British videographer and photographer Jason Isley has crossed off some of the Earth’s most incredible creatures on his inexhaustible photography checklist – from the world’s largest mammal to tiny miniature figures on the seabed. We caught up with him to talk about his career, the stories behind some of his favourite shots, and his new book – Small Blue World: Little People. Big Adventures.
 
Starting his underwater adventures in 1996 in Australia, Jason moved to Sabah in Malaysian Borneo to co-found Scubazoo soon after. For the following 10 years he filmed all over the world on productions including Journeys of a Lifetime with Minnie Driver, Animal Planet’s The Jeff Corwin Experience, Nick Baker’s Weird Creatures and Perfect Predators for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.
 
"I really enjoy unchartered locations and the unusual unexpected places..."

“I really enjoy unchartered locations and the unusual, unexpected places…”

 
From 2006 he decided to focus on photography full time, becoming the driving force behind Scubazoo’s publications division. He was pivotal in the production of their first book Sipadan-Mabul-Kapalai, Sabah’s Underwater Treasure, and then managed the publication of six more coffee-table books for Scubazoo, including their very successful Reef, which sold over 200,000 copies.
 
Having an in-depth understanding of the underwater realm, Jason has always managed to capture great behaviour shots. However, it has been his recent project with “miniature people” that has really stood out. With his passion for marine conservation, he has managed to use these quirky underwater scenes to connect people with the underwater world in a very unusual way.

 
What made you want to become an underwater photographer?
I was actually living and working on Sipadan filming guests every single day, witnessing some of the most amazing marine life and filming the marine behaviour. I enjoyed the filming but kept wishing I had a camera in my hands rather than the video camera so that I could capture the scene in one simple image. Underwater photography was still relatively new back then and certainly not at the standard it has reached today. It was actually unusual to see divers with a camera, compared to today, where it’s the opposite. 
 
Your first underwater shot?
I’ll pass over the terrible images I once captured on a waterproof point-and-shoot disposable camera on the Great Barrier Reef as if that never happened! The first real underwater shot was in Sipadan. I borrowed a guest’s Nikonos V and did a dive at South Point. Most of the film was the schooling barracuda, but I remember chasing a leopard shark in the shallows and taking pictures of its behind as it swam away – I thought it was the best leopard shark picture I had ever seen!  
 
The story behind your most memorable underwater shot?
Wow. I don’t have a standout shot but quite a few favourites. However, one of the earliest favourites was a lionfish taken in Mabul. It was the first time I won an award for an image during a friendly shoot-out competition. We visited Mabul for two dives from Sipadan, and I had made the big mistake of not charging my strobe batteries overnight. They just lasted the first dive, and when I changed film afterwards, the strobes were completely dead. I contemplated skipping the second dive, but my friend (Martin Edge) persuaded me to jump in and find something with natural light. I sat under the jetty still sulking, as I was so angry with myself, and then I spotted a lionfish on the jetty leg. The sun was piercing through the jetty like the lead windows of a cathedral and as I prepared my camera settings, the lionfish swam diagonally from one corner of the jetty to the opposite corner. I managed a couple of shots before it settled behind the jetty leg unsure if I had actually managed to change the settings in time. When the film was processed later that evening, it was spot on.
 
" The sun was piercing through the jetty like the lead windows of a cathedral and as I prepared my camera settings the lionfish swam diagonally from one corner of the jetty to the opposite corner...

“The sun was piercing through the jetty like the lead windows of a cathedral and as I prepared my camera settings, the lionfish swam diagonally from one corner of the jetty to the opposite corner.”

 
Congratulations on the launch of Small Blue World: Little People. Big Adventures. Can you explain why you came up with the concept of placing tiny plastic humans underwater and photographing them?
Shooting macro for so many years, things were getting repetitive and boring, even with all the crazy gadgets that have taken over the world of underwater photography. I was searching for something completely different and came across a few topside photographers that were creating amazing images from scenes with miniature people, some on food and others on the street. They inspired the original attempts and then once I realised how successful they could be, I started creating the whole storyline and relationship to global warming.
 
Is there a particular message that you want people to take from the book?
The overall message is that global warming is real and although we might not be completely underwater, there will be some serious effects. The last chapter is where all the marine-related environmental messages are and hopefully people take them on-board. The idea for the book was to reach out to non-divers with the quirky humour, get them interested in the underwater world, and then have the doom and gloom messages gently squeezed in at the end. Hopefully, it appeals to all ages so we can also educate the next generation. 
 
What were the biggest difficulties when shooting the images?
Strong currents underwater were a nightmare with the miniature models, but also the fish thinking they were possible food was another problem. The biggest problem was creating the scene with minimal impact or interference with the marine life, anticipating what the creature would do and waiting for them to co-operate. Some shots took three full dives to complete, like the mating mandarinfish and the manta cleaning station with the seaplane.
"Some shots took three full dives to complete, like the mating mandarinfish..."

“Some shots took three full dives to complete, like the mating mandarinfish…”

 
How much work goes into getting a planned shot that features both miniature models and marine life seemingly interacting? 
All the shots are preplanned, i.e., the subjects are chosen, the min
iature models are purchased, and the scenes are sketched out. I arrive at the dive locations with a book of sketches and a box full of miniature toys. I then talk through the plan with the guide and we go searching for the creatures. Most of the subjects are relatively easy to find and guaranteed on certain dive locations; therefore I will only take the miniature toys needed for that particular shot. Once the subject is found, I place the miniature people and wait, and wait, and wait… Sometimes the subject may be on the move, so I place the miniatures ahead of the subject hoping it stays on course and appears to be interacting; if not, I then replace the miniatures and try again. For example, the blue-ringed octopus was on a mission and obviously had somewhere to be, so it was quite straightforward to place the soldiers ahead of him and let him “discover” them, but he would then go straight past them and I would try again. I think we did that around five times to get the shot.
 
The blue-ringed octopus was on a mission and obviously had somewhere to be, it was quite straight forward to place the soldiers ahead of him and let him "discover" them, but he would then go straight past them and I would try again, I think we did that around five times to get the shot.

“The blue-ringed octopus was on a mission and obviously had somewhere to be, so it was quite straightforward to place the soldiers ahead of him and let him “discover” them, but he would then go straight past them and I would try again. I think we did that around five times to get the shot.”

 
Where is your favourite dive destination?
So many locations for so many different reasons. Sipadan for general reef diving, because I have probably seen it at its best – and that is hard to beat. For sharks, Tiger Beach (Bahamas) is hard to beat, although the Neptune Islands (South Australia) are my favourite for great whites. For cold water diving, God’s Pocket in British Colombia is my favourite and for a once-in-a-lifetime dive experience the “sardine run” (Southern Africa) is simply awesome. However, I really enjoy unchartered locations and the unusual, unexpected places; like exploring the mangroves here in Sabah, shooting freshwater turtle species in the rivers, and also filming saltwater crocodiles many years ago.
 
The site you’d most like to dive, but never have?
Cocos Islands (an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean).
 
The weirdest thing you’ve seen underwater?
A dive guide with his wetsuit around his ankles having a huge dump thinking nobody else was around!
 
What camera equipment are you currently using?
Nikon D800 in Nauticam housing.
 
Having a four metre long saltwater crocodile swim over you makes you feel very small.

“Having a four-metre-long saltwater crocodile swim over you makes you feel very small.”

What is the highlight of your career?
Wow. So many experiences that have left me fulfilled: photographing the largest living creature – blue whales; the satisfaction of holding my first ever book; removing the fishing net from a drowning turtle and seeing it swim away; having a four-metre-long saltwater crocodile swim over you makes you feel very small. I must say the most nervous photo shoot I ever did was photographing Sir David Attenborough in the forest with various creatures. But then spending time with him in the evening reviewing the images and comparing stories was definitely a highlight. I’m lucky, very lucky to continue having highlights each year that seem to shadow the last – I certainly don’t take them for granted.
 
And the low point?
Maybe when the toilet broke in Guadalupe and being stuck in the submerged cage below the toilet when they decided to empty the contents! On a serious note, it’s probably whenever I walk through the fish markets throughout Southeast Asia and witness the shark slaughter that is constantly growing each and every day. I also did a trip many years ago to document the leatherback turtles feeding on mass jellyfish congregations in Southeast Indonesia; the locals hunt the turtles and during one afternoon we witnessed and documented the entire hunting process – watching the huge leatherback take its last breath was something I hope never to experience again.
 
"Spending time with Sir David Attenborough in the evening reviewing the images and comparing stories was definitely a career highlight."

“Spending time with Sir David Attenborough in the evening reviewing the images and comparing stories was definitely a career highlight.”

 
Is there any particular shot that you still want to get?
Absolutely, lots of them! An image of a leopard seal is high up on the list; salmon sharks, dugongs. There are many creatures I have yet to experience and many behaviours that still haven’t been photographed. That’s what makes it very exciting – underwater photography is certainly getting saturated with many new photographers, but that makes each and every one of us push the boundaries for new angles and creative ideas.
 
For more information on Scubazoo’s incredible work, visit www.scubazoo.com.