Sunset Dance of Sharks and Gulls Wins International Underwater Photography Prize

upy 2021 title

A graceful photograph of blacktip reef sharks cruising beneath seagulls at sunset in French Polynesia has seen Renee Capozzola from the United States crowned as Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021. Capozzola is the first female photographer in the competition's history to be named as overall winner.

This year's competition was different from previous years in that, for the first time, prizes were not made available to the winning photographers due to the massive blow struck to the dive business by the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, more than 4500 pictures were entered by underwater photographers from 68 different countries into the 13 categories on offer this year, which included a 'My Back Yard' category for photographers unable to travel and dive. 

This year’s judges were experienced underwater photographers Peter Rowlands, Martin Edge and Alex Mustard. 'Judging this year’s competition was a pleasure,' said Dr Mustard, 'a much-needed escape into the underwater world, I hope everyone enjoys immersing themselves in these fabulous images.


Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021 / Wide Angle Category Winner

Renee Capozzola (USA), 'Sharks' Skylight'

renee capozzola

Shark's Skylight (Renee Capozzola/UPY 2021)

Back story: 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 | Location: Moorea, French Polynesia | Equipment Used: Canon5D Mark III with Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens in Nauticam housing with dual Sea & Sea YS-D2's | Settings: ISO: 400, Aperture: f20, Shutter: 1/200

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 that first attracted me. The stark bellies of the sharks create a kind of union with each other with their reflections just above. The birds above are particularly dominant in the sunset night sky and it looks like they are queuing to take their turn to feast. Mind-blowing underwater imagery at it’s very best.

- Martin Edge


British Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021 /

My Back Yard / British Waters Wide Angle Winner

Mark Kirkland (UK) - 'While You Sleep'

mark kirkland

While You Sleep (Mark Kirkland/UPY2021)

Back story: 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 it's 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 25 hours over four nights of lying in darkness, covered in mud, waiting on natures unpredictable elements to align. Time well spent? Absolutely. | Location: Malls Mire, Glasgow, Scotland | Equipment used: Olympus OMD EM5 MKII with Panasonic 8mm Fisheye in Olympus PT-EP13 housing with 2x Sea and Sea YS-110a strobes | Settings: ISO: 1000, Aperture: f16, Shutter: 20s

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 the time of day, tower blocks reveal the 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 notwithstanding the light, the cold and most of all, creating a split image. Simply perfect in every way.

- Martin Edge


Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year 2021

Karim Iliya (US), 'Crowded Island'

Karim Iliya

Aerial view of a crowded island in Guna Yala (Karim Iliya/UPY 2021)

Back story: 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 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. | Location: Guna Yala, Panama | Equipment: DJI Phantom 4 Pro drone with 20.7mm lens | Settings: ISO: 100, Aperture: f/2.8, Shutter: 1/500

Judge's comments:

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

- Peter Rowlands


Up & Coming Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021

SJ Alice Bennett (UK), 'Tying In'

alice bennett

Tying In (SJ Alice Bennett/UPY 2021)

Back story: 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. | Location: Cenote Mayan Blue, Sistema Ox Bel Ha, Tulum, Mexico | Equipment used: Sony a7S II with Sony FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM lens in a Nauticam NA-A7II housing with Big Blue Video Lights, 30k, 2 x 15k, 2 x 4k lumen | Settings: ISO: 2500, Aperture: f/2.8, Shutter: 1/125

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


Category Winner: Macro

Galice Hoarau (Norway), Pontohi Pygmy Seahorse

Galice Hoarau

Pontohi pygmy seahorse Galice Hoarau/UPY 2021

Back story: 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. | Location: Siladen, Indonesia | Equipment: Olympus E-M1 II with 60mm macro lens; Nauticam housing and Backscatter mini flash + snoot | Settings: ISO: 200, Aperture: f22, Shutter: 1/160

Judge's comments:

This backlit 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


Category Winner: Wrecks

Tobias Friedrich (Germany), 'Bowlander'

Tobias Friedrich

Bowlander, (Tobias Friedrich/UPY 2021)

Back story: 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. | Location: Near Nassau, Bahamas | Equipment: CanonEOS 1DX Mark II with Canon 8-15mm Fisheye lens, SEACAM Silver housing and SEACAM Seaflash 150D | Settings: ISO: 200, Aperture: 7.1, Shutter: 1/160

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


Category Winner: Behaviour

Karim Iliya (US), 'Striped marlin in high-speed hunt'

Karim Iliya behaviour

A striped marlin in a high-speed hunt in Mexico (Karim Iliya/UPY 2021)

Back story: 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. | Location: San Carlos, Baja California, Mexico | Equipment: Canon1D X Mark II, 16-35mm f2.8L lens, Nauticam housing, natural light | Settings: ISO: 1250, Aperture: f/5, Shutter: 1/800

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


Category Winner: Portrait

Ryohei Ito (Japan), 'Guardian Deity'

Ryo heiIto

Guardian Deity (Ryohei Ito/UPY 2021)

Back story: 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. | Location: Tateyama , Chiba Prefecture, Japan | Equipment: Canon 5D Mark4, EF8-15mm F4L fisheye USM lens, Sea&Sea MDX-5D MK 4 housing, 2x Retra Flash Pro | Settings: ISO: 200, Aperture: f22, Shutter: 1/200


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


Category Winner: Black and White

Diane Fernie (Australia), 'The Cut'

Diana Fernie

The Cut (Diana Fernie /UPY 2021)

Back story: This photograph was taken at Leru Cut in the Solomon Islands. I was lucky enough to have won a 10-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 dingy 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! | Location: Leru Cut, Solomon Islands | Equipment: Nikon D850, Nikkor 8-15mm lens, Isotta D850 housing, 2x Inon Z330 | Settings: ISO: 1250, Aperture: f/4.5, Shutter: 1/125

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


Category Winner: Compact

Jack Berthomier (New Calendonia), Doule (Kuhlia Rupestris) near the surface


Doule (Kuhlia Rupestris) near the surface (Jack Berthomier/UPY 2021)

Back story: 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 colours which showcase this plain New Caledonian carp which are common in our rivers. | Location: Ouenghi River, New Caledonia | Equipment: SONY RX100, INON UW-H100 wide-angle lens, ISOTA housing and Internal flash | Settings: ISO: 200, Aperture: 5.6, Shutter: 1/800

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


Category Winner: British Waters Macro

Malcolm Nimmo (UK), 'Portrait of a Variable Blenny'

Malcolm Nimmo

Portrait of a variable blenny (Malcolm Nimmo/UPY 2021)

Back story: 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. | Location: Plymouth Sound, UK | Equipment: Nikon D7200 with Nikon 60mm lens, Nauticam housing and Inon 240 strobe with a Flip snoot pro | Settings: ISO: 200, Aperture: f/13, Shutter: 1/80


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. Congratulations to the winner of the British Waters Macro.

- Martin Edge


Category Winner: British Waters Living Together

Kirsty Andrews (UK), 'SS Hispania'

Kirsty Andrews

SS Hispania (Kirsty Andrews/UPY 2021)

Back story: 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. | Location: Sound of Mull, Scotland, UK | Equipment: Nikon D500, Tokina 10-17mm lens, Nauticam NA D500, Sea & Sea YS-110a x 2 | Settings: ISO: 800, Aperture: f11, Shutter: 1/80

Judge's comments:

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

- Peter Rowlands


Category Winner: British Waters Compact

Ian Wade (UK), 'Sunrise Mute Swan Feeding Underwater'

Ian Wade

Sunrise Mute Swan Feeding Underwater (Ian Wade/UPY 2021)

Back story: 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 attached 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. | Location: St Georges Park, Bristol, UK | Equipment: GoPro HERO3+ Black Edition with GoPro housing | Settings: ISO: 100, Aperture: ƒ/2.8, Shutter: 1/433

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. Snells 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


For the complete listing of all the category winners, runners up and highly commended pictures - plus video interviews with the photographers - visit the UPY 2021 website at


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