Born in Varese, Italy, Isabella Maffei has recently burst onto the underwater photography scene. A strong passion for the ocean drove her to become a scuba diving instructor and manager at her dive centre, “Deep Avenue”, in Mendrisio, Switzerland. From there, she became an underwater photographer to capture the experiences of her students learning to dive, and then to capture the marine world.
Always diving with her Nikon camera in hand, Maffei has created a spectacular body of work that has impressed international publications and dive events. We caught up with her for a quick Q&A about her career and her evocative images:
What made you want to become an underwater photographer?
I have always been attracted by photography, but what made me want to become an underwater photographer was a commercial necessity, a marketing strategy. I have a diving centre in Switzerland and usually dive with students and friends in our lake. To give something to my newly certified students, to capture a picture of that wonderful experience of their first breath underwater, this pushed me to become an underwater photographer.
Your first underwater shot?
My first shot was made with an old Sea & Sea film camera in Portofino Marine Protected Area (Italy). The subject was a classic sea star on the seabed. When you start out taking pictures underwater, sea stars seem to be the most well-behaved subjects!
The story behind your most memorable underwater shot?
7.00 am, I was on the jetty of Camogli Harbour, Italy. I was going to dive in one of the oldest tuna fisheries in the Mediterranean Sea, the “Tonnara”. During the summer months, the Tonnara is full of trapped moonfish (Mediterranean sunfish). They are a shy species, hard to approach in clear water. I wanted to capture a shot in a school of moonfish.
After 15 minutes, we arrived at the destination. A fisherman called “Rais” commanded the operation – unfortunately, two dolphins were trapped in the fishing net. As the fishermen closed the net, we quickly jumped into the water, and this was to be the start of my most memorable adventure as an underwater photographer.
The dolphins were quiet and not scared, and we swam together for 50 minutes, and they played with each other and were intrigued by me. Time went by quickly, and their moment of freedom came. When I jumped out of the fishing net, they suddenly became a little nervous, but seemed sure they would soon be free. The bigger dolphin pushed the fishing net downwards with his nose and the little one was freed first, passing in front of me for the last goodbye. Immediately after, the big one freed himself and swam very fast to reach the other one.
I will never forget that.
Where is your favourite dive destination?
I love Raja Ampat. I love wide-angle pictures, especially of schools of fish. I can find everything I need there.
The site you’d most like to dive, but never have?
Socorro Island, Mexico, without a doubt.
The weirdest thing you’ve seen underwater?
I was in Raja Ampat, below an old jetty on an island. Not many people dive here. I think I am one of the few.
The island’s fishermen had told me that I would find something interesting. A school of fish called the place home, but there were also predators. I was in the water alone, shooting step by step with each movement of the school. The predators, species of trevally, were making inroads fast. At one point, the fish were trying to position themselves behind me, so the predators could not attack them because they were intimidated by my presence. What I thought was strange was what little time they have taken to adapt to exploit my presence – and people say that they are “only fish!”
What camera equipment are you currently using?
I currently use a Nikon D8OOE in Nauticam housing. When shooting wide angle, I use the Sea & Sea YS-250PRO and Ikelite DS161.
What is the highlight of your career?
This year when I was invited to TDEX in Bangkok. It was my first time outside of Italy to present my photography.
…And the low point?
When I was a very inexperienced photographer, I was too sensitive to criticism and other opinions on my photography. My artistic sensibilities suffered, because I was trying to make my style too similar to others’. My pictures were just “nice images”, but my “soul” was missing.
Have you any advice that you’d like to give aspiring underwater photographers?
Be yourself. Watch and learn from others, from the environment, but make your vision unique!
Is there any particular shot that you still want to get?
Yes, there is! My dream is to swim with and capture pictures of whales.
For more of Isabella’s incredible work, click here.