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Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021


Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021

Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021 Pictures Revealed

We showcase the winners of the prestigious underwater photography competition, which still managed to pull in more than 4,500 photos from around the world despite the best efforts of COVID-19 to put a dampener on proceedings

Underwater Photographer of the Year is an annual competition, based in the UK, that celebrates photography beneath the surface of the ocean, lakes, rivers and even swimming pools. British photographer Phil Smith was the first underwater Photographer of the Year, named in 1965. Today’s competition attracts entries from all around the world, has 13 categories, testing photographers with themes such as Macro, Wide Angle, Behaviour and Wreck photography, as well as four categories for photos taken specifically in British waters. This year’s judges were experienced underwater photographers Peter Rowlands, Martin Edge and Dr Alex Mustard MBE.

Chair of the competition judges, Dr Alexander Mustard MBE, commented about the overall winner: “This is a photograph of hope, a glimpse of how the ocean can be when we give it a chance, thriving with spectacular life both below and above the surface. The photographer not only persevered until this serendipitous scene unfolded, but more importantly, Renee had the talent to capture this precise moment. The gorgeous lighting is sympathetic, but the picture is made by the elegance of the composition as sharks, sunset and seabirds fleetingly converge. Judging this year’s competition was a pleasure, a much-needed escape into the underwater world, I hope everyone enjoys immersing themselves in these fabulous images.”

Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021 (and Wide Angle winner)

Renee Capozzola
Renee Capozzola

Renee Capozzola from the USA was crowned the Underwater Photographer of the Year for her image Sharks’ Skylight, which was taken in Moorea, French Polynesia.

She explained: “In French Polynesia there is strong legal protection for sharks, allowing them to thrive and balance the marine ecosystem. In August, 2020, I visited the island of Moorea, which was not only open to visitors but also happens to be my favourite place to photograph sharks. During this trip, I spent several evenings in the shallows at sunset, hoping to capture something unique. Instead of focusing on split-level images that I am known for, I decided to try something different. I envisioned and aimed to capture the sharks underwater with the sunset seen through Snell's window. It took many attempts, but on this particular evening the water was calm, the sharks came into a nice composition, and I got lucky with the birds as well. Since many shark species are threatened with extinction, it is my hope that images of these beautiful animals will help promote their conservation.”

Judge's comments:

A sunset ballet of reef sharks and sea birds in a tranquil corner of the Pacific Ocean is a richly deserved winner of the Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021. This is an image of hope a glimpse of how the ocean can be when we give it a chance, thriving with spectacular life both below and above the surface. – Alex Mustard

There was little doubt with the judges that this image was, by some distance, the deserved winner. Absolutely everything in this image is right; composition, light, colour and contrast. Pretty much perfect. – Peter Rowlands

The first time I set eyes on this image I was nothing short of mesmerised. It’s the palette of colours which first attracted me. The stark bellies of the sharks create a kind of union with each other just above their reflections. The birds above are particular dominant in the sunset night sky and it looks like they are queuing to take their turn to feast. Mind-blowing underwater imagery at its very best. – Martin Edge


  • Camera make: Canon5D Mark III
  • Lens: Canon 11-24mm f/4
  • ISO: 400
  • Aperture: f20
  • Shutter: 1/200
  • Lighting used: Dual Sea & Sea YS-D2's
  • Housing: Nauticam

Up and Coming Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021 and Most Promising British Underwater Photographer 2021

Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021 1
SJ Alice Bennett

SJ Alice Bennett, originally from the UK but now living in Mexico, took both titles for her image Tying In, which was taken in the Cenote Mayan Blue in the Sistema Ox Bel Ha in Tulum, Mexico.

SJ said: “As this shot was taken during cave training, we had a pretty intricate plan in place, which is not usually how I run caves shoots. However, the plan failed miserably as the cave student, Max, had multiple equipment failures before even making it past the cavern zone. Plans are important, but when they fail you need to adapt quickly and deal with a new situation. After fixing all the issues on the surface and changing our plan to accommodate our now fairly depleted gas supplies, we descended again. I swam ahead and waited just beyond the beginning of the permanent mainline watching the team swim towards me, followed closely by the lighting assistants creating those beautiful halo effects. Suddenly everything just lined up perfectly, so I pressed the shutter just as Max turned to tie into the mainline.”

Judge's comments:

We always value fresh vision in the Up & Coming category and the combination of incredible lighting and shallow depth of field empower this image with originality and truly capture the spirit of adventure that the photographer was striving for. – Alex Mustard

This strong image brought two words to mind – confidence and talent. Confident enough to pull off such an ambitious image, and talented to visualise such good composition and control complicated lighting. – Peter Rowlands


  • Camera make: Sonya7S II
  • Lens: Sony FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM
  • ISO: 2500
  • Aperture: f/2.8
  • Shutter: 1/125
  • Lighting used: Big Blue Video Lights, 30k, 2 x 15k, 2 x 4k lumen
  • Housing: Nauticam NA-A7II

British Underwater Photographer of the Year (and My Backyard and British Waters Wide Angle winner)

Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021 2
Mark Kirkland

Mark Kirkland took this image at Malls Mire in Glasgow, and said: “Malls Mire – small woodland in Glasgow, between a housing estate, supermarket and factory – is an unlikely haven for wildlife. As winter thaws, for a few nights each year one of its small muddy ponds comes alive with common frogs. I first photographed them here in 2018 and since that day I've had this image in my head. It took another two years before I captured the little wonders that stir in the cold nights while the city sleeps. Using a temperamental remote shutter while combining long-exposure, backlighting, close-focus wide angle and split photography meant I had to abandon any frustrations and try (and inevitably fail) for the hundredth time to get it right. This final shot is a culmination of 25 hours over four nights of lying in darkness, covered in mud, waiting on nature’s unpredictable elements to align. Time well spent? Absolutely.

Judge's comments:

I honestly think that the appearance of this image will go down in the history of underwater photography as a defining moment. Perfect yet flawed, natural in urban. I think it is a masterpiece. Savour it. – Peter Rowlands

Technically assured, artistically innovative and revealing an original and valuable view of the life of frogs. Every aspect contributes to the story, spawn shouts what’s happening, bare trees show season, the sky demonstrates time of day, tower blocks reveal location, even the droplets on the dome look like stars! – Alex Mustard

You have followed your dream for some time and all your hard work and cold nights have paid off. A night time city suburb with high rise flats, add to the mix common frogs. You have illuminated them perfectly not withstanding the light, the cold and most of all, creating a split image. Simply perfect in every way. – Martin Edge

MBY Comment:

A most-fitting winner of our new My Backyard Award, introduced to show that underwater photography can still thrive when many photographers are forced to stay close to home. Even in the centre of the city of Glasgow, frogs and world-class underwater photography can thrive. – Alex Mustard


  • Camera make: Olympus OMD Em5 MKii
  • Lens: Panasonic 8mm Fisheye
  • ISO: 1000
  • Aperture: f16
  • Shutter: 20s
  • Lighting used: 2x Sea and Sea YS-110a
  • Housing: Olympus PT-EP13

Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year 2021

Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021 3
Karim Iliya

Karim Iliya of the USA took the title with this aerial view of a crowded island in Guna Yala, Panama.

He explained: A tightly inhabited village off the coast of Panama in Guna Yala region serves as a microcosm reminder of how humans across the planet are consuming land and space at a rapid rate. Most of the Guna people live on these densely populated islands, catching fish and farming coconuts on nearby islands. The importance of human's relationship with nature and the need to protect it is becomes very apparent when you look at our species from a bird’s eye perspective and see how much space we take up. I had come to this region of Panama to photographing the art of making mola, the traditional clothing that the Guna people wear. While waiting on a boat I flew my drone over this island to get this aerial perspective and give more impact to the image than I could have shooting at sea level or from underwater.”

Judge's comments:

A stark visual reminder of how we humans over populate and totally develop land, then overfish the surrounding delicate environment. This image captures that unnatural and unsustainable imbalance perfectly. – Peter Rowlands


  • Camera make: DJI Phantom 4 ProDJI Phantom 4 Pro
  • Lens: 20.7mm (DJI Phantom 4 Pro)
  • ISO: 100
  • Aperture: f/2.8
  • Shutter: 1/500
  • Lighting used: none
  • Housing: none

Macro category

Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021 4
Galice Hoarau

Galice Hoarau from Norway took the title with this image of a Pontohi pygmy seahorse from Siladen, Indonesia.

He said: “Pontohi pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus pontohi) is one of the smallest and most recently discovered seahorses. They usually live on reef walls and can be hard to find. We had found two during the morning dive so I decided to dedicate the afternoon to getting a backlit photo. We were lucky to find this particular individual hanging out from the wall, allowing the use of a snoot to backlight it with the help of Rando, my dive guide. After setting up the camera and strobe we had to wait for it to get used to us and finally turn toward the camera for a brief moment.”

Judge's comments:

This backlight image of a very small pygmy sea horse is superb. The composition is so strong, just a hint of the branch and nothing more. Snooting this particular image is ideal. It's bright within the pygmy itself but low key and subtle.  The stark black background makes this image sing so loudly. Deserved winner of the macro category. – Martin Edge


  • Camera make: Olympus E-M1 II
  • Lens: 60mm macro
  • ISO: 200
  • Aperture: f22
  • Shutter: 1/160
  • Lighting used: Backscatter mini flash + snoot
  • Housing: Nauticam

Wrecks category

Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021 5
Tobias Friedrich

Germany’s Tobias Friedrich took this shot – titled Bowlander – in the Bahamas near Nassau.

He said: “Due to bad weather at Tiger Beach and in Bimini we had to look for shelter near Nassau in the Bahamas and do some regular dives. This wreck was totally new to me and a big surprise when we descended as the bow is hanging almost completely over a sandy overhang.”

Judge's comments:

Images leap out for several reasons; David and Goliath scale, magnitude and unambiguity to name three and this image has all of those and more. If you want to know the secret formula for a classic wreck shot, look no further. – Peter Rowlands


  • Camera make: CanonEOS 1DX Mark II
  • Lens: Canon 8-15mm Fisheye
  • ISO: 200
  • Aperture: 7.1
  • Shutter: 1/160
  • Lighting used: SEACAM Seaflash 150D
  • Housing: SEACAM Silver

Behaviour category

Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021 6
Karim Lliya

Karim Lliya claimed his second victory in the competition with this shot of a striped marlin on a high-speed hunt in San Carlos, Baja, California.

He said: “This is a terrifying scene for the small fish, fleeing for their lives as a striped marlin hunts them. The slightest mistake means life or death. There are often birds hunting from above and sometimes a dozen other marlin and sea lions attacking from all sides. Marlin are one of the fastest fish in the sea, a terrifying predator for a small fish in the great blue desert. I went to Mexico to document these feeding frenzies but was not expecting such a fast-paced hunt, almost too fast for my brain to process. For a brief moment, this scene unfolded before me and I had to rely on all my instincts and practice underwater to take this photo. I used natural light and stayed on the periphery of the bait-ball so as to try and minimize disturbance. Watching wild animals hunt is one of the greatest spectacles in nature.”

Judge's comments:

Most bait ball images are taken from further back but this one, bang in the middle and in your face, is amazing and strikingly different. The fish's eyes seem even wider open than normal. No wonder! – Peter Rowlands


  • Camera make: Canon1D X Mark II
  • Lens: 16-35mm f2.8L
  • ISO: 1250
  • Aperture: f/5
  • Shutter: 1/800
  • Lighting used: None
  • Housing: Nauticam

Portrait category

Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021 7
Pyohei Ito

Pyohei Ito from Japan took the win in the Portrait category with this image titled Guardian Deity, taken at Tateyama in Chiba Prefecture.

She explained: “As the Asian sheepshead wrasse grows older, it changes sex from female to male and at the same time it develops a large lump on its head. I thought about the lighting and composition so that the image of the bump and the powerful face could be conveyed, and challenged many times. He lives in a shrine under the water and looks just like a guardian deity. I would like to thank my teacher, Keigo Kawamura, for teaching me how to take underwater pictures, and Hiroyuki Arakawa who guided me.”

Judge's comments:

A subject may have natural visual character like a caricature but it is not enough for a competition winner. The lighting and composition lifted this portrait up and up the ranking each time we viewed it. A worthy winner. – Peter Rowlands


  • Camera make: Canon5D Mark4
  • Lens: EF8-15mm F4L fisheye USM
  • ISO: 200
  • Aperture: f22
  • Shutter: 1/200
  • Lighting used: RETRA FLASH PRO ×2
  • Housing: SEA & SEA MDX-5D MARK 4

Black and white category

Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021 8
Diana Fernie

Australian Diana Fernie won the Black and White category with this shot taken in Leru Cut in the Solomon Islands.

She said: “This photograph was taken at Leru Cut in the Solomon Islands. I was lucky enough to have won a ten-day trip on the Solomons PNG Master liveaboard and was very excited to have the opportunity to visit this site again. Having dived these waters on two previous occasions I knew what to expect. However, I needed an elegant model as an essential element for this composition and my immediate companions could not be classified in any way as elegant! Fortunately, there was another photographer in my dinghy group whose beautiful model wife was the perfect subject. Somewhat cheekily I managed to capture a few shots of her as she posed for her husband!”

Judge's comments:

Great use of all the tones from rich black right through to clean white. The composition is classic and the decision to convert to black and white was a winning choice. – Peter Rowlands


  • Camera make: NikonD850
  • Lens: Nikkor 8-15mm
  • ISO: 1250
  • Aperture: f/4.5
  • Shutter: 1/125
  • Lighting used: Inon Z330 X 2
  • Housing: Isotta D850

Compact category

Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021 9
Jack Berthomier

Jack Berthomier from New Caledonia won the Compact category with this shot of a doule taken in the Ouenghi River in New Caledonia.

He explained: “I used to go fishing in the river to take some shots a few days after big rains which make the riverbed go higher and make some big floods. The current is strong but still practicable for freediving with dislodged plants, leaves and branches. They bring a lot of colors which showcase this plain New Caledonian carp which are common in our rivers.

Judge's comments:

Such a much-deserved winner of this compact category. The author has made the carp stand out against a colourful background of yellow, greens, reds and blues. The hint of colour in the sky sets this image off to perfection. – Martin Edge


  • Camera make: SONYRX100
  • Lens: Wide angle INON UW-H100
  • ISO: 200
  • Aperture: 5.6
  • Shutter: 1/800
  • Lighting used: Internal flash
  • Housing: ISOTA

British Waters Macro

Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021 10
Malcolm Nimmo

Malcolm Nimmo took the British Waters Macro category with this shot of a variable blenny taken in Plymouth Sound.

He said: “The variable blenny (Parablennius pilicornis) is a relatively new arrival to UK coastal waters, with its origins from more southerly waters (it has been recorded throughout the Mediterranean Sea). This species may appear in a number of different colour forms. The current image is of a male and was taken in Plymouth Sound, July 2020. This particular blenny was standing out proud on a reef ledge, making it an ideal subject. The image was captured using snooted lighting to emphasise only the face of the blenny, with the snooted light being positioned from above the head enhancing the facial features.”

Judge's comments:

A beautiful UK fish portrait. Everything about this image is perfect. The composition of the two eyes in relation to the height gives us the stark black background which is framed along all three side. Both eyes are on the law of thirds and the mouth below has also been framed on the lower law of thirds. All these elements provide us with a beautiful all round framed underwater photograph. – Martin Edge


  • Camera make: Nikon D7200
  • Lens: Nikon 60mm
  • ISO: 200
  • Aperture: f/13
  • Shutter: 1/80
  • Lighting used: Inon 240 strobe with a  Flip snoot pro
  • Housing: Nauticam

British Waters Living Together category

Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021 11
Kirsty Andrews

Kirsty Andrews snapped up the win in the British Waters Living Together category with this image of the SS Hispania in the Sound of Mull in Scotland.

She said: “The UK, in my view, has some of the finest wreck diving in the world, and the SS Hispania in the Sound of Mull is one of my favourites. This wreck truly has become an artificial reef: the wreck attracts the wildlife and both wreck and wildlife attract the divers. Every inch of metal is covered in anemones, seaweeds or sponges, orange and white. My buddy was investigating the superstructure above a row of portholes and I moved back, shooting as wide as I could to try to give a sense of scale within this colourful scene.”

Judge's comments:

A deserved winner which combines a strong image visually with a very positive message. – Peter Rowlands


  • Camera make: NikonD500
  • Lens: Tokina 10-17mm
  • ISO: 800
  • Aperture: f11
  • Shutter: 1/80
  • Lighting used: Sea & Sea YS-110a x 2
  • Housing: Nauticam NA D500

British Waters Compact category

Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021 12
Ian Wade

Ian Wade won the British Waters Compact category with this image of a mute swan feeding underwater in St Georges Park, Bristol.

He said: “I had been watching a couple of mute swans at my local lake. They seemed to be following people around looking for food. I decided to attach a small weight to the back of my GoPro and threw it into the lake a short distance from me. The small weight would mean the GoPro always fell on its back, so I could shoot at an almost vertical angle. I have connected the GoPro to my Phone so I could remotely fire off images.

The GoPro hitting the water had attracted the swan's interest and they swam over. I waited until one of the swans was in the correct position and with its head underwater and shot a high-speed burst of images enabling me to capture this picture.”

Judge's comments:

This was a unanimous choice from the judges. Although the face of the swan is in shade it's all of the other elements which were so strong. Snell’s window in particular, with the low light and the branches of the trees. Beautiful image. I'm also grateful for the detailed in-depth back story. – Martin Edge


  • Camera make: GoPro HERO3+ Black Edition
  • Lens: GoPro f/2.8
  • ISO: 100
  • Aperture: ƒ/2.8
  • Shutter: 1/433
  • Lighting used: Natural lighting
  • Housing: GoPro

Submit your images now for the 2022 competition at Underwater Photographer of the Year 2022

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