Underwater Photo School in Paradise

Learning is Super Fun on Grand Cayman 
Text and Photography by Joe Barner

School was never like this! I spent years getting my education, but I never had an experience quite like the one I had with the underwater photography school conducted in paradise. My teachers were Cathy Church and her husband, Herb Rafael; the location was a diver’s paradise-Grand Cayman Island.

I have always enjoyed land photography, which I learned by taking courses from professional photographers. I tried unsuccessfully to teach myself underwater photography by trial and error, but was never able to achieve the quality of pictures I wanted until I put myself in the hands of a professional underwater photographer.

My school was conducted by Cathy Church’s Underwater Photo Centre and Gallery at Sunset House. I found the comfortable classroom well equipped with audio/visual, video and other teaching aids. On the walls, dozens of my teacher’s photographs set the standard and served as inspiration for what one can attain with proper training, experience and opportunity.

My classmates varied widely in age and diversity of experience. Because of this diversity, we started with the basic principles of underwater photography and composition. Even those who had taken the course before continued to learn; they attempted more difficult techniques or worked on shots that may not have come out as well as hoped on previous tries. I have taken this course six times, learning new things every time and I don’t hold the record for repeaters!

All of us had our own workstation for equipment and battery charging. The range of equipment used by me and my classmates included Nikonos, Sea & Sea and housed SLR cameras. Our classroom contained multiple light boxes for slide viewing and video equipment for those who prefer that medium. There was a photo center on the premises, complete with a repair facility.

A really cool part of taking this course is the large assortment of extension tubes, lenses and other equipment available for use by those who do not have their own or who just want to try something different. Also, there’s a complete selection of 35mm and video equipment available for rental. Some of my classmates opted to rent a camera and strobe instead of buying them. This try before you buy approach makes a lot of sense; you don’t end up buying something you don’t need or don’t like. The photo center sells a broad selection of U/W camera products and supplies. The prices are competitive and you get free advice from your instructors.

Another service the photo center provides is overnight E-6 processing. Some of us were so eager to see the result of the previous day’s film that we were at the classroom as early as 6:30 am. The teachers were there, too, to critique our work and help set up our equipment for the morning dive.

Our dive boat crew pampered us with unlimited tank changes, plenty of snacks and by taking care of our scuba gear all week. We didn’t even have to get out of the water to change film or strobe batteries-a photo assistant did it for us! Most our dives-they were shallow-lasted two to three hours.

The dive sites provided varied photographic opportunities. After seeing the MV Balboa wreck during the day, it was fascinating to observe it at night. We saw an octopus, large crabs, lobsters, Orange Ball Anemones and other sealife not usually seen during the day. Some of the other sites we visited included The Aquarium, Orange Canyon, Devil’s Grotto, Angelfish Reef and, of course, Stingray City.

Certainly no education is complete without graduation. Ours was a real blast. There is no way to really describe this hilarious event-it’s just something you have to experience. In addition to all the frivolity, each student submits several favorite slides from the week’s work that our teachers put together in a slide show set to music. We were astounded at the collective talent of the group and how much each person had learned and improved during our eight day course.

One last word: bring plenty of film to class. Film is one school supply you will need plenty of. A phrase one often hears when you travel with Cathy and Herb is “the adventure continues.” It is not always possible to record with film all the experiences you have on Cathy Church’s courses and trips, but it surely is fun trying.

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