Q&A with an UW Photographer

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A photo of a hammerhead shark approaching. It is surrounded by fish.
A hammerhead shark from a recent trip to The Bahamas. Photo courtesy of Paddy

Today we chat with Paddy (UK), a divemaster who found a passion for (underwater) UW photography.

What is your diving history?

I did my open water course in 2007 in Fiji when I was 18 but I have wanted to scuba dive since I was 13 and working part-time in an aquarium shop. I started working as a diver in 2011 as a divemaster then made the switch over to primarily video and photography work in 2013.

What equipment setup do you use for UW photography?

For UW photography, my most recent camera is the Nikon D850 with Subal housing and a pair of Inon 330’s for my strobes. As for lenses I love my 8-15mm fisheye for the big stuff and my 60mm for black water shooting. I have just gotten a 105mm for everyday macro but I am still waiting for the next trip to use it properly.

Paddy the uw photographer
Paddy the UW photographer. Photo courtesy of Paddy

Where did you learn how to take digital underwater photos?

I have always had an interest with UW photography and bought a cheap underwater camera with housing almost as soon as I finished my open water course.

On Koh Tao in Thailand, the first tips and help I ever got was from Sairee Cottage dive shop owner Trevor Emerson. In 2013 I took an underwater videography course with Ace Marine Images with Video Instructor and close friend, Andy Keeler. Eventually, I took a professional UW photography course with Alex Tyrrell at Dive4Photos. All were amazing experiences in their own rights and I became close friends with all of them.

Who is your photography mentor and why?

I would have to say Alex Tyrrell has always been my UW photography mentor since we first met and still is to this day. He is still a fountain of knowledge years after I completed the course with him, and we recently met up for a Bahama shark diving trip earlier this year.

What is your favourite underwater subject?

This is a tough one. Sharks are exciting to see and you get that little adrenaline buzz when they swim up close. Plus everyone loves a decent photo of a shark.

On the other hand, some of my favourite photos are of nudibranchs. I love the challenge of finding the tiny subjects, especially if no one else at the dive shop has seen it before.

I am also going to cheat on this question because my favourite subjects are actually not completely underwater. They are SPLIT LEVEL photos!!! It is a massive challenge to get the subject even vaguely decent but when you pull it off, having half of it on the surface and half underwater, it works a treat!

Lemon Sharks under a dive boat - split shot photo, 1/2 underwater, 1/2 on the surface
Curious lemon sharks in Florida. Photo courtesy of Paddy

Do you prefer natural lighting or artificial?

For uw photography, I would choose artificial lighting every time. You will get more control over the whole image and you can get so much more creative with it. I did not use any artificial lighting for years when I started out and when I was a videographer but now I would not go back (apart from on my last trip when my TTL cables failed)!

Enjoying this Q&A? Read more stories and interviews with divers at Down to Scuba.

Do you prefer macro or wide angle photography?

As mentioned, I prefer split level photography with a wide-angle as a favourite type of underwater photography but in all honesty, it changes day to day depending on what is available to me.

The dive site and weather conditions are always the main deciding factors followed quickly by what lens I can afford. This is not a cheap lifestyle.

How do you take a good photo of a shark?

A hammerhead shark approaching in The Bahamas - Amazing UW photography
Close up of a hammerhead shark in The Bahamas. Photo courtesy of Paddy

Shark photography is so much fun but you certainly need to pay a lot of attention to your surroundings and make sure that they are not getting agitated or aggressive in anyway.

For a start, I would suggest going with a company with a good reputation for shark dives like Neal Watson’s dive charters in Bimini, Florida. They will allow you to get up close to the sharks in a way that is safe for you and the sharks. The more calm and relaxed you are, then the better the photos and the better experience you will have.

A good idea for any dive in a new area is to read up about what kind of marine life (or what species of sharks) you are likely to encounter so that you can be prepared with the right type of lens and settings.

What is a blackwater dive?

Blackwater diving is a night dive in very deep water (60m and deeper is best). You will set up a buoy or float at the surface with a line that goes down to a very bright light or a set of lights at around 30m.

You will drift with the light set up for the entire dive. Drifting over deep water with the bright light will draw up juvenile fish and all kinds of strange creatures that you would never see during the day. You will also see some marine life that you do see during the day but are far more friendly in the night (this squid photo is from the end of a night dive).

A macro close up of a squid's eye during a blackwater dive with UW photography
Macro shot of a squid during a blackwater dive. Photo courtesy of Paddy

Blackwater diving is a very different style of diving and photography. It does take a bit of patience to get used to but once you settle into it you will see and photograph some amazing things. Three spots worth thinking about for black water diving are Hawaii, Anilao in the Philippines and West Palm Beach in Florida, USA.

Which is the photo you are most proud of?

Ahh easy question. Split level whale shark under the dive boat. 

A split level photo of a whale shark under a dive boat.
Paddy’s magnum opus from Koh Tao. Photo courtesy of Paddy

What advice would you give to budding and new UW photographers?

Keep shooting as much as possible. The only regrets I have are the dives I missed because I was feeling lazy. I will never forget the day I missed out on two guitar sharks at Southwest Pinnacle on Koh Tao, just because I was hoping my new strobes would arrive that day.

Also, don’t limit yourself to underwater even if that is the only area of photography you want to work in. The more you play with the camera the more it all becomes intuitive. You will be able to react quicker and get those settings dialed in on-time. Let’s say a dive is about an hour-long on average so that is not a lot of time to practice. Whereas you can sit in your garden all afternoon and snap away at your own pace.

Where are some of the places you have dived before?

The ones that stick out the most are Koh Tao in Thailand as I worked there for so long.

Galapagos was incredible and I highly recommend going out there. However, you should try to find some volunteer work as it gets you a massive discount on the diving. In the Galapagos, I worked at a reforestation project Monday to Friday then went diving on the weekends.

I have also been diving in Burma/Myanmar, Fiji, and Australia. This year I went on a diving trip to The Bahamas, and Florida in the United States.

Where is most favourite place to dive?

I know I have been incredibly lucky with how much I have traveled and all the amazing places I have dived. But honestly, Chumphon Pinnacle in Koh Tao has such a special place in my heart. I have had so many amazing dives there (and some utter rubbish ones in monsoon) with a lot of good memories with a lot of good friends there.

uw photography - a lemon shark approaching
A curious lemon shark ready for its close up in Florida. Photo courtesy of Paddy

What was your most extreme/scariest dive?

Ha ha ha!!!! Cave of Death. I am not giving any more details as I don’t want anyone underskilled trying to find this dive site but WOW.

As I can’t really talk about that dive, I would have to say a close runner up is a night dive in Myanmar. We went on a night dive in a cave with our lights switched off, using just the bioluminescence to guide us.

Also on the list is a high-speed drift dive in Florida, with lemon and bull sharks bumping into us. All three of those dives could have used a brown wetsuit but I loved every second of them!

What is next on your diving ‘bucket list’?

Right now just diving anywhere other than in England seems to be a lifetime away due to the current COVID-19 situation.

I haven’t really dived with whales or dolphins (at least not with a camera). Thresher, mako, blue and great white sharks are top of the list but I am also looking forward to nerding it out in the Philippines with some blackwater diving. So to cut a long answer short ANYTHING UNDERWATER!!!!

Check out more of Paddy’s UW photography at Peach Snaps Photography.

Enjoying this Q&A? Read more stories and interviews with divers at Down to Scuba.

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