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Grand Cayman Workshop

I announce my workshops through my travel newsletter. They are often full before they are announced elsewhere or publicised openly on my website. You can receive my travel newsletter by subscribing here by email (or email alex@amustard.com).

I have now run over a dozen Digital Madness underwater photography workshop weeks in Grand Cayman in conjunction with Ocean Frontiers, based at the luxurious Compass Point Resort and it seems to get increasingly oversubscribed each year (as more people hear about it and more people come back too). This is the ideal first photo workshop with me as it focuses on the fundamentals of underwater photography. I do not teach underwater photography with a paint by numbers approach. I will tell you what to do, but I want you to understand why you need to apply that technique in that way to get the killer image. I want you to leave my workshop a more knowledgable and better underwater photographer. I want you to understand what goes into stunning shots, so that you can take those stunning shots on dives, whether I am there to help you on your next trip or not.

Traditionally Digital Madness is run during January and is focused on lighting, but from 2013 I am planning to move the workshop through the year. There will only be one Digital Madness each year, but the timing will vary, over a three year cycle. The teaching content will be different on each workshop and each will also include specific seasonal subject matter that cannot be shot on the other workshops, more details below. The group size is limited to 12 photographers and we always have our own boat for the week. Pretty much every dive trip we do is non-standard, the itinerary chosen by me to maximise the opportunities for images. We are always the first dive boat off the dock and the last one back. I have a very long relationship with Ocean Frontiers and my groups are always the first to sample any new attractions they may have discovered and we do many dives that are not available on their standard trips. I am very grateful for the special support that they give to my groups. I typically run two workshop weeks back to back. The teaching content of the two weeks is the same, so it is rare that people stay for both weeks.

Digital Madness is not a week where you will see all the dive sites of Grand Cayman. Instead we will focus on a few of my favourite photographic sites, the places that I know will produce many stunning photos. This enables us ALL to get familiar with the photographic opportunities available. I also choose these sites because they offer space for the group to spread out underwater, which is important when everyone has a wide angle lens on! Repeating sites allows you to shoot something, look at the results (with me), refine your technique and then produce a really polished final image. It also means that if you see someone else's photo in an image review session, you have the chance to be inspired by it and can have a go at something similar. Also, this approach also means that if you see an interesting macro subject or critter you can change lens and shoot it on the later dive. Although the workshops are aimed primarily at wide angle photography there are many first class macro subjects. Ultimately the whole workshop is about diving for photography, not just taking pictures while you dive.

January Workshop - Lighting

January is the traditional time of year for Digital Madness. It is a wonderful time of year to visit the tropics and escape the cold of the northern winter, although the timing of the workshop isn't related to me wanting to warm my bones. I chose January as the ideal time for a workshop based on lighting. Without giving away too much of my detailed knowledge of photography in Cayman, I believe the conditions are best in January for several subjects. The lower angle of the sun provides more shade on the north wall in the mornings, plus gives a greater variety of angles of illumination on the Kittiwake wreck at this time of year. The stormier winter weather also creates the most photogenic ripples on the Sandbar at this time of year, which are so important for black and white stingray photos, when shot at the right time of day and in the correct lighting conditions. Also our favourite critter dive, an East End secret, has much better visibility in January.

The January workshop is focused on lighting. Light after all is fundamental in photography and when used well transforms a mundane scene into the extra ordinary. The workshop goes back to basic principles of light and looks at the nature of different light sources underwater. We build from these fundamentals into these different types of light must be controlled and can be exploited in different ways to create stunning underwater images, with different effects and moods. The main focus of the week is developing a true understanding and mastery of lighting in wide angle photos. A fun photo we often take are spin shots, which to do with ultimate control take a real mastering of lighting (read more here). We start the week focused on getting CFWA lighting perfected, but for standard images and for different effects or moods. Then in the middle of the week I encourage you to shoot available light on the stingrays and Kittiwake wreck, and build you knowledge on the nature of ambient light underwater. At the end of the week we bring these two skills together, creating close focus wide angle images with expert control over foreground lighting and background ambience. Although, of course along the way we shoot many other subjects, including doing plenty of macro and even bigger creatures like turtles, tarpon and sharks. The next January workshop is in 2015 (this is NOT open for bookings!).

August Workshop - Composition

Despite being tropical, Cayman has a definite summer, typified by glassy calm seas and water so warm that you cannot get cold, however long you dive. However the summer timing of the workshop has more to do with marine life. One of the most amazing spectacles on Cayman's reefs are when the caves and caverns of the East End entirely fill with silversides. Not only is this one of the most amazing dive experiences going, especially when you are entirely engulfed by a school of tiny fish, but if offers fantastic photographic opportunities. There are so many options, whether you use the silversides as a main subject, or as a frame for a diver or the many predators that are attracted to the schools. Calmer summer weather is also ideal for shooting split levels of the Stingrays, particularly when dark, afternoon rain clouds gather. And of course the reefs still offer all the classic wide angle and macro of other times of the year.

The teaching aspect of the August workshop will look in detail at composition. The aim is to take a more artistic approach to underwater photography, to compliment the technical angle of the January workshop. They are separate courses so can be done in isolation or any sequence. The aim of this workshop is to inspire and challenge your photographic vision and to encourage you to experiment with a range of compositional ideas to give your portfolio of images real breadth. The aim is to a little deeper than 'try placing the subject off centre' and look at how we can influence the emotional reaction that our images provoke in the audience with different photographic approaches. The next August workshop is in 2013.

September Workshop - Coral Spawning

The September workshop comes up only every three years and is definitely the most special because it is timed to coincide with coral spawning. Back in the days when I worked as a marine biologist I made the first reliable predictions of coral spawning in the Cayman Islands and with Steve Broadbelt, a founder of Ocean Frontiers, was the first person to see mass spawning there. We were in all the newspapers (on the island)! The aim of this special workshop is to dive at night at photograph this amazing spectacle that takes place over 4 nights, with different species getting in on the act on each night.

The teaching focus of this week is understanding marine ecology and behaviour for the benefit of your photos. Rather than discussing camera settings, strobe positions and compositions, we will talk about our subjects. When working with any wildlife subject, a bit of knowledge is an essential part of field craft, and underwater is another way to take your photos to the next level. The lectures won't be a series of dry facts. The lectures will cover the facts that are relevant to you getting better pictures. In other words how to find Cayman's critters and how to recognise and predict behaviours: the information that makes all the difference when capturing the decisive moment in a wildlife sequence underwater. We will also discuss the photo techniques relevant to getting the behaviour images, such as shooting wide angle at night for coral spawning and tele-macro shooting for fish behaviour. Unlike the other Digital Madness events there will only be a choice of one week for the coral spawning workshop, for obvious reasons. The next September workshop is in 2014.

Cayman Subject Matter

Reliable and diverse subject matter and consistent underwater photography conditions are essential for a successful workshop. Grand Cayman delivers both in abundance. Grand Cayman's wall dives are famous and their craggy nature, cut with canyons and populated with pinnacles provides the diverse topography ideal for wide angle. Colourful sponges and gorgonians adorn the walls and provide the highlights of colour for our images. The East End's shallow dives are cut with caves and caverns providing atmospheric caverns for both moody available light photography and creative techniques such as off camera strobes. Both types of dive site have plenty of large creatures (turtles, groupers, tarpon, eagle rays), reef fish and macro subjects. But what really attracts me to Grand Cayman is that it offers so much more, I'll run through a few favourites below:

Although the Kittiwake wreck is a new addition she has already become a central part of the workshop. She's a photogenic ship, both inside and out, and offers so many angles for images we've nicknamed her the wreck of a 1000 faces! Outside she is an ideal depth for Magic filter photography and her internals are a perfect studio for off camera strobe images. Workshop attendees have already had several victories in International Photo Contests with images taken of her and also at least two magazine covers. The resident school of jacks is also very popular.

Grand Cayman's stingrays are famous around the world, but you won't get amazing photos of them if you join a normal tourist trip to Stingray City. Fortunately, we don't take that chance on the workshops and all of my Cayman workshops have dedicated stingray photo sessions, trips that you cannot do as standard dive charters, where we usually have the rays to ourselves in the optimum photo conditions for the shots we are after. The stingrays are also relatively easy to shoot, so everyone tends to fill their boots (and memory cards).

Colombus originally named the Cayman Islands Las Tortugas because of the abundance of sea turtles. Hawksbill turtles, in particular, are very common on the reefs, especially on the sites with lots of colourful sponges, which the turtles feed on. If you are lucky you may find one feeding, with angelfish making the most of the chance to get to the soft flesh of the sponge. Cayman's turtles are usually very friendly. We also see greens and loggerheads. Remember that turtles are very reflective, so your first thought when you see a turtle should always be to reduce your strobe power a bit. We often joke about how to attract turtles. I believe in turtle karma. Be kind to everyone on the dive boat and the turtles will repay you underwater.

If you are into macro and particularly super macro then you will love tube blennies. The most commonly seen are the cheeky secretary blennies, with their big goggly eye. I know where 100s of these live, so just tell me what type of coral you want as a background! The other species we go after are the golden phase rough head blennies, which can be hard to find, but I have a spot where we can find half a dozen in a 10 minutes. Warning the tube blennies are much, much smaller than people think. Everyone always thinks they are about the size of little finger, but they are actually more like a piece of spaghetti. Here is a photo with my fingernail for scale.

The East End of Grand Cayman is home to an healthy population of Caribbean reef sharks and we can often have close passes on the dive sites close to Ocean Frontiers. Don't think of this like shark feeds in other parts of the world. The sharks will come close, but not right up to you. The best lenses are not wide angle, but mid-range. But as long as we setup for a reef shark on the reef type shot we can usually get very good results.

When I shoot in south east Asia I am often left with the feeling that every critter I photograph is nothing new, as I have seen so many shots of that species on Flickr and Facebook. That is why I love caribbean critters, because there are many analogous species to their Indo-Pacific cousins, but most of them have not been photographed much. We have an excellent critter site in the East End of Grand Cayman, where people have racked up 2 hour dives, but actually the wall sites are also very good for macro. Below is a wire coral shrimp, similar to the whip coral shrimps in the Indo-Pacific, but this is a species few people have seen and photographed.

Finally

Grand Cayman is also very easy to reach with direct flights from many North American hubs and also from Heathrow (UK). The British Airways flight from London is probably the easiest route from Europe, but alternatively you can fly through Miami. Being trans-Atlantic most airlines have generous baggage allowances. If you are coming from Europe or the West Coast of the States (or further afield - Hong Kong and Kazakhstan are the current record holders for the distances people have travelled for the workshop) I recommend getting in at least the day before so that you have time to acclimatise. The workshop is always a packed program, I try to squeeze as much into the week for you as possible. My workshops are also well known in the industry and we quite often have other professional underwater photographers dropping in to say hi and join us, informally, for a day. In recent times we've been joined on a couple of workshop dives by Jim Hellemn, Stephen Frink, and Ty Sawyer. These are rarely planned before hand, so you never know who you might meet!

Please contact Lesley at Ocean Frontiers, who handles the bookings for all my workshops to ask about the next one. From USA free call 1.800.348.6096 or email lesley@oceanfrontiers.com

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