Famous for his unique over-under shots that have placed him on the front of Scuba Diver magazines – twice – and won him placings in numerous international competitions, UK born Matty Smith jumped from the cold European waters to Down Under in 2007 – all in the name of underwater photography.
A love born from snorkelling in the Mediterranean and observing the light dance below, underwater photography has allowed him to visually communicate to the viewer the majestic feelings of scuba diving and the incredible interactions he experiences with rare creatures in their natural habitat.
Artistically blending the topside world with the underwater one, Matty’s images remind us just how thin the line is between both realms. From beautifully lit jellyfish that peek above the surface, to squid poised like Medusa – his innate ability to transform the underwater world into something more alien than it already is, is one of the many reasons why he is our Underwater Photographer of this month. We caught up with Matty for a quick Q&A about his life, career and imagery:
What made you want to become an underwater photographer?
I actually don’t remember an exact epiphany where I wanted to become an underwater photographer; it just kind of evolved over a number of years starting from when I was very young. I remember going on holidays to the Mediterranean Sea when I was a small child and not wanting to do anything but go snorkelling all day, every day! I never seemed to get tired of it. When I got a bit older and started travelling myself, I got a film SLR for my birthday for above-water ocean shots and I bought underwater disposable film cameras to try and record what I saw underwater, but quickly got frustrated with the quality from the disposables.
It was in my early twenties when I bought my first underwater SLR housing, an Ikelite for the Nikon F80 – that was the moment that I guess it got serious. But even then I couldn’t scuba dive and I mostly used it to shoot surfers in the waves and for snorkelling. A few years later, I got PADI certified during a trip to Tobago in the Caribbean and then in 2007 I emigrated to Australia, drawn by the warm and clear seas. Shortly after arriving in Australia was the point when my skills really started to escalate through regular diving, practice and experimentation. I was, and still am, like a kid in a sweet shop here. My approach to photography is now (mostly) to look at how someone else has photographed a subject well, and then try to expand upon that and add a little something else rather than copy it. I always try to be a little different when possible. David Doubilet’s work has probably been my biggest influence and driving force to personal improvement.
Your first underwater shot?
I think my first underwater picture was a very ordinary photograph of the reef at Gili Trawangan Island in Indonesia in the late 90s. It was the first time I had ever snorkelled in tropical waters and I was totally awestruck. It’s just as you’d expect, very underexposed and flat, but it was my first step into a life-changing world.
The story behind your most memorable underwater shot?
So I’m in a shallow mangrove snorkelling in about two metres of water and looking at the business end of a wild 2.5-metre American saltwater crocodile through my viewfinder. Now, my photography has led me into a few interesting situations in the past, but what I see before me takes the cake. I’m staying as still as can be and mumbling to myself profusely, “Just get the shot!”
It all took place recently on an Ocean Geographic expedition to Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen) in Cuba. We were there to photograph these American saltwater crocs. I was a little nervous about it, but very excited. Whilst cruising the mangroves in the tender, a couple of crocs were spotted just under the surface along the vegetation line. Could this be my chance to get the perfect half over/half underwater image I had imagined?
The boat was brought to a stop and I gently eased my body and camera into the water and slowly finned my way over. Another photographer joined me and the rest stayed in the boat to keep a watchful eye for more crocs. I gingerly positioned myself as close as I dared to make my photograph.
Now it’s very seldom I remember the exact moment of pressing the shutter on “the shot of the day” but I do remember everything about this one: pulling focus, framing up, the sweat beading on my forehead and holding my breath. Confident I had my shot in a couple of frames, I slowly backed away and got back in the boat. Mind blown!
I named the image “Smiling Assassin” and it went on to be a multiple award-winning shot.
Where is your favourite dive destination?
This question is too hard! I’m the biggest excitable grommet at heart when it comes to diving and my favourite destination is usually the last one I went to! You can always find something to excite and inspire underwater no matter where you are. Up there on the list would be Cuba, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, but I also really like the Sydney dive sites. Oh, I went to Anilao in the Philippines recently – that was pretty cool too.
The site you’d most like to dive, but never have?
Too many to list! I recently crossed off Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea, from my list, though I will return – awesome place. I’m hoping to get to Socorro (Revillagigedo Islands) soon and also Fakarara (French Polynesia) for the grouper aggregation is a must do for me. I’d like to try some cold-water stuff too, maybe Antarctica soon. And of course how could I leave out the Sardine Run! So much to do, so little time!
The weirdest thing you’ve seen underwater?
strong>Squid would have to be up there. I’m currently working on a portfolio of squid portraits, and their ability to alter shape, colour, pattern and apparent mood in less than a second has me mesmerised; it can do it much faster than a chameleon. Each one seems to have its own personality and in the little bay where I’m working on this collection of images, I think the local squid population have gotten quite used to me, they’re almost like little pets now and not timid around me at all.
What camera equipment are you currently using?
I use a Nikon D810 mostly for my wide-angle work. My favourite lenses to use with it are my Nikkor 16–35mm f/4 VR and Nikkor 16mm f/2.8 Fisheye. Most of my over/under portfolio is shot with this camera and my Nikkor 14–24mm f/2.8. For macro I’m using a Nikon D7200 with 40mm f/2.8, 60mm f/2.8 and 105mm f/2.8 Nikkor Micro lenses. Everything gets housed into Aquatica Digital underwater housings and ports and I also use the Aquatica Digital +5 and +10 wet lenses for super macro. Strobes are Inon Z240’s.
What is the highlight of your career?
That would have to be the period between August to October 2014. I was lucky enough to win the overall Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year Award, also be a BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year Prize winner and get 1st, 2nd and 3rd prizes from the Ocean Geographic Pictures of the Year. Stringing all that together in a short space of time opened a lot of doors for me and was just the springboard I needed to give my career a real boost.
…And the lowpoint?
Drowning a brand new D810 camera that Nikon had given me to use at the very start of my sponsorship during an Ocean Geographic expedition to Cuba. It was totally my own fault for not checking my housing properly, coupled with a little bit of user error too. We were out in a little tiny boat surrounded by silky and reef sharks and I was far too excited. It was an awkward phone call back to Nikon head office, but they were surprisingly relaxed about it. Someone once said to me, and I really can’t remember who it was, “Underwater photographers can be categorised into those who have drowned cameras and those who are going to!”
Is there any particular shot that you still want to get?
Something with lots of ice in it, an over/under of some description, throw in some penguins and a leopard seal too, that’s the picture.
For more of Matty’s work, check out his website, www.mattysmithphoto.com.