How to Become A Professional Underwater Photographer: Interview with Michael Zeigler

Michael Zeigler of Immersed Imaging and Sea in Focus sat down with us to chat a bit about how to become a professional underwater photographer. Specifically; what kit he uses, some of his creative processes and his favorite dive sites. Michael has some great advice for those looking to take their photography to the next level. Read on, then go check out more of his work (links at the bottom of the article!).

Where are you located?

I live in Huntington Beach, California with my wife and two young children. Where do you dive most of the time and why? A vast majority of my bottom time is spent off the shores of Southern California. Not only is it in my backyard, but I happen to think it’s some of the best diving in the world. It’s hard to beat diving in the kelp forests!

How to Become a Professional Underwater Photographer

Photo Credit: Todd Winner | www.toddwinner.com

Can you talk a little bit about your diving kit?

My diving kit comprises of a Waterproof D7 Cordura drysuit (and their Ultima dry glove system – which is awesome), a Hollis Elite II backplate and wing, and a Suunto Vyper Novo computer (with wireless transmitter) that I usually keep strapped to the buoyancy arm of my camera. Photography-wise I’m currently shooting a Nikon D810 in a Sea & Sea housing, and I’ve been using Ikelite DS160 strobes since the beginning.

What is your typical underwater photography kit composed of?

It’s the Nikon D810 with either a macro or wide-angle lens and my two Ikelite DS160 strobes. For macro I typically use the 105VR lens and for wide-angle my go-to is the Sigma 15mm fisheye along with the Nauticam 140mm dome.

Do you have a favorite camera/brand?

I’ve been shooting Nikon since I took the plunge into the deep end into DSLRs with the D90. Since them I’ve used the D7000, the D810, and now I’m looking to make the switch to the D850.

How did you get into diving and underwater photography?

I’ve been diving since 2004 when a friend and I decided to take a course together. I had been wanting to get certified since I moved to California from Michigan in 1996 so needless to say I was stoked. As for underwater photography, I can credit my wife for that one. For Christmas 2009, she bought me an acrylic housing for our point and shoot (Canon PowerShot SD790 IS). I was hooked from the moment I took my first snap, even though I knew very little about photography (what’s an aperture?).

What were you doing when you realized diving and photography was what you wanted to do?

After using my point and shoot for a year, I knew that I needed to take the next step and invest in a DSLR rig. The decision was relatively easy but making all of the necessary acquisitions was not!

What is your #1 piece of advice for new underwater photographers who want to get started and become professional?

I’m glad you asked. Above all else, become a good diver first. Buoyancy, navigation, and having a handle on your breathing gas consumption should be second nature before you begin task-loading with a camera. You can know everything there is to know about underwater photography, but if you are not a diver with solid skills it will be a challenge to flourish. Also, chances are good that you’ll negatively impact the environment with poor skills and potentially annoy your fellow divers in the process.

Can you explain your creative process for taking a typical shot?

My preparation typically begins well before I dip beneath the surface, and I rarely set-up my gear without having a particular subject/technique/composition in mind. The latest critter sighting reports and conditions reports usually help me decide which subject(s) I’m going to target. Once that has been determined, I make the lens/port choice that will give me the best possible chance for success (e.g. if I’m going to shoot a portrait of a small, skittish fish, I will choose a macro lens that will provide the best working distance so that I can fill the frame yet stay far enough away not to spook the subject). When the subject is in view, I review my LCD occasionally and make adjustments to my lighting, etc. as necessary. It’s not uncommon for me to make several dives and only shoot a 1-3 subjects. I would rather go home with one awesome photograph than a handful of mediocre images.

What is the craziest dive/project/event that’s happened to you while you’ve been working? How did you handle it or what was the outcome?

I wouldn’t necessarily consider this project crazy, but it was certainly the largest project I’ve worked on to date. My friend, Todd Winner, and I were commissioned to photograph the kelp forest for the entrance facade for the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, California. The images needed to taken in such a way that they could be stitched together in order to cover the 30′ high walls. In addition to getting the conditions to cooperate, we had to deal with the swaying kelp which was a challenge. However, the finished product looks great and I encourage you to visit the Ocean Institute if you find yourself in the area!

Everyone has a favorite dive site; what’s yours?

Without a doubt my favorite dive site(s) are the oil platforms off the coast of Huntington Beach, California. There are three platforms (Eureka, Elly, and Ellen) that are available to recreational divers, and you never know what you’re going to encounter until you descend. Being several miles from shore and having the sea floor several hundred feet below, the rigs are subject to pelagic and sessile critters alike. The structures are covered in brittle stars, mussels, anemones, and scallops, while just about anything could be swimming through the platform from the blue. I’ve personally encountered Mola mola, pelagic tuna crabs, and massive schools of jack mackerel swirling around the structure. Not to mention the resident sea lions and the cormorants diving for a meal. The photographic potential at the oil rigs is seemingly endless, and it seems that every time I visit them I find a new perspective from which to create an image.

Can you tell us a bit about your training (diving and photography) that you’ve done to this point? What has been the most worthwhile training you’ve done?

I have been a Master Diver through NAUI since 2010, but I would say that the most worthwhile training was going through the AAUS Scientific Diver program while I was a volunteer diver at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California back in 2011. Through that program, I was trained to manage a great deal of task-loading, which translated greatly as I was picking up underwater photography. As far as photography training is concerned, I am completely self-taught. Once I got “the bug,” I read every book and online article I could, and joined my local underwater photographic society (OCUPS) to start rubbing elbows with some of the established pros out there. I continue to pour over books and articles, gaining inspiration from them as well as from the work my friends share on social media.

Do you have projects you’re working on?

My current project is a feature article about a recent trip to Solomon Islands which is scheduled to print in the winter edition of DIVE Magazine (UK). My friend Todd Winner and I own company called Immersed Imaging, where we specialize in international underwater image-making workshops, and we have several exciting destinations on the calendar. Those destinations include Tonga (August 2018) as well as Raja Ampat (May 2019) and Solomon Islands (August 2019). In addition, Todd and I will continue to be guest photo pros on several local (SoCal) charters hosted by Channel Islands Dive Adventures (CIDA) throughout 2018.

My personal sites include: www.seainfocus.comwww.instagram.com/seainfocus. Immersed Imaging expeditions and workshops sites include www.immersedimaging.com and www.instagram.com/immersedimaging

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