Stormy Waters: National Geographic’s David Doubilet, Part II

This is the sixth in a series of Q and As on Earthjustice’s oceans work, which works to prevent habitat loss and overfishing, as well as to reduce the impacts of climate change on the ocean. David Doubilet, an acclaimed underwater photographer for National Geographic, talks about his experiences as an underwater photographer and provides tips…

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This is the sixth in a series of Q and As on Earthjustice’s oceans work, which works to prevent habitat loss and overfishing, as well as to reduce the impacts of climate change on the ocean. David Doubilet, an acclaimed underwater photographer for National Geographic, talks about his experiences as an underwater photographer and provides tips for budding underwater photographers. View a slideshow of Doubilet’s underwater photographs and learn more about Earthjustice’s oceans work at

Jessica Knoblauch: In your biography, you mention that you try to redefine photographic boundaries each time you enter the water. What did you mean by that?

David Doubilet: Here’s a good example of a photographic boundary. For years, as long as I worked for National Geographic, I would or somebody else would propose a story on nudibranchs. These are basically sea-going snails without a shell that develop the most incredible colors in the world as a matter of survival. They feed on very toxic things and then advertise the fact that they are toxic by incorporating this toxicity into their flesh, changing their color.
There are so many ways that these creatures are able to survive, but they’re snails. And if you want to do a story on these things, you have to first understand what they look like and you have to have some kind of intimacy to them. In other words, you have to be eye to eye with them. Because they live on the ocean bottom, most photographers photograph them looking down on them. It’s a little like taking pictures of children and photographing only the tops of their heads.


So I thought for a long while and said, “Let’s build a tiny studio underwater and treat these creatures like fashion models because the colors they create are more robust and incredibly vibrant than any piece of fashion I’ve ever seen, and that includes Haight-Ashbury in 1968.” So I built a tiny, 10-inch square studio with a curved back wall made out of Plexiglas mounted on a tri-pod. We took it underwater, we took it to the nudibranchs, and with the help of a nudibranch expert we moved the nudibranchs off the sea floor and into the studio momentarily and photographed them in a studio setting.
So there are a lot of stories that we always try to add one more step, one more piece of vision, one more piece of technology. Where technology meets dreams, you make photographs.

JK: What do you find the most exciting about underwater photography?

DD: To meet a challenge, to look at a situation and say, “How can I illustrate this? How can I make this picture something more than what we see?” And maybe see an environment that you see with your naked eyes that can be basically be put it on the page and incorporates the poetry, the environment, the atmosphere of a place that you’re shooting.
JK: You’ve been in the field for decades now. Do you have any tips on how to get started with underwater photography?
DD: Well, the first thing about underwater photography is you’ve got to be comfortable underwater. People say, “Well I’m going learn how to scuba dive and then take pictures immediately.” I think that’s a mistake. You do need to have some skills, but more importantly you have to have some time underwater before you take a camera. That’s my first advice. Look around. Be very comfortable. Have at least a hundred dives.
Once you’re comfortable underwater, go into the water and look around at the seascapes and the smaller creatures in the sea. Remember that most of the creatures in the sea are the size of your hand or smaller, and so there’s an entire world of macrophotography in the ocean as well as an entire world of seascapes and larger animals. You don’t have to start in shark-infested waters immediately.
We live now in the digital world where the learning curve of how to become an underwater photographer is very much shortened because you can see exactly what you shoot. In years back, I would do assignments where I wouldn’t see a picture that I’d made for three or four months, which is a little bit frightening. Now, you take a picture, you see it instantly.
JK: Speaking of sharks, do you ever get scared when photographing them?
DD: Well, what’s scary is to get into a situation and as a photographer miss the picture. That’s sort of frightening. But there are situations where it can be very tense and then the thing to do is you back slowly out of the situation. At other times, it can be absolutely beautiful and breathtaking. Diving with sharks is not necessarily always going to end up with injuries. You just have to be very, very careful.
For instance, we were working with tiger sharks that had been feeding on a dead sperm whale carcass and at one point there were at least seven really big tiger sharks, some of whom were 14 feet long, feeding on this piece of sperm whale that was being slowly devoured into nothing. Evening was coming along the edge of the Great Barrier Reef and we were snorkeling, and I realized at a point that the sharks were not going to distinguish us from the big piece of blubber that was left and we could easily be victims. And that was the time, as the light went lower, that we felt it was better to get out of the water.
With sharks we sometimes photograph back to back, my partner and wife, Jennifer, and I, so we can defend 360 degrees around us. But a funny thing happens when you work behind the camera. You feel in some ways a little bit invulnerable, but in other ways what you want to do really is get this picture, to compose, to shoot, to adjust all the f-stops or shutter speeds or do all the things you have to do as a photographer. Your whole being is intensified right down through the viewfinder of the camera.  
JK: When photographing sharks or other sea creatures, do you try to remain a detached observer?
DD: There are very few real interactions underwater, but occasionally in this cold sea there is something that’s sort of wonderful. For example, we were diving in a place called Hopkins Island, which was in the entrance to the Spencer Gulf of South Australia. There was a group of Australian sea lions that live there and when we went into the water, they would go into the water and nibble our flippers, bite the strobes, and they would come over and look right into your mask. If you put out the palm of your hand, they would tickle your hand with the front of their noses. It was a little bit like diving with a group of quite friendly Golden Retrievers.
JK: Do you feel that it’s important for photographers to be familiar with the topic they’re photographing?
DD: Of course it’s great to have knowledge about what you’re photographing. In fact, that’s basically my entire life is to know what we’re shooting. There’s a lot of research and a lot of work, so when you see something, you know what it is. You can identify the species. And of course the most important factor in photography is the guide. Your guide, the person who lives there, the person who knows what the world is that you’re photographing is all about. You trust their judgment and then modify it with some of your experience and you come up with something that’s new.
The thing about a Geographic assignment is that it’s like a graduate course in whatever we’re doing. And the only difference is you translate that into visual material. You’re always learning and there’s no such thing as a finished assignment. It’s a very Sisyphean life because you basically roll an enormous stone up an enormous hill and when you get to the top if you’re successful your best reward is another enormous stone and another enormous hill.
JK: Are there certain challenges unique to underwater photography?
DD: It’s a completely different world just in terms of lighting. On land, if you light something up in a studio or use a flash in the air, you don’t have to ever worry about the return path of the light. Underwater, the return path of a light is absorbed, so the light going out is not the light reflected. You also have deal with the fact that the water wants to destroy every piece of camera equipment you’ve ever owned. Finally, if you’re shooting something in, say, 150 feet of water, for an entire day you will have about 15 minutes to shoot. The price for that 15 minutes down there will be hours of decompression. Imagine doing a story where you’re only allowed to shoot a subject for 15 minutes. It’s like sports photography, only while holding your breath!

Jessica is a former award-winning journalist. She enjoys wild places and dispensing justice, so she considers her job here to be a pretty amazing fit.