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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To see more of Jett’s work follow these links:
Diving with… Ana and Miguel, Siladen Resort & Spa, Indonesia
In this ongoing series, we speak to the people who run dive centres, resorts and liveaboards from around the world about their businesses and the diving they have to offer…
Ana and Miguel
What is the name of your business?
Siladen Resort & Spa
What is your role within the business?
Co owners and General Managers
How long has the business operated for?
Almost 20 years.
How long have you dived for, and what qualification are you?
Miguel has dived since 1993 and Ana has dived since 2002. We are both Open Water Scuba Instructors.
What is your favorite type of diving?
We love all dive types, especially wall diving for the wonderful corals and looking out into the blue wondering what other animals will come up next. But as an UW photographer and videographer we both love critter hunting in the sandy slopes. We are both very fond of night dives as we always find interesting animals and different behaviour.
If you could tell people one thing about your business (or maybe more!) to make them want to visit you what would it be?
We have a wonderful location in the heart of Bunaken National Park and we have an amazing team that provides the best service to each guest. We are a fun dive resort; we constantly strive to be as sustainable as possible and safety is our number one priority. If you like sea turtles and beautiful coral reefs you cannot miss this area for diving or snorkelling.
What is your favorite dive in your location and why?
If we have to choose one wall we would say Mandolin as it has beautiful and healthy corals with a wonderful and shallow reef top. We love to search for turtles in the overhangs, look for long nose hawkfish in the black coral bushes, admire the schooling snappers, and spend a long safety stop on the coral gardens on the top that are full of anthias. For critter hunting and night dives we both love Bolung. Here we can find frogfish, ghostpipefishes and nudibranchs, plus at night we often find decorator crabs, octopus and even stargazers on its white sandy slope.
What types of diving are available in your location?
There are very shallow coral reefs surrounding all five islands within Bunaken National Parkpark — beyond the shallow reef, the seabed drops away very quickly, forming the beautiful walls that Bunaken is famed for. Many of these walls are vertical with huge caverns and overhangs, however some are more gentle slopes that allow more reef building corals to form. On the North Sulawesi mainland there are black sand sites that allow amazing muck diving. Close by, we also have white sand sites, which offer some beautiful coral reefs and gentle slopes. There is even a fairly intact (entirely sponge encrusted) wreck within easy access of the resort.
What do you find most rewarding about your current role?
Working together in a dive resort that welcomes divers and snorkellers from around the world and sharing with them our passion for diving, snorkeling and uw photography and video is a great pleasure. Besides we have the privilege to dive and snorkel at world class sites every week.
What is your favorite underwater creature?
We both love cephalopods in general for their intelligence, capacity to camouflage, change colors and patterns…. We are fortunate enough to have many encounters with cephalopods in this area, from the tiny bobtail squid to the wonderful broadclub cuttlefish, the flamboyant cuttlefish, squids and Ana even filmed reef octopus mating. We could watch cephalopods for ever. And although we see them often, Ana has a soft spot for turtles.
As a center what is the biggest problem you face at the moment?
The biggest problem we all face as divers and nature lovers is climate change and pollution. We need to work on these issues locally but even more importantly we need to address these issues worldwide.
Is your center involved in any environmental work?
Yes, we clean our beach daily and we organise very frequent island clean-ups. Not only do we clean this area, but we also separate the garbage trying to send as much as we possibly can to be recycled. We often have activities together with local school children to help bring awareness of the dangers of plastic pollution. We reduce our single plastic use as much as possible and all our vegetables and fruit peel leftovers are composted. We also protect the nests of turtles that hatch on our beach.
Are there any exciting changes / developments coming up in the near future?
We are partnering with Coral Eye Resort in Bangka Island so that guests can have the best service in the best areas of North Sulawesi. We are getting one more boat; we want to make sure our boats are never crowded, besides we keep working to maintain and improve all our facilities.
How do you see the SCUBA / Freediving / snorkeling industry overall? What changes would you make?
The industry is doing well and I am happy to see that there are more and more avid snorkellers and not only scuba divers. We would like to see more ocean protection worldwide to ensure the future generations get to enjoy the beautiful reef corals and marine life around the world.
Finally, what would you say to our visitors to promote the diving you have to offer?
We give you a chance to explore some of the best snorkelling and diving sites in the world while providing you with comfortable accommodation, wonderful food and the best service. Staying in Siladen Resort & Spa you can do up to four dives or snorkelling sessions every day with very experienced guides, while staying in a safe and comfortable resort that aims to provide the best service to each guest.
Where can our visitors find out more about your business?
Visit our website www.siladen.com, find us on Instagram and Facebook (Siladen Resort & Spa) and contact us:
WA +62 811 44300641
Jeff chats to… Paul Cox, CEO of the Shark Trust about the Big Shark Pledge (Watch Video)
The Big Shark Pledge aims to build one of the biggest campaigning communities in the history of shark conservation. To put pressure on governments and fisheries. And make the positive changes required to safeguard awesome sharks and rays.
Rather listen to a podcast? Listen to the audio HERE on the new Scubaverse podcast channel at Anchor FM.
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