This trip was a while ago now, and yet, the absence of a report seems to be causing anxiety. In part the difficulty I’ve been having has been working out how to write about it without gushing. This trip turned out to be a bit of a game changer, so not gushing is very difficult. Apologies in advance.
Btw: No “oldmanslideshow” I will not go on holidays with you, so stop bothering me.
Wetpixel Ultimate Indonesia 2011 – How Come My Photos Just Got Better?
Having rather sadly waved my Indepth dive friends goodbye at Kuala Lumpur, I head down to Denpaser for a day of rest and recoup before joining the Wetpixel group. And, to be honest, I was starting to get a little nervous. I had no idea who I would be travelling with, and a month on a boat, with the wrong people, could end up to be a very long and lonely time.
This was my first dive trip without Norm; first liveaboard; first serious go at underwater photography; and first time diving with strangers. First time here:
Not that I haven’t been diving with strange people before … here’s one
I had researched Eric Cheng a bit and he seemed like a nice enough fellow, but as for the others, I didn’t even know names. So slightly apprehensive, I checked into a quite nice resort in Sanur, complained about the room (Chadwick Stress Management Strategem Number 4 – Unleash the Princess Within), moved to a much better room and headed for the spa.
Layovers are a bit of an art form and I’m not always that good at them when travelling alone and I’m never sure what to think about Denpasar. Bali is warm and colourful, the Balinese are so cultured, but Denpasar is hot and crowded. The traffic is just awful, the whole place is packed to the gunwales with tourists, not all of the attractive variety, and I always have to look up how to spell it. So, apart from an excursion out to find an Indonesian/Australian electrical plug (which turned out to be completely unnecessary on such a luxury liveaboard as the Damai II), I pretty much stayed in the resort.
This turned out to be a good call. A day lolling by a beautiful pool, a couple of practice goes at putting the camera set up together, rested, buffed and polished, I found I was quite excited to meet up with the Wetpixel group.
Which was lucky because it turned out that not only was the group mostly made up of world famous underwater photographers, it was a group of world famous underwater photographers who knew each other very well. My heart sank a bit as I wondered how I was going to go being the odd one out, the stranger amongst friends. Apart from eat concrete the best I could do was frame my thoughts around relaxing and enjoying what was on offer and being grateful I wasn’t at work with the Dementor. As it turned out I needn’t have worried. This was a lovely group of people. Add a genius Cruise Director, the now famous The Mighty Bevan, great crew, stunning itinerary, what could go wrong?
Well the air conditioning for starters – repeatedly broke down and my downstairs cabin became unbearably hot and airless. Sleeping under the stars with a big red full moon turned out to be fabulous, except when a change of wind threatened to turn my sheet into a spinnaker.
Trip 1 – Mauremere to Wetar and back
This Wetpixel trip was actually two back to back trips. Starting in Maurmere, Flores the first trip took us east along the Indonesian archipelago – Alor, Sumba, Beangabang (I didn’t keep a good record of island names so have no idea really) but we went as far east as Wetar from where you can see East Timor on the horizon and then back to Maurmere. The focus on this part of the trip was macro photography and mostly muck style – that is, floating over the sandy or pebbly sea floor, on the lookout for strange marine creatures. On this trip we had two superb guides, one of the many benefits of travelling with world famous photographers. I spent these two weeks being made breathless by their spotting abilities and how happy nudibranchs can make me and how quickly I started thinking “meh, just another Phyllidia”.
Not a great snap, but this is what a muck photography dive usually looks like -
Everything can look pretty bleak and barren until you get your eye in and then suddenly a whole new world opens up. I just wasn’t experienced enough to find anything but the most obvious of creatures on my own, so I stuck pretty close to one of the guides, Agus.
Phil found me to make sure I didn’t miss little rarity -
Julie calls that composition “the big schnoz” but I was too nervous of this very poisonous critter to get down low with it for a better angle but check out the scared little scorpion fish in front. And while this next one is a very ordinary photo of a bobtail squid, I can’t believe I was there to see it (who knew such a beautiful thing existed) and, that it is very nearly in focus, gives me great pleasure.
Amongst other things, world famous photographers measure dive trips in terms of “productivity”. This means that they organise trips to be in the right place, at the right time for the particular photographic style or subject they are after. Between them, Eric and The Mighty Bevan delivered fantastic dive site after fantastic dive site. One of the many benefits of travelling with a group like this is having the flexibility to adjust the itinerary. If we stumbled (apologies Bevan, I’m sure everything was expertly planned) onto a great site the group could simply decide to stay right there for a day or two and we did this a couple of times. As everyone had a shared interest, balancing competing priorities was simply not an issue.
Underwater, the general rule was “if the guide finds it, 5 or so shots and then let someone else have a turn”, or “if you found it yourself, knock yourself out for as long as you need”. While this meant I rarely got to “knock myself out”, it didn’t matter as my best strategy turned out to be “stay ahead of the pack”.
Agus would find something, quietly signal me over, I’d fire off a couple of shots (that’s take a few snaps to you and I) and then skeedaddle out of the way.
There was the occasional ruck and scrum and some very undignified races to the get to the guide first, but on the whole the strategy worked well. Which was lucky because I have neither the patience to wait in a queue of three world famous photographers nor the underwater navigation skills to reliably double back and find the same small rock.
Here is a Allogalathea elegans (that’s Elegant crinoid squat lobster to you and I, and say the latin slowly, it could be Elvish, not that I’m a nerd or anything), I did manage to find myself
And besides, another remarkable thing about world famous photographers is that they are, themselves, tremendously good spotters. This meant there were seven sets of finely tuned eyes on every dive. And while productive, focused and determined, this particular group was also very, very generous. Each of them would call me over to see some incredible thing or another that they had found. Julie double backed to make sure I didn’t miss this one -
Julian showed me this one -
And Eric showed me frogfish I would otherwise have swum straight past, including this whopper -
While the “stick to Agus and stay ahead of the pack” strategy worked well during daylight dives, it was a complete failure on night dives. At night guides signal to you by flashing their torches and there just isn’t a way of doing that quietly, so I was often on the wrong end of a scrum.
For a couple of dives I tried the “stay above the pack” strategem. Here are some things I found on my own at about 10 metres -
I was so excited to see a basket star open for the first time I nearly missed the shrimp. And this is so completely sweet -
However, despite the outrageous claims I had made to Dan, until this trip I hadn’t dived without a buddy within reaching distance, so this “above pack” strategy, in the dark, got to be a bit of a trial. In the end, given my own poor spotting ability and repeated equipment failures I opted for the alternative – bean bag and glass of wine under the stars, which in the scheme of things was not too shabby. And besides not too many people can claim to have been fin smacked in the head by a world famous photographer.
This next one was taken by torch light as my strobe kept failing. Bit of cropping and I could pretend I had used a snoot (I even know what that is now!).
Even though I was new to the whole underwater photography thing, it was pretty obvious that we were seeing and photographing a most incredible array of marine life. I mean, eighteen different Rhinopia; vast number of frogfish including tiny baby ones; Julie alone captured over one hundred nudibranch; cephalopods everywhere; shrimp and crab of every description … you name it and someone on that trip probably got a photo of it (apart of course from whales and big sharks, although The Mighty Bevan did rustle up a leopard shark).
- Rhinopias eschmeyeri – Paddle-flap scorpionfish
Not a great snap but here’s another type -
and a load of frogfish (my peeps here tell me Australians call them Anglerfish, go figure).
Towards the end of this first leg, the photographers got wildly excited about super macro. The guides joined in and to be honest, being waved AWAY with a “too small for you” signal did start to get a bit old after a while. By this stage though I was starting to get better at spotting things and amused myself trying out different approaches with familiar subjects – notably Nembrotha chamberlaini and Neopetrolisthese ohshimai (that’s Porcelain crab to the uninitiated) and such like.
Even unassuming porcelain crabs can be loads of fun -
Poor little thing, I must have looked terrifying -
Trip 2 – Maurmere, Komodo National Park to Labuan Bajo
That first leg finished back in Maurmere where we waved goodbye to Dimitry and hello to Frank. I was pretty sad to see Dimitry go. Like me he was a ring-in and I knew I was going to miss his calm, confident presence, not to mention his beautiful Russian accent. Frank also turned out to be a long lost friend of the world famous photographers, and a bit world famous himself.
This second leg took us west from Maurmere, Flores around to the Komodo National Park and all the iconic Komodo dive areas – Rinja, Pardar, Banta and Sangeang (I just Googled those names so I could be wrong), and all the classic Komodo dive sites. After the macro mania of the first leg, the real treat in Komodo was the schools of fish, healthy corals, beautiful sea mounts and walls and the focus for photography moved to wide angle.
I can’t seem to identify these fish so apologies, no latin.
Here’s a funny thing – the “great photographer effect” doesn’t work on wide angle photography, well not for me anyway. While my macro photography did a great leap forward (low base remember people), my wide angle was as bad at the end of this trip as at the start. I only have four blue snaps I care to share – who knew I was so vain?
Lucky for me diving in Komodo turned out to be some of the best, most interesting and fun diving I have ever done. Still loads of macro subjects to play with but, even so, my photo count per dive dropped dramatically. I’m enough of a novice to still enjoy plain old diving. Hooking onto a lifeless rock, in a current, watching schools of fish swirl around or line up like so many aircraft waiting their turn at a cleaning station. Drifting along a wall and looking out to the big blue, using my camera as ballast. Diving in Komodo is wonderful.
And who knew this was actually a sea cucumber …
Frank found me to make sure I didn’t miss the swimming juvenile frogfish -
- Antennarius maculates – Juvenile Warty frogfish
and two versions of the “OK” signal -
And Ildi found these -
Where else can you stretch out with a Surya Namaskara and this view -
So how come my photos just got better? Sure they have a way to go still, but the change was significant. I’m not sure I’ve worked out the full story. In part it’s because being with world famous photographers, I was in the right place, at the right time, diving the right way for photography (compared say to being hurried along a reef by a bored DM who is anxious to get back to the boat). And this group knew such a lot about all things oceanic, my knowledge grew. Before trip description -
Some of it must come from just watching what the photographers were doing, how they go about things. Some of it is looking at their images (that’s photos to you and I) and pouring over creature and fish ID books back on board with them. The sheer quantity of dives and photos on this trip must also have made a difference. And I suspect some of it is because being around world famous photographers made me try a little bit harder.
In the end though, I conclude that some of the “great photographer effect” is just inexplicable magic.
On the downside, travelling with world famous photographers comes with risks. It can get under your skin and leave you obsessing about when you might be able to go diving with a camera, preferably with great photographers, again. I’ve been on one unexpected diving spree (with another world famous photographer) since this trip. I’m getting ready for another one later this year and have three others lined up for next year. Maybe this is a common thing, but for me a huge shift in priorities. Kitchen renovations are on hold, as is recovering the couches, and I ask questions before accepting work assignments.
Worse yet, travelling with world famous photographers can make you speak funny. For example, “Yo .. sup”, and “shut the front door” (still have no idea what any of that means). And what about “Look, there are at least three Histrio histrio (Antennariidae) in my bucket of sargassum weed.” … What tha?
So top 10 tips –
- Stop buying every latest expensive twiddle for your camera set up, save your money and go on a trip with the most world famous photographer you can find. A workshop is an excellent option (see remarkable wide angle results from unexpected diving spree with Mike Veitch). Seriously, just being on a trip with great photographers can make your photos better.
- Stop buying all non-essentials, save a lot of money and do two trips back to back. In addition to the “great photographer” effect, a long trip creates space for the exponential great leap forward. It also means you have enough time to be relaxed and not sweat the small stuff.
- Quality bean bag time can work wonders on feelings of frustration and despair and if all else fails, use your camera as ballast for a couple of dives.
- Just in case, dear reader, you are a complete novice like me, make sure you take a lap top computer and USB sticks.
- Split fins and muck diving are not a great combination.
- You can ditch the 50 bar rule but only if you can take responsibility for your own dive safety. I’m not a bad diver, but these guys just don’t need to breathe underwater so I was always the first person to make a move towards a safety stop. And I had to make that move on my own.
- Repeat number 6. The guides are great because they are great guides and spotters and not dive masters setting limits on the dives or focusing on how much air you have left – or indeed where you are.
- You cannot be too polite to the hardworking crew of a liveaboard.
- Do not, under any circumstances, take yourself too seriously. Based on my sample of six, world famous photographers are just a little bit peculiar but, for the most part, hysterically funny. Especially Eric Cheng, whose jokes are hilarious. Seriously, his jokes are LMFAO standard.
- Try your best not to gush, it’s just not good for them.
You can check out Eric’s video trip report, here, and really, what is left to say.
And, galleries from my personal group of world famous photographers. (Haha, you will have to find your own)
I think I failed the gush test, but there you have it, at last …. THE END.
Shout out to my new first best friends and world famous photographers Eric, Phil, Cor, Julie, Frank, Julian and Ildi; Cruise Director of the Century Garry Bevan and fellow ring-ins Dimitry and Steve, and of course the captain and crew of Damai II.
Postscript: Since this trip I’ve dived with Dimitry again and have to report his photos are now pretty much world class as well. Soon there will only be me left here in the B-Team – quick where’s my bean bag? You there, get me Norman on the phone, NOW.