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Scubaverse Underwater Photographer Interview: Jett Britnell

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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: Jett Britnell


NRB: Tell us a little about yourself

JB: I was five years old when I happened to watch an early 60s TV episode of a scuba diving adventure show called, Sea Hunt. I felt so inspired that I grabbed a war surplus gas mask that I had begged my dad to buy me at the local county fair, and ventured out into my backyard. Our backyard had a large iron cauldron that was filled with water and orange goldfish as a lawn feature. My gas mask had goggles and a long hose attached to a canister. Surely, it would work underwater. After putting on the gas mask I heaved myself up on the lip of the cauldron and dunked my head underwater. Not only could I clearly see the goldfish swimming, but I also noticed the flakes of rust lining the bottom of the caldron. Soon enough, water began seeping into the mask. “No worries”, I thought, “I have a breathing hose!” Of course, the gas mask flooded with water and I had to quickly abort my underwater mission. Clearly, something was calling to me as all through my childhood I was hypnotically drawn to scuba diving either through watching TV documentaries such as The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau or thumbing through the pages of National Geographic to follow the shark diving exploits of Australia’s famous shark divers, Ron and Valerie Taylor.

As a professional scuba diving photojournalist based in Vancouver, Canada, I have achieved what is known in explorer circles as being the “Holy Trifecta!” as I’m a Fellow in three of the world’s most prestigious explorer societies, The Explorers Club (New York), the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (Ottawa) and the Royal Geographical Society (London). I’m also a member of the Ocean Artists Society, an Ambassador in EXPLOCEAN’s League of Underwater Explorers, and a consultant to Elephanatics, an elephant advocacy organization based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Descent into Browning Passage – British Columbia – at a dive site called Seven Tree Island – Jett Britnell

The first story I ever wrote was on speculation for Canada’s DIVER Magazine which meant if my writing and photography were not up to snuff, they did not have to publish it. Remarkably, for someone without a writing degree, or any formal photography training, my first published story in August 1987 was a four-page centre spread feature article along with one of my photos gracing the magazine’s front cover. I had arrived, so to speak. Since then, I have amassed almost 60 magazine cover shots, and my images and editorial continue to be published internationally in various media. Apart from freelancing with various scuba publications through the years, I was also a Travel Editor for Dive News Network, and a Contributing Editor to Canada’s Diver Magazine for 12 years. In 2016, I was named one of “122 Inspiring Shooters You Should Know” by Scuba Diver Ocean Planet Magazine. My wife, Kathryn, and I also co-author an exploration, photography and travel column for Luxe Beat Magazine under the banner “Third Age Expeditions,” https://luxebeatmag.com/category/columns/third-age-expeditions

NRB: How did your underwater photography start?

JB: My pursuit of underwater photography arose back in the early 80’s when I saw a couple of magazine cover shots in Canada’s DIVER Magazine by local British Columbia underwater photographer Gordy Cox. He remains as being one of the most talented underwater photographers I have ever known. I started shooting with slide film and actually learned how to adjust camera f-stops and shutter speeds 60-feet beneath the sea. While my undersea images were good, and getting better, to get them published in a magazine, I had to write the story to go along with my photos. Writing for magazines I also learned as I went along.

Opalescent nudibranch – Browning Passage – British Columbia – Jett Britnell

I made my first underwater pictures in January 1983 using a Canon AE-1 35mm SLR camera in a Tussey underwater housing. Those early images would not see the light of day today. Around this time, I had met Gordy Cox and we became friends. From the beginning Gordy always told me that I had “a good eye” and not to worry as the lighting will come. I also consider myself fortunate that I also become friends with a couple other talented BC underwater photographers, Neil McDaniel and David Fleetham. Somewhere along the way I was simply accepted as being one of their peers. Sadly, my friend and mentor, Gordy Cox, passed away in 2020.

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

JB: While I have tried other camera brands underwater, I have largely been Team Nikon since I was first published. Prior to digital photography, I started out shooting slide film and my favorite camera was a Nikon F3 with a sport viewfinder in an underwater housing. I had two of these cameras housed in Aquatica housings, one set up for macro and the other for wide angle.  I switched to digital photography in May 2004 with a Nikon D70 which was a great little 6MP DSLR and have not exposed one roll of film since. Presently, I’ve transitioned from a Nikon D800 to using Nikon Z6 and Z7 mirrorless cameras housed in an Aquatica AZ6/7 underwater housing, with twin Sea & Sea YS-D3 strobes. While I own a variety of prime Nikon lenses, the workhorse lenses for my underwater work are the AF Fisheye-NIKKOR 16mm f/2.8 for wide-angle work and the AF Micro-NIKKOR 60mm f/2.8 and Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8 lenses for shooting fish and macro critters. These three lenses pretty much cover it all underwater. I have also started using a Nikkor Z 14-24mm f/2.8 which I am quite enjoying.

Baby humpback whale – Tahiti – Jett Britnell

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

JB: Lighting in underwater photography is everything. Study the work of other underwater photographers to gain inspiration and perspective. Try to figure how those underwater photographers used light, the subject matter and composition. Experiment at trying to emulate their style. Never feel you must purchase the most expensive photography equipment. Buy the best you can afford, but never forget that it is the photographer, and not the equipment, that makes the photo. Shoot a lot of images and include both horizontals and verticals. Studying marine life behavior and their habits is vitally important if you wish successfully photograph marine subjects. The goal is to keep working at it and never stop learning. Consider doing photo dives in places where nobody else goes. It is in these places where new discoveries are made. Participate in dedicated underwater photography expeditions. Be sure to friend or follow underwater photo pros and scuba diving editors in social media to keep abreast of what’s happening. Lastly, never worry. The lighting will come as it did for me.

Fish eating tealia anemone – British Columbia – Jett Britnell

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

JB: Apart from the local BC underwater photographers who I dived with regularly, there were also several world-renowned underwater photographers whose work always inspired me. For me, teamwork makes the dream work. I have always been drawn to and admired the photos made by diving couples such as Hans & Lotte Hass, Ron & Valerie Taylor, and Stephen Frink and his dearly departed wife, Barbara Doernbach. Other underwater photo pros whose imagery consistently provided stars to reach for were Amos Nachoum, Chris Newbert, David Doubilet, Howard Hall, Marty Snyderman, and the late Rick Frehsee. They all shot with slide film back in the early days where you only had 36 frames per dive. And then there is what I like to call the new wave of underwater photo pros, the incomparable Ellen Cuylaerts, Michele Westmoreland, Allison Vitsky, Alex Mustard, Ken Kiefer, Eiko Jones, Stewart Sy, Joanna Suan and my brother from another mother and Tobermory’s shipwreck diving legend Stuart Seldon. I would also be remiss if I did not mention Michael Maes who, before turning to the dark side of shooting underwater video, created some stunning underwater still images.

Oceanic whitetip sharks grow up to 4 meters and are “Critically Endangered” in the Northwest and Western Central Atlantic areas – Cat Island – Bahamas – Jett Britnell

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

JB: I never fall in love with the images I make. Not unlike searching for the lost chord in music, I’m seemingly always more interested in the next photo I’ve yet to make. That being said, if I had to choose just one photo at the moment it would be an image, I made of an Oceanic Whitetip Shark while snorkeling with Epic Diving (www.epicdiving.com) approximately seven miles offshore at Cat Island, in the Bahamas. It’s an image I held in my mind’s eye after watching the shark documentary “Blue Water, White Death” when I was still a pre-teen.

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

JB: I absolutely love diving just about anywhere on this magnificent blue planet. If you were to ask, “If you could only dive in one place for the rest of your life, where would that be?” it would hands down be in British Columbia’s famed Browning Passage, which is situated off the north end of Vancouver Island. I’ve made it known this is where I want my cremated remains scattered after my soul departs on its next great adventure.

Sombrero Island reefscape – Philippines – Jett Britnell

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

JB: I‘m opposed to marine life manipulation insofar as moving say a nudibranch next to some more colourfully background, or anything like that. Some believe that shark dives where bait is used to attract them into the area is manipulating the shark’s behaviour. I disagree as there have been several studies which support that sharks are merely being opportunistic feeders. I have witnessed underwater photographers move something, and then not put it back. No picture is worth harming or disturbing marine life.

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

JB: First, if I’m shooting wide angle, I always use “jump settings.” In other words, my camera settings are already dialed in for any subject I might encounter after splashing beneath the waves. Down below, I think about composition and photogenic backgrounds. I take my time to look for photo ops. Patience is a virtue as I will wait a considerable amount of time for a critter to move into the right place. Ideally, we are at a dive site inhabited by marine life we are hoping to photograph. If not, it doesn’t matter. I always descend beneath the waves with a mindset that something good will always happen. Some underwater photographers stress themselves out, along with whomever they may be diving with. In order to truly excel at the art of underwater photography on should attach themselves to having a Zen-like attitude as easily as they change a camera lens.

Clown shrimp on Crimson Anemone – copyright by Jett Britnell

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

JB: I never needed any motivation. I could not have known when I was five years old what I know now and that is I was shaping my destiny when I strapped on an old war surplus gas mask and dunked my head into a big black iron cauldron to look at goldfish. I have a lifelong love for the oceans, rivers and lakes and all that lurks beneath the surface.

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

JB: There is no one place for me. I would love to photograph marine life in the Arctic and Antarctica, Orcas in Norway, or diving with sharks and whales just about anywhere; exploring ancient shipwrecks in the Greek Isles, and the Philippines presently looms large on our horizon. We have been there twice before and Kathryn and I have been invited to lead a trip there in 2022. It’s a lovely country brimming with kind-hearted, beautiful, people and diving there never ceases to amaze.

Giant Pacific Octopus in BC – Jett Britnell

To see more of Jett’s work follow these links:

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 Dive Ambassadors for The Islands of The Bahamas and are supported by Mares, Paralenz, Nauticam and Olympus. To find out more visit www.frogfishphotography.com

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Wining and Diving – South Africa

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The Wining and Diving series sees Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown embark on a tour to tickle the taste buds as well as to discover amazing dive sites in wine-making regions around the world. Some of the best wines are influenced by sea breezes and a coastal climate, allowing two of Nick and Caroline’s passions to be combined into one epic journey.

**Please note, Nick and Caroline are not encouraging drinking before diving! The two activities are kept well apart on each of these trips.

South Africa’s coastline is wild and rugged and has some of the best marine encounters and diving in the world! It is also home to some superb vineyards and so this is a top destination for Wining & Diving! If you have enough time, then try to fit in several destinations on a tour; take in the Sardine Run, go Great White Shark cage diving, snorkel with Blue and Mako Sharks, try to find Sevengill Sharks in the kelp forest, meet the raggies and oceanic shark species near Aliwal Shoal and make sure you dive with the Cape Fur Seals just down the road from Cape Town. Head north for the stunning reefs of Sodwana Bay and even fit in a land safari too! But make sure you make time to visit some of the top vineyards at Stellenbosch and Constantia too, which are just a stones throw from Cape Town and can be done on a day trip.

Our tour took in the lot and this is an experience to be shared with friends. You have to be lucky with the Sardine Run, but the rewards are great if you are there at the right time, with dolphins, sharks, whales and seabirds all competing for the feast of sardines that migrates up the coast in early summer. It is fast and furious, but can also involve long days out on the boat bobbing and waiting for the action to happen.

Flying into Durban you can often combine Aliwal Shoal to start your Sardine Run trip, to get the chance to dive the famous Cathedral Rock and then drift out into the blue for Blacktip and Tiger Sharks.

Gaansbai is the most famous place for Great White Shark cage diving, although recent years have seen numbers falling away, possibly due to the presence of Orca.

Cape Town offers penguins, Blue and Mako Sharks, Sevengill Cow Sharks, Great Whites and the chance to mess about with Cape Fur Seals, who will seek out divers and play among the kelp fronds for as long as you can stay in the cool water. It is here that you can add a few days visiting vineyards and touring the stunning countryside before you head home.

We would love to go back and spend more time in South Africa, as we did not have time for the Mako Shark snorkeling and would like to try again for the cow sharks too. South Africa has so much to offer it is very hard to fit everything into a single trip! It is a high energy and super-productive trip under the water and a wonderful place to relax with your favourite glass of wine in the evening.

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Ocean Photographer of the Year 2021 announced

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Ningaloo Coast-based photographer, Aimee Jan, has been announced as the Ocean Photographer of the Year 2021.

Aimee’s beautiful image of a green sea turtle surrounded by glass fish was captured on the world-famous Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia. Chosen from thousands of submissions from around the world, it was a unanimous winner amongst the seven world-renowned Ocean Photography Awards judges.

In second place is Exeter-based photographer, Henley Spiers, with a beautiful photograph of diving gannets off the Shetland Islands, Scotland. In third place is Sydney-based photographer, Matty Smith, with an image of a hawksbill turtle hatchling heading out to sea for the first time.

This year has also seen the introduction of the Female Fifty Fathoms Award, a new nomination category designed to celebrate inspiring women in ocean photography. LA-based photographer and biology teacher, Renee Capozzola, has been announced the inaugural winner for her beautiful portfolio of work.

A free, outdoor public exhibition alongside the River Thames, on the Queen’s Walk near Tower Bridge, will be open to the public until October 17th.

The Ocean Photography Awards has a simple mission: to shine a light on the beauty of the ocean and the threats it faces. The competition has this year been produced by Oceanographic Magazine in partnership with Blancpain, Princess Yachts and Tourism Western Australia, and in support of conservation organisation SeaLegacy.

Marc A Hayek, president and CEO of Blancpain, said: “As a keen scuba diver and underwater photographer, I appreciate what it takes to capture extraordinary photographs of the ocean: passion, skill and commitment to your craft. The finalists of the Ocean Photography Awards 2021 display those assets in abundance. Their images reveal the ocean for what it is – or at least what it should be – a place full of life, colour and wonder. They also remind us of the injustices we are inflicting upon it. What a powerful collection of photographs.”

Kiran Haslam, chief marketing officer at Princess Yachts, said: “We are honoured to have seen outstanding images submitted this year; they are of incredible standard, capturing some truly exceptional moments. The images submitted in this year’s OPA, without doubt, poignantly highlight the fact that the most important thing we can do right now is act quickly to protect our planet and our ocean.”

David Templeman, Western Australian Government Tourism Minister, said: “This year’s finalists have done an incredible job, not just in capturing aquatic adventures so evocatively, but in inspiring new audiences to treasure them.”

Cristina Mittermeier, co-founder and president of SeaLegacy, said: “The calibre of the images submitted to the second annual Ocean Photography Awards was incredible! I, along with my fellow judges, were challenged and more than impressed by the entries this year. We spent a lot of time discussing the power these images have to inspire people all over the world to advocate for ocean protection. We also spent a considerable amount of time admiring the incredible artistry. Thank you to everyone who entered, and congratulations to this year’s finalists.

To find out more about the Ocean Photography Awards visit their website by clicking here.

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