In SD OCEAN PLANET, Editor Gill McDonald welcomed Michele as the magazine’s professional “Shooter on Tour”.

Michele has many skills as a freelance underwater, travel and lifestyle photographer. She is in the Women Divers Hall of Fame, is a member of the Explorers Club, a Senior Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers and has credits in many media and publications around the world. Her years of diving have also evolved her into a very active marine conservationist and she is also passionate about the culture of Melanesia as portrayed in her Papua New Guinea project

When you are commissioned to do a shoot, do you usually have plenty of time to prepare or can it be short notice?
I rarely have a short notice trip, thank goodness, as that can be stressful. I try to plan my tours and assignments several months ahead. Having said that, right now I am preparing for an assignment to Cuba which starts just two weeks after my recent return from a month in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

My notebook, which is always with me, has a page constantly updated with “repairs and replacements” and it’s currently full of things I need to get done before leaving for Cuba. For example, my laptop needs a new screen, I must order lost strobe diffusers, replace a broken strobe sync cord and a faulty strobe battery. My focus light charger needs renewing, I am missing spare screws for mounting lights and dome ports, and I need a few more tubes of O-ring grease. Such is the world of underwater camera equipment maintenance.

My Cuba assignment is for the Aggressor Fleet’s new vessel, there will also be additional equipment to take for lighting interiors of the boat, shooting lifestyle photos, and I will need a greater variety of lenses and remote flash transmitters than a “normal” diving commission to accomplish the task. Testing everything before packing will take a day to make sure all is working properly.

Traditional fisherman, Kofure Village, Cape Nelson, Oro Province, Papua New Guinea © Michele Westmorland

Traditional fisherman, Kofure Village, Cape Nelson, Oro Province, Papua New Guinea. © Michele Westmorland

Where are your favourite locations to work?
This is a very difficult question to answer. There are places I have not yet experienced and other ones I would love to return to. Each has their own personality and subject focus. Galapagos and Socorro for big animals, many islands in Indonesia to update my content, and the Maldives to check the status of the reefs since my last visit several years ago. The one location I never tire of is PNG and I have just completed my 31st trip to this amazing country.

Often divers visit a location for the marine life experience, but what PNG has taught me is not to ignore the people and diverse culture on any trip. These island nations have important stories to tell and the connection of the marine environment health with the people who depend on it for their livelihoods is fascinating and important. I have witnessed underwater photographers who are not interested in photographing the local people. I try to explain why they should. Sustainable oceans are not just for our privileged benefit; they are also vital to the health of the village communities that line the shores that we visit.

Do you use a packing list or some other method to ensure you take everything you need?
I have three basic lists: 1. Underwater and topside equipment for marketing images and diving stories for publications. 2. Gear for terrestrial wildlife imagery such as in Africa where long lenses are needed. 3. Photo tour kit list for teaching in the field. I also have details of all my equipment with serial numbers and value for any questions from customs and for insurance purposes. About once a year I have my equipment and list inspected by U.S. Customs officers so that I don’t have to repeatedly discuss whether it all is my own equipment or for resale. I have been stopped before and don’t want to go through that process again.

Just a small sample of the amount of kit Michele has to take on an underwater assignment © Michele Westmorland

Just a small sample of the amount of kit Michele has to take on an underwater assignment. © Michele Westmorland

Have you ever forgotten anything vital and if so, how did you manage?
With dive equipment, I can always find a solution especially with good resorts and dive vessels. Do I miss my own dive equipment that I am so familiar with? Of course, but I can adapt. When it comes to camera equipment, using my lists is the key to not forgetting an essential piece. In the past I have had to make choices whether or not to bring a particular lens, but now I just pack them all. If I don’t use it, so be it, but if I need it at least it’s in the bag.

Lionfish really lend themselves to creative photography © Michele Westmorland

Lionfish really lend themselves to creative photography. © Michele Westmorland

What packing tips can you give other underwater photographers?
I tend not to use check-in luggage that screams “this is expensive camera and dive equipment”. I use a basic duffle bag for tripods, dive gear and the few clothes I take, and a solid coolbox reconfigured with handles that can be secured with tie wraps for the underwater housing, strobes and accessories. I have been doing this for some 20 years and have only ever been asked if I have fish in the cooler! My cooler is pre-inspected by airport security so I know it is all repacked properly. It is those glass dome ports that I worry most about.

In Lowepro bags I carry two camera bodies, six different lenses from macro to fisheye including two for topside, two topside flash units, two backup hard drives and a laptop together with a myriad accessories. These all travel with me.

Has your luggage ever not arrived?
Don’t jinx me now! Only once did my cooler not arrive and thankfully it was on my return home. It was safely delivered the following day. I usually try to arrive at my destination a day or so early and find flights that have daily schedules, especially to PNG. It is too risky if there are flights only a few times a week into a particular location.

What have been your best and worst trips and why?
Long crossings when the weather does not play fair are memorable for the wrong reasons. I have never had a trip cancelled due to rough crossings but it sure can be miserable for everyone on board. Also uninformed crew and bad food are tiresome. The good news is that these have not happened very often and I have been fortunate to meet some amazing crew members who do everything they can to make the trip as comfortable as possible.

One thing that impacts a trip for everyone is a thoughtless diver. Sadly, they can turn up everywhere. People who care only about themselves, who tear apart a reef to get a shot, who are rude to the crew and other passengers, and who feel entitled are at the very top of my “dislike” list.

What camera or dive gear can you not be without?
Of co
urse, my Seacam housing! I have been using Seacam for over 12 years and I think it is the finest piece of underwater equipment available. I use Canon cameras, Ikelite DS-161 strobes and a Sola light along with appropriate Canon flashes for topside fill light.

Scuba divers at Kittiwake Wreck, Cayman Islands, Caribbean © Michele Westmorland

Scuba divers at Kittiwake Wreck, Cayman Islands, Caribbean. © Michele Westmorland

Do you take anything as a luxury not related to the trip?
Once in a great while, I like to take a few pieces of feminine clothing to wear at dinner and in the evenings. Yes, the female side of me gets just a little tired of looking like the “adventure clothing poster child”. Sadly, with all the latest weight restrictions and the amount of equipment I have to carry, I often find myself pulling the pretty clothes out of my bag to pack an extra piece of photo equipment.

How do you deal with the pressure of having to get the shots?
Every photographer wants the definitive shot. But what is that? Those of us who have been shooting for a long time can tend to be self-destructive and overly critical in what we deem as the shot. We let our minds imagine shots that may not be achievable. It could be due to weather or water conditions. There are times that I am restricted as to the number of days I have to cover a story so I press my internal reset button and look for other angles that align with conditions and time.

SDOP4coverTo read more, pick up SD OCEAN PLANET “Budget & Luxury Edition” (Issue 4/2016).