I first became involved in photography in the early 1990s and at the time, I was certain of a few things: (1) I didn’t know what I was doing; (2) I couldn’t really afford it; and (3) I had absolutely no interest in shooting subjects above the water. I spent a lot of hours in beautiful underwater environments with a borrowed Sea & Sea camera in hand, snapping frame after frame of mediocre images. Frustrated with the discrepancy between how I remembered these colorful scenes and what my photos looked like, I decided to purchase my first underwater camera (a used Nikonos V) and get some training.
Those were the days when I threw around words like “Velvia slide film”, “cost of developing” and “GSPR” (an acronym I used for “good shots per roll” – a number that at the time tended to be pretty low if not zero). Although it’s probably uncommon for a photographer to get their start below the waterline, I’m happy that I did. You can learn a lot photographing a fish: You learn about patience, getting your equipment to unforgiving environments (and more importantly, getting it back safely – an endeavor that I failed at more than once with costly results), preparation, and how to get a shot that may present itself only once.
As time went on, I did two unthinkable things: I bought a 6-megapixel digital SLR (in spite of my certainty that digital cameras would never really catch on) and I started shooting images above the water. Initially, the latter may have had more to do with economics than interest. Getting my new digital camera underwater meant purchasing a new housing, lens port, and strobes. Consequently, there was a period of time (while I was saving money for all of this) that my camera had to stay topside.
Needless to say, I was wrong about digital cameras catching on. I have a stack of them (most of which have less resolution than my iPhone) and I’ve worked my way through a dozen versions of Photoshop. It’s an interesting time to be a photographer. Technology in the field (cameras, optics, and processing software) is bounding forward at an unbelievable rate, turning more control over to the individual. In spite of this, I’ve come to realize that if the fundamental principles of photography and processing have never been learned, achieving good imagery is difficult – no matter how expensive your camera is or how tech-savvy you are.
Twenty five years after I took those first awful underwater shots, I’ve learned more than I ever could have imagined. Although I owe some of this to formal training and some very patient photographers & magazine editors willing to help me along the way, the bulk of my education came from my mistakes – something there was never a shortage of. Every time I flooded a strobe, over-saturated an image, or shot a subject that wasn’t quite focused correctly, I learned. The result is an arsenal of techniques ranging from equipment selection, to shooting methods, to editing processes that allow me to create imagery that I once would have thought impossible. My eye for composition hasn't changed much over the years but my technical abilities certainly have and this has led to perhaps my greatest accomplishment as a photographer: The ability to look beyond a scene and see what's visually possible.
I am still learning, still asking questions, and above all, still shooting as often as I can. Whether it’s a time lapse sequence, an architecture project, or a shipwreck, I still get a twinge of excitement every time I sit down to look at the images I just shot. And if I were still using film today, I’m happy to say that my GSPR would be much higher.