Behind the Lens with Stephen Frink

As the world’s most widely published underwater photographer, Stephen Frink knows a thing or two about the ocean. For 30 years, he’s traveled the world shooting everything from starfish to great white sharks for publications like Glamour, Time, Newsweek, and National Geographic, and he’s even published a book, Wonders of the Reef. When he’s not submerged in a remote tropical lagoon, Stephen serves as a columnist and photography director to Scuba Diving magazine. He lives in Key Largo with his family, where he was nice enough to take a break from running his gallery and photography school for a quick Q&A with Kristen Gunderson. Read on to find out his take on kids, tricky photography, shark fishing, and the plight of the world’s oceans.

Tell me about your favorite photo.  What’s the story behind it?

My favorite photo is one of my daughter Alexa swimming with a dolphin, which I took several years ago near Freeport, Grand Bahama. She was three years old at the time (she has her learner’s permit now). For me, the photo shows a moment of incredible and touching interaction. It was also an inspiration that a kid that age would be open to jumping in with such a big “fish.” We weren’t sure how she would handle it, but she showed no fear. There was also a 13-year-old in the water, and at one point, he began to freak out. Alexa put her head in the water, resurfaced, and said matter-of-factly, “Daddy, it’s just a nurse shark.” I knew then we wouldn’t have to worry about her.

See the photo, and the rest of the interview, after the jump.

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What’s your greatest technical challenge as an underwater photographer and how do you overcome it?

There are several things to consider as an underwater photographer. One is surmounting physical challenges. You’re working in a medium that’s 800 times denser than air and you move in three dimensions. You’re submerged with a finite air supply, so you have a limited time to excecute your images. In addition, you’re often working with skittish animals, and you have to get close. But the key to a great underwater photo – and one of its hardest challenges – is good lighting. When you use a point-and-shoot camera, the flash goes off directly in front of your subject, lighting the particles floating in the water between the camera and the subject – matter known as “backscatter.” This diminishes the quality of the photograph.

When I shoot, I take two strobes – one for frontlighting, and one to put on a 45-degree angle above the subject, which lights it without lighting the backscatter. This gives me the lighting control I need for a great photo. And light is not only technically important, but it’s also an essential compositional element. Color is lost at depth, so you need good light to capture it. A point-and-shoot in standard housing dooms you to mediocrity. Good lighting is the easiest and quickest way to jump into good photography.

 How do you prepare for a shoot? Is there anything you do every time?

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Actually, a large part of my work comes before I even pick up a camera.

Before doing anything, I need to conceive the image. Even before that, I need to decide on a destination. Every destination is good for something in particular. For example, the Red Sea is good for wide-angle shots of divers. South Australia is good for great white sharks.

Once I decide on the destination (or once one is assigned), I think long and hard about what the essence of that destination is and how best to capture it. This is one of the most difficult tasks. Finally, before going after the photo, I plan what I need to do to get that image – physically, compositionally, and technically – all before getting in the water.

Of course, things don’t always go as planned. Underwater photography always involves an element of spontaneity and ability to adapt to changes. But a good photograph begins with a good plan.

Do you have a “number one rule?”

Yes. Respect. There are so many ethical elements to consider as a professional nature photographer. First, the creatures you’re photographing. My job is to show them off, make people appreciate them, which would hopefully benefit them in the end. It’s counterproductive if you’re injuring them in the process. You have to be careful about what kind of effects lights, flashes, and movements are going to have on the animals in question. Once, during a night dive, my wife was spotlighting fish so I could photograph them. She shined the light on a goatfish and as I positioned my shot – bam! – suddenly a goliath grouper swam in and gobbled him up. “Whoa,” I thought, and set up another shot the same way. Another goatfish, another spotlight, and bam! the grouper got that one too. We realized we were essentially feeding the grouper. So we stopped. There are lots of things you shouldn’t do to your subject, and getting him eaten is one of them.

Secondly, the environment is incredibly important. You have to know something about the ecology of the place you’re in and how to impact it the least. Everything works together. You don’t want to disrupt it.

Finally, the people. There’s a whole team of people involved in a shoot. There’s boat crews, guides, interpreters, assistants, and even other photographers. It takes a lot to get difficult photographs. It’s a collaborative effort. Once, when I was doing shark dives in a cage, I was on a boat with 18 people. We all had a turn, a limited amount of time in the cage, and before we got started, I asked how many people were photographers. Every single one of them raised his hand. You can’t be a star. I understand that my photographs aren’t any more important to me than other people’s photos are to them. And that’s really what makes a photo. The meaning it has for the taker. So you have to be respectful and appreciate everyone involved.

You’ve traveled all over the world – in fact, I seem to have caught you sometime between Bonaire and Indonesia. What’s the favorite place that you’ve been? What’s the most pristine place you can think of?

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I love the Red Sea. There’s something about the monochromatic, arid desert rolling into this colorful, rich marine environment. As for pristine areas, that’s a bit more difficult. Secrets don’t last too long in recreational diving. A while ago Indonesia was the place, but now it’s full of liveaboards. In the more remote areas, people can deploy a liveaboard fairly quickly, and it can change the complexion of a destination. I suppose there are still a lot of pristine stuff in cold-water destinations, like British Columbia, for example.

But really, the world’s just too small. For us, a Pacific island is far away, but it’s not as far away from Asia. The Europeans and Asians are meeting us in the middle. There are very few places on the planet. I don’t think I’ve been anywhere no one has been. It’s my fantasy more than reality.

This brings me to my next question. Reefs are cropping up more and more now as the “canary in the coal mine” for a lot of ocean and climate problems. How do you feel about reefs as a tourism destination?

Is it more helpful to them or harmful to introduce recreational divers in large numbers?

When I first started diving, we didn’t do anything special to protect the environment. At that time, we thought the reefs were endless. Today is much different. Conservation is the main goal in a lot of dive destinations. Here in the Florida Keys, recreational divers dive in a marine sanctuary, where everything is protected. And you know what?

There is no difference in the coral population where the divers

presence is bigger. And the fish population is actually healthier in those areas.

There isn’t enough coral left in the ocean to worry about single divers destroying it. I’m not ignoring the impact, but there are much bigger global problems out there. Overfishing is a huge deal. Climate change. Shark fishing is just unconscionable. I would rather see more divers out there on the reef appreciating it. In fact, I think that’s one of the keys to saving the reefs. People need to see what needs to be saved in order to be inspired. Our children have a greater sense of vulnerability than we did. They’re more enlightened. And that’s important. But we have to continue that education. We’re at a tipping point. The ocean will bring itself back into balance, but there’s a point at which it won’t come back. We’re there now. That’s my great fear for the ocean.

This is a global problem, not an individual one. Everything is intertwined. It’s all so interconnected and small. A sugarcane farmer fertilizing a field in Cuba can impact a reef system miles away. The only way to come back from this point is to create a global awareness.

And getting people down there to experience it firsthand is essential if we want to save the world’s oceans.

Any last advice for IT readers?

Don’t eat shark fin soup! But you know that. Really, there needs to be some inspiration to get in the water. If we can get people underwater, that’s very strong. Our children need to be inspired. Let them know it’s cool to care. Before it’s too late.

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For more reef stories and photography tips and tricks, check out Frink’s blog, Digital Immersions. Or download Frink’s ridiculously scary photo of a Great White for your desktop wallpaper. To browse more colorful shots of the underwater world, click through the series of NG’s underwater photo galleries, like David Doubilet’s stunning gallery of sea slug (yep, sea slug) portraits, from the June 2008 issue of National Geographic Magazine.

Photos by Stephen Frink.