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Mastering the Art of Underwater Photography in Sydney’s Depths

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Colourful Corals
Colourful Corals
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PT Hirschfield chats to the French-born award-winning underwater photographer, regular magazine contributor and founder of recently launched The Underwater Club, Nicolas Remy

Photographs by Nicolas Remy

Nicolas Remy grew up in a rainforest in Cameroon, Africa. He lived an hour’s drive from the seaside with volcanic sand and big surf, which his family visited every weekend: “My interest in marine life and what was under the surface started very young.”

“In the early years, the only way for me to interact with marine life was fishing. It took me quite a while to get a chance to go snorkelling in a place where you could actually see inside the water, in the Mediterranean Sea. I enjoyed the three-dimensional feel of being in the water.”

He’s married to Lena, whom he met while doing the same electrical engineering course in France (they now have two children). Prior to their wedding, they spent the final year of their degree together on exchange in Wollongong, NSW, where Lena suggested that they try scuba together.

They completed their Open Water course at nearby Shellharbour in 2007, diving for a year without any camera equipment while saving to purchase an underwater housing to share. Meanwhile, Nicolas developed his skills as a land photographer.

They acquired their first underwater camera set-up in 2008, inviting wedding guests to chip in to help them purchase a housing and two strobes: ‘We swapped who would use the housing each dive. One of us had the camera while the other would do spotting and security, making sure we’re not left too far behind the group when there was a dive guide involved.’

After having returned for a decade to France, the couple made the decision to relocate to Sydney. Initially Nicolas focused on making wide angle images while Lena concentrated on macro. They reviewed their images together, offering each other feedback:

“We learned there are ways to frame a critique positively, and there are ways to accept critique. That helped us grow.” Just three years ago they purchased a second housing, and can now finally make images together.

How Technical Expertise Meets Creative Flair in Remy's Underwater Photography

Nicolas and Lena had always been interested in photography competitions, watching results and attending exhibitions whenever possible: “We naively entered one competition. But when the results didn’t include any of our photos, I realised that it was not enough for me to have read two books on underwater photography. We were very technical at the time, but we were missing the artistic components.”

Leafy seadragon
Leafy seadragon

Reflecting on his underwater image-making journey, Nicolas says: ‘I was taking ID shots at the beginning, then started focussing on behaviour to have a story to tell. But I realised, there’s only so many interesting behaviours I can witness. I can’t rely on that for my photographic standout, so I have to do something different.’

He started to focus on getting the lighting right: ‘I remember sharing a photo of red gorgonians contrasting nicely against blue water in the Mediterranean where I spent ten years.

A more experienced photographer told me, ‘Your lighting is a bit harsh.' If you looked closely, you could see some of the polyps were a bit too white. I could see there was something a bit unpleasant, so I worked on achieving softer lighting.’

With a background in engineering, it’s unsurprising that Nicolas’ approach to underwater photography has continued to be highly technical, applying many tools of the trade, such as specialised snoots, coloured filters and off-camera lights.

Sea lion
Sea lion

Nowadays that technical approach is balanced by creativity and innovation, adopting and adapting more commonly practised techniques to create extraordinary images.

Nicolas’ highly successful signature image – aleafy sea dragon emerging from an atmospheric swirling blue-green background – epitomises his capacity to pre-visualise an impressive scene, then create in-camera what many other photographers would be at a loss to create, even in postproduction:

“I used slow shutter speed without too much ambient light; I chose a cloudy day for one attempt and dusk for another.”

“I became interested in competitions again because at some point I wanted to make underwater photography my living. Winning competitions was something successful underwater photographers had in common.

So I thought: how do I win competitions? There were a few things: use a snoot, travel to good places and be creative with techniques, like backlighting with coloured light. There is the type of photos I take for publications, magazines and prints.

Then there are competitive photos where I go more creative because I need something that will stand out.”

Nicolas has offered one-on-one UW photo coaching for several years. In April 2023, he and Lena launched The Underwater Club where he offers self-paced intensive coaching about technicality and creativity, along with feedback to other underwater photographers.

Grey nurse shark
Grey nurse shark

From his previous career in IT, Nicolas has a capacity to explain complex concepts in a simple way to photographers without the same technical knowledge and background.

Of the most exciting diving Nicolas has done so far, much of it has been in Australia: ‘Fish Rock at South West Rocks is so close to the East Australian Current; there’s always something wonderful that might pop out of the blue. Rapid Bay for leafies.

The fur seals at Montague Island. Lembeh Strait for all the critters you find there and guides who know the place like their hand.’ He’s also fond of the UK’s Farne Islands, with the world’s largest colony of grey seals.

His bucket list includes Raja Ampat, French Polynesia, Galapagos and Cocos. Regarding critters, he notes: ‘I’ve had the privilege of photographing the rare spotted handfish, with maybe less than 3,000 globally. But I’d like to photograph the red handfish, with possibly only 70 in the wild.

Nicolas in photo-mode
Nicolas in photo-mode

Orcas. More hammerhead interactions. I’d love to get inside a school with five or six in the frame. Tasseled anglerfish also.’

In addition to being the co-founder and main instructor of The Underwater Club, Nicolas plans to continue focusing on his own underwater photography pursuits, writing magazine articles, going on assignments and possibly running underwater trips. He may even write a book.

You can find out more about his image making at Nicolas & Lena Remy Photography and The Underwater Club.

Underwater Photography 1

MATT MANDZIUK | DAN’S DIVE SHOP, INC. | ONTARIO, CANADA


This article was originally published in Scuba Diver ANZ #59.

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