The winner of my free Portfolio Review – Elena Wagner


Last month I ran a competition asking people to sign up to my newsletter. In return they were entered into a draw for a chance to win a free portfolio review of up to 5 images. 

The lucky winner of this portfolio review was Elena Wagner. In response to finding out she was the winner she sent me a very long and excited email:

“Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity. I am very excited about getting your professional opinion on some of my photos. Having said that, I have to admit that choosing “only” five photos was much harder than I thought. The more I looked at my photos, the more I doubted about them and about me…I went for variation. And chose photos which I haven’t edited too much.
A few words about me and my camera:
I am thirty something and originally from Luxembourg. I am a biologist and have been travelling with my amore for about 2 ½ years. All the photos I send you have been taking during the last couple of months. My real passion is the underwater world!  I love to dive and I’ve spent months volunteering as a science officer in Indonesia and in the Philippines. I had thus many occasions to take pictures of marine creatures! I want to improve myself and make better pictures. I am playing with my camera, reading blogs and magazines. But nothing is better than to get a direct feedback. So, again thank you so much.
I have a Canon PowerShot G16 (and a Fantasea Housing). I do not have an external strobe/flash. Not only because of the money but also because I chose so. To be honest, I do not like flashing the animals. I do not feel comfortable with this. I try to work as much as possible with natural light. If the conditions do not allow it, like on night dives, I use my torch – a X-Adventure Nexgen 1300 FSL – which I have always attached to my housing. This might be a big disadvantage for me, but for now I take the risk.
I use Adobe Photoshop Elements 12 to do the image-editing. I have never taken any course. I have read a few articles on the internet to get started though. And got some advice from a friend. I am thus not sure if I am doing it right….there are so many possibilities. Since a few months I am shooting in Raw and in JPEG. The problem is, my program can not read Raw. So, I do not really have a choice. I guess I need to buy a new software sometime in the future.
I have edited a bit the photos I send you: Cropping and/or adjusting the white balance. I always do now the white balance thingy underwater right before taking a picture 🙂 and/or enhancing saturation or contrast.”


The Portfolio Review

I am glad to hear that you have so many good photos to choose from that you found it difficult to choose just 5. I am also glad that you have been reading blogs and magazines to find helpful tips. This shows to me that you are serious about your photography and are looking to improve it. My first piece of advice is please don’t stop this. Photography is such a large subject that there is always something new to learn. I follow many photography blogs and you have actually inspired me to write a blog to encourage more people to do this. I will let you know when I publish it as some of those blog may be useful to you as well.


Natural Light

There is nothing wrong with using natural light underwater. I often use it myself even though I carry two Inon z240 strobes on every dive. However I find that using only natural light can be limiting. I am sure you know that with diving the deeper you go you will loose more color, this can be a problem when you find a beautiful brightly colored subject at 20 meters. Another problem you may face, especially on cloudy days, is lack of light underwater.


I have noticed on the underwater images you have submitted you are using quite slow shutter speeds and wide apertures. I will explain this a bit more later but have a think about if it was on purpose or as a result of struggling to get the correct exposure. You say that you have a torch which you use on night dives, maybe you should consider using this on deep dives and cloudy days as well. The continuous light is still not as bright as a strobe but will help with color and light loss considerably. With continuous light you will not scare the creatures like you are worried about doing with a flash.


Raw Files

The last thing I want to mention before I jump into the image review, is about your editing program. Personally I feel that Adobe Photoshop Elements is a limited program and this is shown by the lack of RAW recognition. Please download my course on RAW vs JPEG. This will explain the difference between the to two file types, I think for you it is important to be shooting and editing RAW files.


A great program for this is Adobe Lightroom. It is a little expensive but once you see all the things which can be done you will see it is worth the price. It is great for organizing, editing in many ways, and exporting for different sources. There is also a mobile app which you can link with your desktop program to do editing on the go. I have written courses on all of this.



Drifting by

Focal Length: 6 mm

Exposure: F/1.8

Shutter Speed: 1/250 s

Sensitivity: ISO-200


Drifting by - Elena Wagner Portfolio Review


This is a stunning image. There is not much I can say about this just a few editing tips. The exposure on the left side of the image is great, but the right side is dark. In Lightroom you can use a graduation filter to balance this out a little.


The second thing would be to increase the contrast and saturation a little bit to make the fisherman stand out from the sunset a bit better.


I think this would work great cropped into a panoramic view. There is a lot of empty space above the cloud line and below the boat which can be removed but is not necessary.


Finally a warning about using such a wide aperture for a such a large subject. A large aperture means a very small depth of field which shows when you zoom into 100% on this image. The fisherman and his boat are in focus but the fishing net and the other end of the boat are not. Try increasing you ISO to 400 and then you can use an aperture of F3.2 which would give a better depth of field.



Love is in the Water

Focal Length: 11 mm

Exposure: F/3.2

Shutter Speed: 1/800 s

Sensitivity: ISO-200


Love is in the Love is in the Water - Elena Wagner Portfolio Review


This is a great example of breaking the rules. One of the first things I teach my students is to shot up when under the water. Here the composition calls for the downward angle though. However it does still suffer from the flatness which is created by this position. Did you try to capture this from different angles? Was it possible to have one of the Nudi’s facing the camera and still show the “hand shake”?


An editing tip would be to use the contrast and clarity sliders in Lightroom to bring back a bit of the depth which has been lost.



Magical Dok Champa

Focal Length: 13 mm

Exposure: F/4.5

Shutter Speed: 1/2000

Sensitivity: ISO-200


Magical Dok Champa - Elena Wagner Portfolio Review


This shot was probably taken at around mid-day when the sun is highest in the sky and creates some harsh shadows and contrast. The sky is also very bright at this time of the day which can make it very difficult to a good exposure balance between the sky and your subject. It is better to either come out in the early morning or late afternoon. At these times the light is much softer and will balance the sky and subject much better. Try to time this type of shot so the sun is behind you. It will then light up the flower without the shadows which I find quite distracting, and it would stand out even more against the dark background.
You have used a very fast shutter speed which is not necessary and therefore it shows that you have plenty of room to play with the intensity of the natural light.


If you do find yourself in a situation where you are shooting in the middle of the day, try to find subjects which are completely in the shade. This will reduce the risk of harsh shadows.



Me and my Awesome Friends

Focal Length: 15 mm

Exposure: F/2.8

Shutter Speed: 1/80

Sensitivity: ISO-80


Me and my Awesome Friends - Elena Wagner Portfolio Review


I am not really sure what to think of this image. The very slow shutter speed has created a lot of motion blur. The small depth of field means that only 3 or 4 of the fish are in focus and they are still blurry due to motion. The three tail fins on the right side make the composition look messy.


Bait balls can be a lot of fun to photography. Next time you see one, stop and take a moment to consider your settings. These fish can move very quickly and often unpredictably. Use a shutter speed of 1/500 or faster to freeze this motion.


A small depth field can create a nice effect but it is very difficult to get the right fish in focus. A larger depth of field gives you more wiggle room.


Composition is difficult as well. How I deal with this is to keep my eye on the side of the frame where the fish are exiting, (in this case the right side). Wait until those tails have left then quickly press the button.


Typically you will take a lot pictures and only a few will come out the way you want.



Walking at Night

Focal Length: 6 mm

Exposure: F/2.2

Shutter Speed: 1/250

(Compensation: -0.7)

Sensitivity: ISO-200


Walking at Night - Elena Wagner Portfolio Review


The lighting is very good. Again you have a problem with the depth of field. The sharks eye is in focus which is the most important part but the nose/mouth area is not. This would not normally bother me so much, but in this image the light is centered on that area. Therefore, the viewers eye is immediately drawn to that area and then follows the line of the shark through the rest of the image. I think that it is important to have the first thing that the viewer sees in focus.


A small editing note is that there are a few small white dots in the water column above the shark. These can easily be removed in Lightroom with the spot removal tool.



Image Rating


  1. Walking at Night
  2. Love is in the Water
  3. Drifting By
  4. Magical Dok Champa
  5. Me and my Awesome Friends





You defiantly have a good understanding of photography. Many of your problems are things which took me years to learn.
Keep your settings in mind, especially your depth of field and shutter speed.


I have an exposure lesson coming out in June, however I am not sure that you need the whole course so I am going to give you the flow chart which should help you think about how to choose your exposure. 

Exposure Flow Chart

I think that next major step for you to improve your photography is to learn how to edit your photos. 


I really hope that this portfolio review has helped you to see what you need to work on. If you would like some further feedback please submit your photos on my website at just $25 for up to 5 images. 



Elena’s Response


“Wow. That was quick! Thank you so much for your review. I already read everything 🙂
For my defense, taking pictures underwater can be overwhelming….especially if you have to follow a group and there are zillions of cool stuff to take pictures of! That’s what happened with the nudis….I was already behind, saw these wonderful nudis hanging out and thought, ok I want to photograph this. I quickly took another shot from another angle, but it didn’t work out..Also with wildlife you only have a few seconds and then the opportunity to have a good composition etc is gone. I guess I will have to hold myself back and photograph less but better. I have to focus on my subjects and take my time. And true, I struggle with the correct exposure undetwater!
I take everything in manual and I have to improve settings. You are totally right on that.
About the flower, I was there during mid-day, it wad either this or nothing. Taking pictures of things in the shadow is a good idea indeed….


Concerning the editing program you are also right, Lightroom would be the better option. I will definitely think about that and probably buy the program when I am back in Europe. A friend of mine uses it and he showed me a few things, showed me what is possible. Typically with the fisher man I also told myself that on the left side it was too bright, but didn’t know how to overcome this with Photoshop.
I need to improve myself a lot when it comes to the editing part! Thanks for the ideas, tips and the package! I will definitely check this out. I have notentioned this before, but my sister is also a photographer. She influenced me of course, but I feel that I could get a lot more out of her if only I would ask. We live not in the same country which makes things always a bit more difficult. She just bought Lightroom and hopefully the next time we see each other I can play a little bit with the program. Anyway, what I’ve also have to learnt is to ask people for advice!! So thanks for that, you triggered something in me 🙂
Thanks also for your chart. I always try to keep the ISO down because of the image noise…and I think, but I might be wrong, that my camera is sensitive when it comes to this…but you are probably right and I will try this out! I do it sometimes when I take early night pictures.
I will reread your review, maybe take notes and do some “excercice” pictures to see the difference (high vs. small ISO etc.). Something I already do, but now I know better on what to work on.”


Get your own Review

What did you think to this review? If you liked and thought that information given was useful then please send me your own images to review. It cost just $25 for up to 5 images. As you can see from this post you will defiantly get your money worth. So what are you waiting for SIGN UP NOW



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