In short: Me and my cameras have not always lived in perfect harmony. I love diving and find it very relaxing. Why add another activity on top? After initial struggles and a longer break, I started with a new mind-set. Not that there were no more frustrations all of the sudden, but I appreciate every opportunity to practise, I a ready to learn from others and understand that there will be always room for improvements – same as with diving in general. Most importantly, I get pleasure out of the process of taking pictures underwater and sometimes even find peace as I am less fixated on a particular result. A new passion is born. Now all I need to do is to fall in love with post-processing too and then overcome my restraint in presenting my work to others. I’m getting there, eventually. Devocean Pictures serves as my therapy session.
Start and stop in photography
It all started on land. I was a member of a photography club in school and enjoyed taking and developing pictures. My secondhand Olympus SLR camera travelled with me and to Chile, where I worked as a volunteer in a social project for almost half a year after finishing school, to the USA to visit my brother who was working on his post-doc in Madison, and then to Peru to take a break during my studies. After all, geographers should explore the world and the camera allowed me to illustrate my travel reports. As we planned to travel for half a year or so, I had plenty of films with me. After a week or so I was overlooking the Southern part of Lima, In my first week in Peru, feeling quite pleased with myself, after a long and tiresome hike up from our hotel in Miraflores. My belly and bowls weren’t agreeing to the local water yet and not eating fresh vegetables and fruits for that long was clearly not an option. Next thing I know there were no more tourists and families around, but three dubious guys heading right up to us. One of them went straight for the camera bag, luckily the shoulder strap broke quite quickly and they run away before they got to change their approach. Nevertheless, I was almost about to scream after them to come back and take money instead. Luckily we had our first digital camera as back-up for this trip – and the next years to come. I was a student in Berlin, underfinanced, but diving into big city life. Hence my studies took a little longer, there was no new SLR camera and less travelling.
Begin again and along comes diving
2008 I started as an intern at the NGO with the beautiful name WEED e.V. (standing for World Economy, Ecology and Development) and as it went from one project to another to project manager I finally bought my first digital DSRL camera: a small, but versatile Pentax KR1. Happily, I travelled to the Philippines a year later to do some research, but mainly to finish my dream of becoming a certified diver – in warm water. And I felt quite pleased with myself when I was overlooking the ocean, not having any doubt, difficulties or fear of the deep. Next thing I know I’m sitting at the back of the dive centre sipping rum and coke with the staff when I notice a dubious guy smiling at me. I was intrigued but clutched my camera instinctively. As it turned out he had his own anyway, being an (underwater) videographer and simply wanted to invite me for more rum and coke to the local bar. One thing led to another and I moved in with Yoeri the next day. Not only did he fuel my passion for diving, but he took me along for filming and photographing on Panglao and Bohol. Looking at his mesmerizing underwater clips, I started to wonder about underwater photography and soon enough learnt that there was no housing available for that camera and lenses I had invested in.
First frustration with underwater photography
Whilst getting freelance projects organised in order to start a new life in the tropics and becoming a divemaster I bought a used Sea&Sea camera on eBay Germany. I remember the first dive I took it with. So excited, so motivated, simply forgetting about everything else around me, including the manual settings I intended to use, after all, I do know my stuff on land. The results were disillusioning and getting a strobe only made it more complicated. Somehow I couldn’t get the light where I want it, let alone get me in the right position to photograph to subject perfectly in the first place. We moved on and I got the hang of it a little more. Dive sites around Long Island (the Andaman Islands in India), as well as Statia (Dutch Caribbean), luckily provided enough opportunities to settle in the sand once every so often. However, the main problem was my mindset and my slight tendency of being impatient, perhaps. I was convinced I knew enough about photography to quickly get fantastic results also underwater, I got way too excited and completely carried away with opportunities instead of working my way up from easy subjects and situations whilst figuring out the differences in settings and how to place the light system. It wasn’t only me though, the camera was also a disaster. From the moment I pressed the shutter, it took forever until the picture was taken. Who can frame a shot like that? In the end, I left the camera behind in Statia for kids to play with.
Back to basics
For the next three years, I didn’t want to take underwater pictures, diving was enough and being the spotter for Yoeri whenever the opportunity arose. At least he got stunning results – most of the time. Granted he has almost 20 years more experience underwater than I have. Looking back at it, it was certainly helpful to focus on diving first, improve buoyancy, positioning and movements – every dive a little bit more. As a dive guide, I saw so much destructive behaviour with regards to underwater photography that for quite some time I didn’t want to pick it up anymore. I got magnifying glasses and observed behaviour, learnt about creatures and their habitats and primarily kept others from harassing or destroying marine life, becoming better divers and with that better photographers as well. Most photographers don’t destroy intentionally, but as I experienced myself first hand, it is so easy to get lost looking through the lens and rushing from one subject to the next without taking a moment to plan properly.
Second try in becoming an underwater photographer
Slowly but surely my Pentax was getting out of shape and while I was wondering which kind of camera I wanted I also had to decide if it would be one to take underwater eventually or not. Luckily Wakatobi was the perfect place to see a lot of camera systems and their housings and talk to guests about their experiences. With all the research Yoeri put into his new camera system I opted for an Olympus OM-D E-M1 II in a Nauticam housing. For starters I wanted to use Yoeri’s video lights instead of strobes – I thought it would be easier. With all the best intentions in mind, calm and collected, ready to take time and plan, I entered the house reef with the new setup and from the very first moment, it all went all horribly wrong. The system was way too heavy and constantly falling forward which threw off my buoyancy quite a bit, strong currents were pushing, and the light situation changed every minute which overthrew the manual settings I just managed to put in almost every time. On top of that, every creature capable of moving did move away from me, visibility wasn’t great and I couldn’t find any subject. The only positive aspect: nobody else was around to see my struggling. As it turns out, even with thousands of dives, I still needed to get used to diving with a new and relatively big camera system … The next dives I focussed on wide-angle and natural light in the shallows to get a feel for the camera. I tweaked the buoyancy with float arms, invested in strobes and focussed on easy subjects, in the sense that they stay in place long enough for me to work out all my settings.
Where I’m standing
All in all, I am far from being professional, but after 50 dives or so with my camera it does feel like it has become a part of me. I do know what I’m doing (most of the time). I enjoy the process and rather try to get one nice shot than a bundle of mediocre ones. Sometimes I even try to compose fish against a beautiful background. But most importantly, I love being underwater, the feeling of diving, the underwater world and therefore once every so often I stop and look around and then just go with the flow to take it all in and be present instead of taking another picture.