Brian Skerry – a name known throughout the world of underwater photography. A photojournalist for National Geographic, Brian has spent over 10,000 hours beneath the waves capturing iconic images many of us are familiar with. The legendary shooter is a busy man – from diving with southern right whales in New Zealand’s far-flung subantarctic islands to photographing harp seals in Canada’s Gulf of Saint Lawrence – but we’re thrilled he found the time to sit down and chat about what it takes to be an underwater photographer for one of the world’s most renowned publications, his favourite dive destination of all time, and his most memorable shoot yet.
Q: What does it take to be an underwater photojournalist for National Geographic? Are there any common misconceptions people have about becoming one?
To be an underwater photojournalist, it’s not just about making beautiful pictures or being a good diver; it’s about being able to see the whole story – the whole visual narrative from start to finish – and being able to execute it completely on your own. I’ve been with National Geographic for almost 18 years now and they’ve come to rely on me for story ideas. I have to stay in touch with the ocean world and I have to write proposals and tell them why the story I’m doing is important. You also need to have the ability to be both flexible and resourceful, and you need to be consistent in delivering the goods. Things change when you’re out there in the field and you must know how to tell your story, but in a different way.
As for misconceptions about the job: Many think that I have a huge staff of people doing all the work for me, you know, research, planning, booking… but the truth is, I do all these things myself. It really is a full-time job.
Q: When you write a story, what’s your process like in terms of getting prepared?
Well, before I even write my proposal, I will do lots of research on a subject. Sometimes it might take six months, sometimes a year or even more, so before determining what exactly it is that I’m going to write about, I read a lot of papers and scientific literature. Then I proceed to think about locations, the story angle, and how I’m going to get the pictures I need. To do this, I talk to dive operators, scientists, or anyone who’s spent a lot of time in the area to find out things like the time of year I have to be there, expected visibility, animal behaviour, and so on. Basically, I interview people and find out what’s the potential of the story. Once I get the green light to do the story, I have to settle all logistics and carry out the plan. Truth be told, the longest part of the process happens before I’m even assigned a story.Q: Tell us about your most memorable underwater shoot or assignment.
One experience that really tops my list is when I was in New Zealand doing a story on southern right whales. I ended up going to the subantarctic islands to try and photograph this newly discovered population. The researchers I was working with said these whales had never seen humans underwater before so it was one of those unknown, speculative trips for me. I just didn’t know what to expect. But from the moment I arrived, I was just blown away by how curious these animals were. We’re talking about 15-metre-long, 70-ton whales in a very remote part of the world and they were surprisingly trusting and inquisitive.
Q: Is there a particular marine animal you love shooting?
The species or subject I seem to always enjoy returning back to is sharks. As a photographer, sharks represent this fantastic blend of grace and power. They move very elegantly through the water and yet they exude this great confidence. I never get tired of shooting them. As a journalist, I feel a real sense of urgency and responsibility to try and give sharks a makeover. I want readers to respect them, not fear them.Q: Name your favourite dive destination ever.
New Zealand! I’ve done four different stories there and I’ve always had great luck. I think part of that has to do with the nation’s great conservation efforts. It’s not perfect, but they do have a pretty robust group of marine protected areas and reserves. I love being in Fiordland, South Island, Poor Knights, and in these places I’ve photographed whales, sharks, seals, kelp… such great biodiversity.
Q: And how about the most underrated dive destination?
I think that would have to be Japan. Most people I’ve run into haven’t been there, especially remote areas like Hokkaido (for ice diving) and the Ogasawara Islands. I’d love to go back there.
Q: As an explorer, what are three things you never leave home without?
My satellite phone, a really good pocket knife, and my own little French press for coffee.Q: Tell us about your most frightening experience underwater.
Being lost under the ice while doing a story on harp seals in Canada’s Gulf of Saint Lawrence years ago. With the wind and tide, the ice up there is always moving so you could enter the water through a hole in the ice but that hole might close.
One time I was in the water with my dive buddy (one of my assistants) and I wandered a little too far off swimming after a harp seal. When I turned around, I couldn’t see my buddy anymore. I looked up and saw a hole closing over my head. This ice is about eight to nine metres thick, and it’s very dark under there. I’ve got a drysuit on, all this equipment to carry, and I’m diving on a single tank. My air starts to go quickly as I’m getting nervous. I had to control my breathing; I had to tell myself not to panic. I tried finding my way back. It didn’t take very long, maybe 20 or 30 seconds, but it felt like a lifetime. For those few moments, it was terrifying. But thank God it all worked out okay!
Q: What is the most challenging thing about underwater photography?
The lack of time. Unless you’re in very shallow water, or unless you’re freediving, you’re underwater for, what, maybe an hour? Plus, with this limited amount of time, you have to get close to the subject and move as quickly as possible to get your shot.
Q: Speaking of freediving, is that something you do a lot to get your photos or are you on scuba most of the time?
Actually, I freedive quite often to get my photos. Earlier in May this year, I had a cover story in National Geographic on dolphin intelligence; I worked in about nine locations around the world and most of the time I was freediving. Sometimes, it’s just not practical to use scuba.Q: Generally speaking, do you prefer macro or wide angle photography?
Wide angle. I do both, of course – it’s important to do everything as an underwater photojournalist – but I do prefer wide angle. I like working with bigger subjects.
Q: Equipment-wise, is there something you swear by?
My two very large and very heavy underwater strobes. These strobes have really wide-angle beams; they each have about a 110-degree angle of coverage so one strobe would probably light the entire picture with most lenses that I might use, but with two strobes I can get some really nice, softer lighting because I can adjust the power of each strobe and play around with the amount of lighting. The other real advantage is these strobes recycle very fast. I can shoot many pictures very quickly and sometimes that makes all the difference in getting that one really great image. So if you ask me, I would always go for the biggest, fastest-recycling strobes.
Q: Animal behaviour is obviously important when it comes to underwater photography. Do you invest a lot of time learning about this in particular?
I spend a lot of time researching animal behaviour. It’s essential and very, very crucial. Aside from reading plenty of papers, I speak to scientists and people who’ve dedicated their lives to working with a particular species. I try and take these researchers and scientists along with me on my assignments and they become part of the text, part of the story.Q: What advice do you have for budding underwater photographers?
If you want to do what I do, it’s important to create a plan. It’s a mistake to try to rush things or think you can do this overnight. It’s going to take time. As a young or emerging photojournalist, you’ll ultimately get hired to do assignment work based on your portfolio. Therefore, the best thing you can do is work on that portfolio, and many times, that means working on projects close to where you live.
The mistake young underwater photographers make is they take whatever money they have and they use it on expensive cameras and trips, hoping to emulate the photographer they admire. The thing is they might only be able to spend a week in that place. There is no way that they can compete with a photographer who’s been commissioned to spend three months in the same location in order to get the perfect shot. It’s not the same. You have to remember that it’s about having a strategy. It’s about saying, “Okay, here’s where I’m gonna be in a year.” Take part in workshops. Study. If you do those things, you will perfect your craft. If you just run out the door without a plan, you could spend five or 10 years out there in the water and yeah, you might make a lot of pretty pictures, but it’s not gonna mean anything in terms of getting assignments from big publications.