How did you get started in underwater photography?
There are two things that motivated me to start taking pictures underwater. The first was that I became interested in shark conservation after diving with sharks, and also learning just how many sharks are killed by humans every year (that number is over 70 million). I wanted to share images of sharks that change the public’s attitude toward them, and also motivate people to want to help them.
The other reason that I started taking pictures underwater was to document my son’s journey as a scuba diver who has autism. My son Richard is 21 years old and has been diving since he was 17. He loves to dive and is very good at it. I hope that when people see images of Richard diving, it will dispel misconceptions about what those with autism are capable of, and maybe even inspire people to try things that they might not have otherwise.
What came first – diving or photography?
Diving definitely came first. I started diving in 2009 and didn’t pick up a camera until 2014. Prior to that, I had little interest in photography. All I had ever owned were point and shoot cameras, and I had no idea what all those camera settings were about. But once I decided I wanted to really become involved in photography, I read everything I could about photography, and then I got out there and practiced. A lot of hard work went on behind the scenes while I tried to learn as much as I could about creating great underwater photos. And I’m still learning, of course. I’ve never been 100 per cent satisfied with any photo I’ve taken. I always think I can do better.
What’s in your underwater photography kitbag?
I shoot with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 camera body, although I did just recently purchase the E-M1 Mk II, but I haven’t taken it underwater yet. My housing is the Nauticam NA-EM1, along with the Zen DP170 glass dome port (I have the Nauticam 4.33” acrylic port with 20mm extension ring as a backup). Being a wide-angle photographer, my go-to lens is the Olympus m.Zuiko 8mm f/1.8 fisheye lens. I have shot just a little bit of macro, and for that I use the Olympus m.Zuiko 60mm f/2.8 along with a Nauticam port. For most of the time I’ve been shooting underwater I’ve used the Sea&Sea YS-D1 and YS-D2 strobes, but I recently switched to the i-Divesite Symbiosis SS-2 strobes, and so far I’ve been very impressed with them.
Favourite location for diving and underwater photography?
My favourite location to dive and shoot is off the coast of North Carolina, on the east coast of the US. There are hundreds of shipwrecks off the coast, from large freighters to German U-boats. And then there are the resident sand tiger sharks that hang out around the shipwrecks. Sharks and shipwrecks always make for great subject matter, but then combine those with the warm, clear water in the summer months, and you have an underwater photographer’s dream. It’s also common to see barracuda, large southern stingrays, schools of jacks, dolphins and turtles.
Most challenging dive?
There were definitely some challenging dives while I was at Cocos Island, Costa Rica. The currents there can be really strong, and there’s no way you can fight them. It really makes for difficult shooting when you’re being dragged along by the current, so in that situation it really is paramount to prioritise safety, and just pay attention to your position in the water and your location in reference to the boat. No shot is worth your health or life.
Who are your diving inspirations?
I have so many, but one who stands out is Becky Kagan Schott. Not only is she a highly-accomplished scuba diver, both in the recreational and technical realms, but she is also an amazingly talented underwater photographer and filmmaker. I really admire how readily she shares her knowledge and how she genuinely enjoys teaching others about all the different aspects of diving and photography that she is so passionate about. She has been a wonderful friend and mentor not only to me, but many others who are fortunate enough to know her.
Which underwater locations or species are still on your photography wish list?
That list is pretty long, but at the top of it are more cold-water locations such as the Arctic and Antarctic. I would love to photograph some of the bigger animals that live in these extreme environments such as Greenland sharks, killer whales, polar bears, penguins, leopard seals, walruses, etc. I’ve always dreamed of going to the Arctic and Antarctic even before becoming a diver. I want to view with my own eyes what I’ve only seen in films and in books. And I want to challenge myself to bring back unique, captivating images of these animals. Hopefully I can make it happen!
What advice do you wish you’d had as a novice underwater photographer?
I wish someone had told me that as long as you’re getting good images that you’re content with, there really is no right or wrong photographic technique. For instance, I was told by a very experienced underwater photographer at one point that I shouldn’t have my aperture open so wide (I like to shoot at around f/4 or so), and that I was, “doing it wrong.” At this point I had already won a few photography competitions, but I started to doubt myself after hearing this from a pro. So I tried closing down the aperture a bit, but I wasn’t happy with the images. Another person I admire told me that I should shoot at a slower shutter speed (typically I like to shoot between 1/250sec to 1/320sec to freeze the movement of my subjects and bring out the details). So I did, and again I wasn’t happy with what I was getting. Then I realised that maybe the differences in the way I shoot are OK, and as long as the images are good (interesting subject, sharp focus, dynamic composition, etc.), then I shouldn’t worry so much about whether I’m doing it “right or wrong.”
Hairiest moment when shooting underwater?
One would think that being a photographer who specialises in sharks, there would be a lot of hairy moments. But this actually hasn’t been the case. I am very selective about the dive operators I use, and also the divers that I am in the water with. Safety is always my top priority. And I’m not afraid to call a dive if things don’t feel right. I guess things were getting a little hairy on a night dive I was on at Tiger Beach (off the coast of Grand Bahama) early last year. Four of us were in the water with tiger sharks, a hammerhead, lemon sharks, and Caribbean reef sharks.
At first things were going pretty smoothly, but then we started noticing the sharks darting around and acting a little more brazen. I looked at my friend next to me, who was leading the dive, and we both just sort of nodded our heads like, “Nope. This doesn’t feel right.” And then we all got out of the water. I would much rather get out of the water and miss getting some shots than have something bad happen. I have a husband and son who I want to come back home to, so I always err on the side of being a little more conservative. So far that philosophy has served me well.
What is your most memorable dive and why?
My most memorable dive was in July 2015, off of North Carolina. Although I had been diving North Carolina since 2009 and had seen sand tiger sharks several times, I had never seen a sand tiger shark aggregation. On this day we were diving the wreck of the Caribsea, a freighter that was sunk in 1942 during World War II that now lies in 90 feet of water. I don’t think I ever actually made it all the way down to the wreck though, because at about 40-60 feet there was a massive aggregation of sand tiger sharks. There were sharks as far as I could see in every direction, just lazily meandering above the wreck. I remember thinking, “I can’t believe I’m here right now seeing this.” There were so many sharks that I didn’t even know where to point my camera. So not only do I remember that dive because of how amazing it was to be surrounded by so many sharks, but also because the images I took that day would go on to win the 2015 World Shootout in the ‘Sharks’ category (which would be my first time winning an international photography competition). To this day the wreck of the Caribsea is still my favorite divesite in the world.
Tanya Houppermans is a professional underwater photographer and marine conservationist who lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia in the US. Her images and articles have appeared in print and online publications in more than 20 countries, and she has been the recipient of several international photography awards, including winning First Place in the World Shootout in both 2015 and 2017 in the Sharks category, First Place in the Shipwrecks category in the 2015 World Shootout, and First Place in the Portrait Category in the 2018 Underwater Photographer of the Year competition. As part of her work, Tanya especially enjoys conducting field work for scientists and researchers by acquiring the images they need to further their studies. Tanya is also involved in promoting adaptive scuba diving for those with disabilities, as her own son is a scuba diver who has autism.