Black Water Photography with Linda Ianniello

The other day I was scrolling through Facebook, and ran into a group all about blackwater photography. I had no idea what that was, so I took a peak. And down the rabbit hole I went, and after an hour of scrolling insane photos, I knew I needed to introduce Linda to my readers, as well as black water diving.

I hope you enjoy this chat I got to have with this incredible underwater photographer, and her very unique shots of creatures most divers have never encountered. I will let her tell you a little more about this type of photography, and we will be learning together!

A chat about black water photography

Flounder Larva - Spotfin - Cyclopsetta fimbriata

-Hi Linda, thanks for taking the time to chat with us! Ever since I ran into black water photography on a Facebook group, I was absolutely mesmerized. Thats when I first was introduced to your amazing photos, and knew I had to chat with you! Can you tell us where you are from, and how you got into black water photography?

Hi, Justin, thanks for the kind words about my photos.

I am from southeast Florida, USA. Pura Vida Divers, a local dive operation, has been doing black water dives for about 4 years. When I first heard about these dives, I was hesitant. I love night dives, but wasn’t sure about black water dives. Then 3 years ago I tried one and have been hooked ever since, doing as many as I can (our local dive group calls it an “addiction”). To date I have done over 100 black water dives. In the summer when the seas are calm I will do two or three a week.

Basslet Larva - Genus Liopropoma

-In case people are wondering, what exactly is black water photography/diving? Do you just go out in the ocean and look for plankton with you torches, or do you get big lights set up to attract them, or how does this work?

The largest migration on earth takes place every night, in the oceans where the zooplankton migrates vertically up from the deep to feed. With the plankton comes a variety of both pelagic and larval creatures to feed on the plankton and each other.

This creates a whole new world for underwater photographers looking for something new and unique.

So a “black water dive” means going out at night in the deep ocean and looking for these subjects which include fish and mollusk larvae that will eventually settle on the bottom, pelagics that live their whole lives in this environment, and things like jellyfish and siphonophores, etc.

In southeast Florida we go approximately three miles off the coast, where it is about 500 to 600 feet deep. We are thus on the edge of the gulf stream and this becomes a drift dive – we have drifted from 1.5 miles to over 7 miles in a 90-minute dive, depending on the current.

The dive boat sets up a large buoy attached to a 50-foot line. There are strong lights at the top and bottom of the line and in between. The buoy drifts with the current at the same speed as the divers, and the boat follows the buoy.

It is a very safe operation. Some people work close to the lights, but I find they attract too many worms, amphipods and small fish that ruin the images. Most of us will drift about 30 feet away, between the surface and 50 feet deep, using our own lights to find subjects.

The distance varies based on the visibility, but you must keep the buoy and line in sight at all times and surface next to them.

Squid - Sharpear Enope - Ancistrocheirus lesueurii

-Im still just blown away with the things you’ve been able to photograph. All these critters are just suspended in open water in the deep?

Yes, most of the critters are suspended in the water column. However, one challenge is that a lot of them don’t like our lights and will either head for the surface or the deep very quickly.

It is challenging photography and when you find a subject, you generally keep shooting until you inevitably lose it. You must have great buoyancy control and be comfortable at night in an environment where there is no bottom in sight.

Cusk Eel Larva

-You must be a marine biologists dream! There are so many species that no one has ever seen, plus common species in their larva stage, which most people have never been able to observe. I was always into diving because of how many cool things you can see, but it seems like black water diving has opened up even more cool diving for critter lovers. Are you ever shocked or confused by something you see?

Years ago I figured out that I like macro photography, and I especially like hunting for new and different subjects then photographing them. So this is a perfect fit for me, it is literally a “whole new world” for critter-hunters and photographers.

And I hope I am helping the marine biologists, showing them the subjects in their natural environment, at times for the first time a particular larva has been photographed. In return, I appreciate having them provide IDs for these subjects. I want to learn about these creatures, not just take pretty pictures!

Generally we don’t see big subjects, but one night two divers were harassed by a swordfish, forcing them to surface but without any injuries. (Swordfish are aggressive and dangerous with their long sharp bills.)

A couple of weeks later I saw a very large fish below me that quickly headed for the surface right in front of me. It looked like a swordfish, so I was a little disconcerted but since I didn’t see it again I remained in the water.

Two others saw it, and on the boat I learned it was a sailfish, which is not as aggressive, so that was a relief. I am frequently confused when I find a new subject and I have no clue what it is. Then it is exciting to figure it out.

That is one reason I am a member of the Blackwater Photography group on Facebook, to see what others are finding around the world and obtain ID help from the scientists.

Basslet Larva - Genus Liopropoma

-What dive cameras and strobes are you using? I imagine some macro lenses for sure, and I also imagine it being pretty hard to focus on a micro critter while floating mid water. Are there tricks to your craft?

I am currently using a Nikon D500, in a Nauticam housing, a 60mm lens, two Inon Z-240 strobes and an Inon S-2000 strobe in slave mode, plus two Sola focus lights.

Experience has shown that the 105mm lens has a lot of trouble focusing in this environment and the 60mm is much faster to focus, and the two focus lights help, coming at an angle from each side (these focus lights are also used to locate subjects).

It is also very difficult to use a diopter and track subjects, so for the very small subjects I work to get a sharp focus and end up doing a lot of cropping. Back scatter is a big issue due to all the particulate in the water column, so aiming your strobes is critical to minimize it.

There is no perfect position, each person has to figure out what works best for their setup.

Flounder Larva - Eyed - Bothus ocellatus

-Before I let you go, do you have a favorite black water photo that you’ve taken? Maybe something really strange or rare?

I have always been attracted to nudibranchs, so one of my favorite subjects has been the pelagic nudibranch. (pictured below) But recently I found and photographed a paper nautilus/Argonaut which is a pelagic octopus. In our area it is a very rare subject and I was thrilled to find and photograph it.

Pelagic Nudibranch - Phylliroe bucephala Peron & Lesueur, 1810 OR Phylliroe lichtensteinii Eschscholtz, 1825

-Thanks for taking the time to hang out and spread awareness about something this cool. Are you running any tours or where can our readers find you and your photo gallery? Do you sell your work?

I don’t run tours, just recommend that visitors to Southeast Florida join me on our local dives.

My black water galleries can be found on my website where I post almost every subject I find, with the ID wherever possible.

I don’t sell my images, but am glad to provide images to scientists for their purposes.

Paper Nautilus - Argonaut - Pelagic Octopus

Anglerfish Larva

Jack Larva - using the jellyfish for cover

Eel Larva

Fish in a Pelagic Tunicate / Salp

Reef Bass Larva - Pseudogramma gregoryi

Flyingfish - Atlantic - Cheilopogon melanurus

Semaeostomeae - Pink Meanie - Drymonema larsoni - Juvenile


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