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Reflections on Visions 1998

by Jacquetta Megarry

Reproduced from in focus 64 (February 1999)

In my professional world of education, if someone were to plan a two day conference in which both days consisted of six slide shows, three in the morning, three in the afternoon, there would be howls of protest. 'Vary the format, let the delegates participate more, people will fall asleep' ... you know the kind of thing. However, 'Visions in the Sea' - Ocean Optics' weekend of underwater photography at Imperial College, October 3/4 - proved how wrong they would be.

If the speakers are good enough, the audience motivated and (above all) the images stunning, the slide show format does not pall. The quality of image was always arresting, and on occasions, literally breath-taking. Speakers stuck to their themes - for example Linda Pitkin spoke about photography in northern waters, while Charles Hood focussed on beating back-scatter blues, and Peter Rowlands demonstrated wreck photography - so there was surprisingly little overlap, either in talks or images. It was helpful to find many of Linda Pitkin's images in her book, so I went home with a signed copy for further study

The only time I resorted to clock-watching was when Donald Tipton overran so badly that my evening theatre date was in danger. Even then, the worst frustration was how he fi rst tried to cram the next 50 slides into a single minute, so that your eye could glimpse but not savour, and then had to be stopped, mid-slide, to clear the building. Compared with other speakers, who more often let their images speak for themselves, he verbalised a lot but (for me) seemed to cover less ground.

There is a danger in seeing so many superb slides: that your own efforts seem so pathetic that you are ready to give up and leave it all to the experts. By lunchtime of the first day, I was not the only person whose morale was in this sense low. Enter Linda Dunk, whose images on the walls of Ocean Optics had lured me to London in the first place. Her theme was how to take close-focus, wide-angle shots. While her slides were memorable in themselves, her distinctive contribution was to make such images seem achievable. She outlined a seven-step procedure for putting together such photographs. While I am not so naive as to believe it as simple as she made it seem, at least I was left feeling determined to try.

Many speakers emphasised the elements of composition: the rule of thirds, dynamic diagonals, plenty of negative space. Michael Wong's slides from Malaysian waters echoed the close-focus wide-angle theme: take two subjects, he said, placing one in the foreground, the other the background. He created a lot of empathy by sharing some of his mistakes with us, proving that award-winning photographers are human too. His prize-winning books on Sipadan and Malaysia 'Beneath the Waves', both on display, show how far he has come since those mistakes.

Colin Doeg's contribution (in addition to good-natured chairmanship and insights on his clearly unorthodox approach to diving safety) was to remind us of the potential of monochrome and available light. Dos Winkel also emphasised natural light photography, drawing examples from sites in Bonaire that you never see as a tourist diver. His mangrove shots were particularly revealing if all you know of Bonaire is its coral reefs.

As a beginner, with limited ambitions and even less talent, I had no great expectations of the 'How to get your pictures in print' session . This was offered jointly by Graeme Gourlay of 'Dive International' and Christopher Aneglogou of Planet Earth Picture Library. However, for many of the other delegates, who had extensive experience and slides with them for review and possible sale, this may have been a crucial input. Clearly colourful wide-angle shots, including a diver looking at the reef and with plenty of dead space for the text to be superimposed, still have a healthy market.

I thought that Visions was overall good value at £95 - flying in all those speakers from all comers of the world cannot have been cheap, and the international feel was a major ingredient. My own 900 mile round trip was certainly worthwhile. The trouble is, the conference is proving to be just the beginning of the spending! Naturally I had to join BSoUP. Then I need all the Ultralight bits and pieces for my Nikonos V and Morris Aqua FIII - thanks to Terry Schuller for taking the time to specify a system for my particular needs. Once you have seen their Ultralight instant-pivot camera bracket, you have to buy one: I have too many landscape shots because by the time I adjust my present arm/bracket for portrait, I know that the main subject will be long gone. And the Ultralight quick-release handle means that if I ever get good enough to handhold the strobe, I can for the first time imagine doing so without dropping things.

Next there's the wide-angle lens (up to now, I have only hired in resort). After that, I need to save up for Linda Dunk's live-aboard photographic workshop in the Red Sea in June ... So yes, it was indeed an expensive weekend.

Any gripes? Most speakers could improve their focus control. The anxious 'Is it sharp?' question was asked for too often, then followed by see-saw focussing. They should know that unless slides are glass mounted, slides will 'pop' into focus with the heat if you let them. If you adjust focus for each unpopped slide, you will have to readjust within a second or so. And unless you walk away from the projection screen, you are too close to focus accurately anyway. This minor quibble aside, I cannot fault the weekend - truly unmissable.

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