How did you get started in underwater photography?
I bought a Nikonos V in the 80s, but my high failure rate in the beginning made it a very expensive hobby in terms of the developing and printing costs!
What came first – diving or photography?
Diving – I’m from the UK originally, learned to dive there and was immediately hooked.
What’s in your underwater photography kitbag?
I have been using Nikon cameras – the D800 and D500 and now have a brand new D850 in Nauticam housing that I’ll be taking to Mexico with me soon to use for the first time. I use an assortment of lenses, but enjoy playing around with the Trioplan 100 – the very shallow depth-of-field shots can be tricky, but produce fantastic bokeh.
Favourite location for diving and underwater photography?
Mexico has to be my all time favourite country for diving. On the Eastern side, there is crystal clear drift diving off Cozumel, bull sharks off Playa del Carmen and beautiful cenotes all down the Yucatan Peninsula. To the West, the Sea of Cortez offers whale sharks, playful sea lions, incredible macro opportunities, leaping mobulas and huge schools of jacks, not to mention all the whales and sharks to the South. Head out even further West for cage diving with Great Whites in Guadalupe or the giant mantas of Socorro – Mexico has it all!
Most challenging dive?
Probably Blue Corner in Palau when the current was raging to ‘rip your mask off level’ and we were hooked into the reef with our four children. We realised that we had not pre-arranged the sign language for, “If one of them goes off into the blue, I’ll go, you stay.” We spent a lot of time counting heads, but they all came up from that dive with whoops of joy, thrilled with what they had seen.
Who are your diving inspirations?
Paul Nicklen, for his artistic story-telling, outspoken defence of conservation and bravery in the field and on the world stage. Also Laurent Ballesta for his incredible shark imagery captured in Fakarava – I know first hand how thrilling it is to dive there at night with hunting reef sharks!
Which underwater locations or species are still on your photography wish list and why?
There still seem to be quite a few cold places on my list and I’m beginning to wonder if that’s because I keep putting off cold water destinations. Maybe if I invest in a heated suit, I’ll work up the courage to change that. In terms of species, I still haven’t seen a Sargassum frogfish, but I keep looking under all those floating fronds…
What advice do you wish you’d had as a novice underwater photographer?
I could have saved a fortune if someone had told me to wait until digital was invented! But maybe the best advice is, don’t move on from a seemingly ordinary subject, try and get an interesting shot of something common – that will help you improve as a photographer.
Hairiest moment when shooting underwater?
I love dives that have a bit of hairiness to them, like shooting the crocodiles of Chinchorro, but the hairiest one (for others in my group) was when a great white got stuck in one of the deep cages in Guadalupe. I kept shooting from my cage and then from the boat as they brought it up, and was relieved that neither the shark nor my fellow divers were harmed.
What is your most memorable dive and why?
My first blackwater dive was incredible and I never pass up an opportunity to do this type of diving. Never knowing what you are about to come across and getting the chance to photograph incredible, often tiny organisms that are so rarely seen, holds such a spell for me. Whether in Papua New Guinea, Honduras, Los Angeles, Hawaii or Lembeh, the creatures that have appeared in the narrow beam of my focus light never fail to thrill.
With a lifelong passion for the ocean, Helen spends as much time as possible under the water diving or on the water racing sailboats. She is Board Chair of Reef Check, (www.ReefCheck.org) an international marine conservation foundation headquartered in Los Angeles where Helen is currently based. She has been recognised internationally with awards for her underwater photography and has been published in various dive publications.