Shoot-out In Anilao

Shoot-out In Anilao

What is it like to have more than 300 muck-divers bothering the critters for several days during a prestigious underwater photographic competition? WILL APPLEYARD tags along to get an overview

0418 anilao competitor with spotter
A competitor with his spotter.

Appeared in DIVER April 2018

MUCK-DIVERS ARE an interesting breed, and what better place to observe these underwater wizards at work than at the Anilao Photo Shoot-Out competition in the Philippines?

Not only does the location make this a desirable and exotic competition to enter, but some well-known names adorn the judges’ “dressing-room” doors, too. David Doubilet and his wife Jennifer Hayes from the USA, Tobias Friedrich from Germany, Scott Tuason from the Philippines, Singapore’s William Tan and Japan’sYoshi Hirata can between them boast countless awards, books and years of glowing media exposure.

More than 7000 islands form the Philippines archipelago and my destination in the “pearl of the orient seas” is Mabini’s Anilao Bay, on the west side of the country in the province of Batangas. Landing in Manila and ravaged by jet-lag, I sleep for most of the three-hour airport transfer to the Aiyanar Beach & Dive Resort. I am out here to observe the titanic struggle.

Shoot-out contestants from all over the world, 173 in all, are spread out in accommodation around the bay, with Aiyanar and neighbouring Acacia acting as a base for most of the topside activities such as registration, briefings, photo workshops, press conferences and receptions.

The competitors are divided into a Compact Camera category and Open Class, which takes in any level of photographer with any kind of camera and accessories.

In both categories, participants can compete in the sections for Macro & Super Macro, Marine Behaviour, Nudibranch, Fish Portrait and Cephalopod.

NEW CATEGORIES FOR the 2017 event are Black Water & Bonfire, and Phone Camera & GoPro. In blackwater diving, a weighted line is dropped over the side of a boat with a light attached. Divers spend the dive under the boat in mid water photographing anything that’s attracted to the light from the depths, however small, and using a macro lens to compose the subject against the outer-space-like black background.

Bonfire also uses a fixed light to attract creatures of the night, but in shallow water and usually from the shore. Either way, the results can be mind-blowing, and droves of contestants at Anilao head for the water each night to seek out the coolest critters as the sun quickly disappears over the horizon.

What the Phone Camera and GoPro categories will turn up is anyone’s guess, but first, second and third places are up for grabs in each field.

One of the most important aspects of this and I’m sure many other such shoot-outs involving macro subjects is the photographer’s “spotter”. The Anilao competition organisers have lined up some 200 local dive-guides ready to be hired by eager participants. Without local knowledge, precious time would be lost and many of the most highly prized species could be missed completely.

Philippines-based Jun de Leon, an underwater photo-comp newbie with whom I am sharing a boat during the week, tells me he thinks he would have “only half a chance of finding subjects without a professional spotter”. I’m interested to see how he gets on.

Two queues grow steadily at the Acacia resort as participants arrive on the morning of registration to have their SD cards cleared and time-stamped by an official. They are handed a green, numbered identification tag to place on their regulator’s first stage – their spotter will sport a matching red numbered tag.

WHILE QUEUING, Jun explains to me that he set his camera up ready for the competition three days before the event “to make sure there are no nasty surprises to come on the day”.

During a spotter’s meeting I attended the evening before the comp, the organisers had stressed that, should anyone witness any destructive behaviour in the underwater environment, the contestant’s ID tag should be reported and the offender would subsequently be disqualified.

I learn that in the past competitors have been seen to move creatures to achieve more desirable compositions, to introduce wildlife to a scene and even to damage the reef in order to bag “that shot”.

I have no reason to think that the majority of divers are badly behaved during the event, but it would be only a matter of days before I witnessed some very “poorly placed” fins during a reef dive. Several other divers also noted this behaviour, and the offender’s ID tag number was duly taken and the diver given a warning later that day.

With 170-plus photographers in the water, most with spotters and all vying for the most photogenic subjects, I wonder how the contest will play out.

Will I witness scenes reminiscent of shoppers squabbling over cheap TVs on Black Friday? Or will every diver slot comfortably into his or her place on the reef, with plenty of space to enjoy and compete in this magical place together?

On reaching the seabed on the first boat-dive, the guide/spotter scratches his hood when he sees that I have come equipped only with a wide-angle lens.

I attempt to explain my aim through a few improvised hand-signals, which I think does the job.

Jun quickly scoots off with his spotter, leaving us to observe clownfish tending to thousands of teeny eggs, skeleton shrimp, yellow goby, candy crabs and a selection of other fun-sized weirdos, often incorporating the word “hairy” in their popular names.

The dives are a mix of muck and coral garden and the reef systems appear to be in good condition, teeming with fish life and with much of the coral in great nick.

The muck-dives are usually no deeper than around 15m and on sand. Small oases consisting of perhaps a single small rock on the seabed, a square foot of coral or even litter can provide a home for a diverse range of small beings, and each one brings me genuine surprises.

I might see a single seahorse hanging onto a pint-sized piece of sunken driftwood, surrounded by nothing but sand to the edges of visibility, and then, several fin-kicks away, the most striking goby holed up in a bottle. And so it goes on.

Looking around me, I can see pairs of competitors with their spotters examining the smallest of subjects, one with a chunky camera and the other with a metal guide-stick. Comparing my own diving experiences in the area with Jun later that day, he surprises me by saying that he had very few lucky breaks with the critters found by his spotter.

Even with local knowledge, I guess there’s a fair amount of luck involved too.

I HAD BEEN UNDER the impression that before the start of the competition Jun had a particular shot in mind, yet this didn’t seem to be the case.

I do know, however, that more experienced or regular competitors not only often preplan a shot, but also enter the water with a specific subject in mind.

Litter plays its part in muck-diving and this competition is no different, with a plastic fork poking out of the sand here and a lost flip-flop there setting the theme. We found a pair of clownfish that had made a crisp-packet their artificial anemone home, the type of scene that appears common, even normalised, in muck-diving spots.

Cocktails flow during the official opening evening, with a keynote speech given by Women’s Hall of Fame diver Lynn Funkhouser. Her regular visits to the country since 1975 have made her a Philippines tourism ambassador, and she has dived and photographing some 260 of the country’s islands.

The judges are introduced and competitors mingle and inspect the dive-gear displayed by event sponsors.

LATER ROPE-OFF TIMES are scheduled for the following morning, and I’m pleased to be visiting dives-sites surrounding nearby Sombrero Island, named after its appearance.

We motor past two local fishing-boats with some 100m-plus of net stretched between them on one side of the island, and head for the lee side, far enough away from the gaping fish-trap.

The reef is rich with life, especially of tomato clownfish, a deep red variety the size of a man’s hand and a treasure-trove spot for any competitor looking for macro-genic eggs.

The competitors do by and large seem to manage to space themselves out during the week’s diving, and although there are usually several dive-boats present at each site, everyone seems to find themselves space under water.

In this kind of competition, once a photographer has found a subject he or she might spend the next 20 or so minutes there, so I guess space is less an issue than prolonged stress on the subject. Wide-angle would pose different challenges.

The penultimate evening allows me access to a judges’ briefing. They are brought up to speed on new software designed to help them begin the elimination process once all the photo submissions have been made. The semi-automated system is replacing a process

I was told had proved somewhat laborious in previous years.

Nine dives over three days have been allocated for the competition, and the

final dive proves to be the most interesting for me – and indeed for one or two competitors who happen to be in the area.

A PAIR OF ring-tailed cardinalfish have recently been seen at a site we have chosen to explore, and our spotter Dexter manages to locate them for us.

What makes these guys particularly interesting and indeed photogenic is that they’re mouth-brooders.

It’s most often the male that does the brooding, with hundreds if not thousands of eggs kept in its mouth during the incubation process.

From time to time the fish will open its mouth and partially expel the jewel-like eggs to keep them clean and aerated.

Only once they have hatched into fry will the eggs be released. It’s a sought-after shot, and patience is required to be able to see the eggs, as the male aerates them only every two or three minutes.

We spend most of our dive with this pair of fish and the find feels Blue Planet-esque. Contriving to photograph this event takes skill, but one or two divers manage to achieve some good results as we look on.

A day’s rest is enforced on participants at the competition’s close, allowing the judges to go about the task of selecting their choices from several hundred submissions, prior to the awards ceremony.

This gives me just enough time to dig out my least-creased

T-shirt and shorts before being whisked off to the evening hosting event within the grounds of a palatial resort.

The event is more of a grand finale than I expected, and with the red-carpet-style entrance it feels more like an Academy Awards night than the end of a photo competition.

A lively traditional band supports troupes of dancers, and we eat and drink at our tables and take in a round of speeches.

The winners and runners-up are announced and their work flashes up on the big screen as, amid cheers, applause and whistles, they make for the stage to collect  prizes that add up to tens of thousands of pounds, from computers and housings to flights to dive-destinations.

The winner of the Phone Camera / GoPro section cleans up, being the best of a bad bunch of only two entries, and winning with a bog-standard lionfish picture (he won’t mind me saying that). And so, a top tip for anyone thinking of entering the 2018 Anilao competition – enter this category for greater chances of scooping some whopping prizes!

MY PAL JUN doesn’t succeed in bagging any prizes, but then, he has told me that “sharpening his underwater photography skills” was his main aim anyway.

At the end of the day, the real winner is surely the person who has had the most fun. Isn’t it?

• Will travelled with Cathay Pacific from London Gatwick to Manila on a courtesy flight that would normally cost £1100. The four-night / nine-dive packages for entrants start at US $550pp, including transfers and equipment hire. Early-bird registration for the 2018 Anilao Photo Shoot-Out (27 Nov – 1 Dec) costs $25 or $30 thereafter,

CATEGORY WINNER – Johan Sundelin (Sweden), Santa Fe Island, Galapagos, Ecuador

“While snorkelling with a colony of sea-lions, I quickly noticed two particular photography challenges. The first was how to avoid the attention of the large, aggressive and protective alpha male. The second was the enormous speed of the animals in the water. Lying very still in the water and using high ISO solved the issues. That allowed me to freeze this moment of tenderness using only natural light.”

Taken with a Nikon D600 with Nikkor 16-35mm lens at 16mm, ISO 1600, 1/180sec @ f/13, Sea&Sea housing.

0817 outdoor photo sealions

Jim Catlin (Cayman Islands), Isla Mujeres, Yucatan, Mexico

“The white dots and dark skin of a whale shark immediately lend themselves to a black & white image. Shooting this whale shark from above enabled me to capture the animal as a whole. For the shot to work, the shark needed to be beneath me and parallel to the surface and my camera; fortunately it came together.”

Taken with an Olympus OMD-EM5II with Olympus 7-14mm lens at 7mm, ISO 320, 1/100sec @ f/6.3, Nauticam NA-EM5II housing

0817 outdoor photo whaleshark

Isabella Maffei (Italy), Pescador Island, Moalboal, Cebu, Philippines

“It was an early-morning dive, and what looked like a big black animal was moving under the boat. Under water among the sardines, it was like being in a typhoon of swirling motion. The problem was how to make the right exposure; the fish move so fast, and sunlight was constantly flicking in and out of the scene. The movements of the school were quite predictable, as there were no predators around, so I decided to stay and wait for the right scene and the right exposure to come together.

I decided to use a slow shutter-speed to emphasise the movement of the school; standing on the seabed to stabilise my body was crucial in allowing me to focus on the right point.”

Taken with a Nikon D5000 with Nikon 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 lens at 10mm, ISO 200, 1/30sec @ f/13, Ikelite housing, two Ikelite DS-51 strobes

0817 outdoor photo sardines

Pasquale Vassallo (Italy), Capo Miseno, Naples, Italy

“This winter, the coast off the Gulf of Naples had a strong presence of Rhizostoma pulmo jellyfish. With a bit of luck and a good eye, it is possible to see a small guest, a Liocarcinus vernalis crab, on some of the jellyfish. They get carried away by the jellyfish to new destinations. After many days of diving I managed to find a crab in a comfortable-enough position to be able to take a photograph.”

Taken with a Canon EOS 5DS R with 8-15mm lens at 14mm, ISO 200, 1/60sec @ f/11, Seacam housing with fisheye macro port, two Inon Z-240 strobes

0817 outdoor photo crab 1

Brett Lobwein (Australia), Jardines de la Reina Marine Park, Cuba

“Swimming with American crocodiles is definitely something that gets your heart racing. After spending a few hours in the water I became much more comfortable in their presence, allowing me to focus in on the shot. I really wanted an image that showed the crocodile’s eyes and teeth; the waterline in this image perfectly frames them, and hopefully changes people’s perspective on these beautiful animals.”

Taken with a Nikon D7200 with Tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens at 10mm, ISO 100, 1/160sec @ f/9, Seacam housing, Seacam 9in dome, two Ikelite DS161 strobes

0817 outdoor photo crocodile

Pier A Mane (South Africa / Italy), Protea Banks, South Africa

“While open-water diving at Protea Banks searching for hammerhead schools, my eyes fell upon a sizeable and animated figure. Unable to identify it from afar, I slowly approached it and saw that it was the largest crown jellyfish I have ever seen. With no background objects or diver present to provide perspective, and wishing to exalt this jellyfish in all its stunning colours, majestic size, and dancing elegance, I opted for a cropped head-shot to magnify its presence.”

Taken with an Olympus E-M1 with lens at 9mm, ISO 400, 1/250sec @ f/16

0817 outdoor photo jellyfish

Massimo Giorgetta (Italy), Lembeh Strait, Sulawesi, Indonesia

“This image was captured on a mixed backdrop of black sand and coral reefs at a depth of about 8m. During the dive I met this beautiful pygmy seahorse, which was only about 2cm long, on a red coral.”

Taken with a Nikon D800E with Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 100, 1/160sec @ f/36, Seacam housing, SubSee +10 diopter, two Subtronic Pro 160 strobes

0817 outdoor photo seahorse

Entry for Outdoor Photographer of the Year 2017 opens in the autumn, but divers interested can register at for advance notice of the date. Underwater photographers are welcome to enter their images in the Under Exposed category but may also consider entering the Wildlife Insight category.

The fee for entering each of the adult categories is £8 for up to eight images.

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