The Eclectic Vision of Renee Capozzola

Snapper Sunset I took this half-and-half shot of a school of snappers sweeping over a shallow reef in 2019 in Rangiroa, French Polynesia. After surfacing from an afternoon dive inside the lagoon, I decided to return at sunset for some over-under shots. One of my strobes was not working when I arrived just before sunset. I thought it was a battery issue, so the boatman offered to return to the nearby dive shop to retrieve extra batteries from my bag. When he returned, I noticed this school of fish settling right under the boat as I quickly hopped back on board to change the strobe batteries. I didn’t have much time, and the sun was setting, so I asked the driver to move the boat to the mooring ball on the other side of the reef. The fish swam over the reef in front of me, allowing me to illuminate them with my then-working strobes.

THE ROUTE TO PROMINENCE IN UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY is varied and constantly evolving. For a long time it was measured primarily in books or magazine articles published or the catalog of clients for underwater product illustrations. With the emergence of digital media, the number of followers a photographer has on a social media platform has grown in significance. 

Success in high-profile photo contests has also become an increasingly prestigious and credible pathway. There is validation in consistently being chosen number one by your peers, along with the extraordinarily wide viewership the winners’ portfolios enjoy on social media. No one has navigated that niche with greater aplomb than Renee Grinnell Capozzola. Her images being consistently recognized as the best of the best speaks to her strategic planning, vision, and technical execution.

Renee picked her preferred specialty, the half-and-half (over-under) photograph, and used that as her hammer to drive the nail home in those early competitions. Her images have won more than 50 prestigious international accolades, some of which include first place in the 2022, 2020, and 2017 Ocean Geographic Pictures of the Year, first place in the 2021 and 2019 United Nations World Oceans Day Photo Competition, first place in the 2018 Big Picture: Natural World Photography Competition, and the Best in Show award at 2017 Beneath the Sea. She was a member of the U.S. national team that won the global championship in the 2016 and 2019 World ShootOut. 

One of her most significant honors was being recognized by Blancpain in 2021 for the Female Fifty Fathoms (FFF) award as part of the Oceanographic Magazine Ocean Photography Awards. Also in 2021, she was chosen Underwater Photographer of the Year by the appropriately named Underwater Photographer of the Year (UPY) competition, honoring a single image of excellence: “Sharks’ Skylight” is an underwater Snell’s window shot of a pair of blacktip reef sharks at sunset with gulls visible through the water. The UPY’s head judge, Alex Mustard, reflected on what elevated this one image above the 4,500 other entries: “This is a photograph of hope, a glimpse of how the ocean can be when we give it a chance…. The photographer not only persevered until this serendipitous scene unfolded, but more important, Renee had the talent to capture this precise moment.”

Renee Capozzola on Catalina Island
Capozzola poses with her camera on Catalina Island with the iconic Catalina Casino in the background.
Andrea Caputo of Blancpain presents Renee with the inaugural Female Fifty Fathoms Award watch
Andrea Caputo of Blancpain presents Renee with the inaugural Female Fifty Fathoms Award watch, the first in a special limited-edition series.
vibrant scene of a healthy marine ecosystem
Raja Reefscape Unlike many of my half-and-half images, which I often plan ahead of time, this picture was a flyby combined with a stroke of good luck. While visiting Raja Ampat in October 2018 as part of the Ocean Geographic Elysium Heart of the Coral Triangle expedition, we were fortunate to dive Misool, which is at the center of biodiversity. After my initial descent, I encountered this colorful coral head, but I was in a mild current. I instinctively turned my camera vertically since the scene was quite tall and clicked the shutter only twice as I drifted by. I wish I had circled back and taken more frames of this vibrant scene of a healthy marine ecosystem.

For all the attention Renee’s photography has received in the past decade, her beginnings in underwater photography were inauspicious. She grew up in Southern California, and her father was an airline executive, so the short five-hour flight to Hawai‘i was their family’s island getaway. She recalls walking down Front Street in Lahaina, Maui, as a child and seeing the art galleries by Wyland and Christian Riese Lassen. 

The fantasy scenes with marine life below and an exotic seascape above were particularly enchanting and inspired her to begin painting when she was just 7 years old. She took that craft very seriously; even in her college years she spent an entire year working in excruciating detail on a moonlit-night half-and-half scene with dolphins.

The underwater world of scuba diving eluded her, even as she traveled with her husband, Damian, to destinations including Italy and Hawai‘i. She remembers sitting in a hotel room in Lahaina and reading a tourist booklet titled 101 Things to Do in Maui. One suggestion was SNUBA, an underwater breathing protocol where the air supply is in a support raft on the surface and connects to the diver’s regulator by a long hose. Getting an intimate view of the reef on SNUBA motivated the couple to try a PADI Discover Diving course. This initial exposure to diving permanently set the hook: Renee and Damian stopped snow skiing and going to Europe and instead began planning how and where to do their next dives.

baby humpback whale ascending
Playtime in Mom’s Bubbles This is not one of my favorite pictures in terms of its technicality, but it is one of my top in-water experiences. My good friend Ron Watkins and I were side by side on the surface in Mo‘orea in September 2017, waiting for a humpback whale to rise to the surface. We stayed put where our instructor told us, and a few moments later this baby humpback started to ascend. I could see all these bubbles coming up from below. As the baby came through the bubbles just underneath me, I fired off a few frames before it turned to my right and passed just in front of Ron. Moments later the mom came up, revealing the bubbles’ source, and the two whales moved forward. Although it was hard to ascertain if the baby was playing in the bubbles, practicing opening its mouth for feeding, or doing another behavior, I think it looks quite happy!

They couldn’t spend all their time traveling, however, because Renee had a full-time job that wasn’t underwater photography. She has a master’s of physical therapy degree and worked in sports medicine for five years, but the manipulations were hard on her wrists, so she started teaching Advanced Placement biology and anatomy/physiology at Palos Verdes High School in California. Family demands also grew with the 2007 and 2011 births of her children.

She began her journey into underwater photography around that time, but her equipment was limiting for the first decade of her pursuits. She had only a Sony Cyber-Shot point-and-shoot camera. With its digital lag, limited optics, and minimal strobe options, she couldn’t perform to the level of her aspirations. In 2013 she upgraded to a Canon PowerShot G10 for available light and added a pair of strobes the next year.  

While her gear was limiting, her imagination was unbridled. Renee read all the books she could find on underwater photography. Her favorite was David Doubilet’s pivotal Water, Light, Time (although she might have added “and a good camera” to the title if she had written it). She learned more photo techniques from Martin Edge’s The Underwater Photographer. At seminars offered by Bluewater Photo in Culver City, California, she became friends with inspirational underwater shooters Ron Watkins, Andy and Allison Sallmon, and Mark Strickland.   

blacktip reef sharks
Blacktips by Day Several blacktip reef sharks lined up just under the surface in this over-under shot from Mo‘orea, French Polynesia. The morning sea and sun conditions were pristine, probably the best I have seen there. My husband and I were on a dive boat that made a short stop at the sandbar before moving on to a morning dive. Because the conditions were absolutely perfect, we stayed at the sandbar while the boat went out for the dive. This decision paid off because I got some nice shots while photographing the blacktip reef sharks and stingrays uninterrupted for a couple of hours. My strobe batteries eventually died, but they were still working when I took this shot.
A diver explores Dreamgate Cenote in Mexico
A diver explores Dreamgate Cenote in Mexico

All her learning and practice laid the foundation for her career’s explosive growth in 2016, when she finally upgraded to the digital single-lens reflex (SLR) Canon EOS 5D Mark III, a Nauticam housing, and her go-to wide-angle lenses: the Canon 16-35mm and Tokina 10-17mm. The addition of a pair of Sea and Sea YS-D1 strobes brought her into the equipment mainstream. She continued to tweak her preferences and has recently evolved to using a Canon 5D Mark IV in a Seacam housing, and she is recognized as one of Seacam’s highly esteemed brand ambassadors. 

As an aside, I asked Renee why she preferred the digital SLR over the new mirrorless Canon R5. She pointed out that much of her work is from small boats in remote locations, and she sometimes spends five hours in the water working on one series of images. The DSLR’s longer battery life was the deciding factor for her.  

“I’m not a fan of the electronic viewfinder on the mirrorless systems, especially when shooting into the sun,” she added. “The battery life is about more than longevity — I prefer an 11-24mm lens for my half-and-half shots, which requires taking off the port and lens from the front and removing the camera from the housing to change batteries. This process is very cumbersome when I’m on a boat all day and the camera is wet.”  

three green sea turtles
Three Turtle Sunburst I captured this image of three green sea turtles circling beneath the sun in Maui, Hawai‘i, near a known cleaning station where turtles often congregate. The water was exceptionally clear that morning, and the sun’s rays were perfect at a shallow depth, so I set my camera to a low ISO, high shutter speed, and small aperture in hopes of obtaining a nice sunburst shot of a turtle. I uncharacteristically took only about a dozen images on this dive and spent most of my time watching the turtles, wanting to leave them undisturbed in hopes they would get into a nice formation or display an uncommon behavior. When I saw these three turtles start to come together, I slowly approached them from underneath, making sure not to exhale any bubbles, and waited for the exact moment to hit the shutter.
larval pancake batfish
Batfish Surprise This larval pancake batfish appeared on a blackwater dive in Anilao in late December 2019. I was diving with blackwater photographer extraordinaire Mike Bartick, who located this fish with his light somewhere under 50 feet. After he took a few shots, I moved in, shot four or five frames, and ended up with this nice portrait of the surprised-looking fish. Although I use a full-frame DSLR for wide-angle images, I took this photo with a 60mm lens and the Canon 7D Mark II camera, which has a cropped sensor.

Renee now travels the world in pursuit of her underwater photos — she dived Raja Ampat last year with her son and just returned from Antarctica. In the early years though, she remained true to her West Coast getaway of Hawai‘i and became especially proficient at photographing the green sea turtles she encountered there. 

She became a master of light in the half-and-half discipline, blending the ambient light of dusk and the setting sun with the kiss of strobe light to add color and detail in the split frame’s underwater portion. As she continued to perfect the process, she expanded the subject portfolio to include stingrays and blacktip reef sharks in French Polynesia. These were the images that launched her success.

The one image that jump-started everything for her is the one she calls “Sharky Sunset.” It is the main image for which she received the Blancpain FFF award and the first to make a splash in international photo contests. It exemplifies her approach to working with a singular subject and executing a vision;  her talent and perseverance paid off in a big way.  

As her career continues to evolve, she has embraced new and creative genres of underwater photography. Recently in Anilao, Philippines, she recommitted herself to blackwater photography, expanding on the work she began in Kona, Hawai‘i, in 2018 and pursued further in Anilao and Lembeh over the next year. This dedication paid off with first place in the 2020 Beneath the Sea macro category. This past winter she went to Antarctica to expand her portfolio with coldwater subjects. 

While the half-and-half image has been her trademark, her vision continues growing ever more eclectic. AD

© Alert Diver — Q2 2023



See more of Renee Capozzola’s work at