You’ve just booked your next dive trip. You know the location well and plan to make photography a key part of the adventure. So how will you approach the picture-making process? What images will you need to capture to tell the story of your destination? Whether you’re a newbie with an inexpensive point-and-shoot camera or an overequipped, seasoned professional on assignment, these are valid questions worthy of contemplation. I ask myself these questions almost every time I reach for a camera and sometimes well before I even leave home.
A case in point is my most recent trip to the Fiji Islands. Nicknamed the “soft coral capital of the world,” it has long been one of my favorite photo studios. My mission in returning was to create a compelling portfolio of new images that would both prove this lofty title and convey what Fiji means to me. In sharing this story, I hope to provide motivation and food for thought for photographers like me who are shooting for editorial purposes. For now, let me walk you through my latest editorial shoot and explain how my thought process and in-the-field workflow support my goal of telling a story that fully immerses my audience.
Inception and Execution
If you are inspired by seeing images in magazines or reading engaging accounts by other divers, your creative process has already begun. After picking your destination, it’s time to dig into the details. Which critters and dive sites pique your interest? Will you be staying on a liveaboard, at a land-based resort or both? When are you traveling? Who is coming with you? Every shoot begins with research. This phase is vital to uncovering the different flavors of diving on tap at your location and the variety of available photographic opportunities. It lets you discover what resonates with you and what will best assist in weaving your visual tale.
On this journey I chose to take a liveaboard boat to Fiji’s central Bligh Waters region for the clear water and healthy reefs covered in famously brilliant soft corals and tropical fish. An extended 10-day itinerary gave me more bottom time for photographic exploration and experimentation and, as a bonus, a village visit to soak up the local culture. The kava ceremony is central to Fijian social life, and I felt it should be part of my story. It’s never a bad idea to provide a glimpse of the world above the waves; even the most hardcore underwater shooter can incorporate people and landscapes to add depth to their marine reportage.
After only three dives on the cruise’s first full day, I was absolutely blown away. Coral Corner, Mellow Yellow and Maytag are brimming with waves of fish and fireworks displays of saturated invertebrate color. Sea fans and soft corals glow gloriously. Clouds of orange and purple anthias undulate in the current close to the resplendent reefs, and tornadoes of jacks, queenfish and fusiliers orbit dizzyingly above. My trigger finger raced to keep up with it all. This is why I came to Fiji: to capture the frenetic action, chromatic assault and life in abundance.
Bricks, Mortar and Tools
Photojournalists are skilled and thoughtful builders, committed to the art of storytelling through impactful visual narratives. Photographs are the bricks, and words are the mortar. The tools are complicated, expensive and prone to occasional maddening malfunction. They are also capable of conjuring magic when the operator is competent and knows the environment.
While it is impossible to tell by looking at their work, photojournalists are often diving into environments they have never seen before. They do this seamlessly by gathering as much information as they can before they hit the water. In cases like these, dive briefings can be gold mines because great dive guides intimately know the lay of their local seascape. While your head is still above water and your thinking is sharp, pay attention, ask questions, and strategize to optimize efficiency and productivity in the photographic work you’re about to undertake. Your story in the making will thank you for it.
Before I hit the water, I want to have a mental map, a photographic plan for high-value targets and, of course, the right lens and lighting. I want to know everything — from which site offers the best opportunity to photograph a given species of invertebrate, to how to best approach a rare endemic fish for a shot at a certain depth, to the times the wall’s face will be bathed in warm sunlight or moody in shadow. Predive preparation, visualization and prioritization are your due diligence and go a long way in facilitating safety and success during your shoot. They also add professional polish to your portfolio.
Armed and ready, I had mounted a full-frame fisheye lens and 9-inch glass dome port for the plunge at Coral Corner. My housing sported three big strobes with diffusers, all charged and ready to blast. This was the optimal optic and lighting configuration to capture the kaleidoscopic tableau of Dendronephthya soft corals, sea fans, cup coral trees and shimmering anthias that I knew — thanks to an illuminating question and answer session on the boat — awaited me on a specific bommie at 85 feet. My breathing-gas mixture of nitrox 32 would give me more time at the sweet spot than air would, and the current was perfect. We had waited until the middle of the ebb, timing our entry for maximum inflation, when the signature soft corals looked their best. The uber-photogenic, super-wide reef scenic images, instrumental to illustrating my visual definition of Fiji’s coral kingdom, were half created before I even backrolled into the blue.
The famed Nigali Pass is a must-dive site and a no-brainer for inclusion in an article covering this region. My wrist slate crammed with a “bottomography” diagram and various notes on depths, times and reminders of camera settings helped me stay on track and navigate the multiple attractions on display here. Seventy-five cleverly managed minutes allowed me to photograph everything on my list: the school of barracuda over the sand in the pass, the gray reef sharks next to the wall veering left and the lovely maze of cabbage coral inside the lagoon.
I owe thanks to my dive guide for his sage suggestion to bring two cameras (for both wide zoom and super macro) and to my dive buddy for her schlepping the second rig at Cat’s Meow in the Vuya reef complex.Teamwork paid dividends with frames of angelfish and bluefin jacks, a hawksbill turtle session (with and without diver) and a portrait of a Pontoh’s pygmy seahorse scarcely larger than a plankton blob. Without my guide’s eagle eyes I would’ve completely overlooked this tiny organism. In fact, I had not even expected to see this rare species in Fiji because this dive destination is inaccurately stereotyped to be underweight in the cool macro department. Adding this new chapter to my tale as an ode to serendipity was an on-the-spot decision: This little guy served as an oversized reminder for photojournalists to build some flexibility into their storylines and capitalize on surprises.
What’s Your Job?
When people ask me what I do for a living, I often say that I’m a marine wildlife photojournalist, which is a pretty self-explanatory label. If cornered on assignment, however, I might answer that I am “shooting for editorial.” In theoretical circles, editorial photography is regularly characterized as photography created to tell a story, to educate or to illustrate an idea. It often accompanies text and usually appears in magazines. Some pundits break it down even further, saying that editorial photography is simply the photography that supports the printed word — or the photography that is not advertising photography. This is all way beyond me.
I don’t like the idea of relegating imagery as subordinate to text. I think they are synergistic partners. My job, as I define it, is to create imagery that sells fun and adventure but also tells my audience about the wondrous tropical South Pacific coral reef ecosystem that is Fiji. My partners in delivering the message are the creative folks at magazines such as Alert Diver. They take the unruly children born of my shot list and hours of toil underwater and bring the whole package to life. They breathe coherence and eye-catching design into the portfolio and connect readers to the destination.
On the long plane rides to my destinations, I pass the time staring at my phone, adding ideas, opening my mind’s eye and fleshing out my story, chapter by chapter. Throughout the shoot I constantly amend and expand my shot list after dive briefings and then chant it like a mantra each night before sleep. My extensive planning keeps me focused, and my flexibility encourages me to experiment, growing as a photographer with every shot I take. I will do things like shoot a circular fisheye lens for a mind-bending reef perspective or try my hand at crafting conceptual pictures to convey kinetic energy or a sense of motion underwater, like when taking a blurred panning shot of a grouper gliding over mushroom corals or my wife kicking for all she’s worth into the current at the iconic Kansas dive site. With a little help from my friends underwater and in the publishing world, it all comes together.
When shooting for editorial, I’m photographing with both my audience and my publishing partners in mind. I know that the published story will be that much better if I provide photo editors and art directors with a diverse universe of useful, relevant pictures. I jam-pack my ever-changing shot list with wide, medium and narrow views of must-capture critters, and a 2.5x life-size super macro flip-down diopter captures otherworldly textures and dramatic portraits of sea life. If I want to give the layout team a full-page option of a lionfish, I’ll rotate the camera to get a vertical composition. On my surface intervals I can shoot splits or go ashore for topside photos. I vary my lighting to best flatter my subject or inject drama, and I recommend working with a model for human interest and scale. Including divers in the images really strengthens the “wish you were here” message.
Imaging the Essence
If you put 16 photographers on the same boat, the odds are good that you will end up with 16 different photo stories. Each shooter will present the same destination in her or his own signature way, and the possibilities are as limitless as the anthias streaming over Fiji’s rainbow reefs. There are no right or wrong visions of a place. This art is as subjective as it gets.
To me, the essence of Fiji as a dive destination is its reef’s exuberance — a riot of color, shape and motion. It’s also the joy I feel as the life-bringing current sweeps me through the piercing blue and the fascination that grips me when I am mask-to-nostrils with a blue ribbon eel. Over the course of a trip with more than 35 dives, remarkable moments like these are numerous, and try as I might, it is not possible for me to capture all of them in a single photograph. To relay the essence of Fiji, I use a big-picture approach to outline my story. This story is made up of little pictures working together and complementing each other while simultaneously maintaining their individual identities to shine through as different facets of the collective.
My intention with this approach is to rise above the practice of just winging it. Instead of bumbling along and filling up memory cards with random, happy snaps of whatever happens to drift past the viewfinder, I reach to go beyond with the help of this photographic formula: inspiration + preparation + gear + work + some luck = success
Success in this formula is creating a photographic story that captures the essence of the destination. While using this formula, I will also attempt to push the boundaries of how my fellow photographers have previously defined a place. Paying homage to the established brand identity of a destination is fine — after all, my story does contain chapters celebrating Fiji’s fame as the “soft coral capital of the world” — but I like to put my own spin on things. These customizations can be technical or creative in nature. They could even take the biological route, portraying a natural historian’s perspective, spotlighting species or documenting animal behavior.
Whatever essence you choose to portray, remember it is a personal thing. Put your own unique, photographic fingerprint on wherever the sea winds take you.
© Alert Diver — Q1 2019