By Bryan Hart

Bryan Hart, organiser of the annual DUC Shootout, has been involved behind the scenes in one of South Africa’s national underwater photographic competition for seven years. From his experience, he has put together 10 tips that will assist you in winning any photographic competition.


Make sure to enter because you have to be in it to win it! Photography is subjective. Your friends and family will always have positive critiques for your images. It is only when you compete against your peers that you will get an idea of the calibre of your photography skills and creativity. An up-front commitment to a competition will also push you to get in the water regularly with your camera and, in this way; your shooting will improve in the long run.


Composition is important because great underwater images are well thought out and painstakingly created! With social media linking you to underwater images taken all over the world as well as shooters with different camera set ups, there is no shortage of inspiration or ideas to help you create an image. In South Africa we are spoilt for choice: Wrecks, coral reefs, inland waters, lagoons and estuaries, kelp gardens, rocky reefs and rock pools. In addition to these natural formations, there is myriad marine life: Seals, sharks, whales, and a plethora of invertebrates, mammals and fish that are both large and small. All of these mean that there is no shortage of subjects. But, most importantly, good composition is the key to a pleasing image. Image flow, use of negative space, rule of thirds, not cutting off fins and avoiding “fish-identification shots” are all key aspects to consider when it comes to composing an image worthy of a placing in a competition. In addition, make sure that there is a good contrast between the foreground and the background. Take the time to cast your eye around the subject matter and make sure there are no distractions to the primary subject matter.


Get close and then get closer still!  Fill the frame and get as little water column between the subject matter and the sensor of your camera. The distance between you and your subject affects your strobes, internal flashes, torches and the ability of your video lights to restore colour to your subject. The further away your subjects are, the less effective the lighting. More water means there are more particles in the water for the light to bounce off of and create back scatter: The scourge of underwater photography. So always remember that proper lighting makes or breaks an image.


Learn your camera settings and progress to Manual mode!  As soon as you submerge your camera into water, light is lost. Your camera compensates for low light by reducing shutter speed, opening the aperture and increasing the ISO. The result is blurry because of slow shutter speed, grainy due to high ISO and flat images with no depth of field because of a large aperture. Learn to use the Manual mode to take control of the camera and to fully realise the creation of the image you have in mind.


Train your eyes so they are as sharp as a shark’s!  A sharp focus on the eyes of the primary subject is paramount. Pay special attention to this when composing the image and become familiar with the “sweet spot” in terms of distance between your subject and camera. Always half press the shutter release to obtain focus confirmation. Constant light sources, in the form of focus lights on strobes or torches, will assist your camera in locking the focus. At the same time, if you are shooting in Auto and your camera’s computer lowers the shutter speed below 1/80 to compensate for low light, you will not achieve crisp focus, regardless of your efforts.


Make sure that you are familiar with the judges and their work! Each judge of a photographic competition will have a different thought process as to what makes a winning image. It is for this reason that there is always more than one judge in any given photography competition. Investigating the judges’ work will give you a heads-up as to whether they tend to be more focussed on the technical aspects of an image or whether they are just looking for a striking image.  Additionally, look for commentary by the judges on previous competitions or read the judges’ biographies on the competition website, as this can provide valuable insight as to what to pay special attention to when choosing an image to enter. Knowing the judges’ requirements will help you refine your selection of images to enter.


Look at winning images from previous years’ competitions! Going through the previous winning images can give you an idea of what not to submit as well as provide inspiration for future shoots. If an image from a clown fish won last year, it is unlikely that a similarly composed image will win again. Looking at winners of each category over previous years can also give you a good indication of the standard of the underwater shootout. The best way to win is to find a unique subject or find a new and better way to shoot common subjects.


If you are going to enter a photography competition, make sure to read the rules! Every competition has different rules and submission guidelines. The rules are carefully formatted in order to make the competition fair to all and to uphold the integrity of the overall photographic competition. The rules act as a guide to entrants on how to approach editing in Photoshop, subject matter (such as baiting) and final submission of images. At some point, be it at the submission stage or if an image is placed, the original, unprocessed image will be asked for. With in-camera editing now available on most cameras, ensure that you do not disqualify your entry by not following the rules pertaining to the original RAW/JPEG file.


Though all of the features are exciting, edit your images correctly! Editing is an important part of the underwater-photography workflow and an integral part of turning a good image into a great image. It is very important to transfer your images to a computer and study them on a big screen. Basic editing software allows a photographer to see the results of the settings applied as well as look for imperfections in exposure, sharpness and composition. This is the first step in deciding whether an image is acceptable or one for the bin. If an image passes the first step, transfer the image to your preferred editing software and make adjustments in colour balance, saturation, sharpening and cropping (no more than 20% and never crop a landscape image so as to make it a portrait). Edited images should look natural. An over-edited image is obvious to the judges. Editing should be used to make a good image better, not make a bad image good.


The most important tip is to have fun doing it!  If you have fun with your photography, it will show in your images. And this is important because images of underwater photographers are the only glimpses that non-divers will ever have of life under the sea. Underwater images can inspire people to take up diving and conserve our ocean and, in this way, they play an important role in scuba diving as a sport, in addition to creating awareness of our oceans.

If you find yourself not winning after all your efforts, do not be disheartened. Learn as much as possible from the experience and try again! Underwater photographic competitions provide incentives or goals for underwater photographers. The cost of entry is normally a fraction of the value of the prizes that are on offer.

Photography competitions facilitate exposure of your work. Underwater photographic competitions are excellent forums to push your photography to the next level. The joy of focussing on a short-term photographic project required for a shootout should provide sufficient incentive to enter, with the chance of winning being an added bonus.