We are pleased to feature in this interview one of the world’s leading underwater photographers: EOS Professional Tony Wu. Among other accolades, Tony has received the Grand Prize in the Blue Earth Underwater Photo Contest, Japan’s largest and most prestigious underwater photography competition; Grand Prize for his book Silent Symphony at the Festival Mondial de L’image Sous-Marine in Antibes, France; and First Prize in the Underwater Category of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year organised by BBC Worldwide, the Natural History Museum in London, and Veolia Environnement.

EOS Professional Tony Wu

Earlier this month, Tony shared with the EOS World community his inspiring background and excellent works through an underwater photography dialogue session.

Adorable sea lion on white sand in Carnac Island, Australia
EOS 5D Mark II | F/14 | ISO 320 | 1/400s

1. Could you tell us how you started with underwater photography and what has driven you to dedicate yourself into this genre of photography?

I’ve loved the ocean for as long as I can remember, and I’ve always been keen on visual art. When I was young, I spent as much time as I could at the beach and in the water. I read everything I came across about the ocean, and watched every documentary about marine life I came across. I also sketched and painted a lot when I was a kid, so taking up underwater photography was a natural progression.

Of course, getting certified to dive, learning photography, and investing in camera gear requires both time and money, so I wasn’t able to pursue marine photography until after I had worked for several years and saved up some money.

I bought my first camera in 1989 (a beat-up, used, mechanical clunker), started diving in 1992, and took my first underwater photos (pretty bad ones!) in 1995.

2. How do you describe your work to someone who has never seen it?

The motto on my website is “ars gratia scientiae” which is Latin for “art for the sake of knowledge.”

In other words, I strive to create aesthetically pleasing, one-of-a-kind images that convey meaningful messages about the underwater world.

Taking pretty pictures is fine, but if an image doesn’t grab the viewer’s attention, then tell a story or communicate a message of substance…what’s the point?

Giant frogfish (Antennarius commerson) with backlighting
EOS 5D | F/10 | ISO 200 | 1/125s

3. At what point did you realise to take underwater photography as a career?

There was no single point per se. I pursued underwater photography while working full-time.

Back in the days of film, there weren’t as many people taking cameras underwater as there are now, so making progress was a struggle. It wasn’t easy getting advice or information, and it took days, often weeks before I’d get developed rolls of film back. The learning curve was steep, to say the least.

I started getting images published fairly quickly and won a few awards. One thing led to another, and by around 2004, I was devoting nearly all my time to photography.

4. Share with us the most favourite underwater photo and experience you have ever done – and why?

I don’t really have a favourite photo or experience. Every minute I spend in the ocean is special, every encounter unique. Though I’ve taken many thousands of photos, the majority of the time I’m in the ocean I’m not taking photos. In fact, I’ve missed many more photo opportunities than I’ve succeeded in capturing. Things happen, and you’re often caught by surprise, or perhaps have the wrong lens for the occasion. Watching a whale swim overhead while you’ve got your head buried in the reef photographing nudibranchs is a classic example.

Pygmy blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda) in Sri Lanka
EOS 5D Mark III | F/9 | ISO 640 | 1/400s

Treasuring every moment, no matter how potentially frustrating or trivial, is vital.

I’ve encountered too many people who became upset due to bad weather, uncooperative animals, bad luck, etc. Just having the opportunity to be at sea to try to take photos is a privilege. Appreciating this point cultivates good fortune and terrific encounters at sea.

Having said this, I’ve been fortunate to have some spectacular experiences, such as photographing a sperm whale eating giant squid, witnessing massive spawning aggregations comprising thousands of hormone-crazed bumphead parrotfish, swimming among a bunch of male humpback whales competing for a female, documenting the courtship and mating of whitespotted bamboo sharks, nearly being eaten by a silvertip shark, and much, much more.

It’s impossible to have a favourite moment when I’ve had so many mind-blowing experiences.

5. Do you have any favourite diving spots/locations where you frequently go to do underwater photography?   

Not really. There are some locations I’ve visited repeatedly over the years, but that’s because I’m pursuing long-term projects to study and document specific animals, environments or phenomena.

For example, I’ve been traveling to the Kingdom of Tonga since 2003, and I’ve probably spent more time in the water with humpback whales there than anyone else ever has. Though I obviously strive to create beautiful images, my interest there is in learning as much as I can about the whales.

Female humpback whale with calf in Tonga
EOS 5D Mark III | F/5.6 | ISO 800 | 1/320s

In other words, my desire to learn drives my photography. Photography does not determine where I go.

6. What are the common roadblocks or challenges you face during your underwater shoots? Any advice on how to overcome them?

The biggest for me is often lack of information/ lack of pre-existing knowledge. Many of the subjects and situations I set out to photograph have never been documented properly.

The best way to address this particular hurdle is to put in a lot of time with pure grunt work: researching places, environments, animals, etc. as much as possible (reading, asking questions, consulting knowledgeable people), and then investing/ risking time on location to observe, adapt, learn, and finally sharing whatever knowledge I may have gained with the people who’ve helped me and anyone else who might be interested.

Of course, it’s possible to avoid this issue entirely by traveling to known destinations in pursuit of known animals or events, but I don’t believe in following fads and going wherever the flavour-of-the-day destination happens to be at any given point. There’s minimal challenge visiting a well-known place to photograph a given animal/ subject that’s been photographed dozens, if not hundreds or even thousands, of times already.

To quote from the conclusion of Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less traveled by,          

And that has made all the difference.

Spectacular pink and orange soft corals in full bloom, surrounded by multicoloured fairy basslets.
EOS 5D Mark II | F/11 | ISO 200 | /200s

7.  What kind of gear do you use for your shoots?

My gear changes all the time. Right now, my main camera underwater is the Canon EOS 5D Mark III. I have four bodies, along with a couple of EOS 7D bodies. Most of the time underwater, I’m working with either extreme wide-angle lenses, or macro lenses. My favourite wide-angle lenses are the EF17-40mm f/4L USM and the discontinued 15mm f2.8 fisheye lens. My favourite macro lens is the EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM. For action above water, I use a EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM, EF300mm f/2.8L IS USM, and the new EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x.

I have to protect whatever gear I take underwater. Right now, I use housings made by two companies: Zillion (Japan) and Nauticam (Hong Kong).

Lubricogobius dinah goby sitting on top of its beer bottle home, located at 30 meters depth at Observation Point at Normanby Island in Milne Bay province, Papua New Guinea.
EOS 5D Mark II | F/7.1 | ISO 320 | 1/160s

8. Being an award-winning photographer, share with us the biggest recognition you received throughout your career.

I’ve only entered a few contests, all of which have been big ones. The first was the Blue Earth Underwater Photography Contest in Japan. I won the Grand Prize with a photo of a sperm whale with its mouth wide open (the whale actually took me into its mouth). That resulted in front-page newspaper coverage in Japan, and sponsorship of film, which was incredibly helpful back in the days before digital cameras became the norm.

Inquisitive Napoleon wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) investigating dive guide Clayton Johannes at Blue Corner dive site in Palau. Many of the fish at Blue Corner have grown accustomed to the presence of divers in the water. This behaviour was unsolicited, with the wrasse initiating contact. Napoleon wrasses are classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List. They are protected in Palauan waters.
EOS 5D Mark III | F/8 | ISO 320 | 1/200s

After that, I entered my book Silent Symphony into the Festival Mondial de l’Image Sous-Marine at Antibes, France and won the Grand Prize for books. That award established my reputation in the underwater photography world.

And finally, I entered the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Contest sponsored by BBC, the Natural History Museum in London, and Veolia Environnement. I won first place in the Underwater category, which was special because it’s the largest, most reputable nature photography competition in the world.

9. Are there other genres of photography that you ever considered trying?

I take photos of wildlife above water as well, but more for fun than anything else. I’m a nature/ outdoors person, not a city person. So I’m happy taking observing and taking photos of just about anything in the natural world. But underwater photography is my speciality, the discipline where I strive to be among the best in the world.

Portrait of a honeycomb moral eel (Gymnothorax favagineus)
EOS 7D  F/25 | ISO 320 | 1/200s

10. What are the common misconceptions people have about underwater photography?

There are so many!

Probably the most common among non-photographers is that if you buy a good camera, you’ll automatically get good photos. Having good hardware is important, of course, but if it were that simple, then there would be many more excellent underwater photos.

Female pink basslet (Pseudanthias hypselosoma)
EOS 5D | F/8 | ISO 160 | 1/200s

Among photographers, perhaps that getting the photo is the most important aspect of being underwater. Learning as much as possible before getting where you’re going, observing carefully while on location, and building trust/ a relationship with your subject are much more important than pressing the trigger. Premature triggering results in mediocre photos.

11. Does one have to be a certified diver to become a good underwater photographer?

Only if you want to dive. These days, I spend most of my time photographing pelagic animals in the open ocean, which means lots of swimming rather than scuba diving. All things being equal though, for anyone interested in underwater photography, I’d recommend getting certified as a diver, and learning how to have 100% control over your buoyancy and body in the water. Seeing uncoordinated, out-of-control, discombobulated divers in the water carrying cameras is too common a sight these days. There’s no way you’ll get decent photos if you aren’t totally relaxed and in complete control!

Friendly adult female sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus)
EOS 5D Mark III | F/8 | ISO 320 | 1/320s

12. What advice would you give to someone wanting to break into this career?

Photography is a difficult path, no matter what type of photography, but nature photography is especially challenging, with underwater photography being a particularly demanding subset of nature photography.

Contemplate making a go of underwater photography as a career only if you do so because you truly love the ocean, and you have no delusions about becoming rich, famous, etc. People whose primary motivation is to seek glory are destined to fail.

Otherwise, keep your day job and enjoy your time underwater.

Follow this link to see more of Tony Wu’s underwater photography works: http://www.tonywublog.com