Conversation with Aaron Wong by Henley Spiers

In the latest in the series, I talk with Aaron Wong, a commercial photographer from Singapore and highly renowned underwater photographer. What fascinated me most about Aaron’s story is his unfamiliar path into the underwater genre. Unlike most of us, who start out as keen divers and then progress into underwater imagery, Aaron had a strong background within professional studio photography before he even went diving or picked up an underwater housing. As such, he brings a meticulous approach to the use of light in his images which has inspired me to get more creative and deliberate with my strobes. The portfolio showcased here comprises underwater photos falling under the natural history and fashion genres, my personal interest lies firmly within the former but I was pleasantly surprised to find that even the pool shots elicited a strong impact on me.

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Conversation with Laurent Ballesta by Henley Spiers

Laurent Ballesta is someone I have looked up to immensely over the last few years and, in late 2018, I had the opportunity to meet him, as he was a judge at the Anilao Shootout. Even in that setting, with many big shot figures from the underwater photography world around, there seemed to be a collective acceptance that here, in Laurent, we were in the presence of underwater royalty.

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Conversation with Mike Bartick by Henley Spiers

I started admiring Mike Bartick’s images pretty soon after getting into underwater photography. I was in love with macro and just becoming aware of snoots, and Mike was one of the masters of macro that I looked up to. Over the next few years, Mike became especially renowned as a blackwater specialist and I followed his articles and the Facebook Blackwater group with great curiosity. I finally had the opportunity to meet the man in person whilst staying at his resort, Crystal Blue, for the Anilao Shootout. 

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Conversation with Christian Vizl by Henley Spiers

I’ve just come back from an absolutely incredible trip to Baja Mexico where the marine life was bountiful and I had the privilege of shooting alongside one of my favourite underwater photographers: Christian Vizl. He has an extremely distinctive style of (mostly) black and white photography and, to me, is the finest proponent of underwater imagery as art on the scene today. Over the time we spent together we had a some transformative discussions which have materially benefitted my own underwater photography and, on the last day of the trip, we sat down for this interview which I hope will serve as inspiration for some of you other underwater shooters out there.

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Underwater Photography Editing Tips by Henley Spiers

Let me begin by saying that there isn’t a right and wrong way of doing most of this stuff, indeed there are many ways and this is just the method that I have settled on. As you learn more you will probably find new tricks and preferences and do things in a slightly different manner, in the meantime, this is a good starting point. I should also mention that the features in Lightroom and Photoshop are so extensive that you cannot absorb everything in one go. My workflow and editing processes have evolved over time and will continue to do so - if I look back on these notes in a year’s time there will almost certainly be things that I have tweaked. These tips are not some kind of ‘Lightroom law’, merely a well intentioned starting point that I wish I had access to back when I begun using this editing software. There’s a lot to cover so I’m just going to look at workflow and global adjustments in Lightroom in this blog post, if anyone is still awake by the end of it and has an appetite for more, I'll look into a second installment!


Transferring Photos into Lightroom


Human error is alive and well when it comes to technology and I urge you to keep it simple by not touching Lightroom until you are confident that your images have been successfully transferred to the correct location on your hard disk of choice.

  • Plug your SD card into the computer
  • On your chosen hard disk, create a new folder for the images. Typically, I will create one folder per trip (e.g. Saint Lucia 2018) and then subfolders within that for each day of diving, these are named with the date first to make for easy sorting (e.g. 180215 Lesleen M Wreck & Anse Cochon South).
  • Copy all the relevant photos from your SD card into the new folder on your hard disk.
  • Once the transfer is complete, open Lightroom and click import photos.
  • If your SD card is still plugged in, the import dialogue will show the photos on your SD card by default, don’t get too excited and hit the import button right away. Go over to the left and find the correct hard drive and folder, select and import from there.
  • Good, that’s the boring part done!


IMPORTANT NOTE: It’s always easy to put off making back-ups, and that’s all well and good, until it’s not. It would be absolute heartache to lose all of your hard-earned images so please back them up. I use a G-Technology 20TB RAID external hard-drive (it makes two copies of every file) and also have a bunch of other external hard drives which provide a third copy of all my images if worst came to worst. Please do this, you will sleep better at night as a result.


Picking your favourites in Lightroom

  • Open Lightroom and you’ll want to be in the ‘Library’ tab.
  • Pick the folder of photos you wish to review.
  • In terms of viewing them, I tend to go for one of two options:
    • If there are hundreds of images to get through, I’ll look at them as thumbnails and will use the slider (bottom right corner) to show maybe 3 to 5 images per line, depending on the size of screen I’m working on. I then put 1 or 2 stars on the images with promise (use the “1” or “2” buttons on the keypad).
    • If there aren’t as many images, then I’ll look at them full screen and star as I go through. Press fn + F to go to full screen view of an image.


Editing underwater images in Lightroom

Editing or ‘Photoshopping’ images is a dirty word in some, technologically dubious, circles, but this is ultimately misguided. Even back in the film days, editing images as they were developed was very much part of the process for top-end photographers. The ‘Master of Photography’ TV show is well worth a watch and, in the season finale, when the last remaining contestants are forced to shoot on film, they bring on an expert developer. It’s fascinating to watch him perform karate chops in the dark room as the images are processed. Editing is part of photography, ideally it should be that final 10% which tips a great image over the top. That being said, sometimes it’s fun (and educational) to really go for it and see how far you can take an image which normally wouldn’t make the cut.

Before you dive into the editing process, take a moment to look at the image and reflect on what you want to achieve with the editing. Here are a few starter questions to ask yourself: Is the composition optimal or does it need a new crop? Are you happy with the colours? What is the key component of the photo and how can you make the most of it?

One last thing, it’s easy to get over-excited by all of the editing possibilities and push the image too far - my initial forays in Lightroom are good examples of this! By all means have some fun with it but ultimately, we are taking underwater wildlife images and a subtly enhanced, natural look is (probably) what you want to go for. Ideally, the editing should blend in seamlessly with what you captured in camera.

Have some ideas? Good, click into the ‘Develop’ function and you can now simply make your way down through the tabs in order. [tip: right click on any of the dark grey portions on the right side and ensure that ‘Solo Mode’ is selected. This means a nice clean display with only one tab open at a time - as you click onto the next develop tab, the previous will automatically close-down]

Useful Mac Shortcuts
Command + A: Select all
Command + C: Copy
Command + V: Paste
Command + Z: Undo last step
Command + shift + 4: Take a customised screen grab (you’ll find it on your desktop afterwards)
If you have a PC just substitute CTRL for Command.


Global Adjustments


If your image requires cropping, I’d suggest doing this first. With cropping, if the padlock is closed it will keep your original image ratio. I tend to keep it locked at first and see what can be achieved. Next to the padlock are a whole set of other options such as 1:1 (i.e. square), 4:3 etc. You can also unlock it and create an entirely bespoke crop. When in the crop mode, hit ‘O’ to cycle through different diagrams to help you optimise your composition (most of the time I just leave it on the classic ‘rule of thirds’ style grid, but this is fun to play with sometimes). I struggle to visualise the crop without hitting enter and seeing the image actually cropped. I tend to play with this and just undo (cmd + Z) if I don’t like it. Once I’m close, I’ll fine tune the exact placement with the arrow keys. Oh and don’t forget the ‘Angle’ feature just underneath which allows you to tilt the image too - great for getting that perfect diagonal leading line!

Now for the rest, let’s go through tab by tab…


WB (white balance): There are many ways to go about this but I tend to use the ‘white balance picker’ and then fine-tune manually. The picker is in the top left corner of the tab, you click it to pick up and then select an area of your photo to set the white balance. Try to find a light grey spot in the frame. This can result in an  immediate wow moment or (more often), a bit of an ‘urgh’ reaction. If it’s the latter, undo and try a few other spots. Picker not working so well? No worries, it happens. Go over to the sliders and make some extremely subtle adjustments. Temp is either making your image more yellow or blue, I tend to prefer a more cool, blue look in mine, typically ending up with a value between 4,500 and 5,500. Tint is either making your image more green or magenta, usually I want a touch more magenta. I tend to end up somewhere between +20 and +30 on this one. 

White balance as shot.

With the white balance picker - yummy.


Check what brightness your screen is set to (try to be consistent), and remember that if you're printing the images or even just sharing them, they look beautiful on your computer screen, with backlighting and perhaps a darkened working environment, but they will look under-exposed everywhere else.

Exposure: Bearing in mind the above, this will sneak up as I edit a photo, starting at +0.25 and often ending closer to +1.00

Contrast: Yes please, this is one of the things we lose underwater and you always want a bit more contrast, but don’t go nuts or it will be very obvious and give your colours a very saturated look. It varies a lot by image but start with something like +10 or +20.

Highlights: Don’t be fooled, these should come down not up. If you want the image to be brighter use the exposure bar. We bring down the highlight to balance the image and restore details. This is one slider which I will be heavy handed with, often going to -100.

Shadows: Again, counterintuitive perhaps but we want these up (we can add contrast in other ways). We are trying to balance out the image and bring out some of the detail in the darker areas. Try +20 as a starting point.

Whites: I don’t touch this. I prefer to work hard with the highlights slider.

Blacks: Oh yes please, this is another way we can add punch to photos or really get those snooted black backgrounds popping. Generally I bring it down to -20 or -30. Don’t go much further or the whole image will start looking overdone.

Useful Lightroom Shortcuts
fn + F: View image full screen
1,2,3,4,5: Number of stars
0: No stars
cmd + Z: Undo last step
\ : In the develop module this shows your your image before all editing.
Q: Opens spot removal in develop mode
[: Reduce size of brush in develop mode
]: Increase size of brush in develop mode
SPACE: When zoomed in, hold down to enable dragging the view to another area of the image.


Clarity: When I first started editing in Lightroom this was my favourite slider. It yields an immediate change and it’s easy to get a little hooked on it! It is a key slider for us underwater photographers as it helps bring up that contrasty look we lose by shooting through water. Just go easy if you want a natural look, somewhere between +10 and +30 often works for me.

Vibrance: Underwater photographers are always fighting the colour loss in water, and even if you have shot with strobes, you want to add in a bit more colour definition via editing. Vibrance is awesome, +15 is my default starting point.

Saturation: I rarely use this, much preferring to make my colour changes through white balance, vibrance and the individual colours sliders. Upping saturation gives you this yellowy sheen that you don't get with vibrance - I don’t like. If anything, I will bring saturation down a touch if the image is getting too yellow for my taste.

Tone Curve

The idea here is you can create more bespoke contrast - call me lazy if you will but I don’t use it.


Hue: Think of this as altering the nature of a particular colour. Typically I don’t make any amendments here, if I do, it will be to dial a richer blue by pushing that slider more towards the purple end of the blue spectrum.

Saturation: As mentioned, I don’t like using the general saturation slider but I do like boosting the saturation of a  particular colour. It’s dependent on the subject, so say if it’s a red fish I may pump up that colour. As you know by now, I dislike too much yellow and will often bring that down a bit here. Oh and for some wide angle images, and often in photos of sharks, bringing the aqua saturation right down is a dramatic improvement.

Luminance: This is the brightness of a particular colour and is fun to have a quick play with. Try sliding each colour right down and right up and see what looks better. If you don’t fancy using a brush, you can try using this to bring up the exposure of the main subject. Oh and I usually just use the sliders but you do have a picker tool (the circle in the top right) which you can pick up by clicking and then choose an area of the image - it will sample all the relevant colours and you can drag up or down (this works across all of HSL).

Split Toning

I pretty much never use this - probably because I don’t understand it well enough. Feel free to join me in ignoring it.

Blenny break.

Blenny break.


Lightroom applies a default sharpening value of 25 to all images as RAW files look pretty dull out of the camera. Take this down to zero and head to noise reduction first (you don’t want to be sharpening noise after all).

Noise Reduction

Luminance: The only slider I use and for low ISO images will apply a value between 15 and 25.

Detail/Contrast/Color/Detail/Smoothness: I leave all of these at their default settings.


Amount: Typically I’ll go for between 50 and 60. Don’t go nuts on sharpening and look out for your image starting to look too painterly. Zoom in 100% when applying sharpening to get a better idea of the change.

Radius: Default is 1.0 - don’t overdo do it…max 1.4.

Detail: Again, take it easy, somewhere between the default 25 and 40.

Masking: Such a fun tool, hold down option whilst dragging this up, the white areas are all of those where the sharpening will be applied. I usually go up to 50 to just apply sharpening to the key areas of the photo.

Lens Corrections

Always click the Remove Chromatic Aberration box but don’t bother with the lens correction if shooting with fish-eye lenses. However, if your image was shot using a rectilinear or macro lens, ticking the Enable Profile Corrections box is a good idea. Note: Olympus lenses are sadly not currently available as automatic Lightroom presets.


You can ignore this one, move along, nothing to see here!


Post Crop Vignette

Style: I just leave this in Highlight Priority but feel free to experiment.

Amount: Left will darken and right will lighten. A gentle, dark vignette often draws out the central subject well but it should be pretty subtle - no lower than -10 typically.

Midpoint/Roundness/Feather: Usually don’t touch these but it is fun to have a play with them from time to time and see what effects you can create. 

Highlights: I don’t really see what this does.

Grain: No thanks, I don’t want to add grain when I’ve worked so hard to avoid and eliminate it!

Dehaze: Contrast + Clarity + Dehaze are achieving a similar effect and I like to use a little of each. Dehaze is the most heavy handed of them so go easy - maybe +10 as a starting point.

That’s it for the global adjustments in Lightroom and your image should now be looking definitively, but subtly, better. Press \ to see what it was and how far you have come, and give yourself a little pat on the back.  I hope you’ve found it useful, whether you are nodding your head in appreciation or shaking it in disgust at this Lightroom abuse, please do get in touch with any comments.



Southern Stingray says bye.

What's it like on an Alex Mustard workshop? by Henley Spiers

As a budding image-maker, you can quite easily sign up for a workshop with the Lionel Messi of the underwater photography scene. For me, the Ballon D’Or of underwater photography goes to Alex Mustard, in fact as both the best player and coach I guess he’s kind of like Lionel Messi and Josep Guardiola rolled into one.

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