Masters of the aquatic realm
The ocean is perhaps one of the most dynamic subjects a photographer can shoot. Forever morphing, it offers an array of unique photo opportunities, presenting a rich palette of moods and hidden gems, and that’s only the water itself. If we then consider the creatures inhabiting it or humans interacting with it, the diversity increases considerably. Shooting in the ocean is a challenge that demands confidence, a very specialised skill set, and a passion for being in the water. So, how do you capture our planet’s aquatic wonders and those playing and living in it? Sophia Hawkes reports on the experiences of four seasoned pros.
Darren Jew: sharing the mysteries of the deep
Veteran underwater photographer Darren Jew is driven by a desire to capture images that lift the veil to a hidden world in the hope of igniting the actual feeling of being underwater for the viewer. A certified scuba diver since his teens, his career spans 30 years and includes countless accolades and achievements. One of only a handful of Canon Masters around the country, his work was featured in the highly successful Netflix series, Tales by Light, which showcases a number of the world’s best photographers. His distinct vision and desire to “tell stories that engage people with the wonders of the planet” has also earned him the title of Australian Professional Nature Photographer of the Year an impressive six times. He has also been selected to be on the judging panel of the United Nations World Oceans Day Photo Competition, amongst many others. Jew is the Ambassador for Rainforest Rescue, an organisation protecting and restoring rainforests in Australia and internationally since 1999. Besides having published three books of his work, his images are also used by conservation organisations throughout the world.
Having explored the majesty of the underwater world as a certified scuba diver since the age of fourteen, his photography skills grew alongside his desire to share what he saw with others. “My first professional underwater shoot came when I undertook my first field assignment for the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service shooting at Lady Elliott Island on the Southern Great Barrier Reef in 1986,” he says. Despite widely exploring the world’s oceans, Lady Elliott Island remains one of his favourite spots, as does Lord Howe Island, and the South Australian Coast. “Further afield, I love free-diving with orcas in Norway, and humpbacks in the Pacific, and the coral reefs of New Caledonia and Palau in Micronesia. The tropical biodiversity in Indonesia and PNG is unmatched,” he says.
If the idea of capturing the underwater world sounds appealing, Jew offers a number of practical tips: master taking photos above water, learn to dive, do an advanced course including peak performance buoyancy training, don’t take a camera for the first dozen dives, and have a good dive buddy who understands what you need as a photographer and can act as an assistant. “The worst buddy is another photographer,” he warns.
In terms of gear, Jew recommends a compact camera system like Canon’s G7 X as a good starting point. “If you’re getting started make sure you have a wide lens and a camera that can shoot RAW so you can colour correct your photos,” he says. The system allows for externally mounted “wet lenses” which can be changed while underwater, allowing you to shoot both wide and close-up. And never venture in without a fully charged battery and an empty card.
Jew stresses the importance of having reliable gear, and where possible having backup equipment especially given how remote shooting locations can be. A Canon user since 1986, his current kit includes 5D Mark IV and EOS-1D X Mark II camera bodies, coupled most often with either the 8-15mm fisheye or 16-35mm zoom. For close-up work, he relies on the 100mm macro lens. In terms of underwater housings, Jew uses Nauticam housings which he says offer “unmatched control and ergonomics, and fine optics. The optical lens ports which I shoot through are finely tuned to provide the best possible results from my L-series glass, even in the unique situation when the optical path is through the various mediums of air, glass, and water with their varying refractive indexes”.
His love of the ocean and capturing its inhabitants means that Jew continuously combines work with pleasure, with the goal of sharing images of the mystery unfolding beneath the surface, bringing glimpses of a hidden world to inspire awe and wonder.
Warren Keelan: risking it all
Wollongong-based ocean photographer Warren Keelan’s approach centres around openness and experimentation. “Spend time observing how water and light behaves and experiment with different ways to translate what you see and feel when you’re immersed,” he says. “Don’t be too hard on yourself – the good stuff will eventually find its way through your lens. But most of all, have fun.” Keelan says that it took at least a year of shooting in the ocean before he captured an image he didn’t hate.
After spending a year in the field of traditional landscape photography, Keelan couldn’t shake the feeling of being uninspired and decided to get a waterproof housing. “The predictability of landscape photography was overwhelming, and I knew something was missing,” he says. Indeed, the unpredictability of the ocean is a big part of the answer to why Keelan remains driven and passionate about ocean photography. “Experiencing and capturing moments that will never occur twice is highly addictive and rewarding. Also, it’s one of the rare instances where you really become one with the subject you’re shooting. You’re not just viewing the wonders of the ocean from the safety of land – you’re immersed within it; you are part of it,” he says.
In 2013, Keelan entered the International Photography Awards, and to his surprise his image Silver Helix won the Underwater category. “This experience gave me the confidence and a somewhat personal green light to turn my passion into a career. Some months later my gallery launched and has now been operating for over eight years.” Keelan considers himself fortunate to make a living from print sales at his gallery, but adds that good fortune alone isn’t responsible for this. “I’ve worked my ass off and made huge sacrifices to be able to make an income from my passion. I risked it all opening my gallery. I can honestly say that nothing good or worthwhile comes easy. I’ve had my challenges and fair share of rollercoaster rides when it comes to blending passion with business, but whatever obstacles I’ve endured over the years have been worth it”.
Shot at sunrise on North Wollongong Beach in 2013, Silver Helix remains his favourite and most rewarding image. “When a hollow wave breaks over shallow reef or sand, the proceeding impact can be huge. Air is forced down and forward with the rolling motion, and in this moment a line of orbiting rings form, wrapping round and rolling with the vortex below. This image spent much of its time in my mind before finally appearing on the back of my camera some months and many hundreds of frames later. I’ve seen this phenomenon countless times unconsciously over the years as a surfer, but not until I had a tool to freeze these moments did I see them as liquid sculptures, as ocean art.”
Before venturing into the water with a camera, Keelan’s advice is to gain as much experience in the water so as to be able to safely handle oneself in any of the conditions the ocean might throw at you. As well as this, knowing your limits is crucial.
Kellan’s favourites lenses are a 15mm fisheye and a 16-35mm zoom. He still relies on AquaTech housings which he says allow him full access to his camera settings so he can change them quickly, as required. “Swimming into the ocean with expensive camera equipment is pretty nerve racking, so it requires a product that is both functional and extremely reliable.”
Russel Ord: testing the limits
Internationally renowned surf, ocean, and lifestyle photographer Russell Ord appears to have no qualms putting himself in the midst of danger, shooting waves few people would dare to venture nearby. Ord belongs to the rare breed of humans who find peace in the oceanic chaos. Some of his favourite locations to shoot feature great white sharks and waves bigger than the buildings found in a typical country town. “My favourite spots are remote, offshore slabs of reef. I love the serenity of being alone, or with a minimal crew of surfers. I also love the journey to find those types of waves. I live in my favourite part of the world, Margaret River, and anywhere south from here has plenty of fantastic ocean to photograph,” says Ord.
Ord’s passion for the ocean predates his passion for photography. In 1999, Ord injured his knee surfing, but this wasn’t enough to keep him out of the water. “I picked up a camera and started taking photos of my mates surfing,” he says. “My passion for taking photos grew from there. Surfing had become quite crowded, so being reunited with that feeling of freedom and serenity I get when swimming alone was where the love for photography began.”
It was a steep learning curve for Ord. At the outset, his gear consisted of a second-hand film SLR camera and a 50mm lens. Later, he would add a water housing. Although the gear was basic, it wasn’t an impediment, as Ord already had a head-start with other skills crucial to the success of shooting in the water – his 20 years’ experience understanding and navigating the ocean. These days, he’s grappling with other challenges. “The ocean forces me to question my fears and limitations. Is it too big for my skill level? Am I mentally and physically prepared? What are the risks? It’s a forever changing beast.” But make no mistake, many of the magnificent locations Ord loves shooting are also particularly treacherous, and the possibility of severe injury or death are real prospects for the inexperienced. One of Ord’s many hard-won images was captured near Walpole, WA. The Right features a violent twist of the Indian Ocean. The image became a focal point for his celebrated documentary, One Shot.
Over the years, Ord has shot numerous magazine covers featuring the world’s greatest surfers. He has also shot campaigns for clients including Qantas, Red Bull, and Tourism WA, amongst others.
Ord states that his job “tends to feel very selfish at times” with photos used to sell the dream life. Keen to take less and give more, in 2008 Ord came across the work of SurfAid while doing a magazine shoot in the Mentawai Islands, Indonesia, and made a conscious decision to work with organisations where his work could be used to give back to causes or communities. Since then, he’s found the experience of working with organizations like SurfAid, Boonderu Music Academy, and One Blue Ocean to be very rewarding.
Relying on a Fujifilm X100V as his everyday camera, in the water Ord’s go-to setup is the Fuji GFX100S paired with the GF 80mm f/1.7 lens.
For those keen to embrace the water, the piece of advice he stresses the most is to learn the ways of the ocean. “Slowly push your boundaries and build your ocean skills so as to avoid getting into trouble,” he suggests. “Be patient, learn your craft, and don’t get caught up in the perception of the photography world; it’s not all bells and whistles. And while it can be a challenging journey, it’s certainly one worth travelling.”
Sarah Lee: tuned into the present moment
Surf photographer Sarah Lee finds great pleasure in her work and is an example of Albert Schweitzer’s quote; “If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” To Lee, there is nothing more beautiful than someone being fully in their element in the ocean. But most of the time, she says, that moment goes unseen. “The play of light with the human interaction with the water and how it all combines is endlessly fascinating,” she says. “It brings me great joy to capture and share that with other people.”
Producing images like Lee’s demands that one is extremely comfortable in the ocean. “There is something magical and challenging about being in a massive body of water with constant changes in lighting, water clarity, currents, surf, etc. I love water photography because it’s dynamic, ever-changing, physically demanding, and a place where you have to be completely tuned into the present moment,” she says. “Composing shots can be difficult in the water, but I like to think of it as a creative challenge. Imagine being able to move up, down, left, right, and even upside down to compose a photograph. It can be a lot smoother and sometimes faster in the water to get the angle you want since there’s not much gravity at play.”
Born and raised on Hawaii’s Big Island, it’s no surprise that the ocean was always a central part of Lee’s life. “I grew up competitively swimming in pools and long-distance racing in the ocean, playing water polo, and surfing. It felt natural after picking up a camera in high school to dive into the world of underwater and surf photography,” she says. In 2012, Lee began to take her photography more seriously. Since then, she’s become the first female photographer to get a cover shot on The Surfer’s Journal. Lee says her favourite project to date has been for ESPN’s The Body Issue where she photographed professional female surfer, Lakey Peterson. “I loved this project because it’s all about removing the sexual nature of nudity, and instead highlighting the human form through athleticism, agility, and strength,” says Lee.
© Lucia Griggi. Shot of Sarah Lee at work.
In the water, Lee says that her DaFin swimfins are crucial. “Give me any kind of camera and I’ll use it, but I can’t live without my fins!” Her advice to anyone wanting to try ocean photography is to get a GoPro or something similar, and then approach it as an experiment. “Be open to whatever nature and the elements give you. Collaborate with it, and see where your curiosities take you. Those moments in between are where the magic is at. So far, that approach has worked out for me.”
Capturing images that reflect the majesty of the ocean and reveal of the mysteries lying beneath requires great confidence, patience, persistence, plus a deep knowledge, understanding, and respect of the ocean are fundamental. And for all those interviewed, the initial spark was a genuine love for the ocean. For those who decide to dip a toe in the water to capture phenomena simultaneously simple and complex, the rewards are abundant.
Darren Jew – darrenjew.com
Warren Keelan – www.warrenkeelan.com
Sarah Lee –www.sarahlee.photo
Russel Ord – www.russellordphoto.com
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