Monday, 25 January 2016

The Joy (and Pain!) of Being and Underwater Photographer. Sea-Changers interviews Malcom Nobbs

Sea-Changers is working in collaboration with some of the UKs most talented wildlife photographers. Part of this collaboration will be a series of Blogs which celebrate their talent, their work, the beauty of the sea. In the third of these blogs we introduced Malcom Nobbs. Recently Malcolm Nobbs, a British professional underwater photographer, very kindly donated a number of fantastic underwater images from his extensive worldwide catalogue to Sea-Changers for use on our website. To find out more about this Malcom and how he became a professional underwater photographer we asked him a few questions. This is what he had to say:

How did you start taking underwater photographs? 

'After my first dive, a Red Sea Try Dive in 1994, I signed up for a UK diving course and in a wetsuit the following February, obtained my first diving qualification. I was so excited I hardly noticed the cold of the Maidstone lake! I was keen to capture memories of my underwater dives and soon began shooting video. However, it was the ‘instant’ stills I was taking that most people were more interested in - I guess my videos were a bit boring! In 2003 I finally accepted videos were just not for me and bought my first underwater stills camera system, an Olympus C5050 compact. I was forced to replace it eight months later after failing to correctly fit the underwater housing’s o-rings! Its replacement, the C5060 fared better but was replaced in 2006 when I purchased a Nikon D200 digital SLR, then the D7000 and just recently the D7200. Each new camera has been a big improvement on its predecessor but as I have also had purchase new underwater housings for each new camera, it’s been a very expensive process.'

Did you enter photography competitions?

Oceanic Whitetip Shark ©
'I was lucky enough to win a few photography competitions. A photo of a moray eel won the Macro Competition at the annual Grand Cayman Digital Underwater Photography Week and an image of a photographer confronting an Oceanic Whitetip shark won The British Society of Underwater Photographers' Focus On Wide-Angle competition. A picture of an Anemonefish was chosen as the winning shot in the International section of the eyeMAGINE Underwater Photography Competition and my close-up shot of an Oceanic Whitetip Shark won the British Society of Underwater Photographers/DIVER Magazine Advanced Oversea Prints Competition. This competition was held at the London International Dive Show with almost a thousand members of the public casting their votes.'

How did you become a professional underwater photographer? 

Great White Shark © 
'I felt I needed a new photography challenge so gave up entering photography competitions and tried my hand at professional underwater photography. I set up my own website ( to promote my work and provided images to organisations such as Sea-Changers who share my views on environmental issues. My website opened many doors and regular work. I built up a catalogue of the world’s so called most dangerous sharks, became an occasional stills photographer for an underwater film company and regularly produced articles for diving magazines.'

Are there any unique challenges to UK underwater photography? 

Dover Lobster ©
'Yes! The underwater visibility, particularly around Kent, can be unhelpful to say the least! I found underwater photography near my now old home town of Folkestone really challenging. All too often the Thames estuary and a very sandy seabed conspired to produce poor underwater visibility. How I envied divers living by the clear waters further to the west! So imagine how pleased I was when my 2005 shot of a common UK lobster, taken near Folkestone, was published in DIVE The Ultimate Guide by Monty Halls which according to the publishers is the world's best selling world scuba diving guide. A little care was required to get the picture. UK lobsters can grow to a length of 60 cms, weigh as much as 6 kilograms and have two heavy powerful claws. One of these is serrated and is like a hair triggered trap ready to snap shut and the other is heavy and blunt, ideal for crushing.

Pike ©

Another favourite shot of mine was taken in 2008 in Leybourne Lake near Maidstone, Kent. The water temperature was just 5 degrees and normally I would have felt very cold indeed. But bizarrely a large pike sought me out and would just not leave me alone. It kept nuzzling the domeport of my camera housing and I forgot all about feeling cold. One of the resulting images was runner-up to the Best British Photograph at the British Underwater Image Festival 2009.

Blue Shark ©

The underwater visibility off Scotland is so much clearer than further south but than so much colder! And Dorset and Cornwall diving is pretty special too. Last year I was lucky enough to photograph Blue Sharks off Lands End. 

We have some fascinating sea life around the UK. Who for example who can fail to love our seals? How many countries give you the chance to snorkel with basking sharks? Probably my favourite British sea life is the ever curious tompot blenny. I’m sure that they have some human characteristics! I was trying to photograph a leopard-spotted goby on Dover Harbour wall when a tompot hopped onto the back of my glove and started pulling at a loose thread. I ignored it and continued to concentrate on the goby. As though annoyed that the goby was getting all my attention, the tompot jumped off my glove, shooed the goby away and then returned to my glove apparently now happy to have my undivided attention!'

Have you had any dangerous moments underwater?
'I've rarely felt in danger on any of my dives around the UK, because despite sometimes hysterical media coverage, most marine life is very cautious and not aggressive towards divers – certainly in the UK.

Nevertheless what still feels like my most dangerous experience to date was an unintentional dive with a large bottle nosed dolphin near a Folkestone beach. The dolphin who had made this area her home, must have heard my bubbles underwater and decided to check me out. She began to play with me, spinning faster and faster around and around me until the underwater visibility turned to zero. She seemed so huge and powerful and even though I knew that she had no aggressive intentions towards me, I did feel vulnerable. I kept still and she soon became bored and disappeared.

I have not felt so safe overseas. I was bitten in the groin by a shark in Australia years ago. The bite was my fault for pushing things too far. I was fairly deep and there was very little natural light. To compensate I turned my flashguns up to full power and fired them far too close to its eyes. The shark registered its annoyance with a warning bite and left me to reflect on my inappropriate behaviour! A few months earlier I was photographing saltwater crocodiles in Papua New Guinea and failed to notice one behind me. Fortunately I escaped uninjured. In fact I only became aware of the crocodile when it swam over my head. Last year a large Great White circled me while I was on a routine shore dive near Sydney but then lost interest in me.'

Name some of your best moments underwater
'One of my best pictures won me the Best British Photograph at the British Underwater Image Festival 2007. I was just coming to the end of a fabulous 100 minute dive near Selsey Pier, Sussex when I saw a lesser spotted dogfish in a superb position for photography. However this dive site is tide-dependant and slack water was well and truly over. My dive buddies sensibly quickly exited the sea while I stayed behind to photograph the dogfish until I was forced to abandon it. But the moment was captured and it was certainly worth it. 
Lesser Spotted Dogfish ©
But my best moment underwater was in July last year when I visited Cenderawasih Bay, Tanjung Yaur, Indonesia. Whale sharks turn up in great numbers there, attracted to nets of anchovies that hang beneath bagans or fishing platforms. Many of the nets are in a poor state and the whale sharks can enjoy a free lunch vacuuming the anchovies through holes in the nets. It is undoubtedly one of the best place in the world to observe and photograph whale sharks and proved to be my best ever underwater experience. I had never been in the water with more than one whale shark at a time. But then I had never been to Cenderawasih Bay before. Even as I got into the water for the first time two whale sharks swam by me. Soon there were eight around the bagan. It was sensory overload. Simply incredible: whale sharks everywhere. And the longer I spent with them, the more I began to respect them. I could be completely surrounded by large whale sharks bumping each other to get to the anchovies. At the same time, seemingly aware of my relative fragility, they would each carefully arch their bodies to avoid hurting me. I knew they were sometimes called the Gentle Giants of the sea. Now I realised why.'

Finally, do you have any underwater photography tips?

'Correct lighting is an essential element of a good underwater photograph. If the natural light is poor you need to compensate with some flash, ideally from an external flashgun rather than one built into the camera. Obviously the closer you are to your subject, the more effective your flash will be.

Unfortunately if there are particles in the water, the flash will illuminate the particles in front of your lens thereby spoiling your shot. But you can avoid this if you use an external flashgun, angled so that it lights up your target but not the water between your camera lens and your subject.

Be aware of the dangers to yourself and to coral and underwater terrain. I certainly regret the foolish mistakes I’ve made, annoying a shark to the point of it biting me being one such example.

Generally it is better to photograph your subject looking at you with good eye contact so it is better to get your target to come to you. You can be patient or find a helpful dive buddy! I like to find somewhere to hide and then send my buddy off to a point beyond my intended subject. My buddy should then very slowly move back towards me without alarming my target and hopefully the subject will then nonchalantly come towards me. Of course you both need to be experienced divers and the conditions benign to be able to safely do this.

Photographs taken in shallow depths, where you can use natural lighting, will give you some really pleasing backgrounds. The lesser spotted dogfish shot which won me the Best British Photograph award is a good example of this.'


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