Sunday, June 23, 2024

Renee Capozzola Wins 2021 Underwater Photographer of the Year Prize


Renee Capozzola from the United States has been named the 2021 Underwater Photographer of the Year.

Capozzola’s winning image (see above) featured blacktip reef sharks cruising beneath sea gulls at sunset in French Polynesia. She is the first female photographer to be named overall winner of the prestigious international photography contest.

More than 4500 underwater pictures were entered by underwater photographers from 68 countries around the world.

To shoot “Sharks’ Skylight,” Capozzola travelled from her home in California, out across the Pacific Ocean, to the tiny island of Moorea in August 2020. She explained:

“French Polynesia strongly protects its sharks, it is my favourite place to photograph them. I dedicated several evenings to photographing in the shallows at sunset, and I was finally rewarded with this scene: glass-calm water, a rich sunset, sharks and even birds.”

Chair of the competition judges, Dr Alexander Mustard MBE, said of the winning image:

“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.”

The Underwater Photographer of the Year contest is based in the UK, and Mark Kirkland from Glasgow, Scotland was named as British Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021 for his inner-city wildlife vision “While You Are Sleeping” taken close to his home, in early March 2020.

"While You Are Sleeping" © Mark Kirkland/UPY2021
“While You Are Sleeping” © Mark Kirkland/UPY2021

Kirkland said:

“This small muddy pond is an unlikely haven for wildlife, squeezed between a housing estate, supermarket and factory. But for a few nights each year, while the city sleeps, it comes alive with frogs. This frame was the culmination of 25 hours over 4 winter nights of lying stationary in darkness. Was it time well spent? Absolutely!”

Mustard commented on Kirkland’s photo:

“This remarkable image shows that even in the centre of the city of Glasgow, frogs and world class underwater photography can thrive.”

Karim Iliya from the United States was named Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year 2021 for his graphic photo “Crowded Island” representing over-population and the pressure it exerts on the sea, with an aerial view of a small island in Panama. This category is open to both underwater and above water photographs highlighting conservation issues in the ocean, this is the first time an above water picture has triumphed.

"Crowded Island" © Karim Iliya/UPY2021
“Crowded Island” © Karim Iliya/UPY2021

According to Iliya:

“This densely inhabited village is a visual microcosm, a reminder of how humans across the planet are over-consuming space. Our relationship with nature and the importance of protecting it becomes very apparent when you look at our species from above and see how we monopolize space, forcing nature out.”

The Underwater Photographer of the Year competition also aims to promote new photographic talent. SJ Alice Bennett, from the UK, but living in Mexico, was named as Up & Coming Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021 for a stylish photo of divers exploring a cave. Her image “Tying In” has a contemporary feel and relies on both advanced scuba diving and photographic techniques.

"Tying In" © SJ Alice Bennett/UPY2021
“Tying In” © SJ Alice Bennett/UPY2021

Bennett said:

“This photo was shot was taken during cave training. The two divers are followed closely by lighting assistants creating the beautiful halo effects that pick them out from the darkness.”

To view all the winners, go to

John Liang
John Liang
John Liang is the News Editor at He first got the diving bug while in High School in Cairo, Egypt, where he earned his PADI Open Water Diver certification in the Red Sea off the Sinai Peninsula. Since then, John has dived in a volcanic lake in Guatemala, among white-tipped sharks off the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, and other places including a pool in Las Vegas helping to break the world record for the largest underwater press conference.