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Scubaverse Underwater Photographer Interview: Henley Spiers

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In an ongoing series, Scubaverse’s Underwater Photography Editor Nick Robertson-Brown talks to underwater photographers from around the world that he admires. In this blog: Henley Spiers.

Henley Spiers’ all-consuming passion for the sea led him to quit his job in the corporate world to become a dive instructor, and then an underwater photographer. He is a regular contributor to DIVER magazine where his images can often be found on the cover. His work has been frequently awarded in competitions, including the Sony World Photography Awards, Nature’s Best and the Underwater Photographer of the Year contest. Conservation plays an important part in his philosophy and he collaborates with the Marine Conservation Society, Mission Blue and the Devon and Cornwall Wildlife Trusts. Half British and half French, he lives in Cebu, Philippines, with his wife (and favourite dive buddy) Jade and their daughter Apolline. Henley runs personalised underwater photography tours and workshops combining his love of diving, teaching and underwater photography.


NRB: How did your underwater photography start?

HS: Well, I first picked up an underwater camera whilst working as a divemaster and then dive instructor in the Philippines and Indonesia. However, at that stage I was very much a ‘diver with a camera’ and it wasn’t until I took a trip to Lembeh that I really had my first go at underwater photography, renting a lovely Olympus mirrorless set-up and with the sole purpose of the dive being the creation of images. I caught the bug pretty quickly from there and soon invested in my own rig. When I moved to Saint Lucia to work as a the dive manager for a new dive shop I had the opportunity to really get shooting underwater on a regular basis and things snowballed fairly quickly from there!

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

HS: I recently upgraded to the Nikon D850 and I am absolutely in love with it. The combination of super high resolution (45 MP), strong low-light performance and an ultra-fast focus system make it a dream camera for underwater photographers. I’m currently pairing it with a Nikon 28-70mm lens and the Nauticam WACP which is a groundbreaking development in underwater optics, and I’ve only just scratched the surface of what can be achieved with this beautiful bit of glass!

NRB: What would be your advice to anyone new to underwater photography?

HS: You can learn on your own, but you’ll save a lot of time and headaches by finding a good teacher. Immerse yourself in magazines, books, webpages and exhibitions and find the underwater photographers that you admire. Then get in touch with them and see what teaching options they offer, whether it be workshops or 1 to 1 sessions. Beyond that, understand that if you truly want to make progress as an underwater photographer, it must be the sole aim of your dive and dive trip. You will struggle to create memorable images if you are with a  regular dive group, drifting at speed through a variety of dive sites. Either dive with other photographers or get a private guide, giving yourself the time and opportunity to create an image. Finally, and I’m quoting Alex Mustard on this, photographers are in the unusual position of being judged solely by their best work. People will only see the images you select as your best, and those are the only ones that matter. I consider it a good day if I create one image per day of diving that I am happy with – and I will usually take several hundred! So don’t beat yourself up about the ones that went wrong, that’s part of the process for underwater photographers of all abilities.

NRB: What, or who, has been your single biggest inspiration for your underwater photography?

HS: There are many underwater photographers and indeed photographers in general who inspire me, however, if pressed to choose only one, the single biggest influence has been Alex Mustard. I have attended a couple of his workshops which resulted in a step-change in my approach to the craft, and I am forever going back and dipping into his ‘Underwater Photography Masterclass’ book for tips before a shoot. He is the benchmark that I judge my own results by.

NRB: What image are you most proud of and why?

HS: I think it would have to be ‘Battle of the Tompots’, an image of two male Tompot Blennies fighting it out for mating rights under Swanage Pier. My dream images are ones that combine unique behaviour with an artistic rendition, which is easier said than done and was achieved in this shot. The best feeling in underwater photography, which can often be an exercise in patience and frustration, is when you know you got the shot, got something special. It’s a pure, natural high which gives me a buzz long after the dive is over. Fortunately, that image was also recognised more widely, with a category win in the Underwater Photographer of the Year and placing in a few other prominent contests. In fact, it was even featured as the Sunday Times ‘Photograph of the Week’! So it was really the full package and it’s the image I am most proud of.

NRB: Where is your favourite dive location, and is it for the photography?

HS: I’m not sure I’ve found it yet, I’ve been to many beautiful spots but I’m always excited for the next expedition. This November, I’m visiting the Sea of Cortez in Mexico and am tremendously excited for all of the big animals over there, from sea lions to whale sharks and, if we get lucky, even some marlin! These days, unless I’m teaching, I never dive without a camera so those two things are inextricably linked.

NRB: What are you views on marine life manipulation, moving subjects?

HS: I find it upsetting but I think there needs to be an understanding of how it happens before you vilify all those involved. First off, there has been a drastic increase in the number of divers and underwater photographers over the last few decades. The understanding of how we impact the environment has grown hugely in that time but diving and photography standards have not quite caught up. Look back at videos of Jacques Cousteau and you will see behaviour which would be widely denounced today. However, there is no doubt in my mind that he and his team were pioneers and, overall, did far more good for the oceans than harm. They were simply less aware than we are today of the human impact on marine life and marine ecosystems.

Likewise, when there were only a few hundred underwater photographers in the world, moving subjects and kneeling on the coral was commonly practiced. Those photographers created some beautiful images which set the standard and would then be emulated by the next generation. There is this cascading effect by the standard-bearers in the diving and underwater photography industry which is what, in my opinion, has driven the bulk of marine life manipulation. People are trying to emulate the images they see their favourite underwater photographers take. In some cases, marine life manipulation makes that easier, and so the dive guides will facilitate that process to ensure their guests’ happiness. With the volume of underwater photographers pursuing the same type of marine life these days, that problem escalates quickly.

The problem is not with the dive guides – they are in a service industry and purely trying to give the customer what he/she wants. You have to go further up the chain and look at what images are being held up as the gold standard in underwater photography. Prominent underwater photographers and judges in competitions should think very carefully about what they are putting out there to the general public. Ultimately, the biggest correction to critter manipulation will happen once the images awarded are ones where there isn’t even the hint of marine life manipulation. Now, there is some frustration for photographers there because sometimes you genuinely capture a very unusual behaviour or a critter in an unusual position. However, underwater photographers (especially those in prominent positions) should not shout about or share images which could have been more easily achieved with manipulation. I think that is how you start to stem the flow when it comes to this issue.

NRB: What do you look for when you are making your images?

HS: I guess I’m looking for three things: subject, behaviour and background. I look out for engaging subjects and I look out for any signs of unusual behaviour (cleaning, mating, fighting, flirting…etc) – both of those probably seem pretty obvious. I think what can often be neglected is looking out for good background, such as a colourful sponge, sometimes you are best off seeking the background first and then finding the subject.

NRB: What motivates you to take u/w photos?

HS: At heart it is an all-encompassing passion for the sea and being able to share some of what I see and feel underwater with a wider audience. I fell in love with diving long before I first held a camera and, during that time, would wax lyrical about how incredible it was down there to anyone who would listen. With underwater photography, I have better way than words of communicating the wonders of the marine world.

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

HS: Hmmm well if I had three wishes, genie style, I would go for: whale sharks mating, leatherback turtles mating and thresher sharks hunting, ideally all in the same frame!

Find out more about Henley Spiers by clicking here.

Nick and Caroline (Frogfish Photography) are a married couple of conservation driven underwater photo-journalists and authors. Both have honours degrees from Manchester University, in Environmental Biology and Biology respectively, with Nick being a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, a former high school science teacher with a DipEd in Teaching Studies. Caroline has an MSc in Animal Behaviour specializing in Caribbean Ecology. They are multiple award-winning photographers and along with 4 published books, feature regularly in the diving, wildlife and international press They are the Underwater Photography and Deputy Editors at Scubaverse and Dive Travel Adventures. Winners of the Caribbean Tourism Organization Photo-journalist of the Year for a feature on Shark Diving in The Bahamas, and they have been placed in every year they have entered. Nick and Caroline regularly use their free time to visit schools, both in the UK and on their travels, to discuss the important issues of marine conservation, sharks and plastic pollution. They are ambassadors for Sharks4Kids and founders of SeaStraw. They are supported by Mares, Paralenz, Nauticam and Olympus. To find out more visit www.frogfishphotography.com

Marine Life & Conservation

Exhibition: Protecting UNESCO Marine World Heritage through scientific research

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From now until 30 October, the photo exhibition “Protecting UNESCO Marine World Heritage through scientific research” features 21 photographs at UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, as well as a digital edition.

Exceptional photographs highlight how innovative marine experts and scientists take the pulse of the ocean by exploring ecosystems, studying the movement of species, or revealing the hidden biodiversity of coral reefs. Scientific discoveries are more important than ever for the protection and sustainable conservation of our Marine World Heritage. This memorable exhibition comes ahead of the launch, in 2021, of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (“Ocean Decade”). The exhibition was jointly developed by UNESCO and the Principality of Monaco.

The 50 marine sites inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, distributed across 37 countries, include a wide variety of habitats as well as rare marine life still largely unknown. Renowned for their unmatched beauty and emblematic biodiversity, these exceptional ecosystems play a leading role in the field of marine conservation. Through scientific field research and innovation, concrete actions to foster global preservation of the ocean are being implemented locally in these unique natural sites all over the world. They are true symbols of hope in a changing ocean.

Since 2017, the Principality of Monaco supports UNESCO to strengthen conservation and scientific understanding of the marine sites inscribed on the World Heritage List. This strategic partnership allows local management teams to benefit from the results obtained during the scientific missions of Monaco Explorations. The partnership also draws international attention to the conservation challenges facing the world’s most iconic ocean sites.

The exhibition invites viewers to take a passionate dive into the heart of the scientific missions led by Monaco Explorations in four marine World Heritage sites: Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (Philippines), Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary (Colombia), Rock Islands Southern Lagoon (Palau), and the Lagoons of New Caledonia: Reef Diversity and Associated Ecosystems (France). It is also an opportunity to discover the work of a megafauna census; the study of the resilience of coral reefs and their adaptation in a changing climate; the exploration of the deep sea; and the monitoring of large marine predators through satellite data.

To visit the Digital Exhibition click here.

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Blue O Two announce the winners of DIVING LIFE Photography Competition

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Blue O Two has announced the winners of their first amateur photography competition.  Entitled, DIVING LIFE, it had two categories: Underwater Photograph and Divers Lifestyle Photograph.  An overall winner was chosen from the two category winners and received the title: Diving Life Photographer of the Year 2020.  A calendar of the winning photographs is being produced and will be released for sale in the coming weeks. 

The team at Blue O Two were blown away by the response they had to the competition.  Entries came in from all over the world.  When they launched the competition, it was in part to lift the mood, spreading some joy among the Covid gloom.  The idea was to remind divers of wonderful past experiences and to dream of those they will have again.  Given the engagement from the global diving world and the standard of entries, the competition will now be annual.

Ivan Donoghue: There’s always one!

From the hundreds of entries, there was an initial shortlist of 50 images.  Each category had 2nd and 3rd places, alongside several runners up.  The overall winner has a Liveaboard trip to Egypt to look forward to, the title of ‘Diving Life Photographer of the Year 2020’ and an assortment of Blue O Two goodies. Both category winners will receive a copy of their photograph printed on canvas, a copy of the Diving Life Calendar 2020 and a selection of branded goodies. The runners up will have their image printed in the calendar and will receive a free copy.

Dr Alex Mustard MBE, who judged the competition, said the following: “This collection of fabulous winning images reminds me why I love being underwater and going on diving adventures. It was a tough contest to judge because it was more than just an underwater picture competition, Diving Life was created for amateur photographers to share their love of diving, with pictures taken both above and below the surface. When judging I gave equal weighting to the feeling captured in the images and their photographic technique and quality. For me, all the winners capture the highs of dive trips: encounters with incredible creatures both big and small, amazing moments underwater, spending time with friends, visiting incredible places and having fun.

Overall Winner: Masayuki Agawa with Hammer River

Special congratulations to the overall winner Masayuki Agawa from the USA, whose white knuckle image Hammer River will immediately transport anyone who has dived with hammerheads in the East Pacific back on those dives. The hammerhead schools are regularly most spectacular when the currents are fierce and the advice from the National Park guides is to stay low and hold onto the rocks, as anyone floating up in the water will spook the sharks. The picture places me right in the moment of this unforgettable experience as the hammerhead school magically materialises from the blue.”

The winner, Masayuki Agawa, said: “I am truly honored. Thank you very much for the compliments! It was hard to contain my excitement when I saw the announcement.  Thank you again for such opportunity and motivation. I will continue to strive for better photos in the future!”

To see the winning images and learn more about the competition click here.

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