For the last 15 years,
Benjamin Lowy has traveled to some of the most dangerous places on earth, taking pictures of conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Darfur. But an assignment for the New York Times Magazine on illegal fishing gave Lowy, a certified scuba diver since he was 14 years old, an opportunity to dive for the first time in years. “It all came back to me,” he said.
During the past summer, Lowy went swimming with sharks, turtles, crocodiles, and a few moray eels to document the marine life in
Jardines de la Reina, off the coast of Cuba. Getting those photos, though, “is a high learning curve,” he said. “Lights react differently underwater than on land—you’ve got only 15 feet of the light spectrum, and the flash is different, too. You have to feel where the sun is, where the creatures are. And the amount of creative control is different. You don’t really stay still underwater because you are always swimming or floating. And you only have, say, 45 minutes underwater before you have to come back up. I enjoy trying to figure that out.”
Read on for his suggestions to get the most out of your underwater adventure.
Stay In Your Depth
For the enthusiast, “I don’t see the point of photographing past 200 feet underwater,” Lowy said. “We didn’t go past 95 feet because, beyond that, it gets to be a very technical, highly professional level of diving.” His sweet spot? Around 40 to 50 feet—you have some light from above to work with, with lots of marine life at that depth. At the Gardens, the sharks tend to roam between 50 and 80 feet of depth, but that can change, depending on the specific diving environment and what creatures live in the ecosystem.
Aim for Macro Subjects
“I like bigger animals, bigger fish,” he said. “There’s just more to work with. I haven’t spent a lot of time shooting smaller creatures because it requires a different level of patience. Some people will go back to the same dive spot 50 times just to keep getting the same creature in the same habitat.”
Control Your Emotions
Shooting a shark underwater is not dissimilar from documenting a war zone. “Being able to control your fear is one aspect of it, for sure,” Lowy said. “The first time a Great White swam up to me, I was definitely shaking. You still feel a primal fear when face-to-face with a predator six times your size. You should always have that fear, but it’s more about not letting it take over your actions—to be able to understand what you’re feeling and still do your job.”
Avoid Rainy Season
Above all, though, visibility is key. Colder water tends to be clearer, but temperature is less important than sediment. “You just want to have clean, crystal-clear water and the sun hitting your subject. Trying to photograph after a storm has churned up all this sediment is not great,” he said. “Tons of fish poop is not good, either.”
Invest in Housing
For many of the shots, Lowy used a 42-megapixel Sony a7R II camera, with a 16x35 zoom lens protected by a housing made by Nauticam, a high-end manufacturer of molds. The vacuum-sealed structure takes the brunt of the water pressure while offering space around the camera so you can still work with it. “It’s an incredibly precise machine,” Lowy said. A sensor even detects moisture. One caveat: “The housing cost more than the camera,” Lowy said. For budget-conscious underwater photography buffs, he recommends Ikelite housing, which he also uses on a few cameras.
Measure Your Lighting Rig
When people look at the underbelly of a fish, Lowy says, you can tell how it was lit. “With all these new cameras, you can shoot high-ISO and color-correct, but you can still look at the eyes or the scales to see if someone used a strobe.” For flash photography, he used strobe lights from Sea & Sea. “You can use video lights, which just give off lights constantly, or strobes,” he said. “I used both, depending on whether we were shooting video or stills.”
Scale Back When Necessary
In shallower water, or near more compact marine life such as whale sharks and turtles, Lowy said he doesn’t want to carry a separate lighting extension, instead preferring a high-ISO setting camera like the Sony a7S II. “When you’re holding lights underwater, it’s a fairly big contraption, so if you’re trying to swim, it’s not the best thing in the world.” The cumbersome contraption did have one benefit, though: “I looked like a half-metal octopus, so I guess I didn’t look very much like food.”
Try the Fish-Eye
Lowy also used two different lens setups: One was a 10x18 lens, the other a 20-millimeter lens with 16mm fisheye extension that he used for getting close up to the feeding frenzies. “When you have one giant wide angle, you don’t have to worry about zooming, you can keep your aperture steady,” he said. “And the ISO is so high, you can just pre-focus.”