HomeUnderwater PhotographyKarim Iliya - Underwater Photographer

Karim Iliya – Underwater Photographer

Professional photographer and film maker Karim Iliya spent a lot of his childhood in the waters of Hawaii and still hasn’t lost his passion for being beneath the waves. We learn more about him and his striking photos…


How did you get started in underwater photography?

WHALE by Karim Iliya - Underwater photography
WHALE by Karim Iliya – Underwater photography

I spent a lot of time in the water in Hawaii as a kid. I got my first point-and-shoot camera when I was 13. For years my brother and I talked about getting a housing for the camera, but it seemed crazy that it cost as much as the camera. It took me 10 years and four more cameras before I finally got one for my 5D Mk III. Underwater photography is so different to shooting on land. It felt like I was starting all over again.

What came first – diving or photography?

Underwater photography by Karim Iliya
Underwater photography by Karim Iliya

Photography came first. I would snorkel, surf and windsurf, but once I had an underwater case for my camera, I would look for turtles, waves, or shoot photos of friends in the water. I’d hold my breath and dive down to get different angles. After long periods of time in the water, I’d get cold, so I got a wetsuit, but then I was too buoyant. To counter that, I got some weights and eventually longer fins so that I could move through the water with less energy. Without knowing it, I was freediving. 

An opportunity came up to get scuba certified and I took it. While freediving allows me to move quietly, work in waves, and have high agility, scuba diving allows me to spend long amounts of time photographing one thing, and let small animals become comfortable with me. When I go diving, I almost always have my camera with me. I’ve gotten so used to having it that it feels like I’m missing something if I’m not dragging a giant camera through the water.

What’s in your underwater photography kitbag?

Orcas | Underwater photography by Karim Iliya
Orcas | Underwater photography by Karim Iliya

I use a Canon 1DX MkII and a 16-35mm f/2.8 lens for large animals, underwater landscapes and sometimes smaller animals such as clown fish. I also have a 100mm f/2.8 macro lens, two Sea & Sea strobes and a Sea Dragon constant light. I also carry a little flashlight which I will often use to light very small animals in a different way. I prefer the constant lights as they let me see and adjust the light in the scene before shooting.

Favourite location for diving and underwater photography?

Dolphin and whale | Underwater photography by Karim Iliya
Dolphin and whale | Underwater photography by Karim Iliya

Tonga. I run trips to take people in the water with humpback whales so I get to spend a lot of time with them. I’ve seen dolphins and whales playing together, 19 males fighting for mating rights, playful calves almost wrapping their fins around me, and many other beautiful things. 

Most challenging dive?

Striped marlin | Underwater photography by Karim Iliya
Striped marlin | Underwater photography by Karim Iliya

I had a dive in the Maldives where the water was so clear, you had no reference of where you were. It was open blue water to get to the reef and I’d inhaled a bunch of diesel from the live-aboard the night before. I was having vertigo for the first time in my life. I couldn’t maintain my buoyancy with vertigo and no reference to look at, even while looking at my dive computer. I very quickly realised this was not the dive for me, and headed back up to the boat.

Who are your diving inspirations?

Underwater photography by Karim Iliya
Underwater photography by Karim Iliya

Paul Nicklen, Cristina Mittermeier, Jeff Hester and all the underwater camera operators that film for BBC.

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

Underwater photography by Karim Iliya
Underwater photography by Karim Iliya

There are too many. At the top of the list would be Antarctica to photograph penguins, walrus, leopard seals and all the other animals and underwater landscapes there. I would love to see right whales, manatees, sperm whales (I’ve had two brief encounters) and polar bears.

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

Underwater photography by Karim Iliya
Underwater photography by Karim Iliya

Start earlier. Even if it just means getting a GoPro and shooting what you can underwater.

Hairiest moment when shooting underwater?

Underwater photography by Karim Iliya
Underwater photography by Karim Iliya

There have been a few. I had a terrified bait-ball of fish surround me for protection. Tuna fish were darting at high speed very close to me and it was very difficult to get away from the baitball. It was also my first time in a feeding frenzy. I thought I was going to be Torpedoed by a tuna as big as me. I calmed down dove down, and swam away.

What is your most memorable dive and why?

Underwater photography by Karim Iliya
Underwater photography by Karim Iliya

It’s hard to say as there have been some great ones. Even if there’s nothing to see, I’ll practice blowing bubble rings, take off my fins, release all my BCD air and jump across the sand to simulate low gravity. Maybe the best one was scuba diving with a massive colony of sea lions. I hope the most memorable dive will be one that is still yet to come.

Karim Iliya 

Karim Iliya
Karim Iliya

Karim is a professional photographer, drone pilot filmmaker, and whale swimming guide based in Hawaii and Colorado. Having grown up in the Middle East, Karim quickly developed a curiosity for the natural world that has now taken him into the midst of battling whales, exploding volcanoes, ice worlds of the arctic and various other fascinating places where humans and animals make their homes.

He aims to use his photography and video to share his unique perspective of the earth while telling stories about people, places and animals. His passion lies in documenting whales, big cats and other threatened animals in an effort to protect the delicate ecosystems on Earth. Karim has been published in National Geographic Magazine for his humpback whale and aerial photography.

See more of Karim’s work at Karim Photography, DANCE WITH WHALES or on Instagram at @karimiliya

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