Underwater photographer Simon Lorenz tells Scuba Diver about his early days as a photographer, manta packed dives in Palau and the greats who inspire him.
How did you get started in underwater photography?
After my first few dives in Mexico and Honduras, I knew I couldn’t bear being underwater without taking photos. So I purchased a simple Canon IXUS point and shoot in a standard housing and started taking photos. Realising the shortcomings of this set-up, I soon upgraded to a better camera (a Canon S95) with wide-angle and macro diopters and strobe. That is why I usually recommend beginners not to go for the very basic set-up – a camera and housing that you can develop your skills with. For my first big shark trip in South Africa I then upgraded to a Nikon DSLR.
What came first – diving or photography?
Diving – but photography came after less than 20 dives. After that it was years before I dived without a camera, which was when I did the divemaster and instructor courses.
What’s in your underwater photography kitbag?
I have a long list and even made a video for my group trip guests. Every trip will have a different configuration with regards to lenses and dome ports (e.g. large dome for splits). Even if it’s a wide-angle trip I will always bring at least one macro lens.
I usually travel with video lights for black water or wreck photography and plenty of torches. I have two kit bags for smaller items that would include cable ties, duct tape, spare O-rings, button cell batteries, Allen keys sets, a Leatherman etc. Back-ups are key. For example, I bring spare domes, hard discs and spare chargers – I have had chargers break mid-week.
Favourite location for diving and underwater photography?
One of my favourite locations is Palau – it has so much to offer. Clear blue water, healthy reefs, abundant fish, lots of sharks, caves, wrecks, drift dives and great black water. It is also the best place in the world to predictably see spawning events.
Most challenging dive (and why)?
The most challenging dives are the ones where currents or surge are whipping you around and your strobes act as sails. In offshore locations like Cocos and Galapagos, the best action is where the currents are strong. And in order to get both hands on the camera, one needs to lock into the rocks with knees and feet exposing yourself to sea urchins and scorpionfish. In reef situations like Komodo it’s even more difficult as you cannot touch the reef. Since dangling on a reef hook doesn’t make for good photos, I like to use stiff fins or freedive fins and to be able to kick into the current for the photos.
Who are your diving inspirations?
There are many great photographers that I admire. One particular inspiration is Christian Vizl who creates signature art with nature and natural light. Another is Alex Mustard, who combines new photo techniques with his marine biology knowledge to create some of the most inspiring photography.
Which underwater locations or species are still on your photography wish list and why?
There are many locations in the world on my list. Currently, I am growing my experience with whales. Dominica and Moorea are on the immediate list, and I am also running a trip to Sri Lanka soon. Aside from that, I am inspired by remote offshore locations – St. Helena, Lord Howe Island, Clipperton and Helen Reef are some locations on my bucket list.
What advice do you wish you’d had as a novice underwater photographer?
Read dive photography books by Alex Mustard or Tobias Friedrich. I tried to learn it all by myself – a long and painful process with many great photo opportunities lost due to inability. By joining photo workshops or group trips with photo professionals you will be able to skip years of trial and error. And do not start with a basic camera but an upper range compact camera (with manual mode and RAW) in an aluminium housing so you can add diopters and lights easily and grow with your set-up.
Hairiest moment when shooting underwater?
There is a big difference if I am working as a photographer or running my group trips. As a group, we need to make sure everyone is safe – and for non-photographers to not have big cameras to protect themselves against sharks.
A hairy dive was in Fiji on the baited shark dive where a huge female tiger shark was not happy and approached every diver aggressively. I got some great shots but it was getting dangerous for the group so we aborted the dive.
Another time I was blown off Jessie Beazley Reef in Tubbataha by myself with a depleted tank after shooting a current-riding whale shark. As I had been diving deep before, I waited out my three minute safety stop under my SMB not knowing if the speed boat had seen me. When I surfaced it was fortunately there – we had drifted over one kilometre into the blue by then.
What is your most memorable dive and why?
One of my favourite dives of all time is South West Rocks, Eastern Australia. On a clear day, you can have up to 30 sand tiger sharks (the locals call them grey nurse sharks) circling inside a sandy bottom canyon.
A memorable dive was German Channel in Palau. It was the last dive of the trip and we weren’t sure the mantas were going to be there, in which case it would have been a boring dive for my group. It was a bit of a gamble but it paid off. We had 10 Manta Rays barrel feeding around us for the entire dive.
Underwater photographer Simon Lorenz is a regular author for dive magazines and speaker at events. A PADI instructor and photo coach, his aim is to further the dive and photography skills of his guests. His travel company Insider Divers offers guided group trips, combining unusual dive experiences with photo training. A seasoned traveller, he speaks six languages and has dived all continents. In Hong Kong he operates Pool Portrait, the first underwater photo studio. Simon supports various marine NGOs and is on the advisory board of the Hong Kong Shark Foundation.