How did you get started in underwater photography?
I started very casually, with a simple Fujifilm compact that I would occasionally use while working as a dive instructor in Bali. My job mainly involved training a whole squadron of divemaster trainees, and documenting our dives was fun but I wasn’t taking it any more seriously than that. I eventually took a holiday to Lembeh where everyone had a big rig and my camera would be buried under a pile of DSLRs in the rinse tank. My interest was eventually piqued and I signed up for an orientation on a ‘proper’ underwater camera setup with Simon Buxton. Within a few clicks I was hooked, having never used strobes before, I was blown away by the colours in the images!
What came first – diving or photography?
Very much diving. I was lucky enough to do my first dive at 12-years-old and was certified within the next year. Fast forward a decade and I was feeling unfulfilled during a foray into the corporate world, daydreaming of being a dive pro on a tropical island instead. That dream eventually became a reality when I took a sabbatical and became a Divemaster on Malapascua island in the Philippines. I’d never been happier and soon after quit my city job for good. The next few years I worked as a dive instructor in Bali and Saint Lucia – it was the best decision I ever made. Eventually, my passion for diving led me to fall in love with underwater photography (although I remember that I used to mock underwater photographers, lugging around huge rigs and sitting in one spot the whole dive…little did I know that one day I would join their ranks!)
What’s in your underwater photography kitbag?
I shoot with either a Nikon D7200 or a D850, both in Nauticam housings. In terms of lenses, I use the Nikon 60mm and 105mm for macro, sometimes paired with a Nauticam SMC for the smaller stuff. For wide-angle, I use a Tokina 10-17mm, Nikon 8-15mm, Nikon 10-24mm and, my newest pride and joy, a Nauticam Wide Angle Corrector Port paired with a Nikon 28-70mm. I use Inon Z240 or Sea & Sea YS-D2 strobes. And I’ll sometimes accessorise the strobes with either a Retra LSD or 10 bar laser snoot. Oh and then there’s the homemade ringflector! I guess you could say I’m a sucker for underwater photography gear.
Favourite location for diving and underwater photography?
Gosh, what a question. It’s like trying to figure out what your favourite song is. It’s very hard to say and depends on what mood I’m in. I’d like to think that one of my best assets is making the most of any given site or location photographically, embracing what is there rather than bemoaning what it lacks. That’s one of the great things about underwater photography: a dive site can be pretty barren, but if it has just a handful of subjects a photographer can be quite content.
Most challenging dive?
My most challenging dives didn’t come with a camera in hand, which is just as well. Probably the toughest dives came while undergoing technical dive training with Matt Reed in the Philippines. He would push us hard on every training dive, stress testing us with problem after problem, the idea being that after all of that any issue on a real dive would be well within our capabilities. I remember on one dive my buddy and I had “lost” both our primary and back-up masks and all of our gas except for one deco cylinder, which had a leak too, meaning that we had to thread the valve whilst buddy breathing, all whilst maintaining buoyancy and completing our planned decompression stops – that was pretty challenging!
Who are your diving inspirations?
Alex Mustard – my favourite pre-dive ritual is dipping into a chapter of his book ‘Underwater Photography Masterclass’ and attending a couple of his workshops was a game-changer in terms of my own photography. His combination of technical expertise, marine knowledge, passion and creativity is hugely impressive.
Laurent Ballesta – No one is pushing the limits of diving and underwater photography harder than this guy and his team. His work documenting the grouper spawning, coelacanth and the waters of Antarctica is just breathtaking.
Greg LeCoeur – He has been cleaning up in the underwater photography competitions for the last few years and wherever he goes and whatever he’s shooting, he always seems to come away with “the” shot.
Christian Vizl – His work is underwater photography as fine art and I love his creative vision. He has such a distinctive style that you immediately know it’s a Vizl shot, a mark of a true great.
That’s just the start, the list is long and my social media feed is a constant stream of underwater images. Everyday I am inspired by a new image and there just isn’t enough space to list all of the photographers here.
Which underwater locations or species are still on your photography wish list and why?
I’ve spent a lot of time in macro spots and would like to do more dives with the big pelagics. I’m heading to the Sea of Cortez later this year and looking forward to hopefully seeing some sea lions, whale sharks, mobula rays and marlin.
What advice do you wish you’d had as a novice underwater photographer?
Spend more time focusing on achieving good lighting rather than chasing interesting subjects. Once you have developed proficiency in using both natural and artificial light and always pay attention to the lighting characteristics of a particular scene, you will be much better placed to make the most of the encounters which come your way.
Hairiest moment when shooting underwater?
I was in the Red Sea for an underwater photography workshop with Alex Mustard and we were on the lookout for Oceanic Whitetips. Unfortunately, conditions were tough, with high winds and a strong current, and the sharks were being much more skittish than expected. Opportunities to shoot these beautiful animals were scarce and I was keen to bag a good shot. We were hanging out in the blue and spotted one oceanic towards the edge of our group. Along with three other divers, we slowly tried to approach it, in the process drifting with the current away from the boat.
Having got a few passes from the shark, we realised we’d been moved quite far by the current and all turned back for a long swim. As we finned away I realised that the shark was following us and turned for a couple more shots. By the time that was done I’d drifted further and could no longer see the other divers. I started swimming into the current and back towards the boat, but without any reference points I wasn’t sure how much progress I had made. After five minutes, seeing as I was only at five metres anyway, I popped up to see how far I had to go. The liveaboard was a long way away, further than I could reach with my remaining air supply, so I deployed my SMB whilst at the surface to get the attention of the boat crew. I’d just inflated it and looked down to find three Oceanic White Tips patrolling around my fins! They had found me in no time and were no longer exhibiting any shyness!
I remembered in the briefing we had been told not to hang about at the surface as the sharks were curious and might try to nip at your fins. I dropped backdown to five metres, SMB in one hand and camera in the other. The sharks swam right at me, investigating this strange creature, and I bumped them away. I finally had the encounters I’d wanted but didn’t have the hands or brain cells to make the necessary settings adjustments to get some good shots. Eventually, I heard the engine of the RIB pass above and made my way up for a very swift exit. Understandably, the boat captain wasn’t too impressed with my shenanigans and I felt rather sheepish as I realised I’d pushed things too far. I was also left with a feeling of awe at the sharks, who had found me so quickly, a solitary figure in the middle of the big blue.
What is your most memorable dive and why?
Another tough question but maybe it was my first ever UK dive. I’d put off British diving for about 20 years but finally decided to take the plunge at Swanage Pier – a nice shallow dive with the possibility of finding Tompot Blennies. For the first minute of the dive, in cooler water and wearing much more weight than I was accustomed to, I felt like a new diver all over again. Luckily that feeling quickly subsided and I got down to the business of finding some Tompots. That turned out to be easier than expected as one swam right up to the front of the camera, posing proudly. What a result I figured, and set about getting some shots of him.
A few moments later, another Tompot Blenny swam into view and I was just figuring out which was more deserving of my attention when they started to tussle, throwing up sand all over the place. I was blown away but with all of the particles flying about soon gave up on photos and enjoyed the show. A little later and the two ran out of steam and took a break, all while still holding each other’s mouths with their sharp little teeth. I pounced at the opportunity, bagging a few images while they looked on curiously but never releasing their grip. It was a phenomenal (and very fortunate) start to my British diving career and to top it off my photo of the fighting Tompots went on the win several awards, including a category win in the Underwater Photographer of the Year – so all in all, it doesn’t get any better than that!
Henley Spiers is an underwater photographer, writer and dive instructor with an all-consuming passion for the sea. His images have been awarded in numerous competitions, including the Sony World Photography Awards, Asia Pacific UW Challenge and the Underwater Photographer of the Year contest. Conservation plays an important part of his philosophy and he collaborates with the Marine Conservation Society, Mission Blue and the Devon and Cornwall Wildlife Trusts. Half British and half French, he lives in Exeter with his fiancée (and favourite dive buddy) Jade and their daughter Apolline. Henley runs personalised underwater photography tours and workshops combining his love of diving, teaching and underwater photography.