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Sea Lion Silhouettes. Young sea lions are highly social and playful animals. This group of six frolics on the surface and catches their silhouettes from below. Taken with a Nikon D7000 and a Tokina AF DX 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 Fisheye lens. No strobes were used.
“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” —Edgar Degas
I think black and white is the best choice for my photographic palette. The process by which I came to this conclusion—that removing color was the right path for me—is the result a lot of trial and error with printing, shooting and developing images both new and old, and through a lot of tedious struggling to reconnect with my work after a bad case of photographic writer’s block.
Naturally, black and white isn’t necessarily the best choice for everyone. I’m not one who subscribes to the idea that one tool or palette or technique in photography is the right one versus the wrong one. I think it depends on many things. A set of tools, palettes or techniques are simply a means to an end, which is subject to the goals and aspirations of the individual photographer.
Kelp Fronds. These arabesques of bladder kelp peacefully sway back and forth with the surge of the ocean. Photographed in Monterey, California, with a Nikon D7000 and a Tokina AF DX 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 Fisheye lens, and the flash of a single Sea&Sea underwater strobe.
I make this distinction because although black and white is working for me, I’m not suggesting your creativity will flow by simply turning color off. In fact, I can safely say my move to black and white was a byproduct of a lot of fighting through a photographic block by way of much self-reflection. I spent a lot of time paying attention to the kind of photos I have been making and struggled to have clearer intention about the kind of images I want to create. I pondered things like: “What am I trying to say with my work? What is my work about, and are the techniques and palettes I use effectively working to support these ideas?” I’ll try my best to explain what I’ve figured out, but as I said, black and white emerged as a byproduct of this process.
Seascape with Three Rocks. As the sun goes down behind a passing storm at Garrapata State Park Beach, just south of Monterey, California, I’m left with dark tones and highlights filled with movement and energy struggling to break through. Photographed with a Nikon D7000 and an AF-S Zoom-Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8D IF-ED. I also used a Singh-Ray 2-stop graduated neutral density filter to balance the tones.
One way I like to think of photos is that they are an abbreviation of an idea or an experience, and my images mostly come from working with, or in, our oceans. I have always loved ocean habitats, and I feel privileged to have been able to take my camera underwater for most of my career. When I house my Nikon in a waterproof, pressure-proof box (more expensive than the camera itself), put on my wet- or drysuit and my mask and fins, I get the privilege of diving into another world that goes beyond sight—it’s an environment that intensely envelops all of one’s senses.
Garibaldi. Shooting almost directly upward, I was able to capture this silhouette of California’s marine state fish, the Garibaldi. Shot with a Nikon D800E and a Tokina AF DX 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 Fisheye lens. No strobes were used.
A diver’s body is under pressure from the water, harnessed to a self-contained breathing apparatus, seeing things with less light and with almost all color removed, and through a mask narrowing one’s peripheral vision. Sounds can be more intense, and divers feel loud noises with their body almost as much as they hear them. It’s an alien feeling, going beyond sight, and, boy, is it fun. With that said, a two-dimensional photograph is a crude tool for translating such a multi-sensory experience.
School of Scattered Fish. The kelp forests of Santa Barbara Island, California, can be teeming with life. This is a school of sardines frantically feeding on tiny shrimp floating in the water. Shot with a Nikon D800E and a Tokina AF DX 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 Fisheye lens. No strobes were used.
For a more terrestrial example, if you were to take one of Ansel Adams’ iconic images of Yosemite, such as El Capitan, even with his masterful ability to interpret what he saw and felt, the final print was a condensed version of what he experienced while actually being there. The grandness, the smells, the sounds and the feelings we might get by being either in front of a subject or in an alien-like underwater environment is not something I feel I can ever perfectly translate in a photo. And yet, I know it’s my job to do so. My photographs are abbreviations of what I saw and experienced, and color stopped feeling like the right tool to translate that.
Reef Shark. Sharks are still often sensationalized as dangerous and mindless flesh eaters, but that is far from the truth. They are inquisitive, graceful, and have no interest in eating scuba divers such as myself. Shot with a Nikon D300 and a Tokina AF DX 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 Fisheye lens. To light the shark, I used Sea&Sea YS-300 strobes.
Ironically, the ocean is already a relatively monochrome habitat. When diving, everything I see is varied shades of either greens or blues—one color or the other depends typically on how nutrient-rich the water is. Yet, when looking at most underwater photography, the ocean is shown as an intensely colorful place, which is certainly the way I have photographed it historically. This common portrayal is a result of photographers bringing strobes underwater to illuminate critters and landscapes that would otherwise be dark and colorless. I think my issue with this, over time, is that shooting underwater scenes in color revealed something not typically seen but didn’t best translate the experience I was having while diving myself.
Clown Fish and Anemone. Photographed in Komodo National Park, Indonesia, I found this little clown fish floating above a large solitary balled-up anemone. Unlike other fish, clown fish do not get stung by anemone tentacles and thus use it as a shelter to hide from predators. Shot with a Nikon D7000, a Tokina AF DX 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 Fisheye lens and Sea&Sea YS-300 strobes.
Here’s a thought that may help explain this. One of the most wonderful and hypnotic things to see and experience in the ocean is a giant school of fish. More than anything underwater, I get mesmerized when I see thousands of fish rhythmically and cooperatively moving through the water together. There’s something melodic about it; it feels like an organism that’s exhibiting a choreography that no solitary animal could possibly display. A lot of the ocean gives me this feeling—of many things harmoniously being together—which is an experience that has nothing to do with color. In fact, color distracts from it.
Black and white thus helps me best translate the feelings with which the ocean leaves me. Black and white helps me portray the ocean as a place of textures, patterns, shapes, light and dark, subtle tonal gradations and fine details. The ocean is about life and its energy, cooperative and destructive relationships, a deeply mysterious place.