Are photo-workshops in exotic locations worth the effort? Two trips in, NATASHA ROBINSON has the results to show, and looks like becoming a serial attendee
With the help of my pointing stick, I gently settled my fin-tips on the powdery black sand. I was being careful not to send up any clouds to destroy visibility in the already gloomy water, or damage any precious marine life ,while keeping my eye on my subject.
Last time I had been in Lembeh in 2018 I had failed to capture a decent image of a coconut octopus. I love these captivating creatures that can easily fit inside a small baked-bean tin.
I paused as the octopus collected its shells and settled down, trying not to be noticed.
I tried to remember everything I’d learned. Shutter half-pressed, focus. Click. Adjust lighting. Click. Fine-tune settings. Click. (OK, it was more like click, click, click, clickety click!).
Ten minutes must have passed. I reviewed the images on my screen. Fingers crossed, this time I had achieved my goal – an in-focus coconut octopus!
I had attended a Lisa Collins underwater photography workshop in Indonesia in 2017, and jumped at the chance to join the 2019 version, combining both Lembeh and Siladen.
I dive to take photographs, but on other holidays I have felt rushed, not having the time to compose or get the settings right.
I feel conscious of a queue of divers forming behind me or, worse, the dive-guide rattling for me to catch up and stay with the group as I progressively fall further behind (for which I blame the coconut-octopus failure of 2018).
My first photo-workshop holiday had been a revelation. Spending time composing an image to get it right had been actively encouraged!
Now, with great locations and what I knew would be an informative, friendly instructor, I felt confident enough to encourage two of my camera-buddies to come along too.
Linda Ransom from Worthing was the first to be convinced. She is an experienced diver but relatively new to underwater photography. We had practised together in the pool several times to help her master the buttons on her housing and try to convince her to shoot on manual.
“I’d been to Indonesia before and I liked the diving and taking underwater photographs, but I really wasn’t very good,” she told me.
“So I saw this trip as an opportunity to have a holiday where I could focus on the photography and have lots of time to take photos without being hurried.”
After a sustained campaign we convinced Stuart Gibbons from Brighton to join us too. Stuart has dived all round the world at exciting locations such as Truk Lagoon, Bikini Atoll, Scapa Flow and the Galapagos, and is an accomplished land photographer who has been taking photos under water for some years.
“I decided to join the trip to improve my skills, in the hope of learning new techniques and different camera settings for various types of photography such as macro and sun-balls,” he said.
There were only six students taking part in the workshop overall, meaning plenty of time for Lisa to help everyone.
The first week focused on macro subjects and our dive-base was Lembeh Resort, which provides a lovely environment for workshops, photo critiques and post-dive relaxation at the pool bar or in the spa.
The diving is run by Critters at Lembeh Resort and the experienced dive-team appreciate the requirements of underwater photographers, because part of their training involves diving with a camera. They even run competitions to find images for the annual resort calendar.
Lembeh dive-sites are mostly black sandy slopes with rubble bottoms and names like Hair Ball, Bianca, Slow Poke, Police Pier and TK 1, 2 or 3.
The randomly distributed corals, rocks and debris across the seabed offer homes to weird and wonderful creatures small, tiny and microscopic.
As the dive-sites are nearby, it’s easy to return to the resort between the two morning dives to relax by the pool, drinking tea and eating freshly baked cakes and cookies.
Afternoons are devoted either to workshops or photo-critique sessions.
Lisa would teach us a technique, and we then had the next couple of days to practise it. Topics covered included strobe positioning, bluewater/blackwater backgrounds, bokeh (that funky effect in which a critter’s eyes are in focus but everything else is blurry) and creative lighting using torches to give softer, more atmospheric effects.
Linda, Stuart and I were diving in a buddy three, and our guide Opo Kecil would direct one of us to a subject and suggest an angle from which to shoot its head rather than its rear – particularly helpful for subjects half the size of your little fingernail. Once Opo was sure we were happy he would proceed to find subjects for the other two.
So we all had a creature to take time over practising the different settings and lighting techniques we had been taught.
Opo used a combination of tank-taps and low grunts to shift us between subjects when we were ready, while keeping an eye on our air and bottom time – the details you might overlook when engrossed in capturing that perfect image!
He was also happy to help with holding snoots and helped me to creatively light a snake eel that had a shrimp jumping around its eye. The spotlight effect of a snoot is a great way to avoid lighting noisy backgrounds, but does need precision and more than two hands.
He would even intuitively shine his torch to help my camera focus properly on difficult-to-light subjects. I never felt rushed, and if any of us needed to spend 10-15 minutes capturing a subject, Opo would patiently wait until we were ready.
Lisa would divide her time among the group with in-water coaching on shooting angles, strobe-positioning and settings.
We could use her slate to ask questions, so that problems could be resolved mid-dive rather than surfacing to a disappointing collection of images.
Dive, Eat, Sleep, Photo-critique soon became the routine. The image review and critique was invaluable.
At the start of the week this was a blind submission of unedited images so that the group felt comfortable sharing and commenting. After a few days we had all got to know each other, so happily shared our images and opinions.
Other divers might have used a different shooting angle, or composition, and hearing their views was helpful. Lisa also shared her opinion on each image and reviewed the settings used, explaining how changing the ISO, shutter-speed or f-stop would have given a different effect.
This coaching meant that the next time we jumped into the water we had an understanding of how to improve.
After a couple of days, I could see the improvement in my photos. My confidence was growing and I was feeling more ambitious. Lisa had various macro wet lenses for us to try, so my buddies and I would excitedly swap them under water, boosting magnification from +6 up to +21 where necessary, depending on how many were stacked.
What a difference that made to the detail I could capture of the smallest creatures, some almost invisible to the naked eye! I took several pictures of a coral crab on a soft coral, not dissimilar to a broccoli floret but red, only to see a whole bunch of shrimps as well when viewing the image on the computer.
On our last night in Lembeh Lisa delivered the first workshop on shooting wide-angle – part two would be at Siladen.
A slideshow compilation of our best edited images from the week followed: a parade of hairy frogfish, seahorses, nudibranchs, ribbon eels, shrimps, candy crabs, pipefish and even flamboyant cuttlefish still in their egg-casings, which are roughly the size of a 5p coin.
The image that meant the most to me, however, was of the coconut octopus, one I could only have dreamt of taking at the start of the workshop.
The gathering crowd at the bar seemed to appreciate our efforts too, further boosting our confidence.
Stuart told me he had appreciated having so much time with his subjects. “The location couldn’t have been better,” he said. “No currents, good vis, warm water, not too deep, short transit times – and the guides were exceptional.”
Siladen was the setting for the wide-angle section of the workshop. To me, wide-angle underwater photography is a bit like topside landscape photography. You’re trying to feature the reef and the water in your composition rather than focusing on a single subject.
Using a dome on top of your wide-angle lens allows you to get closer to a particular subject but still capture the water, surface, sun. I love using starfish for this because they don’t move when you go close, and come in lovely contrasting colours.
We waved goodbye to the two students who would not continue to Siladen and could see the twinkle of envy as we boarded our boat.
Even transferring between resorts was enjoyable. Our suitcases went by car and we travelled via Bangka Island and got three dives in on the way – our first taste of shooting wide-angle on this trip.
The diving now would be a complete contrast to that in Lembeh – clear blue water, spectacular colourful reefs crammed with soft and hard corals, and clouds of fish. Siladen Resort & Spa is a lovely, relaxed resort set on the golden-sand beach of Siladen Island in the heart of Bunaken National Marine Park.
The format of morning dives followed by workshops or photo-critiques was unchanged, but with a newly constructed treehouse for the afternoon sessions, overlooking the beach and with optional yoga sessions available.
The Siladen dive-team were friendly, helpful and knowledgeable. Lisa would brief the guides on what was wanted, such as shooting into the sun, and they would select a site that would allow us to dive with the sun in the correct position for capturing it and the reef together.
Frenki and Danni were happy to spot subjects for us, but equally willing to model or just keep an eye out as we became engrossed in capturing colours and light on the reef.
Wide-angle turned out to be trickier than macro. Lighting the foreground with strobes while exposing for the background, trying to include sun-balls or Snell’s Window (the phenomenon whereby you can see a circular window through the water that allows you to see things above the surface) had me manoeuvring my camera and strobes into all sorts of positions.
The dive-sites are more spread out in Siladen, so we would relax on the boat during surface intervals, with ample space to sunbathe, drink tea, eat fruit or cake and listen to the guides and crew sing to a ukulele accompaniment.
My favourite site was Mike’s Point, a breathtaking, healthy reef covered in soft and hard corals of every colour, with turtles cruising around through the entire dive. Jalan Masuk was fun too, because of its statue of two mermaids with a love-heart perfect for framing a model’s face.
My buddy and I took turns to model, adjusting strobe positioning to light the statue and, importantly, the diver’s face, particularly the eyes in the mask.
This soon turned into an experiment with off-camera lighting. I removed my strobes and positioned them carefully around the statue, with the optic cables strategically placed to be triggered by my buddies’ strobes while I posed.
When we shared the images at the critique session, Lisa suggested the possibility of using a constant light-source to illuminate the model’s face.
Back at the same site the following day we headed straight to the statue and enjoyed greater success this time. We would never have been able to experiment like that on a regular dive-trip.
Wanting to end the week on a high, we returned to Mike’s Point, where being allowed to hang out at 10m for 70 minutes was a real treat. No hassle, no rush, just photographing the view. Perfect.
We could no longer dive, but the tuition didn’t stop there. Lisa had planned in a snorkel trip at Siladen jetty for practising split-shots. I had tried these at the end of several of the dives, but lifting the camera while bobbing about was tricky, and proved unsuccessful. Snorkelling at the jetty allowed us to wade out through the sandy areas and place the camera in the water while still standing – so much easier!
The foreground wasn’t as photogenic as some of the reefs we had dived, but it was fine for practising.
At the treehouse for the final slide-show, I sought my buddies’ verdicts on the course. “The trip was amazing,” said Stuart. “Lisa presented informative, relevant information in an easy-to-understand manner. She was on hand to help out under water and on the boat – I couldn’t have asked for more.
“The resorts were amazing too – very accommodating, very comfortable, great food, and both perfect locations for the different workshops.”
“The locations, services, dive guides, sites – everything was perfect,” agreed Linda. “Lisa and the dive-guides were extremely thoughtful in taking us to sites where we would see unusual creatures, as well as get the best opportunity of fulfilling the course curricula.
“I loved the course and learnt so much. Lisa had infinite patience with me, and I’d love to do a course with her again.”
I’ll certainly be signing on for the next workshop, wherever it happens to be.