How did you get started in underwater photography?
I’ve always been interested in photography – on land that is – but my journey in underwater photography started in late 2015. I had moved to Saint Lucia to join my now-husband Henley Spiers. He was working there at the time and I decided to take a pause on my psychology degree, and do my divemaster training instead for a year. Luckily for me, Henley had an Olympus EM5 and was too busy teaching dive courses to really use it. So, he taught me the basics and that became my first camera. My intention was to document the amazing things I was seeing on my dives as a way to remember them, identify them, and somehow stay connected to them. What started as a casual affair with underwater photography soon became more serious as I discovered how it had brought a whole new exciting dimension to diving.
Speaking of new dimensions, I’ve recently started doing some blackwater diving, which in a nutshell, is a type of diving done at night with the intention of witnessing the biggest daily migration on Earth. In blackwater diving, we look for zooplankton and critters, many of which are in their larval stage — for underwater photographers in particular, it is the “new hot thing”! Earlier this year, I co-authored Black is the New Blue Vol. 2 which features some of my work done during these dives.
What came first, diving or photography?
Luckily, diving came early for me as my father was and is an avid diver. I had my first taste of scuba diving when I was nine, but it was only later when I started to appreciate it. I was lucky that at the age of seven, my family and I moved to Cebu from Taiwan. We would escape the city on the weekends usually to Moalboal, and it was there that both my dad and I first took up scuba diving.
What’s in your underwater photography kitbag?
I shoot with both the Nikon D7200 and Nikon D850, both of which are in Nauticam housings. Shooting only in macro (for now), my go-to lens is the 105mm but I use the 60mm for blackwater diving. My first cameras were mirrorless, but I’ve made the switch to DSLR set-ups. I definitely appreciate the step-up in the speed of focus. Other than that, I sometimes use a diopter — a Nauticam SMC — for extremely tiny subjects. And sometimes I like using the snoot too (Retra LSD or 10 bar laser snoot) to simplify the amount of colours in a given shot.
Favourite location for diving and underwater photography?
Henley and I are currently writing a book on diving in the Cebu province of the Philippines (which should be out by December 2019), and so we’ve discovered many interesting locations and dive sites along the way. We’ve recently found Alcoy to be a hidden jewel for macro. I don’t know if it’s my favourite location for diving, but it is definitely the one I’m most excited about right now. I was most excited about finding a psychedelic batwing sea slug and a couple Lembeh sea dragons there, both of which I have never encountered before.
Otherwise, I will always look at my diving days in Saint Lucia with rose-tinted glasses. I really enjoyed the sense of discovery I felt there, finding critters I’ve never seen before in Southeast Asia such as spinyhead blennies, gaudy clown crabs, and yellowline arrowcrabs.
Which underwater locations or species are still on your photography wish-list and why?
Recently, I have been diving in the Maldives and in Raja Ampat, and as for many divers, those places were certainly on my bucket-list. Now I’m like craving to go diving in places that are perhaps not commonly regarded as dive locations. I am half Taiwanese but have only seen Taiwan above water, so I would like to dip my mask there and see what’s lurking beneath the waves. Other places I’m thinking are: Japan and Britain!
Critters on my wish-list? My blenny obsession is no secret, so I guess it’s not surprising that there are many species of blennies I haven’t seen yet, which I still hope to see. Also, I’ve never come across so many pygmy seahorses like I did in Raja Ampat, each unique in their appearance and character. Safe to say I’ve returned from Raja Ampat with hippocampus-fever! That said, I’d like to see the leafy sea dragon and both the Pontohi and Colemani Pygmy seahorse.
Hairiest moment when shooting underwater?
Henley and I were diving in Seraya in Bali. We were slowly making our ascent to do our safety stop when our guide spotted a mimic octopus. Very excited, Henley and I took our turns shooting the cephalopod until I realised I was drawing my last breaths. I took on Henley’s alternate air source but he didn’t have much left either. Fortunately, we managed to finish our safety stop (just) and surfaced without problems.
I think as underwater photographers, we can sometimes get too carried away with the photography side of things, that we don’t dedicate enough brain cells to the diving itself. Time also seems to tick twice as fast when you’ve got a camera between your hands. The moments after my encounter with the mimic octopus served as a useful reminder that we had pushed the envelope too far and not to take unnecessary risks in the quest for an image.
What is your most memorable dive and why?
My most memorable dive was the first dive I did after I had spent nine months being pregnant. Apolline was over a month old and I had sneaked away (between breastfeeds) for a quick dive under Swanage Pier in Dorset. This dive was very different from the rest of my dives. It was my first dive in temperate waters, and everything I saw was new and exciting. I decided to dive without a camera in order to focus on the experience itself. It felt so good to be back in the water, and the feeling of my fingers and toes going numb sure made it memorable!
Most challenging dive (and why?)
Perhaps the most recent dives I did in the Maldives. We were faced with a lot of current from all sorts of directions, but we did see some spectacular wildlife.
Who are your diving inspirations?
There are many people that inspire me in underwater photography, but I’m lucky that the person that inspires me and motivates me the most is one that lives under the same roof as me. Henley’s undying determination, patience, and positive outlook on every situation inspires me to be a better photographer.
William Tan has also greatly inspired me and been an important person in shaping who I am as a photographer. I respect his incredible knowledge and one of the things I have learned from him is that to take great macro photographs, you need to understand the critters you are shooting and their behaviour.
My other inspirations include Alex Mustard for his technical genius, Yorko Summer for his comical interpretations and use of colour, Christian Vizl for his passionate nature and the visual simplicity of his images, and Laurent Ballesta for his drive for exploration.
What advice do you wish you’d had as a novice underwater photographer?
Although underwater photography is known to be a intensely equipment-oriented endeavour, my advice would be to not always chase the latest piece of equipment — challenge yourself to use what you already have to achieve unique images. This attitude will certainly push you to try things outside the box!
Also, having a solid understanding of the basics: iso, aperture, and shutter speed, will really play in your favour. One can have the eye, but without some technical grounding, it will be incredibly difficult to put your vision to fruition. I’m not a technical person at all, so I spent a lot of time (and dives) experimenting with different combinations of settings to understand each concept.
Describe your vivid approach to colour in your photography and why it forms a part of your style?
I started painting prolifically during my teenage years and art has long been an essential part of my life. Bold and bright colours play a central part to my painting style, and I think this instinctively seeped into how I shoot underwater, without me being even being aware of it until my father remarked that my underwater imagery imitated my other artworks. Of course, applying a certain colour palette in nature and wildlife photography is not as easy as on a canvas, but I place as much focus on finding attractive backgrounds for subjects as finding the subjects themselves. I am also very drawn to shallow depth-of-field images, where the key feature of the subject is pin-sharp but the background is rendered as an attractively coloured blur. Upon reflection, it may also be this ability to control colour within a tight frame which has led me to focus exclusively on macro underwater images to date. Perhaps the next step is trying to do the same but with wide-angle scenes!
Fourth Element ambassador Jade Hoksbergen is a painter and underwater photographer with a penchant for macro-portraiture. At just 23 years old, her images have been awarded in several high profile competitions and published in numerous international journals and magazines. In 2019, she co-authored Black is the New Blue Vol. II, showcasing blackwater diving. As well as working behind the lens, Jade is a sought-after underwater model, frequently spotted on the cover of dive and travel magazines. Based in the Philippines, Jade shares a love for the sea with her husband, Henley Spiers.