My long way to underwater photography

This part of the website is meant primarily for underwater photography. As you can see it is still fairly empty. If you wonder why just follow me (Nicki) on my quest to become an underwater photographer. If you just want to browse and see some pictures: Warm regards, our English blog, as well as the German one, feature the first galleries with pictures from around the world. More to come.

In short: Me and cameras have not always lived in perfect harmony. I love diving and find it very relaxing. Why adding another activity on top? After initial struggles and a longer break, I discovered the new pleasure and sometimes even peace in the process of taking pictures underwater. Now all I need to do is work on some of them to present them here. I’m getting there, eventually.

In full: It all started on land. I was a member of a photography club in school already and enjoyed taking and developing pictures. My secondhand Olympus SLR camera also helped tremendously documenting my travels after I finished school, to Chile where I worked as a volunteer in a social project for almost half a year, 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 of Geography. After all, Geographers used to explore the world. And in my first week in Peru I felt quite pleased with myself when I was overlooking the Southern part of Lima 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 half a year 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 and grabbing the camera bag whilst fumbling in their pockets. Luckily the shoulder strap broke as I wasn’t willing to give up my equipment easily and almost screamed after them to come back and take money instead. For the next years, small digital cameras had to suffice. I was a student in Berlin; underfinanced and fairly distracted my studies took a little longer and travelling got less.

2010 working when I became a project manager at the NGO with the beautiful name WEED e.V. (standing for World Economy, Ecology and Development) I finally bought my first digital SRL camera: a small, but versatile Pentax KR1. Happily, I travelled to the Philippines the next year 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 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 as well as diving. Looking at his mesmerizing underwater clips, I started to wonder about underwater photography and soon enough learnt that there was no housing available for my camera.

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 disillusioned 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. Luckily the dive sites around Long Island (the Andaman Islands in India), as well as Statia (Dutch Caribbean), 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.

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 and becoming better divers and with that also better photographers. 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 (see blog entry).

Slowly but surely my Pentax was getting out of shape and with thinking about a new camera the idea of underwater photography grew came back. Luckily Wakatobi was the perfect place to see a lot of systems 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 with Yoeri’s video lights for starters. With all the best intentions in mind, with all the will to take time and plan, calm and collected 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 everything swam 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.

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.