Fighting for the Best Picture: Live Underwater Photography Competitions

Fighting for the Best Picture: Live Underwater Photography Competitions

By Fritz Liechti

As photographers we all try to become better and better, it's in our DNA.

Getting sharper photos, spectacular perspectives, better colours, photos with the wow factor – this is what we are running for. I have always followed the top shots of the underwater (UW) photography scene (like Steven Miller, Kurt Amsler, Ken Kiefer, Franco Banfi, Tobias Friedlich etc.). To become better was a hard way and it’s still a long way to go.

damir zurub underwater photo competition winner

Theme Category / Winner at CMAS UW Photo World Championships 2021: Each world championship has a special theme to take a photo. 2021 the theme was “Crustaceans”. It’s not always easy to find the motive and to do also a great shot. Damir is a master in working with bokeh bubbles and rocked this category. © Damir Zurub from Croacia /

With time I started to participate in photo contests. Some photos made it to the final selection, but then the air was too thin for me. In these competitions are usually super perfect photos without any backscatter etc. But the nature in which I dive is never perfect! In a conversation with a top shot of the international UW photo scene and multiple winner of contests, he explained to me that he works for weeks in Photoshop on a photo, until it is perfect and he submits it. Really? I'm a jerk for even trying to get a top spot in competitions because I hate sitting for hours behind a computer. I'm an underwater photographer, not a guy who then has the best LR and PS professional put together a super photo after weeks editing in the basement on the computer. I therefore decided to participate in live competitions – no basement duty, no burning eyes, more fun in nature and with other photographers.

fritz liechti underwater photo competition

The Beginning / CMAS UW Photo World Championships 2021 in Porto Santo (Portugal): The World Championship starts with a parade of nations, speeches, of course a first party and then a technical meeting. Everyone is happy, the stress and competition fever follow soon after.

Years ago, I therefore participated for the first time in the Swiss Championship in UW photography. This is a live competition, modelled after the international competitions of CMAS. The good thing is that photos are submitted directly after diving and without any computer editing. From then on, I participated in several international live competitions.

fritz liechti underwater photo competition

Wide Angle / Madeira Open 2023 in Porto Santo, 1st rank: With a burst shooting of my DS230 I got the fish at the best position. Well, I didn’t like the photo, as the colours weren’t great at 1700 in the evening. But the jury found that it represented the wreck the best and didn’t find black/white photos super cool (there were a lot of them). Canon 16-35 mm, 1/125 – F8 – ISO 500 © Fritz Liechti

pedro vasconcelos underwater photo competition

Camera room / CMAS UW Photo World Championships 2021: There was a lot of photo gear on place. Worth approx. 1 mio USD. Security let us only in with an athlete’s badge. © Pedro Vasconcelos


What are the rules for such a competition?

All participants dive at the same time and at the same place. To avoid cheating, a fictitious date must be entered into the camera at the start, the card is formatted under the supervision of a competition judge, and he/she seals the UW housing. Before descending and after surfacing, a photo of a competition judge, boat captain, or a control placard must be taken. It is allowed to use all possible camera settings under water. Depending on the category, editing of the photos under water during the dive is allowed. The pictures have to be submitted in jpg. All divers get the same size tanks, a time limit, a depth limit and various rules. Those who cheat will be disqualified.

pedro vasconcelos underwater photo competitors

Checking the cameras / CMAS UW Photo World Championships 2021: Waiting for camera control. Your nerves start slowly to do funny things with you. © Pedro Vasconcelos

pedro vasconcelos underwater photo comp judgement

Judge / CMAS UW Photo World Championships 2021: Camera control (format card / special date) by a competition judge before sealing the housing. © Pedro Vasconcelos


What do you have to shoot?

In competitions there are several categories: Wide Angle, Wide Angle with Model, Macro, Fish, Creative and Theme (usually a creature that occurs at the dive site). Often, of these 6 categories, each participant can then submit 1 photo in 4 categories in the competition.

fritz liechti underwater macro photo comp

Macro / Madeira Open 2023 in Porto Santo: With a lot of struggling I got a shot of a Scarlet Cleaner Shrimp. No strobe. We were half in a small cave, my buddy Marcelo sitting on my back and using a snoot lamp. Laughed a lot, but the shrimp didn’t find it funny and always ran away. Well, I was not the only one with a shot like this - no medal for me. Canon 100mm Macro with a magic tube in front of the dome port. 1/125 - F16 – ISO 800 © Fritz Liechti


Nuno Gonçalves underwater photo competition wide angle

Wide Angle with model / Madeira Open 2023 in Porto Santo, 1st rank: My friend Nuno rocked it. Great shot with his model Ana far away in the sun and in a super position. Communication with your model is really difficult. © Nuno Gonçalves


filomena sa pinto underwater photo competition

Creative / Madeira Open 2023 in Porto Santo: Well, I think that Filomena and Carla used a Magic Ball and some double exposure to do this special photo. All done in one dive and edited under water. Amazing! © Filomena Sá Pinto


luis campos silhouette image underwater photo competition

Creative / Madeira Open 2023 in Porto Santo, training: Luis Campos is a master in uw-photography and creative model photography. Double exposure with his wife Sofia. To do it, you really must know your gear! I can learn a lot from Luis. © Luìs Campos /


Nuno Gonçalves underwater photo competition in porto santo

Fish / Madeira Open 2023 in Porto Santo, 1st rank: Nuno did a great super macro shot (I would never have seen the fish eggs) with a fish in the background. Both photos put together in double exposure under water on the same dive. © Nuno Gonçalves



Competitions usually take place on 2 following days (4 dives) at previously defined dive sites. Each participant dives with a buddy/model at all dive sites. The order and boat composition are decided by lot. After the 2nd dive of the day, the housing is opened under the supervision of a judge and the memory card is handed in. A few hours later you get the card back and can judge your photos properly for the first time. A little later after the last dive the selected picture numbers must be given to the organizer. After that the work of jury begins and for the participants begins the time of waiting and doubting whether one has really submitted the best picture that will find taste of Juri. - And yes, of course, then the party begins!

underwater photo competition divers on boats

1st dive / CMAS UW Photo World Championships 2021: Start at the harbour. Normally there are 2 nations (each nation has 2 photographers with models), their team captain and official judges on a big zodiac. It’s really crowded with all the photo gear and stressed photographers.


underwater photo competition divers on boat

Dive site #3 / CMAS UW Photo World Championships 2021: When the bullhorn goes off, you have 90 min to do your super shot. Max depth is 30m. Approx. 24 divers at the same spot. You are hoping that the other guys don’t reach your super-secret dive spot before you, where you found at the training your winning motive. If another guy is there, you need a plan B. I was often on plan G.

In a ceremony on the following day the best photos are presented, and the winners get their medals. Well - there is no money like in tennis to win. But with a little luck and a lot of skill you can become a national champion, European champion, or World champion. And most important, you can go home with a big smile.

Which competitions are there

Official competitions

In Europe, Asia and South America, national UW photo championships are held in several countries. The best two photographers are nominated to participate in continental championships (e.g. European championship) and world championships in the next 2 years. World Championships are held according to the standards of the International Sport Committees by CMAS as the only accredited organization. Until now I have never seen US photographers. Please come also!

Open competitions for everyone

  • Madeira Open on Porto Santo Island (Portugal): Porto Santo is a super vacation island, with a UW National Park and 2 big wrecks. The event is perfectly organized.
  • Mares UW-Photo Marathon Cup in Rab (Croatia): Lots of fun, varied UW world, super organized.

underwater photo competition adjudication and award ceremony

Madeira Open 2023: The ceremony with all photographers and videographers.


underwater photo competition competitors in croatia

Mares Underwater Photo Marathon Cup 2022: A lot of photographers in Croatia.


So far, I have been two times to World Championships in Spain and Portugal (am also nominated for Cuba 2023), several Swiss Championships, the Marathon Cup in Rab and just returned from the Madeira Open from Portugal. I met in this competitions a lot of friends. With their invitation, to dive their home spots I could travel the world for the next 20 years and visit equally crazy UW photographers. It’s just huge fun to be with them.


  • To meet great friends and super photographers in these events is for me the most important – well, I also want to beat them but still I have a lot to learn.
  • Seeing, what other photographers do as photos at the same place and time often leaves me speechless. In part, I have no idea what technique they used to do it.
  • The most used techniques are: double/triple exposure, snoot, super macro, long exposure with camera moving, magic tube, magic ball and much more. You must know all possibilities that your camera, housing and strobes can do.
  • You can’t go down, swim around and take a pic! You need a clear plan what, where and how to shoot. You will need several plans for each spot. Your time is on the clock.
  • You have to guess, how the jury ticks, what is important to them. Not always the best photo wins, but the one with the best message, the biggest wow factor, or the best advertising effect for the area.

My Medals

  • 1st rank Madeira Open 2023: Wide Angle
  • 6th rank CMAS UW-Photo World Championships 2021: wide angle without model
  • 9 medals at the Swiss National Championships

Copyright Fritz Liecthi Ikelite HousingFritz Liechti
of Switzerland started diving in 1986 and rarely goes into the water without a camera. He particularly enjoys diving in Switzerland's rivers, especially at night. He travels the world and teaches underwater photography as a CMAS (World Confederation of Underwater Activities) Diving and Underwater Photo Instructor. He has had his work published in several magazines and represented Switzerland in the 2019 CMAS Underwater Photo World Championships. See more of his work at


Additional Reading 

River Junkie: Underwater Photography in the Freshwaters of Switzerland

Customer Photos | Fritz Liechti from the Fresh Water of Switzerland

Photographing the Salmon Run Underwater in Canada

Photo Contest Tips From a 100x Winner

Safety Advice for Underwater Photographers

Tips on Entering a Photo Contest

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