How did you get started in underwater photography?
My father, who learned to dive in the 1950s while in the Navy, introduced me to scuba diving as a teenager and that ignited my passion for the underwater world. When a medical issue forced him to stop diving, I got into underwater photography as a way to continue sharing my underwater adventures with him.
After stumbling along and slowly trying to teach myself how to shoot by trial and error, I finally took my first underwater photography class more than 20 years ago which significantly improved the quality of my images and resulted in my first international photo competition win. After that, I did all I could to learn more about underwater photography and practice what I had learned. I am still learning today as a professional photographer, writer, equipment reviewer, photography workshop instructor and expedition leader.
What came first – diving or photography?
My dad gave me my first camera, a Kodak Instamatic, when I was eight-years-old and I loved to take pictures on our vacations and put them in a photo album. I really didn’t learn the basics of photography though until after I started diving and took some classes.
What’s in your underwater photography kitbag?
My primary camera is a full-frame DSLR Nikon D850 in a Nauticam housing. For wide-angle lenses, I use the Nikkor 16-35mm and 8-5mm circular fisheye lenses. My rig also sports two fast powerful Sea & Sea YS250 strobes for wide-angle big-animal action, but since they have been discontinued, I am in search of a new powerful replacement pair.
For macro, I use both the 105mm and 60mm Nikkor lenses with diopters. Although I have been shooting wide-angle most of the time lately, I still have a lot of fun toys to play with for macro. I recently got two of the new Backscatter MF-1 Mini Flashes with integrated snoots, which are the perfect size for macro photography and take the guesswork out of directing the light. I also have several creative lenses from Saga like the Magic Tube and Magic Ball, which can make common subjects very artistic. I usually will have my Olympus TG-5 and GoPro with me as well.
Favourite location for diving and underwater photography?
Very tough to pick a favourite and my answer is always changing. In general, I love anywhere that is healthy, full of marine life and if it has sharks, that is a big bonus. My favourite local East coast place to photograph sharks is Rhode Island where there is usually great Blue and Mako shark action.
In the Caribbean, the Gardens of the Queen in Cuba is tough to beat for the silky shark action in a healthy reef system and there is an added bonus of saltwater crocodiles in the mangroves. For a pure and truly wild experience, I recently went to Cocos Island and loved it too. But, it is hard to beat the consistently crystal-clear waters of French Polynesia, which are teaming with sharks year-round and humpback whales at the end of summer.
From my answer, you might guess that I am a tropical warm water diver. However, some of my most amazing dives and photography have come in the chilly waters of California, frigid waters of God’s Pocket in British Columbia, Canada and I would be remiss if I didn’t list Alaska on the top of my cold water diving list with its majestic moon jellyfish blooms and the elusive salmon shark.
Most challenging dive?
The currents, temperatures, visibility and all that gear and weight required to dive at God’s Pocket in British Columbia, Canada has to be my most challenging dive ever. The payoff is worth the effort because you are treated to one of the most technicolor dream locations in the world which is full of life. I am always challenging myself and working on my scuba and free diving skills/certification, because the more comfortable you are underwater, the better the marine life interactions (and photos) will be.
Who are your diving inspirations?
My Dad! He learned how to dive in the Navy while on the USS Oriskany and when he left in the 1950s, he started up a dive club in Ohio with his buddies. The stories he would tell me about diving all over the Pacific and up and down the East coast of the US were something else.
When I was fifteen, he took me on my first dive and gave me the best gift anyone has ever given me, my passion for the ocean and diving. For modern day diving (and photography) inspiration, I would have to say Berkley White, owner and founder of Backscatter Underwater Video & Photo. I first met him at The Digital Shootout more than ten years ago and was blown away by the quality of his work, his knowledge, passion and willingness to share with others about diving, photography and videography. He is still just as humble and under spoken today as he was then, which is a unique and special quality in this industry.
Which underwater locations or species are still on your photography wish list and why?
I have been very fortunate over the years to have visited a lot of places and to have had encounters with some very unique and rare species, but I still have a big wish list. Basking, sleeper and porbeagle sharks are high on my list for sharks. As far as locations, I would like to dive the wrecks in the Great Lakes and some epic deep-water wrecks in Sri Lanka. Antarctica, Azores, Southern Australia, Tasmania and around the southern parts of Africa are also on that long list.
What advice do you wish you’d had as a novice underwater photographer?
Take an underwater photography workshop early and often! Why struggle, trip after trip, trying to teach yourself how to use your new equipment and troubleshoot why your pictures aren’t coming out the way you want them to? We spend a lot of money on the equipment, travel and precious time off from work, so why not spend a few more bucks to reduce your frustration levels and accelerate your learning curve? A good instructor can significantly improve the quality of your work. I experienced significant improvements every time I took a workshop.
Know your gear inside and out before you ever get in the water. It is not the camera that takes the picture—it’s you. Read your manual and learn all the camera’s options, then experiment with them on land. Look online for underwater reviews and tips for your equipment. This will pay dividends on your trip and significantly reduce your learning curve especially if you are not diving regularly. I see a lot of new photographers buy the latest gear as soon as it comes out when they really just need to better know their existing gear and photography basics to improve their images.
Hairiest moment when shooting underwater?
That would have to be while I was in the Gardens of the Queen in Cuba in the water with a saltwater crocodile. For the most part, you can swim with and photograph these prehistoric reptiles safely, but you need to respect their space.
I was helping a friend by modelling with a new compact camera housing and dome she was doing a product shoot for and taking pictures face-to-face with the crocodile. The crocodile kept approaching me closer and closer until my back was against the boat and I had nowhere to go. The photographer moved in on the side of the crocodile for a tighter shot and accidentally bumped its front leg with the strobe and the 8” long croc lunged at me with its jaws wide open. I quickly pushed myself under the boat barely escaping the business end of the crocodile. After we were all safely back on the boat, she showed me the hilarious shot she captured of me ducking for cover with eyes wide-open and hands stretched out that she jokingly refers to as the “defensive jazz hands move.”
What is your most memorable dive and why?
It has to be when I had a chance encounter with a transient pod of orcas at Darwin’s Arch in the Galapagos. We observed and photographed the pod consisting of one male, three females and a calf at first from two pangas, but then I convinced the dive guide to let me go in the water with them. No one else wanted to go in at first, so I was able to spend about 15 minutes with the orcas alone as they curiously interacted with me.
First of all, the large male approached quickly, then the females with the calf hidden safely behind them. To my pleasant surprise, the calf swam up under one of the females and right at me for a closer look. Eventually, after viewing the images on my LCD back on the panga and hearing that they were not aggressive towards me, my workshop group of 15 slowly entered the water one-by-one and got to share in this once in a lifetime encounter.
Ron Watkins is a professional photographer, writer, trip leader, presenter, storyteller, and photography instructor specialising in underwater and topside nature photography. Through his imagery, volunteering as a Shark Ambassador with Sharks4Kids and involvement with several marine NGOs, Ron is committed to raising awareness of the challenges facing our fragile ecosystems and threatened marine life in hopes of promoting conservation. Ron has been an accomplished award-winning photographer for over 20 years and most recently winning awards in the prestigious Nature’s Best Windland Smith Rice International Awards, Underwater Photographer of the Year, Our World Underwater, World Shootout with Team USA and Ocean Art. He is a regular contributor to print and online publications with his imagery and stories being featured in the likes of Alert Diver, Scuba Diving, Ocean Geographic, Scuba Diver Ocean Planet, Underwater Photography Guide, Dive Photo Guide, and Unterwasser.