I’m a proud PADI AmbassaDiver + this post is brought to you by PADI. Love to dive? Nab one of the last three spots on my Wander Women: Dive + Yoga Retreat in Koh Tao, Thailand!
How does an indecisive blogger decide what PADI Continuing Education course she’s going to do next? Easy, she lets her readers choose for her!
If you’ve been around here for a while, you probably know I love me some courses and workshops. Lucky for me, PADI, the world’s leading scuba diving organization, offers so many it would take a lifetime to complete them all — and I wouldn’t mind testing that theory! With so many options, I was stumped on what my first course of 2018 should be.
Would I sign up for PADI AWARE Fish Identification, and learn to point out my fishy friends a little more competently, and not have to enlist a friend for help every time I need to write a diving blog post? Would I enroll in PADI Diver Propulsion Vehicle Diver and feel like an underwater James Bond zipping around a dive site?
Would I finally go for PADI Wreck Diver, so I’d be certified to penetrate wrecks safely and confidently? Or would I become a PADI Project AWARE® Specialist, and learn more about conserving the aquatic environment through education, advocacy and action? (Let’s be honest — I want to do them all someday!)
I left it to you guys. My Facebook community spoke, and they voted loudly in favor of PADI Digital Underwater Photographer! Yes, I’ve been taking photos underwater for years, but dang do I still have so much to learn. I shouldn’t have been surprised this course took home the gold — it’s PADI’s most popular specialty.
I knew exactly who’d I’d be learning from. My friend Paddy Peach of Peach Snaps Photography is the onsite photography guru at Sairee Cottage Diving, my go-to dive school on Koh Tao. Paddy tailors this course directly to the individual student and exactly what they want to learn. I went for his most popular, three day iteration: one day of academics and pool work, one day shooting macro, and one day shooting wide-angle.
When it comes to photography, I admit I have a great eye for composition and I’m a talented editor. However, the truth is I’ve long been using both those as a substitute for shooting in manual (that noise you heard is the collective gasp of every serious photographer reading this!), which is not super effective or time efficient. Plus, it’s just lazy — I took photography courses in college as part of my design degree and I understand all the logistics of doing so. So essentially, I have no excuse.
Also, I’m a firm believer that the best camera out there is the one you have in your hands! However, after a couple of years shooting with entry-level housings and point-and-shoot cameras using only natural light, my last few trips I started to feel I’d really reached the maximum of my potential with that particular setup. I was ready for an upgrade (and, perfect timing, it was right as my Canon PowerShot G7X decided to go to that great big camera farm in the sky…).
I landed on the Canon G7X Mark II and the Fantasea housing (first time stepping out of the Canon housing bubble!) and a second-hand Sea and Sea strobe. Finally getting serious and upgrading my gear was essentially a promise to myself to shoot manual and shoot raw, two things I’ve long been embarrassed I don’t do. Upgrading to a step of housing more professional than I’ve had in the past also means I have the option to play with wet-mount lenses in the future — lenses you attach to the front of your housing and thus can pop on and off underwater. And buying a strobe? That was going to open a whole new world of options for me. So learning to shoot in raw, in manual, and with a strobe were my top priorities.
My final goal for this course? Learn how to get shy fish to pose for me!
Day one was all about academics and getting prepped for our dives in the pool. I love the Sairee Cottage classrooms — they’re like little treehouses! — and the pool, which has the cutest swim up bar on Koh Tao.
Paddy’s lecture was engaging and fun, and we covered the following topics:
• Camera set up and maintenance, dive prep, proper entry and descent: Some of my old camera housings haven’t lasted as long as I hoped. They were the cheapest models, which didn’t help, but I also didn’t take careful enough care of them. With this major upgrade investment, that all changes!
• Diving for photography: It’s different than simply diving with a camera. It’s about slowing way down, focusing, and potentially spending the majority of your dive with one little fish! Talking to Paddy about the way he plans and structures his dives made me realize I didn’t necessarily do anything wrong regarding interacting with wildlife in the past — I just perhaps wasn’t patient enough (and I consider myself a slow diver!)
• Composition: This was one section I was very familiar with the concepts of. However, for divers who are new to photography in general, this will rock their world!
• Camera settings: Again, I know all the mechanics behind F-stops and aperatures, but I don’t tend to put that knowledge into practice. This was a great brush-up before doing so.
• Strobes, filters and white balance: Aha, this is what I came here for! Photography is all about light, and light’s a pretty hot commodity underwater. For years I’ve been relying solely on natural light, which means sticking to shallower dive sites, panicking over cloudy conditions, and editing a lot of images to black and white in post-production. And, for better or for worse, just taking what nature gives you for the day. While I’ve had a blast doing so, strobes give you the control to design your image almost anywhere and under almost any conditions.
• Fish behavior: This is where Paddy is, in my opinion, truly brilliant. He knows which fish spawn at the full moon, which ones love strong currents, and which ones favor which types of coral. He credits some of his best work with this knowledge — and he really inspired me to learn more!
• Diving sustainably: This is such an important part of any underwater photography education. I love that both PADI and Paddy (yup, I think he was destined for this career!) were so quick to stress not disturbing or moving aquatic life for the sake of a shot, using good buoyancy to avoid contact with fragile coral, knowing regulations on local marine life, and using your new skills for good. Images of species like whale sharks can be submitted to the Whale Shark Project to add to research on migration patters, while images shared with our communities can inspire conservation and change perspectives among our non-diving friends.
After the lecture, it was time to blow bubbles! We got in the pool to do some fun buoyancy drills, practice some stress-free shooting with my new setup, and practice backfinning, fin pivots, and other useful micro-movement techniques.
Is it weird that I kind of love homework? I guess I must really miss high school, because I was super down with my assignment to read part one of my manual, assemble a camera “boat kit” (I’ll have a full rundown of mine in a future post!), and scour the internet for examples of underwater photography I admire.
And then we were onto day two of the course: getting out on the boat and doing three macro photography focused dives! I found that over my years of shooting without a strobe, getting close to the subject often led to the best results, so macro is kind of my jam.
And yet, with a full new camera system, including a crazy wet-mount macro lens Paddy lent me, I felt like I was taking my first photo! First up were two back-to-back dives at Chumphon, one of Koh Tao’s premier dive sites. Paddy hung around nearby watching me shoot, signaling me reminders when necessary, and mostly taking mental notes for us to go over later when we reviewed my shots onboard.
The second dive, things started to click. I found one crevasse in the wall at Chumphon and we spent most of the dive there, watching this tiny world unfold.
When I saw that final shot, I whooped into my regulator! That was the moment where I thought, dang I love this new camera of mine.
Finally, we experimented with some of the effects you can create with the use of a strobe. Paddy and I freaked when we descended to find a xena crab hanging on some spiral coral. He scuttled to face away from us just about every time we went to hit the shutter, but with patience and a lot of luck we each managed to get a shot we loved.
It’s so different from everything I’ve shot in the last few years — I still can’t believe I took this picture!
Photo by Peach Snaps Photography
As we headed back to shore, I had a perma-smile on my face. Paddy was so enthusiastic about diving and encouraging about photography, and that energy was contagious. Contrary to how it might appear at first glance, diving is a tough profession and it’s easy to get burned out. Paddy is that rare gem with years of experience, but the energy of a freshly certified PADI Pro.
The PADI Digital Underwater Photographer manual explains that when you’re underwater and lining up the perfect shot, you’re pretty much going to follow a process called ESC — first, you’ll have to get the exposure right (how bright or dark the image is). Next? Sharpness. Finally, once you have an image that’s well-exposed and crisp, you’ll try to nail that perfect composition. Let me assure you guys, for most of day one, while shooting in manual and trying to use a temperamental strobe for the first time? I was struggling just to get the exposure correct!
I’d only really gotten six shots out of the day — and maybe only half that were really epic. But I was thrilled.
My homework for the evening was to review my shots and read section two of the PADI manual. Section one had been a very basic overview of general camera equipment and housing introductions and overviews of underwater photography concepts. Much of this section was familiar to me, but the refresher was useful for the course and I loved learning the proper names for photography acronyms like SD, LCD, JPEG and TIFF!
I also finally grasped the concept of raw files (and, um, the need to start shooting in them), figured out what a dang mirrorless camera was, and ceded the importance of formatting memory cards. So, it filled in some little gaps in my total grasp of underwater photography.
Section two, on the other hand, dug into various camera settings and how they apply to underwater photography, plus how to use them to create the image you want. It also explained downloading, editing and storing images and creating an efficient workflow.
Again, I brushed up on things I learned back in my college photography classes, and also got hit with facts like how an unsharp mask in Photoshop really works. My general takeaway? The human brain is an incredible thing and cameras are still catching up. The cool thing about this course is it teaches you how to take what you see with your eyes and the wonder you feel underwater, and translate that into an image you can share with the world.
I knew that the wide-angle day of our course was going to be my greatest challenge. We decided to ease in with a dive using no wet-mount lenses, just the setup I owned and would be taking on my big trip to the Middle East.
The dive site we were headed to, Green Rock, has some fantastic swim-throughs and caverns that we decided to spend the first half of the dive exploring. As I’m now cavern certified for overhead environments, I’m always eager to kick around in one!
Paddy’s curriculum includes practicing handy moves like backfinning, stopfinning and helicopter turning — which are doubly useful when you’re in a confined space like a swim-through.
I was thrilled when I found a butterfly fish chomping down on a clam, and I hung out with him long enough that a parrotfish and a cleaner wrasse also showed up for the party. They might not be photos I’d print out or submit for publication, but I absolutely loved being on a dive where I wasn’t rushed in the slightest by trying to keep up with an eager guide.
And then, again, things kind of started to click. Paddy had suggested in our dive plan that upon returning to the main pinnacle of the dive site, we keep a keen eye on a crevasse where fish like to lurk. This is where I really got the hang of angling the strobe.
I was so focused on the beautiful bright hue of the fish in the front, I didn’t even notice his little green friend in the background. Just look at those gills!
Finally, for our next dive, it was time to pop-on Paddy’s wide-angle wet-mount lens. From the second this lens was on my camera, I was already mentally starting to save for one of my own. It just made the reefs look delicious!
Paddy and I talked a lot about the “rules” of underwater photography and how every so often, the rules are meant to be broken. This photo breaks a major rule — don’t take photos of fish butts! — but I kind of love it anyway. It reminds me of the fish version of a paparazzi photo of a celebrity running out of a nightclub and into a limo. No? Just me? Mkay then.
Another super fun part of this course? Paddy took some awesome photos of me while demonstrating something or just while shooting alongside me. Normally the only decent photos I have of myself underwater are selfies!
As expected, wide-angle was my biggest struggle. We noticed that the images I’d gathered for my first night’s homework showed I was drawn to bold shapes, repetitive patterns, and fairly simple, clean images. Wide-angle shots of complex, chaotic busy reef systems are hard to align with that! But they do tell a beautiful story of what it feels like to scuba dive, and doing so was the answer I came up with when Paddy asked me what my goal was with my underwater photography.
In case it didn’t already radiate through in this post, I loved this course. The lectures, the pool time, the manual, and most importantly the time out in the water shooting all came together to just totally turn my underwater world upside down!
Paddy’s lecture was the absolute kick-in-the-bum I needed to start taking top-notch care of my camera and develop a system for ensuring it travels with me for years to come. As for the course manual, while there are aspects to underwater photography I will never fully understand — um, hello electromagnetic spectrum — it gave me a much-appreciated refresher on and a deeper understanding of the basics.
And after two days of shooting, I think the challenge I’m most excited about moving forward is taking the new technical knowledge I gained from this course and meshing it with the personal style I’ve developed over my years of diving with my camera in hand.
Photo by Peach Snaps Photography
While the most basic version of the course costs 5,000B and takes just a day, Paddy’s most popular course is a three day version for 15,000B — which includes six boat dives and a pool session. Don’t fret if you haven’t invested in your own setup yet — the course includes a point-and-shoot underwater camera rental, though you can upgrade to a dSLR camera for an additional 1,000B as well. It’s actually a great way to test out a system and see what you like and don’t like before you invest.
After a bit of practice with these new skills and concepts, I’m excited to write a post of my own underwater photography tips — stay tuned for that in the future.
Ready to sign up yourself? Here are a few tips!
• Find the right instructor. Essentially, any PADI Divemaster who completes a minimum of ten underwater camera dives and takes the Digital Underwater Photography Instructor course is qualified to teach this, so there will be a very wide variety of experience and photography skill among certified instructors. I recommend finding someone like Paddy, a teacher you respect as well as an artist who’s work you admire. (Seriously, check out his stuff!) Paddy was so enthusiastic when I nailed a shot, it was like he had pressed the shutter himself. His classes have an incredible positive energy.
• Consider taking this course in tandem with an Enriched Air Certification, which allows you to dive longer and safer (you can read my review of that course here), Fish ID, which shows you what you’re shooting, Underwater Naturalist, which helps you figure out fish behavior and find what you’re looking for, and Peak Performance Buoyancy, which will set you up for clean, clear shots so you’re fussing only with your camera, not your body.
• Go for gold! The second dive of this PADI Specialty Diver course can be used as Adventure Dive toward your Advanced Open Water Diver certification, which means after this course, you’re one fifth of the way there.
Photo by Peach Snaps Photography
One of my favorite concepts emphasized in this course is that photography is important. Yes, it’s super fun and yes, it’s a great way to record your own memories underwater. But it’s also a powerful tool for spreading the message of how beautiful and complex and vulnerable and special and worth protecting our oceans and springs and rivers and lakes are.
One of the most rewarding aspects of my blogging career has been the emails I’ve received over the years from readers who wrote to me to tell me, “I never thought I’d go diving, but you finally convinced me — and now I love it!” Divers are some of the ocean’s most powerful advocates, and I love that through photography and storytelling, we can help create this ocean-addicted, conservation-minded community. So don’t be shy — share your underwater explorations with the world!
(And don’t forget to tag me when you post them on Facebook and Instagram — I want to see them too!) I can’t wait to keep sharing my own diving adventures with you.
Any fellow underwater photographers in the house? Are you self-taught or have you had formal training?
Underwater photos in this post were taken with the Canon G7X Mark II and the Fantasea housing. Previously, I show with the Canon PowerShot G7X and its Canon Waterproof Housing. See a full list of my photography gear here.
Thanks for the article. I have just been doing this on my own saying I need to take the course, but never took the time. With trips scheduled to the Bahamas and Fiji I think it is time.
It’s the perfect way to get excited for a big trip! I’m practically quaking over this Middle East excursion now that I know I’ll have a whole new photography challenge to tackle!
I think you should be the underwater Joel Sartore! You may well know him already but if not, check out his instagram! He’s a Nat Geo photographer who covers threatened species around the globe to highlight their plight!
Oh my gosh, WHAT a cool account. Excited to have someone new to follow!
Wow! How cool is this?! Thank you so much for such a interesting blog post! I absolutely loved the photographs and can’t hardly wait for your next ones, I am thinking about learning to dive, so you may have sparked a new interest! Love it, love it, love it!
That’s what I love to hear! Diving seriously opens up a whole new world… it will definitely double your bucket list!
I need to go diving so much more often! I only do around 6 dives each year, which means I’m not good enough at even keeping still. I would love to take better pictures, but first I need my basics in order!
Buoyancy is definitely step number one towards being a great underwater photographer. Practice is the key, but it’s amazing what a good patient instructor can teach you about buoyancy as well!