PopPhoto.com's Zach Honig interviews underwater photographer Brian Skerry as
part of the Behind the Lens question & answer series.
The photographic community is incredibly diverse, made up of photographers that shoot from the sky to the sea and everywhere in between. Each month we'll focus on a different segment of the industry, interviewing top professional photographers about life, their careers, and what sets their piece of the photographic industry apart from the rest.
This month we focus on Brian Skerry, an underwater photographer with National Geographic Magazine. Skerry has been on nearly 10,000 dives throughout his career, visiting dive sites around the world. Skerry's incredible talent for capturing marine life has led not only to his career at National Geographic, but has helped his work stand out among others in the field, with magazines such as U.S. News and World Report, Audubon, Sports Illustrated and many others publishing his work. Skerry takes some time during a recent National Geographic Society Expedition in Mexico's Sea of Cortez to provide a glimpse into his life under the sea.
Q. When did you first earn your SCUBA certification? How did you know underwater photography was a good fit for you?
I first began diving in 1977 with some borrowed gear, then became certified in 1978. Within a year or two I bought my first underwater camera. I absolutely loved the ability to make pictures underwater and show people the things I was seeing down there. I was drawn to the exploration component of diving and the creative part of photography, but I also began to develop a serious interest in storytelling and photojournalism. It wasn't long before I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do with my life, though for a 16- year-old kid from a blue-collar town in Massachusetts, the notion of making a living as an underwater photographer seemed like an almost impossible dream.
Q. How much of your time as a photographer is spent underwater? Do you shoot on land as well?
On most assignments I spend perhaps 3-5 hours a day in the water shooting. This varies with location and conditions, but generally it works out to be about this much time. Most of my stories however, have strong terrestrial components as well, so I am shooting much more on land these days. I am very comfortable shooting wildlife on land, but it's taken me a bit longer to develop an eye for people photography. I've been lucky to have great editors at National Geographic that have helped me with this. The result is much more complete stories. I am able to deliver more complex coverage and my underwater work is far more powerful in that context.
Q. Which countries have you visited? How many dives have you been on? Where is your favorite dive spot?
I honestly don't know how many countries I have visited, but it's dozens. I also stopped logging my dives many years ago and therefore can't say exactly how many I've made, but I would estimate maybe 8,000-10,000 over 30 years. I am not sure I have a favorite dive spot, since I really like so many places, but I do really love diving with sharks in various locations in the Bahamas such as the tiger sharks in a place called Tiger Beach. I also love several places in New Zealand such as Poor Knights Islands and the Fiordland region.
Q. Where has your work been published? Have you published your land-based work as well?
My work appears mostly in magazines. In the last 10 years this has been primarily National Geographic magazine. I've also had work featured in magazines such as People, Sports Illustrated, US New and World Report, Audubon, Men's Journal, GEO, Playboy, American Photo, Outdoor Life, Maxim and Smithsonian. I also write a regular feature for a dive magazine called Fathoms. And yes, I definitely publish my land-based work as well. One of my cover photos for NGM for example, was a surface picture of a harp seal.
Q. How does you equipment vary from land to sea? What makes underwater photography equipment unique? Can you change lenses underwater?
Underwater photography equipment is often very specialized in the sense that it has to be both waterproof and pressure proof. But the cameras I use are regular surface 35mm digital cameras, I just encase them in specially made underwater housings. You can't change lenses underwater, which is a real disadvantage. Before switching to digital, I was also limited to 36 frames, since I couldn't change film either. Today, I can shoot 400 frames or more on a single dive, which provides so much more opportunity to create something special. In certain environments, such as a coral reef, I can sometimes take down several housing systems, each with different lenses to allow me greater flexibility with subjects. But in many environments, like deep water or with subjects like whales, this simply isn't an option.