_Russian photographer Alexander Semenov spends a lot of his time under the sea, capturing the alien-like beauty of jellyfish as part of his career. His images are driven by scientific curiosity, but bring an undeniable beauty to the fascinating-but-dangerous subjects. He shared some of his inspiration and technique with us, as well as a few sting stories. See more of his amazing undersea work over on his Flickr stream. _
How did you get into underwater photography? How long have you been doing it?
I’m the head of the scientific divers team at the White Sea Biological Station (Russia), so I have a lot of underwater work. Photography was just a hobby in the beggning, but now it’s not my main duty. I started in 2007 with laboratory scientific photography and moved underwater next year. Now, after few years of mastering skills I can say that I still have a lot of things to learn about underwater photograpy. It’s endless education and a lot of work and fun. I love it.
**Can you talk a little bit about the photos you took of the jellyfish with the sky in the background? **
I made my first and only jellyfish shot with the sky background last year and it became a hit – surprisingly nobody never saw photos like this. I spent a lot of time thinking how to make it better and how to make series of photos with different sky, sun rays maybe, different poses. The conditions need to be just right for it to work. The sea must be calm, without any wind, sky must be with beautiful white clouds, jellies must be beautiful (not all jellyfishes of same species are really beautiful) and located very close to the surface and you must hold you breath for a few minutes to get close to the jelly and make a shot – otherwise your bubbles can lift the jelly and they certainly will make waves on the surface. So, perfect conditions happened only once in the beginning of july, and it was great luck.
**Where were they taken? **
At the White Sea, where I work for whole summer season.
How did you achieve the sky background effect? Were you using your own light source?
You just need to set proper camera settings and use good lens. Sure, you need additional light source because you shoot agains the sky and sun and all you can get without artificial light – just a contour with a little transparency, so I used two underwater strobes almost at full power.
Is it dangerous to be around giant jellyfish like that?
This specimen – Cyanea capillata (or Lion’s mane jellyfish) 0 is the biggest in the world, it can reach 2,3m in dome diameter with 36m of tentacles, but in the White sea they have maximum size of 50cm with 12-15m of tentacles. They are dangerous, but not fatal at all. I’m always getting burned with their tentacles, sometime more, sometime less. It can be really painful, but it doesn’t leave scars, so you will suffer for few hours only. Only once in my life I was stung by the huge Cyanea who kissed me in the face with thermonuclear-poisonious-acid pain, I couldn’t speak for two hours and then I spent two or three days to become normal again.
Do you have any advice for people with ambition to get into ****underwater**** life photography?
Learn anything you can about the sea and marine life, it’s thousand times more interesting to make photos you know and understand about, not just a beautiful picture of strange animal. And for sure it will help you a lot to find most interesting and sometimes unique objects. And practice. Underwater photography needs a lot of practice, much more than on the surface. Years of experience is almost nothing in any new sea or in some harsh conditions.
How about a few tips for getting started?
You need enthusiasm and a lot of money, because good underwater photo gear costs like spaceship. You also need time. I spent two years without any significant results and good photos, and I was really depressed about it. But with the time things are not getting easier, you just get better.
What does your typical gear setup look like when you go on a dive?
Any DSLR packed in the metallic housing with huge glass dome port in wide-angle mode or flat port when shooting macro, and two arms with the underwater strobes and electrosynchronisation. That’s all. If it’s interesting now I’m using Canon 5dm2 in Subal housing, Zeiss 21mm/f2.8 lens for wide angle and Canon 100mm/f2.8L for macro, plus Inon Z-240 strobes, nothing else. But I tried Nikon D800e last year and now I have a feeling that I’m diving with prehistoric dinosaur instead of modern camera, so I want to change the system or to see what Canon will present in the near future. But really it’s not so important if you’re not a professional, who need perfect details and maximum resolution for scientific analysis of 2 square centimeters of the seafloor. Several of my most popular and commercially successful shots were made with old Canon 400d with some cheap macro lenses.
What is it that attracts you to sea creatures?
My education. I’m marine biologist specializing in zoology of invertebrates, so I’m not just making pictures, I’m trying to observe sea life through the viewfinder, catching important moments in the life of different animals and showing it to the students, other scientist and to the world, if it’s really interesting. For me everything is interesting and I think that if I have access to this world, I must take a camera with me to share is beauty and mystery.
Is there a particular ****underwater**** spot or animal you’d love to photograph but haven’t been able to yet?
Thousands! Or millions… I just started 🙂