Renee Capozzola’s definition of luck is when preparation meets opportunity.

And thankfully, she was fully prepared as a French Polynesian sunset blasted vibrant colors over the horizon at the same time a shark peered into her camera lens and a bird happened to swoop by – all at just the right moment.

She may call it luck that day, but Capozzola’s latest photography award — one of dozens of accolades she’s received for her work over the past few years — shows the Palos Verdes High School teacher has a unique talent behind the lens.

Capozzola, on Jan. 25, received the World Shootout Photo Competition award for USA Photographer of the Year, an honor she accepted in person at the ceremony held in Dusseldorf, Germany.  She was a finalist in four categories and was part of the USA National Team that won the Championship category, along with teammates Ron Watkins, of New Jersey, and Jeff Milisen, of Hawaii.

The underwater-photo competition, which started in 2011, has become one of the most prestigious of its kind, drawing thousands of entries from 40 countries.

A focus on water photography

Back when the Palos Verdes Estates resident started diving in 2004, she had never taken a photo underwater other than with a disposable film camera.

“I didn’t take photography class in school but I was an oil painter and I had an artistic background,” said Capozzola, who teaches AP Biology and Honors Anatomy at Palos Verdes High. “Everything underwater was so amazing and cool.”

She started with a cheap underwater snapshot camera and admits, with a chuckle, that her first photos “were terrible.”

But she decided to fine-tune her craft, buying a strobe light — an underwater flash to make up for light lost in the water — in 2013.

“Even if you are trying to take the best photos you can, if you don’t have the right equipment, they won’t look good,” Capozzola said.

Immediately, she noticed the difference.

“There were all these colors and it was amazing,” she said.

By 2016, she had a Canon DSLR camera and strobes – but realized her passion was costing a lot of money. So she started entering — and winning — contests.

“I started winning awards, started doing well. I also realized it was a great way to promote conservation,” lessons she also brings to the classroom, she says.

Stand-out shots

One of Capozzola’s favorite moments came last year, when she won the seascape division of the United Nations World Ocean Day photo competition. She said she was proud that the delegates who were meeting at the UN to address new laws to help endangered species and promote conservation were greeted with her art.

Since 2016, she’s won about 40 international awards, almost all for her specialty in split shots — which capture images half below and half above the ocean water.

“One thing I really like is they tell a story, unlike a picture of a shark underwater, you may not know where that is or where the environment is,” she said. “When you have below and above, you have more to the story. The other thing I like, people are drawn to looking at those images. You can’t (normally) see above and below the water line, you can only see that in a picture.”

In 2017, as a finalist for the World Shootout, she traveled to Germany to accept the first-place award in the national team category.

“We were there and we won and we had no idea, it was just super exciting,” said Capozzola, who was joined by Watkins to accept that award. “It was the first big award I had ever won.”

In her latest trip to the same award ceremony, her prize was $1,000 for her shark-bird-sunset shot and the team prize was a trip to Papua New Guinea worth $10,000.

Capozzola’s favorite place to shoot is in French Polynesia, because of the species of sharks around the reefs, she said, especially the blacktip reef shark in her latest winning image.

That shot almost didn’t happen. Just as she was getting in the water, she noticed one of her strobe lights wasn’t working – a necessary component for lighting the shark underwater. She happened to have a focus light, which she compares to a flashlight, so she rigged it on her camera to use as an alternative, so one side of the shark wasn’t dark.

Clearly it worked.

“I’ve never gotten a picture where the shark is looking at the picture and the bird is looking into the camera – that’s luck,” she said. “I was prepared, but when the bird came in the frame, I took advantage of the opportunity and I was lucky I had the other light in the bag.”

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