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How did you get started in underwater photography?
Photography and the sea have always been passions of mine. My dad was an amateur photographer and from a young age I was fascinated with his camera and photographs. I grew up on the ocean in Rhode Island and spent every minute I could jumping through huge storm waves and body surfing the more manageable ones. I developed an interest in underwater archaeology around the same time. It was a natural choice that my first “real” camera was an underwater one: a Sea & Sea Motormarine 35. I was 12 and had saved up all my money for it. Concurrently, I really wanted to learn to scuba dive, the camera just happened to come first. I spent ages reading scuba magazines and highlighting scuba catalogues with gear I wanted (including procrastinating for my ninth grade exams!) until I finally got certified at age 16. I studied archaeology in college, all the while shooting photographs. After college I worked as a photojournalist, taking leave in summers to work as the underwater photographer on ancient shipwreck excavations. My husband and I moved to Grand Cayman from the States four years ago in part so I could shoot underwater year-round.
What’s in your underwater photography kitbag?
- Nikon D500
- Nikon 105mm, Nikon 12-24mm, Tokina 10-17mm
- Subal housing
- Nauticam SMC
- +5 diopter
- Sea&Sea YS-250 strobes
- Retra LSD snoot
- Triggerfish remote strobe trigger on a Gorillapod
Favourite location for diving and underwater photography?
My home base of Grand Cayman enables me to shoot year-round and experiment with new ideas whenever I develop them. I love the Mediterranean for archaeological shipwreck photography. The Maldives are fabulous. Photographing hammerhead sharks in Bimini is awesome!
Most challenging dive?
The time I got left by the dive boat in Florida comes to mind! My husband and I surfaced on a drift dive and saw the boat in the distance. It started heading toward us to pick us up. Then as it got close, it drove past and left! There was a second dive boat in the distance and we started kicking for it before immediately realising the current was incredibly strong, only pushing us further from the boat. We saved our energy and floated on the surface for about 45 minutes trying to whistle, signal and otherwise flag down this other boat. Finally a small fishing boat came to us. They let us know that our dive boat had had an emergency on board and had had to race into port. It was a relief to know we hadn’t actually been left behind, but those 45 minutes were dicey!
Who are your diving inspirations?
I used to watch Jacques Cousteau whenever he was on TV, and later, on VHS tapes. His riding out in a Zodiac and jumping in to explore a new site was so exciting and made me want to dive! Photographically, I am really inspired by the incredibly underwater work of Alex Mustard. I admire and am inspired by his constant innovation and thinking outside of the box.
Which underwater locations or species are still on your photography wish list?
- Whale sharks and whales! I can’t wait to photograph the large pelagics.
- I worked as the photographer on an excavation in the Red Sea; I can’t wait to get back there and photograph the sea life.
- I am anxious to get to the Philippines and Indonesia for both the macro opportunities and the gorgeous soft corals. Both locations are high on my list of “must see…like…now!”
What advice do you wish you’d had as a novice underwater photographer?
Take classes. I am primarily self-taught in land photography. I wasn’t aware of how incredibly different shooting underwater can be. Getting professional instruction early on would have saved me a lot of time and frustration. When I finally did, my learning curve improved greatly.
Hairiest moment when shooting underwater?
So far so good…
What is your most memorable dive and why?
I have many, but yesterday’s dive is my most recent one! My husband and I had just finished our safety stop and were rising into the shallows to get out of the water. Suddenly we came upon a massive squid orgy; there were at least 35 squid. But unlike the behaviour we usually see where the squid are all in a line swimming backward and forward, these were paired off and actively mating. They were chasing each other around, flaring, changing to striped-patterned chromatophores. Apparently Caribbean reef squid only mate once in their lives and then die shortly thereafter. So this was an exciting (and decently-rare!) thing to witness. Wow!
Susannah H. Snowden-Smith is an award-winning underwater photographer. She strives to bring her unique eye to the underwater world to create her fine art photography, always seeking the unique take on a subject. She started in underwater photography as the shooter on nautical archaeology excavations and has photographed ancient shipwrecks all over the world. Susannah has been diving for over 25 years and is a PADI Divemaster. Prior to her transition into full-time underwater work, she was an award-winning photojournalist. She and her husband moved to Grand Cayman for the underwater photography opportunities it offers. She loves diving and photographing in Cayman’s crystal-clear water.