Scubaverse Underwater Photographer Interview: Ellen Cuylaerts

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In an ongoing series, Scubaverse’s Underwater Photography Editors Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown talk to underwater photographers from around the world that they admire. In this blog: Ellen Cuylaerts…

I relocated from Belgium to the Cayman Islands in 2009. I have a masters degree in modern history and education, but ended up working in IT until I decided to home-school my two gifted teenagers, relocating and taking up scuba diving in June 2011.  Soon I became a Master Scuba Diver and combined it with photographing the wonders of the underwater world.

My main drive is shooting images that draw the viewer in, so an emotional bond is established between marine life and viewers that might not have a link with the underwater world. By creating an image that captures how I feel rather than what I see I hope to get people involved in protecting our blue planet. I’ve received awards for my pictures and was the 2013 World Champion in the yearly online underwater photo competition www.underwaterphotography.com. In June 2014, and again in 2015, I came first and second in the United Nations’ World Oceans Day Photo Competition. Those competitions have helped me to make my voice in conservation louder and also to mentor more people to use their images to contribute to education, preservation and awareness.

My work can be seen in exhibitions in Paris, St. Petersburg, Valencia, Marseille and New York. Last June I addressed Heads of State on World Oceans Day at the General Assembly of the United Nations highlighting the plight of photographers and filmmakers engaging in protection of the oceans. As a Fellow Explorer International I became a member of the Flag & Honors Committee of the Explorers Club, hence having a front seat at future explorations! I try to bring people together to work in a constructive way to be the change you want to see.


N&C: How did your underwater photography start?

EC: After relocating from Antwerp (Belgium) to the Caribbean, I decided to learn how to dive in 2011! I combined it with getting a new camera just for some me-time; I always wanted to study photography. I got a mirrorless EPL-II, kit lens, a housing and a strobe, the book “EPL-II for dummies”, an underwater photography course and I’ve never looked back.

N&C: What is your favourite u/w camera equipment (past & present) & why?

EC: My favorite setup is my Nikon D800 with a 16mm Nikkor fisheye lens and two sola video lights just in case I need extra light.

Shooting with a fixed fisheye lens makes you very aware of animal behavior, and the contact you need before you can even attempt a shot. Everything looks further away, you have to anticipate your approach taking light and behavior into account, and get as close as possible (otherwise your subject seems very far away). Most of the time shooting with the fisheye lens for big animal encounters can be a gamble. If you can’t get close, your shot will be less engaging. But if you can get close or the animal reveals itself in a great pose, a fisheye lens creates a depth that’s hard to create with any other lens. Be aware though to get yourself and your lens into the right position without harassing wildlife or damaging the environment, as every cm of your camera position counts in avoiding distortion of the subject.

N&C: What would be your advice to anyone new to underwater photography?

EC: Control your buoyancy at all times, only then start taking images. No picture is worth damaging the environment, marine life or yourself. Be a confident and aware diver and a good buddy. Don’t chase images but work on an image while keeping control of your dive. Observe, enjoy, think about whether it’s even worth attempting to take the image (is the background, the negative space interesting, the animal in a good position etc…) or if it would give you more joy to just watch behavior. Keep studying: diving AND photography. Simplify in extreme environments.

N&C: What, or who, has been your single biggest inspiration for your underwater photography?

EC: Brian Skerry, since his image of a harp seal in the water and the article in National Geographic, touched my heart years before I got into diving. When a print was auctioned at Christies some years ago, I even bought it and it’s on my wall in my office inspiring me every day. I was lucky and privileged to visit the ice floes in the Gulf of St. Lawrence where that image was taken twice and the fate of the harp seal pups every year depends on the ice but the decline in ice and the ‘big thaw’ are a sad reality and the harp seals to me are a symbolic ‘eyes of climate change’.

N&C: What image are you most proud of and why?

EC: The image I’m most proud of is ‘The elements’. It’s a Black and White image taken in a grotto with only natural light. It depicts a stream of silversides lit by the sun rays coming into the grotto at noon. That image took me patience, persistence (I saw the image happening before my eyes and almost got my settings dialed in when a group of divers swam through and I kept preparing just in case the school of fish would get back together and the stirred up sand would settle. It took me 50 more minutes of waiting), knowledge of light and photography. The moment I took the final image in raw, I could imagine how it would look after processing and after uploading it, I had the final version processed in two minutes. I took the image in the summer of 2013 and that was the moment I realized I was not just taking images but I knew what I was doing. I became a photographer.

N&C: Where is your favourite dive location, and is it for the photography?

EC: My favorite dive location is….haha UK! I’m totally crazy about your green waters, the cold, kelp, and friendly seals. I’ve visited Lundy during bad weather and sadly saw no seals but two visits to the Farne Islands are still putting a smile on my face. High on my list are diving the Scilly Isles and Hebrides. I think it’s the combination of raw nature, culture and history that will always attract me to the UK. Even if you have weather days on a trip, there’s so much to see and do (for me castles and hikes are all I need when I can’t go in the water).

N&C: What are you views on marine life manipulation, moving subjects?

EC: I have an ethical issue with moving subjects and I even have a hard time taking staged shots with divers. Moving marine life for a shot is wrong. The sad thing is it happens a lot and mostly by people who have no idea about animal behavior. Competitions and magazines should all take a stand and ban photographers with bad practices (also the ones standing on coral…or more generally, those not aware of their environment). Photographers and filmmakers are first hand witnesses of the underwater world and should act like best ambassadors in my opinion. Staged shots: that’s more a personal thing. I want to capture the moment and I prefer to catch it when it’s not expected as it feels more true. That being said, I have some ideas where I’ll have to give directions to divers and it will be my own biggest challenge to communicate what I feel before being in the water.

N&C: What do you look for when you are making your images?

EC: Serenity in chaos, purity in expression. Something has to move me: light or motion or contact. I can spend lots of time in the ocean just enjoying the effects of salt water, without even an attempt to take an image. Yet I’m always prepared for the unexpected, dialing into my settings, taking a test shot, looking around, admiring sun rays or the shade of clouds. There’s always something that can sparkle your inspiration. Beauty is everywhere.

N&C: What motivates you to take u/w photos?

EC: My main drive is to contribute to awareness about the importance of the oceans to our planet, to the animal world and to mankind, by evoking emotions in the viewer. I’ve just returned from the opening of a group exhibition in New York and to be able to bring these nature images to people living in a buzzing city and to start a dialogue about the challenges regarding pollution and climate change, is very rewarding. Every person that changes his behavior because of looking at a nature documentary or a wildlife image, is a necessary win.

The clock is ticking and the scale is getting very unbalanced. There is no time to waste.

N&C: If you could photograph any one thing/place what or where would that be?

EC: Narwhals while diving on a rebreather in the arctic waters are my ‘unicorn’ dream and I will make that happen ;-).

To find out more about Ellen, visit her website by clicking here.

Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown

Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown

Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown are a husband and wife team of underwater photographers. Both have degrees in environmental biology from Manchester University, with Caroline also having a masters in animal behaviour. Nick is a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society in underwater wildlife photography and he also has a masters in teaching. They are passionate about marine conservation and hope that their images can inspire people to look after the world's seas and oceans. Their Manchester-based company, Frogfish Photography, offers a wide range of services and advice. They offer tuition with their own tailor made course - the Complete Underwater Photography Award. The modules of the course have been written to complement the corresponding chapters in Nick's own book: Underwater Photography Art and Techniques. They also offer equipment sales and underwater photography trips in the UK and abroad. For more information visit www.frogfishphotography.com.

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