From Zero to Hero – Jessica Hardy’s Underwater Photography Workshop Experience  Capturing Critters in Lembeh 2016

From Zero to Hero – Jessica Hardy’s Underwater Photography Workshop Experience Capturing Critters in Lembeh 2016

Jessica Hardy joined us for our Capturing Critters in Lembeh underwater photography and videography workshop as a competent diver with over 500 dives but as a total newcomer to underwater photography. Here Jessica explains how our 5th annual workshop developed her as a diver, taught her about photography and gave her a whole new skill set and passion.


“I came to Lembeh for three reasons. My first reason was that I love Indonesia. Lembeh has been on my radar for the last two years; I’ve been interested in treasure hunting on the famous muck diving sites since I learned of them. The second reason is work. My research is tied to marine conservation tourism, biodiversity and the ocean’s carbon sequestration potential. Lembeh is an incredibly bio-diverse marine area and I was increasingly interested to know the reasons behind this. Lastly, Kerri Bingham and Hergen Spalink, two of the Photo Pros, are wonderful people that I have dived with previously. I’ve learned over the years that they only work with top notch operations which have professional staff so I knew I would be in good hands with them and the other Pros at Lembeh Resort. Previously, learning underwater photography had never crossed my mind, I had no idea about aperture or shutter speed so when Kerri suggested that I join the workshop, I thought “why not!”


I arrived at Lembeh Resort with a new Sony RX 100 MK IV camera, macro lens, Nauticam housing and two S2000 INON strobes … and absolutely no idea of how to make any of it work. I cried and cursed when I received my equipment in the mail. I was so nervous on the first day of the workshop that my hands were shaking and I couldn’t get my battery into the camera. I didn’t want to go diving! I tried repeatedly to hand off my camera, hoping someone else was interested in trying my shiny new gear. Fortunately, Hergen Spalink was there for me during the entire first and second dive. He set up my camera and strobes so I didn’t have to think about settings; I could focus on learning how to dive all over again”.



Here’s the story of Jessica’s incredible journey…


Day 1: “Carrying a camera and taking pictures completely changes how you move your body underwater. Your pre-camera, buoyancy-mastery is out the window, as is your air consumption. I ran out of air at 45 minutes on the first dives and I was shocked; air consumption had always been a strength of mine prior to having the camera. However, not knowing anything about settings or lighting I survived by just looking around for pretty things to shoot and I managed to find a small crab hiding underneath an anemone and the dive guides found some other interesting critters”


Harlequin crab (Lissocarcinus laevis)


Day 2: “The shaking stopped. I dumped the integrated weight pockets and put a belt low on my hips to see if this would stop my legs from floating upwards, not a problem I had experienced before having my camera. I was introduced to aperture and had a new understanding of depth of field following the workshop presentations. I found a bubble coral shrimp on bubble coral that was covered in flatworms and I managed to take a shot. What started out as a good day didn’t stay that way though. My tank lasted 47 minutes and a strange experience of underwater sea sickness set in, finally the weight belt ended up around my ankles! Today there was no looking around for pretty things, this was survival”.


Bubble coral shrimp (Vir philippinensis)


Day 3: “Thankfully Lauren from the dive center recommended that I take seasick medicine before the dives which helped immediately. I tightened the weight belt, had 3 great dives, felt a boost in confidence and even started moving my strobes around. I surprised myself with really decent photos and relished ongoing encouragement from the other participants, the Pros and the critters@Lembeh Resort staff. I really tried to work on lighting and was rewarded by my frogfish image. The frogfish was hiding next to a soft coral which looks beautiful in the light. I honestly, mostly enjoyed myself on this day and started getting hooked”.


Painted frogfish (Antennarius pictus)


Day 4: “After more lighting presentations I had a great time moving strobes around and searching for translucent subjects to try out my new skills on. The Pros gave great advice about perpendicular light and a few of my photos turned out great. The seasick medicine was still helping, my legs stayed below my head at least 60% of the time and my dive time was finally up to 51 minutes. I managed to take a decent shot of a nudibranch Hypselodoris, the bright colors look good against the darker background”.


Hypselodoris nudibranch (Hypselodoris bullocki)


Day 5: “The previous two days gave me some confidence which translated into better control and more relaxed breathing on this day. After “super macro” presentations in the morning I captured a few shots of super macro creatures whose eyes were even in focus! It became a hunt for the smallest critter to torture myself with by trying to get it correctly illuminated, in focus and with a nice overall composition”.


Wire coral goby with a parasite (Bryaninops yongei)


Day 6: “In the Pro presentations we were taught that if one (subject) is good, two is better and three is even better still. I found a brown sponge coral where I could just glimpse a crab or some small crustacean hiding.  On full macro zoom with a perpendicular light, I hovered and carefully lowered my lens and took my favorite shot of the trip. At the critique, I was told there were too many subjects but I don’t care! I captured 6 tiny super macro crustaceans, with in-focus eyes, having a party in a sponge. The photo looks like it could be a marine equivalent to the Dogs Playing Poker series. I absolutely love it!”


Undetermined (Lissoporcellana sp.)


Day 7: “During the workshop there was a real sense of camaraderie between all of the participants and in the evening a fellow participant helped me to perfect the Adobe Lightroom skills we learnt in the presentations. Suddenly my photos that I didn’t think were great were much better! I was up all night on my computer turning my mistakes into pieces of art. I thought, “underwater photography is fantastic!” During the dives I managed to shoot a crinoid shrimp which I was really happy with as they blend in so well with their crinoid hosts. In the evening I couldn’t believe that the 7 day workshop had flown by so fast. I had already signed up for the 3 day extension so I was looking forward to trying my hand at some more advanced techniques to compliment what I had already learnt!”


Undescribed (Laomenes sp.)


Day 8: “My diving was much more relaxed knowing I could make edits in later in Lightroom if I didn’t get it right first time. My air consumption improved greatly and I finally made a full sixty minute dive. I stopped taking the seasickness medicine and put my weights back in the integrated pockets. My bottom half was magically less-floaty.  I spent hours editing in Lightroom for the evening critique session only to be reminded that cropping and editing a photo has limitations and that post-processing isn’t necessarily the most effective approach to learning! During the dives I did manage to take this shrimp image and I actually managed the black background without Lightroom!”


Anker’s whip coral shrimp (Pontonides ankeri)


Day 9: “During the dives I focused on running a few key concepts through my head as I went along. When I returned to my room in the evening I threw out 85 of the 93 shots I’d taken and made only minimal edits to my best images. Still feeling a bit grumpy at my eagerness to exploit Lightroom I went for a massage, then a facial, then reflexology!”

Reticulate stargazer (Uranoscopus bicinctus)


Day 10: “What a great day – I was managing to pull everything together and I captured this amazing stargazer image – not so easy when they are so well camouflaged! I’ve always been nervous about disturbing the bottom and I don’t want to touch any coral or organisms and carrying the camera and trying to shoot down low makes you even more aware of your positioning and what is around you. The dive guides have been incredible – they seem to understand that it takes me time to get a shot and so they will show different critters to the other divers and then when I’m ready to move on they’ll take me to see something else. It’s been a big help not feeling pressured to take a shot and move on. I like to try and get everything set before I take an image so the critters are not being exposed to my strobes any more than necessary”.

In Summary, there is so much more to underwater photography than I ever thought possible, the pictures are just one element, along with diving, buoyancy for photography, operating the camera, positioning the strobes and it goes on – but when it comes together it is incredible. I am passionate about marine life and have been for many years – with photography I feel like I am getting know more about some of my favourite species and I feel like to get a good shot you almost have to build a relationship with the critter – taking your time and edging closer without spooking it, and ultimately showing it respect and respect for its environment.

I am grateful for the incredibly frustrating, challenging and rewarding experience that the workshop provided. I have learned so much, I cannot even remember what I didn’t know just last week. Lembeh is a gorgeous place to learn and the resort is so well managed and run that my needs were met before I even knew that I had them. As a result, all of my focus went into the workshop. The schedule is impeccable, workshops started on time every day, dive boats leave on time and return within the same 5 minutes every single day. The entire staff from the housekeeping team to the restaurant staff and dive center crew through to the management were supportive and interested in what I was learning and my daily progress.


I am proud of myself and appreciate all those who made this an experience I hope to repeat”.




Jessica Hardy