Behind the Lens with Brian Skerry

PopPhoto.com's Zach Honig interviews underwater photographer Brian Skerry as part of the Behind the Lens question & answer series.

Behind-the-Lens-with-Brian-Skerry
Behind-the-Lens-with-Brian-Skerry

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.

Q. How does shooting underwater differ from shooting on land? What special considerations do you take into account that you'd never run into on land? How do different lighting situations affect how you shoot?

Perhaps the biggest difference in underwater photography is that you need to be really close to your subjects. With terrestrial wildlife, photographers can often use telephoto lenses to make pictures of animals from a distance. This isn't possible underwater. We need to get within a few feet of our subjects, which means using either wide-angle lenses or macro systems. Lighting is also a real challenge. Water wreaks havoc on light with refraction, reflection, scatter and absorption of color. Visibility is also highly variable. Conditions on a tropical reef are very different than in temperate zones or beneath ocean ice. I almost always bring down at least two wide-angle strobes and sometimes also use hot lights to make pictures.

Q. How did you begin shooting for National Geographic magazine? What projects have you worked on for the magazine?

I have been working for National Geographic magazine for just about 10 years now. My first assignment came when a friend of mine that was a veteran photographer at the magazine had two assignments at the same time; one he didn't want to do. He graciously offered to recommend me for the other job, but warned that it would be a difficult shoot. He said that this assignment had a high likelihood of failure and that with NGM I would have only one chance, so I might want to wait for a better opportunity. I decided to go for it and really worked my butt off, eventually delivering the goods. After that, NGM decided to "develop" me as one of their regular shooters. I trained in various departments within the magazine and even spent time in the field with some of their other shooters. The first few years were slow in terms of assignments, but have picked up a lot over the last several years.

I've had nine stories published in the magazine and have two scheduled for 2008. I am presently working on three new stories. Among the features I've had published are Harp Seals: The Hunt For Balance, Squid : Beautiful and Beastly, Beneath Irish Isles, An Eden For Sharks, Still Waters: The Global Fisheries Crisis and Blue Havens: New Zealand's Marine Reserves.

Q. As someone who travels and embraces their passions as part of their career, what do you do to unwind? Do you often travel or go on dives while on vacation?

Unwind, … Ha! I think I've forgotten how to relax! Well, I am writing this from a ship called the National Geographic Sea Lion in the middle of Mexico's Sea of Cortez. I am leading a NGS Expedition here for tourists. It's not a photo assignment and I am able to bring my family, so this is a wonderful treat. It has actually been quite relaxing. I also like to just get out in nature on my own when I can. Just getting out in a forest or desert or being on a small boat somewhere, anywhere gets me back in touch with nature in a relaxing way. Time like this reminds me why I want to do what I do.

Q. You mentioned leading a tour group for National Geographic; what do you find attractive about that program? Do you participate in other professional activities that don't involve shooting on assignment?

I enjoy leading these tours because it gives me a chance to connect with people who equally love nature and the sea. I am also available to help guests with photography and discuss everything from shooting techniques to how to work with wildlife. I do lectures during the trips as well and have time to really talk with folks about their experiences and concerns. I also do other speaking engagements when my assignment schedule permits in locations worldwide. I speak at large corporations, schools and photo or dive shows. It's a great opportunity to meet with people and discuss not only my work, but to learn about what others are doing.

© Brian Skerry/National Geographic Magazine
A school of Blue Mao-Mao fish swim over thick kelp in New Zealand's Poor Knight Island Marine Reserve.

Q. What would you recommend to aspiring underwater photographers? Is underwater photography something you can excel at without a lot of training or does it take years to be capable of capturing a prize-winning shot?

I suppose anyone can make a prize-winning shot with a bit of luck, but if photographers are serious about this type of work, training and practice cannot be substituted. Being comfortable underwater is key, which typically requires many hours of diving. And practicing your craft, making lots and lots of pictures and learning from this is very important. Photographers need to learn the fundamentals, then experiment and push themselves. Try to develop your own style and be critical of your work in an effort to make it better. I learned by a lot of trial and error. I studied the work of pros and tried to figure out how images were made. Then I went out and worked on making my own pictures. I often made notes and tested equipment under controlled conditions (such as in a swimming pool). Today the learning curve can be much faster with digital, but there is no substitute for mastering the basics and shooting a lot.

Read other interviews from the Behind the Lens series
• June 2008: Robert Hanashiro
• May 2008: Steve Winter
• April 2008: Preston Gannaway
• March 2008: John Moore
• February 2008: Martin Schoeller
• December 2007: Jasin Boland
• November 2007: Norm Barker
• October 2007: Cameron Davidson

A-blue-shark-cruises-through-the-waters-off-the-co
A-blue-shark-cruises-through-the-waters-off-the-co
A blue shark cruises through the waters off the coast of New England. A red colored parasitic copepod, attached to the shark's dorsal fin, streams behind.
A-loggerhead-turtle-hatchling-feeds-amongst-sargas
A-loggerhead-turtle-hatchling-feeds-amongst-sargas
A loggerhead turtle hatchling feeds amongst sargassum weed off the coast of Florida.Brian Skerry
A-harp-seal-pup-makes-its-first-swim-in-the-icy-wa
A-harp-seal-pup-makes-its-first-swim-in-the-icy-wa
A harp seal pup makes its first swim in the icy waters of Canada's Gulf of St. Lawrence.
A-Caribbean-Reef-Squid-hovers-just-beneath-the-sur
A-Caribbean-Reef-Squid-hovers-just-beneath-the-sur
A Caribbean Reef Squid hovers just beneath the surface in Venezuela.Brian Skerry/national Geographic Magazine
A-manta-ray-leaps-out-of-the-water-in-Mexico-s-Sea
A-manta-ray-leaps-out-of-the-water-in-Mexico-s-Sea
A manta ray leaps out of the water in Mexico's Sea of Cortez.Brian Skerry/national Geographic Magazine
A-Great-Hammerhead-Shark-moves-just-below-the-surf
A-Great-Hammerhead-Shark-moves-just-below-the-surf
A Great Hammerhead Shark moves just below the surface at sunset in the Northern Bahamas.Brian Skerry
A-red-pigfish-swims-through-a-school-of-blue-maoma
A-red-pigfish-swims-through-a-school-of-blue-maoma
A red pigfish swims through a school of blue maomao in Poor Knights Marine Reserve in New Zealand.Brian Skerry/national Geographic Magazine
A-school-of-blue-maomao-fish-swim-over-thick-kelp
A-school-of-blue-maomao-fish-swim-over-thick-kelp
A school of blue maomao fish swim over thick kelp in New Zealand's Poor Knight Island Marine Reserve.Brian Skerry/national Geographic Magazine
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