If you can touch it, you can light it!


How I learned to take my photos from blah to ahhhh

By Bonnie McKenna

Months ago, I read, either in a dive magazine or somewhere online, that Backscatter had scheduled a photography course in Little Cayman on April 7-14, 2018. The course offered to demystify the techniques needed to become a better wide-angle photographer, and there would be instruction on post processing.

I thought long and hard about putting up the money to learn to take better wide-angle photographs. It is all about the lighting. I knew that. I read about it. I tried various strobe positions and techniques, but I was still having trouble. I needed help!

The package included seven nights at Little Cayman Beach Resort, all meals, two boat dives a day, taxes and service charges. Daily seminars on wide-angle photo techniques and image post processing. Class was limited to 12 photographers. In-the-water instruction on shooting techniques, strobe positions, exposures and ambient light. Post processing procedures in Lightroom instruction would take your photos from, “Blah to Ahhh.” This was exactly what I needed. I signed-up.

The instructors were to be, Jim Decker, the CEO of Backscatter and Erin Quigley, an Adobe ACE certified digital imaging consultant in Lightroom and Photoshop. Decker is a leading expert on underwater shooting techniques with everything from DSLRs to video cameras. Quigley is the unrivaled guru on post processing photographs using Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom.

Two weeks prior to the start of Boot Camp all participants received a letter reminding us to have our camera rigs, dive gear, and computers checked out and ready to go. The course would be focused on using a fisheye lens, dual arms/strobes and the rig will need to be neutrally buoyant. For post processing, Adobe Lightroom Classic should be loaded on to your computer. And, do not forget your C-Card.

On the first day, after dinner, we were introduced to Decker and Quigley and treated to the first of our evening seminars and getting our shooting assignments for the next day. Decker checked out camera rigs, set up ‘back-button focus’ on all cameras that needed it and discussed strobe placement for our next day assignment.

The assignment: set the camera at 125, f8, ISO 200, pick a subject (preferably something that doesn’t move i.e. a sponge or coral) and shoot it; up, middle, down, front and back. I know that sounds nuts, but it works. Then, do the same thing only change the shutter speed. That afternoon we looked at the results of the assignment to see how the changes effected lighting.

After the morning dives and lunch, our schedule was set for the week: meet at 3:30 p.m. with Quigley to talk, learn, ask questions and learn some more about the magic of Lightroom. Class participation was encouraged. During this time, we loaded our photos into Lightroom and picked three of our “best” shots to discuss at the after-dinner seminar. We would also get our assignments for the next day dives.


The boat and diver: This photo was an excellent example of poor lighting. My strobe was not back far enough. I cropped out the poor lighting and used the graduated filter and a few other Lightroom tools to bring out the color.

Olympus E-M1, Lumix 8mm Fisheye lens, dual Sea and Sea strobes, Nauticam housing.

As our routine became more familiar we began to learn a number of Decker’s special tips that became our mantras:

Six Tips for Wide Angle Photography: 1. Shoot, review, adjust, reshoot. 2. Get close…if you can touch it, you can light it. 3. Be ready when luck happens. 4. Take lots of shots. 5. Take a high percentage of shots before getting risky. 6. Know your gear limitations.

Five Key Elements for a good photo: 1. Focus. 2. Find an interesting subject. 3. Expose properly. 4. Capture behavior. 5. Good diving skills.

The Only Five Things You Ever Need to Change: 1. Focus. 2. Shutter speed. 3. Aperture. 4. ISO. 5. Strobe output/position.

Classes with Quigley began by (re)familiarizing us with the basic modules of Lightroom. How to use White Balance, the eye dropper, HSL (Hue, Saturation, Luminance), Graduated Filter, Radial Filter, the Brush, Cropping and Resizing. She encouraged us to try these skills on the photos we took during the morning dives. We also spent time looking at and discussing a series of shots Ouigley put together for us, on a flash drive, that enabled us to learn and try more Lightroom techniques.

Each day, our lighting assignments were at locations that Quigley and Decker had previously scouted to best fit the new skills we are trying to learn. They are both in the water with us every day, available to assist, and give tips if they saw us struggling (which I was) or just asking for help to accomplish the assignment.

In the afternoon sessions, with Quigley, we reviewed our photos and little-by-little we began to see improvement in our newfound skills. The groans so evident in the first days of class were now turning into ah-ha’s.

Cayman waters are known for stingrays that are found on the white sand and make excellent subjects for wide-angle photography. We learned that photographing a critter on a white sand background required a new lighting skill. Decker quickly added a new mantra:

Arms up, strobes down, focus and get closer!


The coral head: The original photo was taken with the intent to show texture. When the photo was displayed in class, Quigley suggested that the photo might look better in black and white. Quigley’s interpretation of the photo was much better than mine, but she is correct, the texture is more obvious in black and white.

Olympus E-M1, Lumix 8mm Fisheye lens, dual Sea and Sea strobes, Nauticam housing.

I am still amazed at the number of skills we learned during the week; not only shooting skills, but Lightroom skills too. We memorized Decker’s mantras, and we learned how to shoot sun balls, moving subjects, things in the sand, how to take blind shots, manage close focus wide angle, modeling skills (keep your legs together!), and much, much more. From Quigley, we learned that WB, the eye dropper, and the aqua slider were our new best friends, how to knock back ambient light, filters, curves, histograms, highlight warnings and how to introduce photoshop into our development program.

Was it a good idea to take the class and was it money well spent? Yes! Taking an underwater photography class, as it turns out, is not only a good way to learn a new skill, a way to challenge your abilities as a photographer and meet new friends. If the class you choose includes post processing with Erin Quigley, you’ve hit the jackpot.

Success, for me, will be measured if I can remember all the new skills and put them to use on my next dive trip and turn my photos from Blahs into Ahhhs.


For additional information on classes with Backscatter, go to: www.backscastter.com.

For help with Lightroom, go to: www.goaskerin.com.

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June 11, 2018 |

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