Underwater Photography Interview with Underwater Photographer Rick Ayrton

Interview with Underwater Photographer Rick Ayrton

Underwater photographer Rick Ayrton explains his fascination with well-preserved wrecks and unforgettable moments diving the HMHS Britannic…

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How did you get started in underwater photography? 

SS Burdigala
Underwater Photography by Rick Ayrton, SS Burdigala

Almost 20 years ago, a good diving friend and videographer was getting rid of a Sony Hi8 camcorder with a Subal housing at a very reasonable price. I snapped up a bargain and I’m amazed now at where underwater photography has led me. I stayed with video until 2007 when I moved over to still photography, and now only rarely take video.

What came first – diving or photography? 

Empire Heritage props
Underwater Photography by Rick Ayrton, Empire Heritage props

I’d been diving for over 10 years before I picked up an underwater camera. My journey started alongside taking up rebreather diving – as if I didn’t have enough to think about on dives. At first it was videography only and I was lucky to have been involved as a cameraman on both series of Deep Wreck Mysteries, which continue to be aired to this day. I am currently doing my HSE Scuba qualification which hopefully will allow me to find work again within the industry.

What’s in your underwater photography kitbag? 

Brooding anemones, God's Pocket, Canada
Underwater Photography by Rick Ayrton, brooding anemones, God’s Pocket, Canada

My current camera is a mirrorless full frame Nikon Z6 in a Nauticam housing. I acquired this  specifically for my dives this year on HMHS Britannic, as the camera has brilliant low light capability that would bring back some amazing images from Titanic’s sister ship. I have a selection of ports, but my favourite is the wide-angle 140mm Nauticam glass dome which will be in front of the Nikon 8-15mm lens.

I use Inon Z240 strobes but more often I will use video lights for illumination – both on camera and off. I use several inexpensive Chinese made video lights (they survived the 115m deep Britannic!) but I also have a fantastic Big Blu 33K light (nick-named the “tub of light”) which allows me to take the sun underwater. 

I think one of the most important bits of kit I have is a homemade neoprene cover that stretches over the dome port for protection. Always attached to the housing, it is a simple way of keeping the port safe especially when tech diving, at times the camera has to be ignored while an issue is dealt with.

Favourite location for diving and underwater photography? 

Le Polynesian stern gun
Underwater Photography by Rick Ayrton, Le Polynesian stern gun

Without doubt the clear cold water of Malin Head off the coast of Donegal, Ireland. Fantastic well-preserved wrecks in often jaw dropping visibility.

Most challenging dive?

Britannic anchor
Underwater Photography by Rick Ayrton, Britannic anchor

This has to be diving HMHS Britannic with the combination of the logistics of getting all the dive kit and divers to Kea island, Greece. The extreme depth, with its associated risks. The weight of all the kit that would have to be carried by each diver (over 150kg). Despite the complexities of the dive, still taking a camera down and spending time capturing scenes that ordinarily only a handful of technical divers would actually see.

Who are your diving inspirations? 

Red Irish Lord, God's Pocket Canada
Underwater Photography by Rick Ayrton, Red Irish Lord, God’s Pocket Canada

Cousteau. As a child, I remember watching his Silent World series, he was so ahead of his time. Leigh Bishop for his inspiring deep wreck photography taken on film. Arthur Kingdon, who I have succeeded as Chair of the Bristol Underwater Photography Group. He was always ready to give advice when I was new to underwater photography. Arthur is a technically fantastic photographer with a wealth of experience and knowledge.

Rene Andersen, who is a Danish tech diver and underwater photographer I was lucky to meet and dive with in 2018 at Malin Head. His approach to deep wreck photography enables the capture of scenes unattainable just a few years ago. He was rightly the Underwater Photographer of the Year winner of the wrecks category in 2019.

Also many others who I have met, dived with and spent hours discussing the finer points of achieving that perfect image!

Which underwater locations or species are still on your photography wish list and why?

Justicia bow
Underwater Photography by Rick Ayrton, Justicia bow

I would like to get to Bikini Atoll for the amazing intact and historic shipwrecks at the site of American nuclear bomb testing. I would also love to visit the Galapagos (I’m not just interested in wrecks!)

What advice do you wish you’d had as a novice underwater photographer?

San fran Engine room
Underwater Photography by Rick Ayrton, San fran Engine room

Get close, slow down and seek help and advice from fellow photographers who, on the whole, are very willing to share their own experience and knowledge.

Hairiest moment when shooting underwater?

SS Shockland
Underwater Photography by Rick Ayrton, SS Shockland

I was diving a 100m+ shipwreck off the Isles of Scilly and hoping for the fantastic visibility that can occur in the western approaches. All was looking great until about 10m from the wreck when I descended into a thick layer of silty water. I briefly let go of the shot line and then realised there was no way I could find it or my buddy again.

I had to bag off from over 100m, on my own. Even though it was a short dive, I had incurred considerable decompression. To make matters worse, I dropped the reel while it was in free running mode so had a complete birds nest of line to manage as well (couldn’t cut it and lose the reel could I?) Needless to say no images were captured on that particular dive!

What is your most memorable dive and why?

Britannic stern
Underwater Photography by Rick Ayrton, Britannic stern

The HMHS Britannic mentioned above! It is memorable because the Britannic has links to that most famous shipwreck of all, Titanic. With big dives the reality can sometimes be disappointing, but not so Britannic. Everything about the wreck is plus-sized, but the great visibility and the wonders of modern dive technology enable us mere mortals to visit a spectacular pristine underwater museum.

Rick Ayrton

Blue shark selfie with Rick Ayrton
Blue shark selfie with Rick Ayrton

Former underwater videographer Rick Ayrton took up stills photography in 2007. He had been diving for more than 10 years before picking up an underwater camera and has since been involved as a cameraman on both series of Deep Wreck Mysteries. He is currently working towards his HSE Scuba qualification.

Check out more of Rick’s work on Instagram

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Lorna Dockerill
Lorna Dockerill
Lorna fell in love with scuba diving back in 2011 during a trip to Thailand and Australia. Having always dreamt of seeing a sea turtle in the wild, her dream was realised on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef while training to become a certified diver. Since then she’s developed a passion for the natural world, writing about wildlife photography – both the on land and underwater kind – for the past eight years.

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