How did you get started in underwater photography?
I was a land photographer before I got into scuba diving. A year or so after I was certified as an open water scuba diver, I was in Egypt with a friend and we decided to take some daily diving trips. On one of those dives, I borrowed the dive guide’s point and shoot and have been hooked since then! Two months later, I went back to the Red Sea fully kitted up with my own camera, housing, strobes and the rest of the stuff that I had no idea what to do with.
What came first – diving or photography?
I was a land photographer, then a studio photographer and would take my camera wherever I went. Diving came much later.
What’s in your underwater photography kitbag?
A vacuum pump! It’s a must have for me since I managed to flood my camera and a housing twice before I had a vacuum sentry installed. But on a more serious note, I shoot with a Nikon D800 (an old beast by now), a Sigma 15mm fisheye for wide-angle scenes, a Nikkor 16-35mm for more rectilinear shots and both a 60mm and 105mm for macro. All of that goes into a Nexus Anthis housing. For lighting, I use Ikelite DS160 strobes for wide-angle scenes and Inon Z240 for macro.
Favourite location for diving and underwater photography?
I’ve been asked that question many times and always find it difficult to answer. Every diving destination has its benefits, otherwise it wouldn’t be a diving destination, would it? I started scuba diving in the Red Sea and it still remains one of my most favourite locations both for diving and underwater photography. I love Galapagos for the abundance of wildlife. I love Indonesia, and Raja Ampat in particular, for ample underwater photography opportunities with its beautiful scenery, wildlife and macro subjects. The Mediterranean Sea, the Bahamas, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Palau, Fiji, Socorro Islands, the Philippines… all of those places are great both for diving and underwater photography in their own way.
Most challenging dive?
To me, there are two types of challenging dives – failed dives and dives that I managed to live through!
The most upsetting failed dive for me was on the Darwin Island in Galapagos. We jumped in with an idea to get down to the plateau, hook up and enjoy a performance by hammerhead sharks – photographing them all along, of course. But as we jumped in, we saw a huge school of jacks. As the three of us got distracted by the jacks, the dive guide went down to the reef with another diver. What we didn’t notice was that the current picked us up and moved away from the reef. By the time we realised it, there was no way we could get down, so we had to go up and wait in a zodiac for about 50 minutes while our lucky friend was enjoying the hammerhead action all by himself.
The most challenging one was also there in Galapagos, on the Wolf Island. The current that day was ripping so hard that some divers decided to abort the dive. My buddy, the dive guide and I managed to get to the reef, hooked ourselves onto it and tried to enjoy the show in front of us. However, all the while I was struggling really hard to keep my housing in my hands, the strobes from swaying around and my mask from being blown off my face. It was quite challenging to stay in one place and in one piece. Eventually, my reef hook slipped off the rock and no matter how hard I was kicking to get back down, the current had already picked me up and was taking me away from the group. On the way up, the line of my surface marker buoy (SMB) snapped, so I lost it to the ocean. The zodiac drivers were excellent at spotting divers, so they somehow managed to get to me before I even surfaced. And, what’s even more amazing, we managed to find and save my detached SMB on the way back to the boat. And although I didn’t finish that dive as I should have, it was still a full-fledged dive, which I came back from with some decent images.
Who are your diving inspirations?
In scuba diving, it is of course Jacque-Yves Cousteau. When I was a little girl, the Soviet television aired his films, so I would be glued to the TV screen for an hour every Sunday looking at the amazing underwater world. It was definitely his films that got me interested in scuba diving. As for underwater photography, there are a lot of amazing photographers that inspire me. But the most important ones are Martin Edge – his was the first book on underwater photography that I read – and Alex Mustard for the beautiful underwater images he takes, his approach to teaching, his dedication, and of course for his talent to be in the right place at the right time to take the best photographs.
Which underwater locations or species are still on your photography wish list?
Whales in Tonga, wrecks in Micronesia, Silfra in Iceland (way too cold for me, but I’ll have to bite the bullet one day!) and great whites in Guadalupe. There are so many of them on my bucket list! But there’s one place in my home country, literally ‘a drive away’, that I’ve been wanting to dive but never had an opportunity. It is called the Kaindy Lake, a natural dam formed in 1911 as a result of the Kebin earthquake. It still contains trunks of submerged pine trees that rise above the lake surface. Covered with overgrowth of algae, the sunken forest creates amazing photography opportunities. Unfortunately, its relative remoteness, high altitude, cold water and unpredictable visibility make it difficult to dive there.
What advice do you wish you’d had as a novice underwater photographer?
Learn the light – underwater photography is all about lighting. The smallest tweak of strobes can turn an otherwise dull photo into an amazing vibrant image that will catch everyone’s eye. Also, learn your camera so that when you are underwater and your mind is preoccupied with millions of other things, controlling your camera should come automatically and take up the least of your time. And of course, practice your buoyancy to make sure you are not destroying marine life while creating your masterpieces.
Hairiest moment when shooting underwater?
Being one on one with two very curious oceanic whitetip sharks on the surface. It was during a liveaboard trip to the south of Egypt. I was about to go back to the boat after a shark dive when I was blown away from the liveaboard onto a reef by a very strong current. Unable to swim back, I decided to inflate my SMB and wait for a zodiac to come and pick me up.
As I unhooked the SMB with one hand, the camera rig in the other, I turned around to see a rather large oceanic whitetip almost touching my shoulder. As it came so unexpectedly and out of nowhere, I screamed into the regulator and apparently the scream was so loud that the shark heard it and swam off only to turn around and come back. At this point, I realised that I was already on the surface, so I started to wave frantically with the folded safety sausage in my hand above water, all the time keeping my head down to watch not one but now two sharks circling around me. The sharks took their turns to check me out by almost bumping me with their noses as I was warding them off with my camera while snapping pictures at the same time. Spray and pray they say? That’s what I was doing.
Luckily, a zodiac driver spotted me in the water and came to pick me up, pushing the sharks away with the boat. I am always the clumsiest one when it comes to getting on a zodiac without a ladder. This time, it took me a fraction of a second to be out of the water in the safety of the little boat.
What is your most memorable dive and why?
I think, pretty much every other dive is memorable – be it for amazing scenery or marine life behaviour. One of those dives that comes to mind is the dive with whales at Boiler in the Revillagigedo Archipelago. We didn’t see the whales, but could hear their songs all throughout the dive hoping to be able to catch a glimpse of those majestic giants. It wasn’t just the hope to see them, but also the Martian-like landscape of the dive site combined with the sound of singing whales, which vibrated inside me, that made the dive memorable to me.
Nadya Kulagina is an avid diver and a self-taught photographer. She has been photographing for more than 17 years, with the last eight underwater. During a trip to Hawaii in 2002, she was inspired by the beauty of the underwater world after a Discover Scuba dive. It was then that she started dreaming about taking her camera underwater. However, living in a landlocked country and not having any access to the sea, she has had to take a long journey to make her dream come true. Nadya has now dived and photographed in Indonesia, Philippines, Palau, Bahamas, US, Cayman Islands, Egypt, Sudan, Mexico, Malta, Sri Lanka and Kyrgyzstan.