Tobias Friedrich: A Passion for Excellence

Tobias Friedrich

As Tobias Friedrich approaches his 40th birthday, he has already amassed a significant portfolio of meaningful images. The internet has dissolved boundaries of “who lives where,” landlocked Germany in this case, and photographers more easily have a global reach. The most astounding and technically challenging images I see online often bear his copyright. I am intrigued by what it takes to succeed in underwater photography as a career, especially outside of our North American zone of familiarity.

Friedrich is too young to have watched The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau in its first airings, but reruns captivated his imagination as a child. His parents would often travel on holiday to the Mediterranean from their home in Wiesbaden, a mid-sized city near Frankfurt. Friedrich would often see scuba divers gearing up on the beach and slipping beneath the sea. His TV-fueled imagination pondered what great adventures they might be having. By the time he was a teenager, the fantasy of scuba diving had given way to a different lifestyle and the demands of higher education.

After graduating high school, he opted for a “social year” performing work for the greater good of the people instead of joining the military as part of his mandatory year of service. He became a paramedic and likely would not have tried diving, but a friend offered everyone in his program free scuba classes. By the time he was 20 he had his dive certification, but he had to carve out time for any subsequent dive opportunities from his emerging career in information technology (IT).

Friedrich started taking dive trips to affordable destinations that catered to Europeans. He repeatedly visited Spain and the Red Sea in those years, and underwater photography was just a hobby to show friends and family what he was seeing on his dive holidays. In 2003 he purchased a compact Olympus point-and-shoot for his first camera, but by 2007 he had replaced it with a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera in an underwater housing, and his images had a sharp uptick in quality.

Split shot of a humpback whale in the Khuriya Muriya Islands

Humpback Whale Split Shot
Khuriya Muriya Islands, Sultanate of Oman

This humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) was swimming close to the surface of the Arabian Sea, allowing for this split shot with brown desert mountains in the background at the Khuriya Muriya Islands in the Sultanate of Oman. This may be one of the most instantly recognized underwater photos because Adobe licensed it to appear as the opening image for their Lightroom Classic software.

Stephen Frink: I began shooting digital in 2001. If you started in 2003, I’m guessing that you never shot film on your way to becoming an underwater photographer.

Tobias Friedrich: I can’t say I never shot film because I tried a few trips with a Nikonos RS and a Nikonos II, but it was more for the experimental nature of learning what came before than to depend on it for image capture. It is better to learn with digital because of the immediacy of review, which helped me learn more quickly. Both film and digital have difficulties and advantages. Digital helped me improve rapidly, but perhaps when you were shooting film as an emerging photographer there weren’t as many people trying to do the same thing.

I sometimes have people attending my photo seminars who may make only a couple of dive trips per year. It could be four to six months between holidays, so while they might be quite proficient by the end of the trip, they will lose some of their abilities in the downtime. Digital photography helps them get up to speed more quickly, but nothing takes the place of getting in the water and shooting, being self-critical of your results and continually trying to improve.

Sunset Reef Split Shot
Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, Red Sea

Split shots are not easy, usually because the world above the surface doesn’t match the world below. Near Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, is an ideal position with a shallow reef for underwater photographers to get some nice shots. Sunset is the best time to do the split shots here. It’s important to find a beautiful spot on the reef and wait for the sun to be just above the horizon for the perfect shot.

As your photography improved in quality and became marketable, how did you monetize your images? What’s the path to success for a German underwater photographer?

I can’t speak for everyone, but my first step down the path was with small German dive magazines. You have probably never heard of them, and many aren’t in business today, but it was exciting to see my first photographs in print.

My first mainstream feature in a German dive magazine was in 2010 and was about diving in rivers in Switzerland. While that was great for my ego, it was still hard to make a living with underwater photography, and my day job in IT kept me afloat during those early years. Working a lot of overtime gave me more time off and money to spend on dive travel. Everything I did in my professional life was to support my passion for diving and underwater photography. By 2013 I had steady editorial work from the two big German dive magazines, Unterwasser and Tauchen.

Chrisoula K Engine Room Panorama
Abu Nuhas, Red Sea, Egypt

I wanted to show the entire engine room of the Chrisoula K wreck. The difficulty here is positioning the lights so they are not too bright but also illuminate the inside to create depth and perspective. Because this wreck is popular in the high season, we had to wait for a time when not many divers were inside the engine room. If other divers were there, we had to make sure they didn’t take the lights. After half an hour with no other diver in the engine room I finally got the lights right for this panoramic shot.

I’ve heard from our mutual friends that you had a big health scare about the same time you were starting to hit your stride with your commercial photography career.

In 2013 I was diagnosed with cancer in my right sinus, and I stopped all activities that didn’t relate to treatment. I did six months of chemotherapy and then six weeks of targeted radiation therapy. It was a rare form of cancer — especially in adults — with about a 20 percent five-year relative survival rate. I didn’t know if I would ever be able to dive again, although surviving was my most important concern. After 18 months of healing I was able to get back in the water and have been diving ever since.

Cancer and the quiet time I had to contemplate my life while I was healing brought some clarity. I didn’t know how much time I had in life, so I decided to quit my IT job and live my dream. All my friends said, “Don’t do it. You’ll never make a living in underwater photography.” But my decision wasn’t about making a living; it was about how I wanted to live. My new philosophy is if you want to go to the Galápagos, go to the Galápagos. Fulfill your dreams. That’s what diving and underwater photography are to me.

Mandarinfish Mating
Banda Neira, Banda Sea, Indonesia

I have made many mandarinfish-mating dives, but I was never satisfied with the results. The mating fish are not easy to photograph because the action lasts only a few seconds. In that short time either the fish would turn the other direction, the camera wouldn’t focus because I couldn’t risk startling them by adding light, or I would press the shutter too early or too late. To increase the challenge for getting this shot, I was using a snoot to get rid of the unappealing background. I had the chance to take just one image, and I was happy that the one shot turned out to be quite nice.

Part of my formula was to embrace the magazine work that funded my dive travel, and the stock photography I shot while on the road provided a nice incremental income. How has that worked out for you in the new era of photography on the internet?

I don’t sell my photos through agencies now. Taking a picture and making it perfect in postprocessing is the easy part. A lot of work goes into captioning, keywording and all the other things you have to do to make an image suitable for submission to a stock agency. All of that effort to ensure a photo appears in a keyword search on an agency website would earn only about 3 euros on a sale.

I prefer projects that provide a day rate. Early in my career some parents hired me to shoot portraits of their babies underwater. Hotels and tourist boards are good sources of work, either by purchasing generic underwater imagery or hiring me to shoot something unique for their property. Many magazines are still publishing my images as well.

One of the best projects I have now uses time-lapse photography underwater. I sometimes get two or three weeks at a location to do this kind of work. I enjoy this new way of seeing things underwater. I shoot panoramas and use slow shutter speeds and time-lapse techniques as examples of seeing the familiar in new ways. It inspires me and makes me a better photographer. I hope that I can communicate uniquely and that when people view my portfolio they see things differently than they have before.

Moray Eel in the Chrisoula K Wreck
Abu Nuhas, Red Sea, Egypt

I was waiting inside a room in the Chrisoula K wreck for another photographer to finish so we could continue the dive. A huge moray eel approached me from behind and swam into the cargo deck just a few inches away from my head. I was quite surprised and pointed for the other photographer to get a shot because he was in a better position than I was. He didn’t react, probably also too surprised to take a photo, so I took the chance and swam a few yards after the eel to get a few images before it disappeared further into the wreck. The other photographer in the picture was coming from outside the wreck to get a shot as well.

Gray Reef Shark Beneath the Surface
Fathers Reefs, Papua New Guinea

This was probably the worst night dive I have had. For the first time my mask broke during a dive, and so much water came in during the first few minutes that I couldn’t clear it fast enough. I had to abort the dive after about 20 minutes and ascend to the safety stop. At the line I recognized some gray reef sharks circling me. I knew they wouldn’t harm me, but I couldn’t keep my eyes open due to the amount of water in my mask. After I reached the boat the sharks were still near the surface, checking out the light of the liveaboard. While lying on the dive deck of the boat, I took some photos that turned out quite nice. The focus light that was still on from my dive made it possible for the camera to get a sharp image.

Reef Squid with Long Exposure
Tulamben, Bali, Indonesia

This reef squid checked out my camera during a blackwater dive in Bali, Indonesia. Usually the squids stay for a little while because they are fascinated by the light of the downline. They pause for a moment if you point your dive light at them, and you can get some images of them before they realize their situation and swim away. After taking some standard shots of this fellow, I wanted to try something different, so I set my shutter speed for one second to capture its movement. It’s not easy to find the right moment. You can’t see the squid’s movements while exposing because the camera’s shutter is up, but with patience and a little luck you can get a good shot.

Manta Madness
Hanifaru Bay, Baa Atoll, Maldives

Reef manta rays come together to feed at this protected area, especially after the full moons between August and October, when the plankton aggregates are especially high here. After taking some photos, I changed my perspective to get something different for my portfolio. My plan was to get a manta from below with the sun rays coming from behind. Luckily there was not one but nine mantas swimming in the right direction to get the shot I wanted. Scuba diving is no longer allowed in Hanifaru Bay, part of the Baa Atoll UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, but some snorkeling tours are available. I took this photo when the area was still open for diving.

Sevengill Shark
Simon’s Town, South Africa

Simon’s Town, near Cape Town, South Africa, is a prime location for photographing sevengill sharks. Many other sharks are there, but none with the distinct feature of seven gills instead of the usual five. The sharks are quite easy to photograph because they don’t mind divers and are more likely to swim into divers than turn away. My idea for this photo was to take an image of sevengill sharks in the kelp forest, their natural habitat, where they hide from one of their predators: the great white shark.

Iceberg Split Shot
Tasiilaq, East Greenland

I took this image during my first expedition to Greenland. It was summer, and the ice and icebergs were rapidly melting. This iceberg was in the bay near where we stayed in East Greenland. As we approached across the small fjord, we realized the algae bloom made the visibility poor. Before we went diving, I wanted to take a split shot of the iceberg from the surface, but the freshwater layer on top made it difficult to get a nice shot. I had to get very close to the iceberg to see its structure as well as the other diver in the image.

Thistlegorm Wreck Panorama
Sharm el-Sheikh, Red Sea, Egypt

I had been thinking about this shot for a long time. A few years earlier I had a taken a photo from the same spot and had been quite happy with it. But after some time I became disappointed because it did not show the whole cargo deck as I remembered it. This time I planned to do a panoramic image at the same location to show the lower cargo deck of the Thistlegorm as much as possible. The wall of the cargo deck prevented me from getting a decent angle, so I had to place the camera on the wall and then turn to the other side in the middle of creating the panorama. My strobes provided enough light to illuminate the motorcycles, and I installed some lights in the trucks to the left and right of the motorcycles to have more depth of field in the image. The image needed some fine adjustments in postprocessing, and I was happy when the image merged perfectly.

© Alert Diver — Q2 2020