Underwater Odyssey

Constantly traveling and seeking the hidden seascapes that wait beneath the surface of the world’s oceans and seas, Eric Cheng has quietly become one of the top underwater photographers in the world
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Using Canon DSLRs, Canon and Sigma lenses and a variety of underwater housings, Eric Cheng’s seascapes are some of the most beautiful images of the natural world we’ve ever seen. The view from an underwater cave, Marovo Lagoon, Solomon Islands.

Outdoor photography and, more specifically, landscape photography, is an art form that transcends geographic boundaries. For millions, it’s a passion, a hobby or a profession, in many cases all three. We all enjoy the iconic landscapes and try to present these wonderful places in our own unique ways. The fact remains, it has become harder to find new and singular landscape locations, although with the right amount of time, determination and research, they can be found. There remains a vast, unexplored area of landscape photography that presents great opportunities for unique images. Underwater “landscapes,” or seascapes, is one of the most challenging forms of photography. Eric Cheng is an underwater photographer who has tackled the challenge, and his results are, well, iconic!

Cheng’s underwater photography career was started by a twist of fate. In 2001, Cheng was working 100-plus hours a week as a software engineer for a startup company. He burned out on the industry, so he took some time off to look for a new job and career. Cheng received his diver certification in college, so during the break he decided to book a trip to Palau in the South Pacific for a casual dive vacation. He had a Nikon Coolpix 990, which he matched up with a housing he found on the Internet. He convinced a buddy to get certified, and the two of them found the cheapest way to get to the islands and off they went. He was hooked on underwater photography.

Bait fish over a soft coral forest, Raja Ampat, Indonesia.

In January 2002, Cheng had the opportunity to manage an online site dedicated to underwater photography.

“Within nine months of shooting my first pictures underwater, there I was with the Wetpixel site, completely dedicated to underwater photography,” Cheng remarks. “I never expected that!”

Cheng’s career as an underwater photographer was launched, whether he was ready or not. With the support of occasional programming contract work and the growing advertising income from his work with the Wetpixel website, Cheng began traveling the world and shooting in some of the world’s most exotic dive locations.

Travel and shooting underwater became a major focus for Cheng. Over the past nine years, he has created images in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Caribbean, Mexico, Alaska, the West Coast and East Coast of the U.S., Australia, New Guinea, Japan, New Zealand, Micronesia and more. When asked about his favorite location to dive and shoot, he replies, “There are so many great underwater sites that it’s hard, really, to pick one. Perhaps my favorite place is more a general location. The South Pacific, with its immense biodiversity, is where I keep going back to time and again. I love the variety of life and the great, clear water conditions.”

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Abstract hard coral landscape.

Cheng creates images using a unique style of blending available-light backgrounds with fill-flash foregrounds to capture captivating seascapes. Many of his underwater images give the viewer a strong sense of depth, with “God rays” from the sunlight above penetrating down the water column to the subject below.

“Underwater photographers don’t have the luxury of using postproduction exposure techniques like HDR due to the limitations of the environment,” Cheng points out, “so they really must get the light right at the point of capture.” He adds that he does very little postproduction work on his images except for “minor tweaks to help the images pop.”

The obstacles facing underwater seascape photographers include focusing on a constantly moving environment that’s often in low light, limited options in usable lenses (you can’t use a telephoto lens underwater due to limited light and visibility) and the changing environment itself.

“In the South Pacific, where soft corals abound, the reef can appear very drab when the corals are closed,” Cheng comments. “Yet six hours later, the reef can appear vibrant and colorful because the coral polyps have opened to feed.” Unfortunately, divers can’t wait around on the reef for six hours.

A healthy coral reef at the surface, Marovo Lagoon, Solomon Islands.

When asked who does he credit for his inspiration, Cheng is quick to point out that it’s not who, but where. “I get inspiration from the fact that I’ll see something new and unique at every dive location,” he explains. “Just getting underwater and looking forward to what I’m going to see next is what I really draw from.”

Cheng adds that he knows many 30-plus-year veterans of underwater seascape photography who feel exactly the same way, even after all their time in the water.

Working photographers face many challenges, and that’s true of underwater professionals as well—and then some! Perhaps the most challenging aspect is travel. Exotic locations often require international flights and all the hassles that come with it. Cost, travel time, visas, language barriers and more all add up to the need to have a solid plan. Perhaps the most difficult is traveling with heavy, bulky dive and underwater photo gear. At 100 to 120 pounds for underwater photo gear and nearly 100 pounds of dive gear, the current luggage restrictions on most airlines can make getting to the location painful and expensive. The harsh environment and the added cost of underwater housings and special flash equipment add to the challenge.

A goby in a soft coral forest, Ashmore Atoll, Australia.

Adds Cheng, “I think the most challenging aspect of being a seascape shooter is standing out. I always ask myself how can I shoot this differently? How do I make it stand out?”

There are limitations to the number of angles to a reef, but Cheng strives to make his work distinct. “I experiment with camera position, flash position and will even use a macro lens where most might go with a wide angle,” he says. All in the name of putting his take on the scene.

A distinct advantage that Cheng has as a photographer is his previous life as a web programmer. He fully utilizes a cadre of social media tools to share his images and get the word out on his activities. His images and postings are regularly found not only on the Wetpixel.com website, but also on his personal website and his blog, along with Facebook and Twitter.

“It’s a great time to be a photographer, with all the web tools available to present your work,” says Cheng. “I know some photographers worry about plagiarism and copyright issues, but I think the exposure value far outweighs those issues.”

Silhouette of an enormous gorgonian sea fan, Eastern Fields Atoll, Papua New Guinea.

Even though Cheng hasn’t been an underwater photographer for 20 or 30 years, he has witnessed an alarming trend in the oceans. “In the few years I’ve been shooting underwater, I’ve seen a drastic decline in the health and quality of the reefs and habitats I’ve come to love,” he says. “It’s a big concern for us all. I can only imagine the decline that my colleagues who have been diving so much longer have witnessed.”

Cheng hopes that, through his imagery, he can help the situation by heightening the awareness of the need for protection of the oceans and other waterways.

When asked what advice he gives to new underwater seascape photographers, Cheng is quick to point out that a real understanding of the environment, its animals and the effect the water conditions have on the light are the most important factors in creating underwater seascapes. And when it comes to the water conditions, often it’s a matter of luck! Sometimes he sees underwater photographers working on their images between dives on the boat, working them up and making corrections. Cheng’s response: “Hey, we’re still anchored over the dive site. Why not get back in the water and shoot again until you get it right!”

To see more of Eric Cheng’s photography, visit www.echeng.com/photo. Budd Riker has been an avid nature photographer and writer for over 30 years. You can see his work at www.lightinthesea.com.

Diving Into Underwater Photography
In order to go beyond the surface water, where millions of snorkelers venture, the underwater shooter must first become trained and certified as an Open Water Scuba Diver. While there are many sources for this training, the most popular place to start is at a PADI Dive Center or Resort.

Once you complete your training and your diving skills allow you to be comfortable in the water, the next step is to learn all you can about taking your camera underwater, capturing images and returning to the surface with great pictures—and a dry camera! The PADI Digital Underwater Photography course is a great place to start with the basics of underwater shooting. The course, which focuses on using compact digital cameras and housings, is a good way to develop the skills and fundamentals of underwater photography. Like the Open Water course, the PADI Digital Underwater Photography course can be accessed through a PADI Dive Center or Resort. It soon will be available as an online course as well.

The keys to success as an underwater photographer? First, high proficiency and comfort as a diver in the water, followed by a keen understanding of the environmental effects being in the water has on your results. Then it’s a matter of being in the water as often as you can. While exotic dive trips can yield great photographic opportunities underwater, there can be interesting and unusual subjects under the waters close to home.

For more information on becoming a certified scuba diver and underwater photographer, go to www.padi.com. Soon, you could be capturing a new and adventurous world of underwater “landscapes.”