In short: I and my cameras have not always lived in perfect harmony. I love diving and find it very relaxing. Why add another activity on top? Initial struggles were followed by a longer break until I started with a new mind-set. It’s not that there were no more frustrations all of the sudden. But I appreciate every opportunity to practise. Now I am ready to learn from others. Besides I understand that there will be always room for improvements; same as with diving in general or life for that matter
Most importantly, I enjoy taking pictures underwater and the less I fixate on a particular result the more I am in the flow. A new passion is born. Now all I need to do is to fall in love with post-processing too. Afterwards, I can overcome my restraint in presenting my work to others. I’m getting there, eventually. Devocean Pictures serves as my therapy session (The picture that made it into the final).
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 second-hand Olympus SLR camera travelled with me to Chile, where I worked as a volunteer in a social project for almost half a year after finishing school. Next to the USA to visit my brother who was working on his post-doc in Madison and 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 our first week I was overlooking the Southern part of Lima feeling quite pleased with myself, after a long and tiresome hike up from our hotel in Miraflores. My belly and bowls weren’t agreeing with 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. Innstead there are three dubious guys heading right up to us. One of them went straight for the camera bag. Luckily the shoulder strap broke quite quickly so that they run away before changing their approach. Nevertheless, I was almost about to scream after them. „Come back and take my 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 (A walk from S Sonnenallee to U Kottbusser Tor in Berlin: Memories and discoveries). 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 and then 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 (Endlich richtig abtauchen).
Next thing I know I’m sitting at the back of the dive centre sipping rum and coke with the staff. I was intrigued when I notice a dubious guy smiling at me, but clutched my camera instinctively. As it turned out he had his own. Being not only a diver but also an (underwater) videographer, he 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. He fueled my passion for diving. Together we went filming and photographing on Panglao and Bohol. Watching his mesmerizing underwater clips, I started to wonder about underwater photography. Soon enough I learnt that there was no housing available for the camera and lenses I had just invested in.
First frustration with underwater photography
Whilst getting freelance projects organised in order to start a new life in the tropics I bought a used Sea&Sea camera on eBay Germany. I remember the first dive I took it within my divemaster course. So excited, so motivated, simply forgetting about everything else around me; including the manual settings I intended to use. The results were disillusioning. Getting a strobe only made it more complicated. Somehow, I couldn’t get the light where I want it. Let alone get into 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 Andamans, 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.
Furthermore, I got way too excited. 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, I got completely carried away with opportunities. 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 for me and, whenever the opportunity arose, I was Yoeri’s spotter. At least he got stunning results – most of the time (YouTube Channel). Granted he has almost 20 years more experience underwater than I have. Looking back at it, it was certainly helpful to focus on diving for such a long time, 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. This way learnt about creatures and their habitats, with a little help from numerous books and online sources. Primarily I kept others from harassing or destroying marine life, helped them to become better divers and with that better photographers as well. Most photographers don’t destroy intentionally. Yet I experienced myself first hand how easy it is to get lost looking through the lens, rushing from one subject to the next without taking a moment to plan properly (Our point of view: Back to basics).
Second try in becoming an underwater photographer
Slowly but surely my Pentax was getting out of shape. 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. It also offered plenty of opportunities to talk to guests about their experiences. After all the research Yoeri had 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 because 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. Still from the very first moment, it all went horribly wrong. As the system was way too heavy and constantly falling forward it threw off my buoyancy quite a bit. On top of that strong currents were pushing, and the light situation changed every minute overthrowing the manual settings once I put them. 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 me 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 … Thus, 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. Easy in the sense that they stay in place long enough for me to work out all my settings.
Where I’m standing in underwater photography
All in all, I am far from being professional. Nevertheless, after 50 dives or so with my new camera setup, it does feel like it has become a part of me. I do know what I’m doing. At least most of the time. I enjoy the process and rather try getting one nice shot than a bundle of mediocre ones. Sometimes I even try to compose fish against a beautiful background. The results are slowly but surely listed on underwater photography.
But most importantly, I love being underwater, the feeling of diving, and the underwater world (Warum ich tauchen liebe). That’s why once every so often I stop and look around. Then, instead of taking another picture, I just go with the flow to take it all in and be present. Hopefully, my long way to underwater photography is never coming to a real end.