A Beginner's Guide to Building a Portfolio

for Liveaboard Photographers

Original article written for Dive Photo Guide.

You have most likely decided to live like a nomadic aquatic hobbit, sitting in your cabin (if you are one of the lucky ones), staring into the florescent glow of your computer screen deleting backscatter as your boat surges to it's next destination, for one of two reasons. A) You're taking a sabbatical from 'real life' and are chasing that idea of a dream job where you get to live and work in Paradise, dive with a big sexy camera, and make a bit of money. Or B) you are truly passionate about studying the art of underwater photography that you are willing to sacrifice relationships, friends/family, and personal space in order to fully immerse yourself in this art form as a way of achieving some set of personal goals.  Some of you may have ambitions of being the first to photograph a new species, maybe you are chasing a career as an wildlife photographer; or, if you're like me you may just want to hone your photo skills to perfection just to see where it takes you. No matter what your goals are, if you plan to continue working as an underwater photographer once you leave your floating microcosm you'll need a portfolio, and in my opinion there is no better time to be putting one together.

A portfolio should reflect your best most creative work, the diversity of your skill set and your consistent ability to capture that much sought after peak of action.  You probably envision the rarest macro critters and giant pelagics performing never before captured behavior splashing across the pages of your portfolio. However, the reality of a liveaboard photographer is that Mandarin Fish threesomes and Orca Wale predations are most likely not in the cards for you. Instead, you have the same set of reefs that you've dived two hundred and twenty three times and the little black painted frogfish at twenty eight meters between the purple soft coral and the bommie with the sea fan. So what do we do? How do we create a complete set of knock out images with the same subjects that you feel that you have already exhausted all photographic possibilities with.

You have a huge advantage as a liveaboard photographer in that you have endless time with the same subjects week after week to experiment with different techniques. If you feel you didn't execute something right one week you can correct it the next. Before a new trip starts, I go through all the photos that I've taken over the trip previous and mentally deconstruct them. I think about what I like and what I don't like and try to make a plan of how I'm going to shoot these same subjects the coming week, and differently.  What I've found to be helpful in my work is that with a few simple DIY tools and some good old fashioned out side the box thinking there are ways of pushing past that creativity obstructing wall where you can capture those portfolio quality photos.

MacGyver Yourself a Snoot

Once while at the peak of a constructive motivational high educed by my general dissatisfaction with my macro images, I scraped together a bit of old wetsuit, a DVD spindle, some super glue and voila! My first snoot. 

Using a snoot can be tedious work,  and at times you'll probably want to rip it off and let it sink into the blue out of frustration, but it can be a very powerful tool in spicing up your images.  Halo, pin, and backlighting are just some possibilities of different techniques to try out with your new DIY macro tool.

It took me 4-5 trips and a sand filled fin kick from a passing customer before I finally refined my stargazer idea. 

Macro for Wide Angle

Putting a macro lens on to shoot typically wide angle subjects may seem a bit strange, or crazy, but 'strange' and 'crazy' are what catch peoples eyes when they look at portfolio. It's something I'm still working but seeing the results of a dive on Palau's Blue Corner shooting Grey Reef Sharks with a 60mm macro lens, or better yet a cage dive with Great Whites using a 100mm macro lens motivates me.

Go for a Snorkel

In between dives while the guests are eating and sleeping I like to take advantage of the shallows and bubble free water to look for over-under possibilities. I think a good split is a very easy and powerful piece that every underwater photographer should have in their portfolio.

In Komodo the reefs literally go to the surface and above them is either a predatory Komodo dragon, thankfully not today, or a beautifully contrasting landscape.  My surface intervals are usually spent with a sunburnt neck waist deep in water spitting on my dome port. 

Look for a Window 

Snell's window is a real crowd pleaser, just about every photo competition these days has at least one of the winners who has taken advantage of this visual phenomenon. Something I think you should always be looking for as you continue to explore the reefs you already know so well is new window opportunities, and it helps if you can find something to put in that window.

On this particular day in Raja Ampat the current was moving just right to open up all the soft corals and smooth out the surface creating this near perfect window mangrove forest above

Get Weird

Don't be afraid to get a bit weird with your settings and composition. Try something you wouldn't typically do, you never know what you'll discover.

These volcanic bubbles coming out of the sand look beautiful to the eye as they sway in the surge and danceto the surface in single file. For me the beauty comes from the movement of the bubbles, and to capture that movement is the tricky part. One day while messing around with different ways to shoot the bubbles I slowed down my shutter to 1/4 second just to see what would happen...I liked it. 

Be Ready For....

People looking to hire underwater photographers for whatever reason, need to be confident that the photographer can capture the peak of any sort of behavioral action. Any bodywith a camera and a bit of experience can sit next to a subject for an hour precisely mapping out the lighting and composition, but can you do it when you only have a matter of seconds? A lot of this depends on being in the right place at the right time, but the other part is knowing exactly what to do when that rare moment presents itself. A good portfolio should show your ability to really capture that moment in time.

Octopus are easily one of the most fascinating creatures in the ocean, especially the blue ring octopus. It is not typically shy to cameras but can change behaviors at a moments notice. One minute it's sitting on a rock in perfect form then the next its jetting through the water column with tentacles stretched out in a spectacular display. What this means is that you need to be ready to change settings the moment something changes. You may be shooting 'bokeh' as it sits on a bit of rubble but those same settings may not work as well if it decides to take a giant leap.

Unless you work on some fantasy liveaboard that rotates seasons between the Azores, Antarctica & anywhere Indonesia, my advice is to forget filling your portfolio with images of mating Narwals and Saltwater Croc splits. Embrace routine and repetition, jerry-rig your self some different lighting tools and start doing things with you camera that you haven't done before.  Yes, you will end up deleting a lot of your new images but the ones you keep, will be worth the hundreds sitting in your trash. In the end it's not about what creatures you have in your photos, it's more important to focus on the actual photos themselves and creating something new. 

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