For the last year I’ve really been trying to improve my underwater photography, so I am always searching for inspiration online, from great photographers.
And that’s how I first met Brent Durand, by his amazing underwater photos and videos on Instagram. I’ve reached out to Brent, to have a chat about underwater photography, his favorite dive sites and any tips he might have for us beginners!
Chatting with Brent Durand about underwater photography
-Hi Brent, thanks for chatting with me. Can you tell us where you are from, and how you got into diving the first time?
Hey Justin, I’m always happy to talk photography! I’m from Los Angeles, California. I grew up around the ocean but didn’t get certified until I was 14 or 15.
After that, I dived here and there until College, where I assisted with a semester-long scuba class, and then returned to LA and started diving more seriously.
-You post a lot of shots from kelp forests and coastal dives in California, is that where you are based now?
Yep, I live in Playa Del Rey, so it’s only 45 to 75 minutes driving to access great reefs off the beach in Malibu or Palos Verdes. I’m actually moving to Northern California in early May, so will have new kelp forests to explore and photograph.
-I’ve never dove at all in California, how does it compare to other US states for diving, such as Florida and Hawaii? Does it have similar critters and landscape, or unique?
We have a number of the same critters as Florida and Hawaii, but they’re generally different species that enjoy living in our temperate waters. Lobsters, nudibranchs and octopuses are the first that come to mind.
The biggest difference is the kelp forests. Diving in the kelp is a 3D experience with life around you in every direction. Without kelp, you’re generally only looking down at the reef and critters below you.
-I’ve enjoyed your videos, lately I’ve noticed you a lot more on your channel, as well as PADI’s instagram and other big accounts. Do you have trick to keep shots so smooth? Is it just good buoyancy? I have great buoyancy, but especially with macro shots, I always waste a ton of shots because of shakiness. I ended up buying a underwater tripod for the macro which helped a lot. But how do you do it?
The underwater tripod is the way to go. I recently made a tripod for the same reason. You can get away with hand holding wide-angle video if you’re stable, but even the smallest movement in macro is enough to make a salty sailor seasick when watching the footage.
The tripod keeps the camera stable with minimal contact with the reef, since the goal is to plant the tripod legs on bare rock or sand in order to avoid contact with corals, sponges, etc.
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-I have a lot of friends and fellow travel bloggers, who want to get into underwater photography, and always ask me what camera they should get. I find that people I know who are professional “above water” photographers, think they can just get certified to dive, buy an expensive housing for their camera, and instantly be making great content. What would you say to these people? For me, I always tell them they need to get good at diving first, that a brand new Open Water diver should probably not be carrying a giant camera while learning buoyancy and staying off the reef ect. Its much harder than regular photography right?
Absolutely. New divers can easily become task loaded and oblivious to their surroundings with a camera in hand. Everyone progresses at different levels, but a diver should have excellent buoyancy and know their scuba gear intimately before taking a camera underwater. Safety is the first consideration, but avoiding impact on the reef is also very important.
Shooting underwater is totally different yet totally the same as topside photography. I was an avid landscape photographer using a DSLR before borrowing my brother’s SeaLife camera and then piecing together a used compact system.
It took many hours to start figuring out the settings and techniques specific to underwater shooting. That said, concepts you might use to light a model or a product in a studio are the same concepts used to light underwater scenes.
-By the way, what camera rig are you using regularly now? Why is it good (or not?)
I’m shooting the Canon 5D Mark IV in a Sea & Sea housing. I have the Canon 16-35mm f/4 wide-angle lens and the Canon 100mm f/2.8L macro lens.
The color tones and contrast are beautiful, and the dual-pixel autofocus for video is really fast and accurate. My favorite photos are reefscapes, which leads me to keep shooting full frame.
If macro was my primary passion, then I probably would have gotten the 7D Mark II (or Nikon D500 if I wasn’t invested in Canon lenses).
The Sea & Sea housing has great ergonomics and is doing an excellent job withstanding the abuse I put it through beach diving rugged dive sites.
-When I use to watch your feed back in the day, you were running photography workshops, and using different cameras and setups. What setup that you’ve used is your all time favorite, and why?
I love my Canon 5D Mk IV rig. Before that I loved my 5D Mk III rig. I also really like the Sony a6500 – the size is great and new wet lenses allow you to shoot macro, medium field of view and wide-angle all on the same dive.
That versatility is really useful on many dives.
-That also reminds me that I’ve seen you use some pretty simple and cheap cameras, and still get sweet shots. I guess it reinforces that its more about camera and diving skills?
Absolutely. I’ve presented on this topic a couple times. Underwater photography is about a mindset – it’s about understanding how your camera performs and setting up shots where it will perform the best.
I’m not discounting the settings or understanding marine life behavior, but believe that if you look for scenes where your camera will excel, you’ll create much better photos.
Some things to consider are dynamic range of the scene, available ambient light, size of a macro critter and orientation of a subject.
-I once heard you talking about the art of the split shot, giving advice on how to get some great over and under shots. My question in my mind at the time was, is there a market for these photos, or is this just a very expensive hobby for most? I guess what I am asking is, are there a lot of jobs out there for good underwater photographers?
I would tell aspiring photographers to keep their day jobs! We are seeing a major shift in the media industry that is making it very hard to make a living off photography.
There are certainly great jobs as photo pros at dive resorts and liveaboards, but that’s generally it.
Some photographers have pursued careers in marine biology or in organizing dive trips in order to get themselves out in the ocean shooting all the time, and that’s what I suggest for those who want to become full-time underwater photographers. Stay in school kids!
-Speaking of the photography workshops you’ve run, you have dove in some awesome locations. Do you have a favorite? Actually, can you list all the countries/locations you’ve got to dive in?
I’ve never actually been on a dive holiday though – all my dive trips have been workshops and/or very busy on the computer with work. Instead of naming a favorite, let’s just say I’ll go dive anywhere opportunity presents itself!
-Wow, Sri Lanka huh? I’ve only jsut started hearing about diving there. How was it? I hear there are a lot of wrecks?
So many wrecks. That’s absolutely the focus for scuba diving, at least from what I saw. Most of the wrecks are deep, but like all wrecks, they’re magnets for marine life.
-I have a huge list of places I want to dive, and I am betting you do to. What is on the top of your wish list for places you want to dive?
I’d say that even though they’re so close, the Channel Islands are at the top of my list. Then, in no particular order, Raja Ampat, Komodo, Alor, the Rainbow Reef, anywhere in Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka and British Columbia.
-I’ve dove in Raja, Komodo and Alor, those are awesome, and the rest of yours are also on my list! Are you more into macro or wide angle photography, and why?
I tend to shoot more wide-angle. I’ve always spent a lot of time outdoors and was shooting landscapes even before taking a camera diving. I would shoot underwater landscapes all day every day if I could. That said, I get really excited and start geeking on on macro trips… you’ve been warned!
-Do you have a favorite critter that you always look for to shoot?
Lately it’s harbor seals. They’re just so much fun. I don’t seek them out too much as I have other photo projects and commitments, but when there’s an opportunity to photograph seals I’m all about it.
-For me there are too many great stuff to look for, but I like finding stuff that isn’t too skittish and lets me film them, like a nudibranch. I do have a nemesis though….Pygmy seahorses! Those are some of my favorite creatures, but I have still failed to get a good clip of them. They are ALWAYS in a precarious spot, in the middle of a delicate gorgonian that I cant touch, and there always seems to be a current, and I just cant get a smooth shot. Also they are so tiny that every little movement of the camera looks horrible. So I call them my nemesis because I keep failing to get a good shot! Do you have an elusive shot you’d love to get? Or some shot you’ve been trying to get for a long time?
Those pygmy seahorses are incredibly tough to film! Can’t wait to see the footage when you nail it. My arch nemesis are common and bottlenose dolphins.
I’ve spent years trying to get in the water with them off the beach here in California. I’ve sat in the kayak paddling to bait balls, have swam out from shore to intercept slow-moving pods, and have heard them playing and hunting during many dives, but I still haven’t had a good photo interaction.
They frequently swim near and under surfers, but every time I stick a GoPro in my wetsuit there are no dolphins or they don’t pass within visibility. One day it will happen and it will be magnificent! :- )
-Ok now I want to ask you about some of my favorite shots that you’ve gotten. There were way too many great ones to choose from, so I’ll just list a few.
-The first photo is this one with a sea lion sniffing your camera. Actually, now that I look close, there are two of them! This is such an awesome shot, and maybe the ultimate profile photo! Is this you in the photo, or did you take the photo? You told me before it was caught on a GoPro, which i thought was crazy. Is it a video screen grab, or how did it get so still?
Thanks! I shot the photo of a friend during a workshop in La Paz with the GoPro HERO5. It’s a still image shot in raw format. GoPros shoot great photos in the right conditions.
-The next photo is this coleman shrimp on a fire urchin. I wanted to show it because its really familiar. Did you get this shot in Anilao by any chance? I always see a ton of these dudes, with either the shrimp or crabs on their backs in Anilao. Kinda hard to film though, without getting shanked.
Yep, this pair of Colmani Shrimp is from Anilao. I love shooting them because of the vibrant colors and contrasts. The larger shrimp in this shot even has a parasite on the left side of its body. The urchins also like to move quickly at times, making that shooting very tough!
-This is a great photo, just because I love whale sharks so much, and I love that you got a shot of his gapping mouth. Was this in Mexico? I definitely ned to do more whale shark dives soon.
Thanks Justin. Yes, this was shot in La Paz. I love the diving there. Generally the water in the bay is a plankton-filled green with about 15ft (3m) visibility, but sometimes you can find the whale sharks in nice blue water.
La Paz is a great place for these encounters, but if that’s a bit too far to travel, there are also some great summer whale shark swims off Isla Mujeres and Holbox on the Riviera Maya.
-And finally, maybe my favorite photo from you, it looks like two bobtail squids mating I think. This is an awesome photo, it could definitely have come from National Geographic. There has to be a story behind this, how did you manage to get this shot?
I appreciate the kind words – working for Nat Geo would be a dream! Bobtail squid are tough to shoot since so many individuals burrow back into the sand when you shine your focus light on them.
I shot this photo during a night dive in Anilao on an area of the reef that had a lot of bobtail squid activity. It was hustling and bustling and one of our guides called me over to look at this pair.
The photo is uncropped on the Canon 5D Mark III with Canon 100mm macro and SubSee +10 diopter.
-Thanks for the chat man, you’re a great dude. My last question is, for divers that want to improve their underwater photography, are you running any workshops in the future? If so when and where, and do you have it on your site so people can get more information?
Great to chat as well, Justin. I do primarily one-on-one workshops via Skype, but will also be at Lembeh Resort’s Capturing Critters workshop this December.
The co-hosts are Tobias Friedrich and Brandi Mueller, so it’s going to be non-stop diving, learning and fun! This workshop offers the luxuries of Lembeh Resort paired with some of the best macro diving in the world.
The ratio is 3 divers to one guide. The guides are really talented. You can learn more on my website at brentdurand.com.