Fish Paparazzi on Grand Cayman

Learn how to shoot undersea photos during diving classes with renowned photographer Cathy Church.

I’m at Cathy Church’s photography studio on Grand Cayman, ready to learn tips from one of the most renowned underwater photographers. I’ve taken a few lessons at her studio over the years, and one thing I remember is that most of my topside photography expertise goes out the window when I go under the surface. It’s a different world, a surreal world, and shooting in the ocean requires a whole different set of photography techniques.

Arriving at Church’s studio, I canvass her display photos for any new ones not already on my wall back home, and I see some spectacular scenes: a puffer fish so close up, its eyes seem to see mine; the gentle curls of a Christmas Tree Worm aglow with color; a silvery fish starkly contrasted against a midnight-blue sea.

Underwater Staging

“These pictures are amazing, but very few are random,” says Kat Ramage, Church’s head instructor. Ramage explains that some shots are staged. Church will feed fish to entice them to dance before her camera. She’ll place a hermit crab in an ideal photographic spot, or a diver model will pose in the rays of light filtering through a crevice for the perfect effect. Before stalking perfect shots, however, students like me must first get the camera technique down.

My sister and teenage niece join me for the lesson. We first spend just over an hour in the classroom, ($100 per hour for instruction with Church; $60 with the other instructors). We review f-stops, or in layman terms, the size of the opening of the camera lens that lets in light. Much like the pupil of the eye adjusts to light, the f-stop can be adjusted to regulate the amount of light let into a picture. It’s especially important underwater since close objects usually require less light, while distant scenes may require more.

We then review shutter speeds—the duration the camera shutter remains open to let in ambient light. Shutter speeds can be artistically used underwater to produce intense blue water with fast shutter speeds that limit light, or produce paler blues via low shutter speeds that allow in more light.

Get Close and Stay With It

After more camera nuances, it’s time to dive. Ramage warns that you have to make a decision in the water: Focus on repeated shots of the same critter to get it right, or scamper about and end up with a few good photos. On this day, we’re focused on macro photography, so we’re advised to get close and closer still. The less water through which we shoot the better, since particles can create “backscatter” like it’s snowing underwater.

Other key tips:

So there’s my group, underwater, in pursuit of the perfect shot. Our instructors scribble messages of advice on underwater slates, adjust our strobe lights and point out photo ops that would never have occurred to us. When our oxygen is used up, we go back to the studio where Church and Ramage critique our photos, suggesting improvements and pointing out shots of success.

The end result: You be the judge as to whether I got an interesting shot. [Check out Kazel-Wilcox's underwater photos on the TravelMuse Photo Blog.] Maybe with just a few more lessons from the pros on Grand Cayman, I might just have something worthy of hanging on my wall!


For more advanced underwater photographers, Church’s studio suggests bringing samples of your best photographs to a lesson, along with some with which you struggled, so techniques for improvement can be best addressed. Advanced lessons can focus on creative lighting, advanced composition and the nuances of the newest equipment. Visit for more information.


[Read a previous TravelMuse Photo Blog post by photo editoro Calista Chandler on Underwater Photography and waterproof cases you can buy for your digital camera.]

Destinations: Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands

Themes: Beach Vacations

Activities: Scuba Diving

User Comments

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