|Underwater Photographer: Mark Westermeier|
By Mike Wilmer
Going eyeball to eyeball with a moray eel, as he flashes his toothy grin, takes a gutsy personality, and Mark Westermeier has what it takes. Diving in warm, crystal clear, coastal waters can seem like paradise most of the time, but it can get a bit dicey at times, too. Like the time a curious shark wouldn't leave Mark alone. But with a characteristic shrug of the shoulders, he notes the risks are just part of the allure of spending time with his finned friends in their watery world. And in Mark's case, visiting isn't enough. He takes advantage of every dive, returning with treasure in the form of stunning photography that he can share with his land-bound friends.
For the following Q&A session, we caught up with Mark just before he took off to a South American dive spot where, in between dive sessions, he and his family volunteered to help some local school children.Mark, how did you get interested in photography?
My mom got me interested when I was about 12 years old. She attended a photography sales course at Kodak and shortly afterward turned the laundry room into a darkroom. Seeing a blank piece of paper turn into a picture seemed like magic, so I was hooked.When did you decide Underwater Photography would be your thing?
I became interested in diving at a young age, making my first dive with a local policeman when I was only 10 years old, but it wasn't until much later, around 1971, that I linked photography with diving. I can't say diving was boring before I started shooting pictured down there, but it seemed there should be more to it than just swimming around. Given I was also interested in photography, taking a camera underwater seemed like the natural thing to do. Even back then, capturing interesting images to share with others was a real rush for me.Where are your favorite dive spots?
I have two favorite places to Go Diving. The first is Bonaire, N.A., which is located in the southern Caribbean, about 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela. It isn't difficult to reach from the U.S., and they really cater to divers there. It is one of the few places where many of the best dives can be made from shore, the water is almost always clear, and the reefs are well protected by the government. Have you had any formal training?
The other spot is the northern Fiji islands, located in the Pacific Ocean. Even today, there are many unexplored areas around those islands, and the diversity of marine life is totally different from what you'll find in the Caribbean.
Both places have one thing in common: they're populated with wonderful and friendly people who welcome you with open arms.
I took photography in high school, as well as a course from the New York Institute of Photography. They were great for learning the basics, but where underwater photography is concerned, I'm largely self-taught through trial-and-error. For instance, when I first started shooting photos while diving, underwater strobes were pretty new and there wasn't a lot of help anywhere. That meant you had no choice but to experiment. Beyond that, I've been a certifiedUnderwater Diving and Underwater Photography Instructor through the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) since 1975.What other kinds of photography do you like to do?
I really like almost all types of photography. I spent a few years shooting weddings when I was in my 20's. That was a great experience because you had to learn to work fast. That also taught me the value of knowing your equipment so that using it was second nature. Those are critical skills at capturing critters underwater. Lately I'm doing more studio work, which I find can be very creative, and I enjoy other kinds of nature photography, especially flowers.What kind of equipment do you use?
I use Nikon camera gear because I think they make quality products. Plus, for many years the Nikonos was the only true 35mm underwater camera. I used them exclusively until about 10 years ago when commercial camera housings became more readily available and affordable. Autofocus was the real turning point for me because the Nikonos is not a SLR (single-lens reflex) camera. SLRs allow you to see what you're going to photograph through the taking lens. Without that feature, focusing with the Nikonos was little more than an educated guess. I switched to digital SLRs for most of my underwater work about 5 years ago and currently use the Nikon D100 in an Aquatica housing, along with Ikelite strobes. My favorite lens is the Nikon 105mm Micro. With autofocus in combination with the advantages of an SLR, the number of keepers-acceptable photos-went up dramatically.Do you make your own prints?
Yes, with the advances in printers and the features found in image editing applications like Adobe's Photoshop, I can really control the image through the entire process of taking the picture, correcting it, and making the print. By adjusting color and saturation in the computer and viewing it on a calibrated color monitor, I get much closer to what I actually saw underwater than what was possible with film and sending it to a lab for printing. I use Epson inkjet printers. The quality is just superb.Do you sell your work?
Yes, a number of my underwater images have been used in advertising, and editorially in magazine publications. I also sell images through a gallery and online.What's your dream photo subject that you haven't photographed, yet?
I'm leaving the subject open so that I don't miss the one opportunity for a photo that will outlive me. If you have too many preconceived ideas about what will make a great photo, you can miss out on the one that's right in front of your nose.What tips do you have for someone planning to take up underwater photography?
Getting good underwater pictures first requires excellent diving skills, especially buoyancy control, so that you go where you want to go and you don't injure yourself or damage the reef when shooting. Then there are all of the normal photography issues of proper exposure, focus and composition. Aside from all of that, there are really three critical things to keep in mind if you hope to take good underwater photos: Last, but not least, have you ever had a close call while diving?
The first is light. Water filters out color the deeper you dive. You lose reds in the first few feet, and the lower you go-40 feet and beyond-everything looks blue, both to your eye and to your camera. To see the actual colors of the fish and objects at that depth, you must use an electronic strobe. The best underwater photographers will often use multiple strobes.
The second critical thing is to get close to the subject. When you are underwater, you must wear a mask to see. The mask will magnify everything, which has the effect of making things appear closer than they actually are. So the natural tendency is to hold your camera too far away from your subject. To correct that, always move in closer than you think you should. It's rare you will actually get too close.
The third critical tip is to avoid shooting down. Shooting at the same level or slightly up on your subject will make for much more dramatic photos of the life you encounter underwater.
Of course, with Digital Cameras, mistakes are much easier to correct, and you can often do it while you're still underwater by viewing what you've shot on the camera's LCD screen. Plus, you have the freedom to shoot many more photos, deleting your mistakes to make room for better shots as you go. Underwater photography will always be hard to do well, but Digital Cameras really do help increase you odds of success.
Many years ago, I was diving under ice when my regulator malfunctioned. It's quite unusual for a regulator to fail. After all, they all come with "lifetime" guarantees! (He chuckles!) In this case it failed in such a way that when I went to take a breath all I got was water. Fortunately for me, my buddy was not very far away and we shared his air for the return trip to the surface. Since that day, I've never made a dive without either a second regulator or alternate air source. It could have been really bad, but I was lucky and had a good buddy close by who had the knowledge and experience to handle the situation.
When not off to some exotic dive spot, Mark's latest project is the construction of a 3,000 sq. ft. studio that will serve as his base of operations for teaching underwater photography, as well as to provide studio space for other kinds of training seminars to be held in Indianapolis, Indiana. You can reach Mark through his Web site
or, if you like, you can join him nearly every Monday at 10 p.m. Eastern (7 p.m. Pacific) in our PhotoTalk Online chat room
, located in our Photography Forum
.Mike Wilmer is a Brooks Institute of Photography graduate, has been a professional photographer for over 3 decades, and established the Photography Forum in 1987.