Shooter: Doug Perrine

Doug Perrine does not consider himself an underwater photographer. That might come as a surprise to those who have seen his images of marine life, underwater, in a wide variety of publications for more than three decades. But Perrine sees his career differently, insisting that neither he nor his subject is necessarily underwater when he creates an image.

Rather, Perrine sees himself as “a wildlife photographer who specializes in marine life.”

“I think of it as a subset of nature photographer,” he said, “as opposed to being an underwater photographer, which could be a subset of sports photographer or fashion photographer or even product photographer, depending on how you approach it. I don’t mean any disrespect to any other field of photography, but I see little in common between what I do and the work of guys who photograph models in silky dresses in swimming pools, for example. Since I photograph naked fish and dolphins having sex, I have also billed myself as the world’s foremost marine-life pornographer, and no one has stepped up to challenge me for that title yet.”

Underbelly of a spotted eagle ray
A spotted eagle ray glides over the photographer on a shallow sand bar in Belize; clouds and blue sky are visible through Snell’s window.

Doug Perrine grew up in Dallas, Texas, immersed in a life he refers to as “Leave It To Beaveresque.” But even as a child he seemed to know suburbia was not for him. He would make his way to whatever creek or patch of nature he could find and was frequently bringing home turtles and frogs, much to his mother’s dismay. He even had forays into underwater imaging back then; he destroyed at least one Brownie camera by trying to use it in a swimming pool in a plastic bag.

By the time he graduated from high school in 1970, Perrine realized he needed to go to college. Besides the obvious educational benefits, he had a draft lottery number of 5, and he would have soon found himself in Vietnam if he hadn’t received a student deferment. Inexplicably drawn to the ocean, the college he chose was the University of Hawaii, where he was free to juggle student life with learning to surf, snorkel and scuba dive.

Perrine’s direction was murky in those days. He tried psychology and chemistry before settling on an amorphous major called “liberal studies” and a certificate in the university’s Marine Option Program. With a bachelor’s degree that prepared him for very little, Perrine worked as a papaya picker and a lifeguard for a while before joining the Peace Corps and then spending 1978 and 1979 backpacking around the South Pacific and Southeast Asia.

Greenland shark and a diver go for a swim next to each other
Greenland shark with a copepod parasite attached to its eye, Quebec

Western author Louis L’Amour referred to the time people spend traveling and discovering themselves before their life’s true purpose is revealed as their “yondering years.” Perrine’s yondering years included a stint with the Peace Corps in Morocco followed by another in Pohnpei, a sleepy Micronesian posting that allowed him plenty of time to spearfish and scuba dive while he conducted research on mangrove crabs. His immersion in the dive industry came in 1979 when he became a scuba instructor and began working for Blackbeard’s Cruises, leading dive and sailing trips to the Bahamas. In 1980 he went to work at Bob Soto’s scuba operation on Grand Cayman. Perrine was encouraged to teach a specialty course to better monetize his instructor status, and he chose underwater photography. Armed with his specialty instructor rating from the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) and a Nikonos camera, he decided to learn all he could to better be able to teach his newly acquired skills, but as it turned out he never taught a PADI underwater photography course.

Perrine enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Miami’s esteemed Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, earning a master’s degree in fisheries biology. But just as he never taught photography, he never again worked as a marine scientist. That would have meant a desk job, and Perrine had made up his mind to be on or in the water.

Yellow Tritan trumpet fish eats a crown-of-thorns starfish
Triton’s trumpet eating a crown-of-thorns starfish

His primary interest was marine-life behavior, and he saw a chance to combine his scientific knowledge with his underwater photography skills by working as a freelance journalist. One of his first submissions to Underwater USA was rewarded with a cover story and a check, and Perrine decided it was the right path for him.

*STEPHEN FRINK Underwater photojournalism has not been an easy way to make a living, particularly in the early 1980s. What made you leap into the deep end of that pool?

*DOUG PERRINE/ Actually, you were one of my inspirations when I made that fateful choice to leave science and go into photojournalism. You seemed to be making a living from your photography, so I figured maybe I could, too. I also knew someone who was doing a lot of work for Skin Diver and telling me fabulous lies about how much money he was making; it wasn’t until later that I realized how much exaggeration had gone into his boasts.

I didn’t go full time right away though. I was getting pretty steady work contributing text and photo submissions to Sea Frontiers magazine and Underwater USA, but I was also working part time as an interpretive naturalist. In that role I led tours of marine environments, working for both Dade County Parks and the Marine Resources Development Foundation in Key Largo, Fla.

Open-mouthed croc smiles at the camera while swimming
Rarely-photographed Morelet’s crocodile in a cenote, Yucatan Peninsula

I joined the American Society of Media Photographers around that time, and I got some work and experience assisting other pro photographers. My expenses were few and my desire strong, so I was able to tough it out through the periods of little income. I got some assignments from Skin Diver and Scuba Times magazines as well, but I think it was at least five years before I could say I was making a living in this game.

*SF/ As you so eloquently noted, there are a variety of niches within the genre of underwater photography. I think of you as a “behavioral” guy. Is that fair?

*DP/ Fair enough. My goal is to tell the life stories of ocean creatures, and the technology of underwater photography is a tool I use in pursuit of that goal. In those early years when I was trying to refine my personal vision I was a big fan of Rick Frehsee’s work in Skin Diver and the original Sport Diver magazine. I tried to emulate his work, but I felt like a fashion shooter, always seeking a good-looking model in a color-coordinated dive outfit. I was also shooting macro, but at that time that amounted to using a Nikonos camera and extension tubes, so I was capturing the same nonmoving subjects at 1:2 or 1:3 magnification that everyone else was. Even though underwater photography was more of a novelty then than it is now, my photography was not unique. When I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut and go meet alien creatures. And there, beneath the sea, were creatures far more bizarre than any sci-fi writer could conjure. I felt compelled to present those creatures in ways no one had seen before, and larger marine animals afforded me that possibility. I found that I could use photography not only as a tool for education but also for scientific discovery, revealing biological phenomena that were previously unknown.

Two Amazonian manatees approach the camera
Amazonian manatees

*SF/ Can you give an example?

*DP/ My photos of a vampire snail feeding led to a peer-reviewed scientific publication that described the eating habits of that blood-sucking mollusk. It had been described scientifically by genus and species, but no one really knew what it did for a living until I captured a shot that showed it using its proboscis to pierce the oral membrane of a sleeping parrotfish and suck its blood. Another set of photos that led to a scientific publication were my images that showed, for the first time, the spectacular mass-spawning behavior of dog snappers.

I wish I could convey to your readers, especially the younger ones, the excitement of shooting big animals underwater in the ’80s and ’90s. Just about every time I photographed a species that I hadn’t shot before I was documenting something that almost nobody knew what it looked like underwater. With sharks, especially, if you could get a good underwater shot it was fairly likely to be the first publishable picture of that species in its natural habitat. It was the same with many cetaceans.

In fish-ID books in those days, most of the sharks were illustrated with pictures of bloody, contorted specimens lying on boat decks or artists’ renderings that were often inaccurate. It has taken three decades, but it’s finally rare to read about “the shark,” as if all sharks belong to a single species and behave in an identical fashion. I credit photographers even more than scientists with dispelling that myth. Although there are still many species that haven’t been properly photographed and lots of behaviors and phenomena yet to be discovered, a new wave of largely recreational and semipro photographers is rapidly enlarging the collective visual record of marine life, even as many species are being drastically diminished by overfishing and environmental change.

Light-up plankton shine the ocean at night
Bioluminescent plankton in the Maldives

In the ocean, we are on the last frontier of exploration, trying to document things that have never been seen and species that might be vanishing from the planet. I’ve made it my business to put effort into doing something unique.

*SF/ Define “unique.” Are you looking to photograph that which has never been seen or to present things in ways they’ve never before been shown?

*DP/ I’m more interested in the former, but the latter can be equally compelling. A quintessential example of a novel presentation is David Doubilet’s iconic over/under shot of a stingray on Grand Cayman’s Sandbar 30 years ago. He saw in his head this beautiful picture, and he had the technical skills to surmount the challenges of capturing the image. Others have stood in that same spot trying to replicate the same image many times, and maybe some have even done it better, for capture technology has obviously improved, and perhaps someone had the good fortune of better synergy of light and life, but no one else did it first.

Diver looks up at a stingray

In many ways, the era of the secretive nature photographer has come to an end. I have always tried to be generous with sharing information about photo techniques and equipment, but like many old-school pros I have not always immediately broadcast every detail of where, when and how I got a unique image. That would enable copycat photographers to flood the market before I could earn back the investment I made in cracking the nut for the first time. I rarely lead tours or teach workshops that would put me in direct competition with my own students or clients, but these days you can have an amazing once-in-a-lifetime encounter in a remote fishing village of 30 people, and by nightfall your dinghy driver has posted about it on his Facebook page, and a dive tour operator has read about it and begun putting a group together to do the same thing. Social media and the immediacy and colossal reach of the Internet have changed everything … for good and for bad.

*SF/ You have been very active in the stock photography business, even to the extent that you founded your own agency. How has that fit into your overall business plan?

*DP/ I can’t say I ever really had a business plan, I’ve just stubbornly insisted on always doing what I liked. My stock photo agency has now morphed into SeaPics, an evolution of Innerspace Visions, which was an outgrowth of the International Shark Photo File.

At one time, back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I had something of a lock on underwater photos of bull sharks, lemon sharks, silky sharks, tiger sharks, Caribbean reef sharks, sharpnose sharks, shark births, shark skin, shark fossils and a few other subjects. I was getting lots of calls from people doing books and magazine articles on sharks. But they also wanted things I hadn’t photographed, such as blue sharks, makos and great whites. It didn’t make sense to me to run around the world photographing species that had already been extensively photographed, so I figured I’d just call a few friends from California and Australia and create a one-stop shop for shark photos. Most of the guys who had the photos were traveling all the time, so it was helpful to them to have their photos in an office with an assistant who was there every day and who was already getting lots of calls from buyers.

This was before the Internet, and I was pecking out articles on my trusty typewriter and sending submissions by mail. In those days it was a challenge for photo editors to come up with a comprehensive selection of images for subjects like those we specialized in. There was even a job description at most publishing houses called “photo researcher.” Pretty soon I was curating the word’s most comprehensive collection of shark photos.

It worked so well, I created another file for whales and dolphins. After a few more subjects were added it became a small specialty stock agency, which I called Innerspace Visions. That turned out to be impossible for clients or couriers to spell or understand. My mail got delivered to the Walmart Vision Center, and I received checks made out to “Interstate Vistas.” When it came time to reserve a domain name I knew I needed something shorter and more obvious. SeaPics was available, so I took it, never imagining how many alternate spellings people would come up with for that! I sold SeaPics in 2003 and have been just a freelancer for the past 10 years.

Bryde's whale swims underwater
A Bryde’s whale with its throat pleats expanded engulfs a school of sardines off Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; its baleen is visible hanging from the upper jaw.

SF// In your pursuit of one-of-a-kind images, which ones stand out in your mind?

DP// I have a shot of bronze whaler sharks tearing through a school of sardines that is likely the photo that most photographers associate with my name, although it’s no longer as unique as it was when I took it. It was the grand-prize winner in the 2004 Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPOTY) competition, sponsored by the Natural History Museum in London and BBC Worldwide. It was also the first photo from a digital camera to win any award in that competition. I would be surprised if any images shot on film even made it to the finals this year. I sank more than $20,000 (which would be a lot more in today’s dollars) into that sardine run self-assignment over a three-year period with long odds of earning any of it back. Thanks largely to the publicity from WPOTY, I actually did recoup my investment on that project. Not all my expeditions have fared so well.

Another shot that earned back its cost, which you may find hard to believe, is a shot of a blue whale pooping. It expelled a massive cloud of processed red krill, and I took a shot just to document the behavior. I never thought it would make a nickel when I clicked the shutter, but, oddly, it has done pretty well.

Other personal favorites include a fisheye close-up of an eagle ray with the sky and clouds visible above and the “starry shore” image of bioluminescent plankton washing up on a beach at night.

SF// Unlike many shooters today who have known only digital, you’ve been doing marine-life photography long enough to have made a conscious decision about when to transition from film to digital. What motivated your migration?

DP// I transitioned in 2003 with a Canon EOS D60 6-megapixel camera. I live on Kona, Hawaii, and my neighbor at that time was James Watt, one of underwater photography’s most prolific and talented shooters and a digital pioneer. He started with a Canon EOS D30, but I couldn’t get enthused about the 3-megapixel quality, so I waited for the next generation. I’m not one to be right on the leading edge of technology, for there are too many failure points, but I try to be not too far behind either.

Minke whale stares at camera
Minke whale

Today I shoot a Nikon D4 and a D800 topside and a D800 in a Nauticam housing underwater. I use either Ikelite DS161 or Inon Z-220 strobes . The Inon strobes get the nod when I’m traveling where weight is restricted, but when I’m shooting in my home waters of Hawaii I typically use the more powerful Ikelites. I’m also using an Olympus OM-D E-M5 now, primarily because of airline restrictions. It’s a small mirrorless camera that, coupled with a Panasonic 8mm fisheye lens and a Nauticam housing, creates a small wide-angle rig I can use with a polecam or to swim after rapidly moving pelagic animals.

The digital revolution is exciting but challenging. Clients can’t lose the original film you had to send them like they did with a few of my favorite slides. Instead of FedEx and next-day deadlines it is FTP service and same-day deadlines. With a laptop and Internet access I can transmit images to clients from anywhere. Plus I can photograph things I could only dream of before — like my shot of bioluminescence on the beach. That was a 30-second exposure at ISO 2500. I saw it in my mind’s eye back in the days of film, but only the digital technology of my Nikon D700 could make it a reality.

It used to be that I opened the box of slides, threw away the bad ones and put the good ones into archival sleeves. I was done until it was time to send them to a client. Now I get home from a trip with thousands of digital pictures, and before I can get through those I’m off on the next trip to accumulate thousands more. Sometimes I feel like Hercules having agreed to clean the Augean Stables. Not that I want my images compared to horse poop, but you know what I mean.

© Alert Diver — Q4 Fall 2013