How did you get started in underwater photography?
A few years after I moved to Singapore from the US, I travelled to Lembeh Strait in Indonesia with some friends in 2013. They told me it was famous for “muck diving,” which I’d never heard of before. When I got there, my dive guide asked for my critter list. I told him I didn’t have one and seemed surprised. During the dive my guide showed me fascinating critters, many too small for my eyes to see. My friends all carried compact cameras and took a long time to take shots. I didn’t understand why and felt like I was always waiting around for them and a bit bored. I saw their photos afterwards and was amazed at all the interesting critters, colours and details. My eyes were not good enough to see the details but the camera captured them.
I asked my friend about his camera – he had a Canon S95 and Sola focus light attached to a tray. I liked it because it was small and could easily fit in my dry bag. It also didn’t cost too much. After the trip, I told him I wanted one but had no idea how to go about buying stuff. He made it really easy and sourced everything I needed – and I just simply wrote him a cheque.
What came first – diving or photography?
Diving came long before photography. I got certified with SSI in 1996 and bought my first camera, a Canon S100, in 2013.
What’s in your underwater photography kitbag?
I always carry two cameras. Currently I am using a Nikon D850 in a Nauticam housing and my Olympus TG4 compact camera. When diving with my DSLR, I am always forced to choose between macro or wide, so I carry the compact camera on my BCD to make sure I don’t miss out on anything. If a whaleshark passes by and I am shooting macro, I will at least have the compact camera to capture a shot. They say, “no picture, no proof of sighting!”
In addition, my Sea & Sea YSD1 strobes, SAGA snoot, OrcaTorch D910V video light, filters for special effects, macro wet lenses or diopters. Oh and most importantly, my reading glasses! I actually wear reading glasses over my mask in order to be able to see the super tiny stuff.
Favourite location for diving and underwater photography?
This is a hard question and really depends on whether I am shooting wide-angle or macro, or looking for a particular animal. But if I have to answer one place, I would say Raja Ampat in Indonesia as it is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet and offers so many different kinds of species and diving experiences across the archipelago.
Most challenging dive?
My most challenging was diving Blue Corner in Bali. I heard so much about that site, but currents can be tricky. We went there to look for mola molas. The beginning of the dive was normal and we saw three passing eagle rays. About 15 minutes into the dive at 26 metres, I could see a white cloud approaching. Then maybe another five minutes later, there was a sudden down current. We were near the reef so we ended up climbing hand over hand up the reef. The whole time my mask was vibrating. The entire dive lasted about 35 minutes.
Who are your diving inspirations?
Sylvia Earle. She is a legend. There are so few female role models. She has done so much for ocean exploration and conservation.
Which underwater locations or species are still on your photography wish list and why?
Now that I live in Asia, those dive sites next on my list are in the Western hemisphere – it figures right? On the list would be Socorro, cenotes, Isla Mujeres in Mexico and Dominica for sperm whales. While I love the diving in Asia and macro photography, I sometimes miss the big pelagic action. On my macro wish list are the psychedelic frogfish (been to Ambon twice and unlucky both times) and glaucus atlanticus, which is a pelagic nudibranch.
What advice do you wish you’d had as a novice underwater photographer?
Don’t rush into buying the most expensive camera thinking you will take better pictures. Award-winning photos can be taken even with a compact camera. But take the time to learn how to operate your camera. Digital cameras can be so complex these days. Once you understand it well, learn about composition and lighting. In my opinion, these are the two most important things to making a good image great. Lastly, practice, seek feedback, and don’t be afraid to experiment.
Hairiest moment when shooting underwater?
I was in the Bahamas last year photographing tiger sharks. We were doing baited photos with lemon sharks to get split and open mouth shots at sunset. The sharks went into a complete frenzy with bait in the water and it is something I do not recommend unless you know the risks of what you are getting into.
The scariest part was making sure you didn’t get bitten or lose a hand doing this. One of the lemon sharks grabbed my entire strobe in its mouth, pulled it and nearly dragged me. Then another one chomped on my 5.5” glass dome port and scratched it right down the middle with its teeth. Fortunately, I still have two arms and 10 fingers though!
What is your most memorable dive and why?
This wasn’t a scuba dive so I am not sure if this counts. My longtime dream was to see a whale – any whale. I’d been to numerous places and never seen a whale, even from a boat (e.g. whale watching trips in Alaska, South Africa, and Boston). I think I was just unlucky.
One year, I decided I was going to finally do it and what better place than Tonga. I joined a sailing trip through the Ha’apai islands of Tonga, and with no other boats around it meant we could have exclusive encounters with humpback whales. The beginning of our trip was quite rough. We lost one sailing day due to bad weather and then set off the next day for a six hour sea crossing in rough seas. Nearly everyone – including crew on the boat – was sea sick. However, I was lucky and not one of them. When we were told to get ready and jump into the rough open seas with swells for our very first whale swim, everyone was feeling horrible and was like, “are you serious?” Little did we know we would meet a special humpback whale we named ballerina girl.
Ballerina girl was so curious and playful. She would swim right up to us turn, twirl, spin and swim upside down. It was almost as though she was showing off her dance moves. She would come so close and check us all eye to eye. All the while, her male escort watched from below.
As wild animals, it is the whale who determines the interaction not you. This encounter lasted for one hour with everyone rotating in and out of the water many times. Afterwards, the crew told us how lucky we were to have such an extraordinary interaction and called it the swim of the season.
Katherine is an American underwater photographer. She grew up in Northern Virginia in the USA and is of Taiwanese descent. Katherine started her diving journey more than two decades ago after receiving her open water certification in 1996. Her adventure spirit and wanderlust led her to travel to over 60 countries and dive all around the world. Currently residing in Singapore and within close proximity to the coral triangle, she bought her first camera in 2013 to show friends and family the world beneath the sea, and soon after developed a specialty for underwater macro photography, though she also loves photographing sharks and large pelagics when travel opportunities arise.
Completely self-taught, she enjoys creating artistic expressions and visual stories that can capture the beauty of the ocean, its inhabitants and fragility of the ecosystem. Awareness and education are key to preserving the ocean and she hopes her images can contribute towards conservation.
Katherine has won international awards for her images and has been featured in both print and online magazines.