what they consider the best entries, and these are displayed at the Dive Show at the NEC, Birmingham. They also select an outright winner and runner-up and confer a number of highly commended accolades.
While the photographs are on display, Show visitors are encouraged to act as judges and their selections determine the winners and runners-up in four categories in the separate Public Vote.
Underwater photographers often find judges’ comments helpful, not only for winning competitions but simply in boosting the quality of their photography. So here is a selection of comments on winning and highly commended images from judges Martin Edge, DIVER Publisher Nigel Eaton and BSoUP Chairman Paul Colley, who also chaired the panel.
The judges thought the competition was of a very good standard overall, with some outstanding images at the high end.
They did however point out that some otherwise excellent submissions were let down slightly by basic errors including, but not limited to: framing (most often too tight); sensor dust spots and backscatter that could have been processed out within the rules; blown highlights (pure white with no detail where the composition demanded it); cluttered compositions, most often too much background or other distracting detail; lack of contrast; overprocessed images (too much contrast or unnatural colours); and errors in lighting (such as harsh shadows in an image where the intention was very obviously full lighting of the subject, or subject eyes in deep shadow on head-on shots).
Blue Shark, by Nick Moore
(Judges’ Choice: Overall Winner) (a)
“While judges are inevitably becoming saturated by exposure to blue-shark images, and it’s now tempting to just admire them and pass by, the right image will still stop you in your tracks.
“This was one of them. The image of the shark itself is impressive enough, with razor-sharp detail and perfectly controlled exposure. But these days that is not enough to win, and the photographer knew this before he got into the water.
“He was willing to risk many unsuccessful shots during these rare and expensive encounters by using a less-predictable but high-payoff technique. As a result, he has rendered the surface and above-water detail in a way that supports the overall story and composition.
“Those who know the set-up can work out that the dive-boat is in the picture, but the slow shutter reduces it to subtle and very attractive colour accents. The result is an extra splash of colour and movement, which supports and balances the picture of a sleek predator racing through the surface of the water. An outstanding piece of underwater art – we just loved it.”
American Alligator, by Chris Knight
(Judges’ Choice: Runner-Up) (b)
“The quality of this image was evident to all three judges from the outset. The black background adds menace to a subject that looks capable of creating it, and the creature is eyeballing the viewer with a pin-sharp blue eye.
“The teeth are perfectly exposed (difficult to do with these subjects) but it’s the reflection and interesting surface detail that sets this image into the realm of something special. The leaves and the mirror reflections that merge into the upside-down alligator’s eye and jaw-line are beautiful little accents of detail and colour.
“One judge felt that the lack of enclosure of the reflection at the top edge of the frame slightly unbalanced the image. It could have been subtly faded more towards black as it left the frame, perhaps with a graduated filter in post-processing, but that was a minor and subjective point. We all thought it was a stunning image.”
Shrimp, by David Morgan (c)
“You'll probably not see a sharper print of such a small subject. The detail is fabulous and the diagonal composition very strong. There’s just enough background detail to show the habitat but so well-controlled with depth of field that it adds and never detracts from the main subject.
“The unusual viewpoint allows both eyes to be rendered in focus, something that really added to this excellent image.”
Cuttlefish, by Mark Launchbury (d)
“It’s a simple behaviour image of an interesting creature but it has great features, including fantastic rendering
of the emerald-green water, a very nice composition that emphasises the habitat and a peak-of-the-action shutter-release against colourful negative space that gives the picture an edge.
“On fine detail, we found some dust-spots or backscatter that could have easily been processed out, but it’s a super image.”
Ethereal Warrior, by Laura Storm (e)
“This almost abstract image drew all three judges in for a long look to determine the subject matter. In that sense it immediately succeeded by engaging us very strongly.
“On closer look, we saw how very careful lighting had revealed the subtle contours of an almost ghostly face covered in fine strands of algae. And then we found snails, mussels and all sorts of fine colours and textures.
“It’s a dream-like image that sets you thinking in so many different ways. Very creative work that drew high praise from all of us.”
Nudibranch, by Simon Temple (f)
“This crisp and sharp image set a colourful main subject very nicely against a black macro background.
“The behaviour is emphasised by sufficient inclusion of the hydroid habitat, but on close examination we felt that the framing was just a smidgeon too tight, with parts of the nudibranch touching the frame edge to the right and with the tentacles of the hydroid top left just clipped out of frame.
“Nevertheless, the image was strong and it pulled all three of us in for a close look.”
Anenomefish, by Jon Batchelor (g)
“At first look, this was a very pretty but in many ways standard presentation of a common subject, but we all felt compelled to look at it more closely, and the more we looked, the more we liked it. We guessed it was taken on the Barge in the Red Sea, but we had not seen this perspective before.
“What we really liked was the quality of the background layers that set off the main subject so well while also adding depth to the image.
“Added to this was the perfect timing that placed both anemonefish facing into the frame with room ahead of them, and the lovely contrast of big against small.”
Fighting Topknots, by Henley Spiers (h)
“By rendering the foreground and background habitat as pleasing bokeh, the eyes and face patterns of both blennies pop well in an eye-catching moment. The side-on viewpoint emphasises the struggle.
“The blurring of the mouths due to movement or, more likely, depth of field detracted slightly, but this was a great image that suited the symmetrical framing.”
Model in Pool, by Cheng Han (i)
“The flowing subject matter, vibrant colours of the backdrop, accents of light and careful balance in the overall composition create a striking and partially abstract image.
“As a footnote, although we don’t allow aquarium shots, the rules do allow pool fashion shots, yet we see so few of them.
“We had not anticipated that the traditional categories would render the distinction between UK and overseas meaningless in the context of
a pool shot, but did think it unfair to judge these types of images in a UK category, where all of the other subjects would inevitably be a restricted range of marine life.
“BSoUP will reconsider the rules for next year. Meanwhile, that does not detract from this image, which we thought was beautifully executed and presented.”
Octopus Portrait, by Michael Gallagher (j)
“Top marks from all three judges for a different presentation of a common subject. We really liked the central symmetrical framing and choice of high-key image-processing that rendered this subject in a new way.
“The image grabs you initially as an abstract, but soon draws you in through strong eye contact and fine detail.
A fine image.”
Saltwater Crocodile, by Nick Moore (k)
The Cuban saltwater crocodile is another subject in danger of being overworked, but when photographed to a high technical standard and in such a pleasing composition, it’s still going to impress.
The sharp teeth (ie, in focus!), very strong eye engagement and the superb addition of mutton snappers as secondary subjects (in perfect position) all add to the story in a very engaging image.
“With strong reflections and some blue-sky colour accents, it's a super rendition of an impressive creature.
“To be uber-critical, while we didn't mind the small natural bubbles and backscatter at the surface, which make the image feel very authentic, there was a hint of chromatic aberration in some of the whitest reflections.”
Dancing Boxfish, by Kirsty Andrews (l)
“Originally displayed upside-down, this image was always going to catch the eye! It’s a great behaviour shot in its own right, but by setting blue against yellow, and yellow/white against black, it becomes a very striking composition. It is beautifully lit and the detail is crisp. And with clear implied movement, it's also dynamic.
“Slightly stronger eye contact could have pushed this even higher up our list of final deliberations, but it’s a fine image.”
Spotted Dolphin, by Chris Knight (m)
“You might on the one hand pass this image by with a smile to acknowledge that it’s beautiful, but that you’ve seen it before.
“On the other hand, when you stop to look at the details, you find it to be an exquisite capture of a very charismatic animal.
“The light on the dolphin is fabulous and lacks the harsh shadows that you so often see in these pictures. The detail is razor-sharp and clear on every inch of the animal in view.
“Although there is no water surface in view due to the viewpoint and/or depth of the encounter, the perfect graduation of colour from almost white to sky blue provides a fine-art backdrop.
“However, there is just enough detail in the sandy seabed to gain that depth perspective.
“So we thought that this was a very different presentation of the subject and the result of clever shooting and/or very careful post-processing and printing. It gave the runner-up a close run for its money.”
Silky Shark, by Sean Chinn (n)
“Although in some ways this is arguably an unremarkable portrait of a shark, the night shot and use of a background boat or diver light to provide an unusual green colour accent really set this image off.
“We loved the resulting reflections and also sufficient negative space around the shark to heighten the night atmospherics. The gloss finish of this high-quality print was a great choice.”
Juvenile Sweetlips, by Justin Beevor (o)
“We’ve seen many of these images before and there is always a danger that the fashion has faded, but we give credit where it's due. This was a very well-executed image, providing a fine-art feel through the implied movement and moment of suspension as the flash froze the fish in frame.
“The eyes were a little soft and some residual backscatter could have been cloned out, but full marks for using the slow shutter-speed technique to render a very artistic view of this juvenile sweetlips.”
Dorado, by Ellen Cuylaerts (p)
“An unusual subject photographed at the peak of fast action resulting in a pleasing composition dominated by yellow-on-blue colour contrasts and three distinctly different profiles of a very interesting fish. The surface texture brought in by vertical framing adds depth to the picture; it would not have worked as well without this.
“The overlap of an almost-hidden fourth dorado in the background became a minor distraction, but the quality of the print is outstanding, with the almost watercolour look providing a fine-art feel to this very beautiful image.”
Details of winners and runners-up in the BSoUP Prints Public Vote can be found at bsoup.org and divernet.com