Awards + Books

Behind the Shots: Underwater Photographer of the Year 2023

Behind the Shots: Underwater Photographer of the Year 2023

Underwater Photographer of the Year (UPY) is as prestigious a photo competition as its name connotes. Results are featured in a number of distinguished and widely shared publications like Vanity Fair, CNN, in addition to countless other dive magazines and websites, lending widespread notoriety to the UPY winners.

UPY2023 saw a handful of Ikelite Ambassadors and customers being honored, and we got a chance to hear the stories behind some of these shots. Read on to learn more about these winning images and the photographers behind the lens. 


Ikelite Ambassador | Steve Kovacs

Highly Commended Portrait

steve kovacs upy2023

"Bony-Eared Assfish" © Steven Kovacs

"I feel very honored to place in UPY 2023.

The biggest challenge to making this photograph was finding the animal. It is exceedingly rare and I have seen it only a couple of times in 10 years of blackwater diving. Once the fish was found, it was then a matter of trying to get a pleasing portrait showing its character.

I think this picture works for a couple of reasons. First, it is an incredibly beautiful fish and very different from what is usually seen. This uniqueness makes it stand out, especially because there are no other pictures of the animal out there because of its aforementioned rarity. Second, the angle of the portrait is very dramatic, with the fish conveying intense eye contact with the viewer. The streamers and fins are nicely splayed and oriented, thus showing the full beauty of the fish. I feel very fortunate that everything came together in that exact moment I decided to pressed the shutter."
- Steven Kovacs


Ikelite Ambassador | Bryant Turffs

3rd Place Behaviour 

bryant turffs behavior 3rd place upy2023

"Chew With Your Mouth Closed!" © Bryant Turffs


Highly Commended Portrait 

bryant turffs highly commended upy2023

"Eye of the Beholder" © Bryant Turffs

"I am honored to have had recognition for these two images, made with the same subject during the same encounter. This turned out to be my most successful day of image making for the whole year! In preparing for and shooting images for contests, I have invested time in improving not only the technical elements of photography, but also the artistic elements that make a good image. All that preparation though cannot replace a bit of well timed luck in finding a cooperative and charismatic subject.

The star of these images is a common snapping turtle, an ecologically important and seldom photographed, if not rare, species that inhabits the south eastern United States. I’m grateful that she was tolerant of my presence and that I was able to capture her behavior and character well enough to be recognized in this prestigious contest!

In making these images I utilized an APS-C Canon 7D Mark II, the precursor to the R7. This allowed me to use the excellent Tokina Fisheye lens, which provides a good focal length for medium to large subjects. Balanced lighting, utilizing both ambient light and my DS160 Strobes, captured the beautiful clear Florida spring, and highlighted the subjects details."
- Bryant Turffs


Ikelite Customer | Douglas Klug

Highly Commended Wide Angle

douglas klug upy2023

"Kelp Forest Gold" © Douglas Klug

“I’m honored to be recognized among the winning entries for the Underwater Photographer of the Year 2023 (UPY2023) contest, and proud to represent to true beauty of a Southern California Kelp Forest with this image. 

The encounter took place during a November day when near perfect conditions underwater met with sunny skies and a rich kelp forest. Part of the magic of this shot was that the dive site I was diving, until just a few months earlier, had been devoid of kelp and looked nothing like it does in the image. As conditions around Santa Cruz Island lined up through the summer, the dive sight morphed into vibrant underwater world and became a regular stop for fall diving.

In Southern California, Garibaldi are the self-proclaimed “kings” of the kelp forest and when this young adult took an interest in me, I thought I had a chance to really show off the beauty of this underwater world. I used the modeling light mounted on top of my housing to illuminate the fish as it made inquisitive passes, allowing it to better see its own reflection in the dome port. This technique, described in a previous Ikelite article regarding responsible manipulation of marine life for photography, only enticed the fish to interact more and move closer, setting up the shot for the fish with a background of sunbeams and flowing kelp.”
- Douglas Klug


Ikelite Customer | Michael Freifeld

Commended Black & White

michael freifeld upy2023

"Rorschach" © Michael Freifeld 

"I snorkeled a popular beach access dive site countless times looking for small, hidden, and unique creatures. It was a day like any other and I was using my Canon Sl2, 18-55mm kit lens and my Ikelite housing, which is super small and light for snorkeling and beach dives. As I floated along I noticed a pair of Grey Angelfish, a species that tends to swim in pairs and is a common sight on dives. They are super curious and are usually ignored for more interesting and rare species. The pair was investigating a neglected, anchored vessel with a bunch of marine growth on the bottom of the hull. The Angelfish were treating it as feeding surface and effortlessly switching orientation to feed. I dove down and began snapping away, before they curiously swam over to investigate me.I was so lucky to capture the exact moment when one of the pair flipped itself in exactly the opposite orientation of its partner. The raw image didn’t do it justice, but once transitioned to black and white, the contrast and symmetrical but also asymmetrical image was revealed. Really stoked to have been commended by such a prestigious competition, and I did it all with the most basic and cheapest kit lens around!"
-Michael Freifeld


Ikelite Customer | Mizael Palomeque

Commended Black & White

mizael palomeque

"Binary Code" © Mizael Palomeque


Ikelite Customer | Cecilia Velázquez

Highly Commended Black & White

cecilia vazquez black and white upy2023

"Cold Water Siren" © Cecilia Velázquez


Ikelite Customer | Chris Gug

Commended Macro

chris gug upy2023

"Pinkaboo" © Chris Gug


Ikelite Customer | Ipah Uid Lynn 

Highly Commended Macro

ipah uid lynn upy2023

"Peas in a Pod" © Ipah Uid Lynn


Ikelite Customer | James Rokop

3rd Place Compact

james rokop upy2023

"Water Ballet" © James Rokop


Ikelite Customer | Lucy Ray

Commended Portrait

lucy ray upy2023

"Spaceman Zachary Ray, 7, Splashes In" © Lucy Ray


Ikelite Customer | Victor Huertas

Runner Up Black & White

victor huertas upy2023

"Jaws Reborn" © Victor Huertas



Congratulations to all of the winners of the Underwater Photographer of the Year 2023 competition! Get a full list of all the winners, and don't miss out on downloading the UPY Yearbook where you'll get an inside look at the judge commentary and photo details. 

If you're interested in submitting your work for photo competitions, don't miss our articles Tips on Entering a Photo Contest and Photo Contest Tips from a 100x Winner.


Additional Reading

Behind the Shots: Ocean Art 2022 Winners

Up Close and Personal: A Guide to Underwater Animal Portraits

Reflections: Manipulation with Mirrors and Light for Behavioral Images

Featured Photographer: Bryant Turffs on Looking Deeper

Featured Customers | Baálche Photography Win a World Cup 

Reading next

Searching for Lost Slave Ships: Uncovering History with Tara Roberts
Book Review: Big Animal Underwater Photography