The shark took a bite out of my strobe and it ex­ploded. He came at me again, but then these dol­phins came and the shark went away

As Michael Aw pre­pares for an ex­pe­di­tion to the Arc­tic, he tells Keith Wil­son about go­ing head to head with sharks, be­ing thrown into the air by whales, and why he talks to fish…

NPhoto - - Front Page - Michael Aw,

Born and raised in Sin­ga­pore, Michael Aw was in his mid-30s when he de­cided life would be bet­ter if he spent more of his time un­der­wa­ter rather than try­ing to keep his head above it…

What trig­gered your in­ter­est in the un­der­wa­ter world?

I worked in ad­ver­tis­ing for 14 or 15 years and I’ve al­ways been cu­ri­ous about ex­plor­ing any­thing new, so when I fin­ished my com­mer­cial life and was out ex­plor­ing the world, I started scuba div­ing and tak­ing pic­tures. I feel more com­fort­able un­der­wa­ter than on land be­cause at least it’s not hot!

How old were you when you were first learned to dive?

I learned to dive in 1981. I turn 60 this year, and when I was 34 or 35, I quit my full-time job and de­cided to travel and start tak­ing pic­tures.

What do you par­tic­u­larly en­joy about div­ing?

I love na­ture and an­i­mals, but if you go into a for­est or even on sa­fari there is al­ways a bar­rier be­tween you and the an­i­mals, whereas un­der­wa­ter you are part of that en­vi­ron­ment and the an­i­mals come straight up to your face. You can reach up and touch them if you want to, whereas in the for­est you can hear the an­i­mals but some­times you can’t even see them, or you only get a glimpse and they’re gone. I feel so much a part of the en­vi­ron­ment once I’m in the wa­ter that I feel I be­long there.

You must have had some mag­i­cal en­coun­ters with aquatic crea­tures while div­ing…

Oh yeah, many. Ev­ery time I go into the wa­ter, ev­ery dive – I stopped count­ing when I reached 5000, and I think I have had 10 or 15,000 dives now – rarely has there been one where I have not had an in­ter­ac­tion with an an­i­mal. I like to see the fish, whether small or big. Ev­ery time I talk to the fish!

When was your first un­der­wa­ter im­age pub­lished?

I first got pub­lished in the early 1990s. I got on the cover of a magazine with an im­age of a clown fish. In­ci­den­tally, the first an­i­mal I saw un­der­wa­ter – I learnt to dive in Sin­ga­pore where the wa­ter is murky and dirty – was a clown fish. Then, when I did my first book in 1993, I spoke to the pub­lisher and in­sisted on hav­ing a cer­tain pic­ture on the cover, but he came back and said, ‘No, you can’t have this on the cover be­cause it won’t sell the book.’ Next thing, he looked through the book and picked the same clown fish for the cover of the book! We had two re­prints and sold 20,000 copies, which for a cof­fee ta­ble book that sold for $80 was not bad.

Scuba or snorkel?

Well, to get into the en­vi­ron­ment, to stay down be­cause we are not a fish, I stopped count­ing when I reached 5000 dives, and I think I’ve had 10 or 15,000 now

I was just shoot­ing, hop­ing to get my shot, when the whale came up from the deep and lifted me out of the wa­ter

I choose div­ing, be­cause I can go where I want to be and I don’t have to come out for any length of time. But the free­dom and quiet­ness of snorkelling is un­beat­able, be­cause even if you scuba you can hear your bub­bles, whereas with snorkelling you’re freer, you move much faster and you’re less in­va­sive. Ba­si­cally, I’ll do what­ever works to do my job, but as a per­sonal pref­er­ence when I’m not shoot­ing, when I just want to en­joy the en­vi­ron­ment, I’ll choose scuba be­cause I can stay down and pre­tend to be a fish!

You have won nu­mer­ous pho­tog­ra­phy awards. What do you look for in your own pic­tures?

I com­pose a shot in my mind be­fore I shoot it, and it has to be pos­si­ble for me to shoot it in that moment. I want to take pic­tures that are my own and that no­body can du­pli­cate. For ex­am­ple, the shot that won the Un­der­wa­ter cat­e­gory of last year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year, which was taken off the Eastern Cape of South Africa [see main im­age, pre­vi­ous spread] – I don’t think any­one can du­pli­cate that pic­ture.

It’s an ex­tra­or­di­nary im­age. Did you feel at the time that you were tak­ing some­thing that was truly spe­cial and that you wouldn’t be able to re­peat?

For that shot I was in that par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion for many hours – in fact, it was from 9.30 in the morn­ing till about four in the af­ter­noon, and I was to­tally ex­hausted. There were three or four whales around us, there was this huge big ball of sar­dines, and I was just shoot­ing, hop­ing to get my shot, and I was thrown up out of the wa­ter by the whale maybe five times. The whale came up from the deep and lifted me out of the wa­ter and threw me, hold­ing onto the cam­era. At the end of the day I know I have good shots, but I also know that I don’t have the shots I had imag­ined.

It’s get­ting harder to get that kind of scene, be­cause the sar­dine has been de­pleted to the point that there’s no sar­dine at all. This year will be my first year of not go­ing since 2004 be­cause there’s no more fish. It’s a very sad state, and I can’t see that shot hap­pen­ing again.

Which lenses do you use?

When I started in the early 1990s I shot a lot of macros of small an­i­mals, so my main lens was the 60mm macro. I used that lens about 80 per cent of the time and the other 20 per cent I used a wide-angle lens, like the 18mm prime lens. Those were the two lenses I brought with me for the first five or six years of shoot­ing, and some­times I used Nikon’s 105mm mi­cro. But these days, as I get older,

the small things be­come more dif­fi­cult to see. Now, we are shoot­ing small lit­tle snails or shrimp the size of a grain of rice, but it’s eas­ier for me to shoot a shark or a whale be­cause I can’t miss! So I use a wide-angle lens like a 15mm Sigma or the 16mm fish­eye, then if I’m not sure what I’m get­ting I put on my 16-35mm zoom lens. It’s like my in­sur­ance lens, so I pack that first, but I never go with­out the 60mm macro.

Can you list the typ­i­cal ar­ray of Nikon cam­eras, lenses and other equip­ment that you take with you?

I’m leav­ing in a few days for So­corro and I al­ways have the fastest cam­era pos­si­ble, be­cause I shoot a lot of ac­tion like the sar­dine run, an­i­mal move­ment and be­hav­iour. Right now, I have a D5, but my hous­ing for the D5 is not ready yet, so I’m us­ing my D4. That’s my main cam­era body, be­cause it’s fast and I rarely miss a shot. Then, for my seascape stuff, that will be a D800 be­cause I can be slow and com­pose my shot. But I’m con­sid­er­ing go­ing back to a cropsen­sor cam­era like the new D500 or D7200. They are very good cam­eras, and when I shoot macro I gain be­cause of the cropped sen­sor, so when us­ing the 60mm macro lens it’s ac­tu­ally a 90mm. So, the three cam­eras I will carry for a main ex­pe­di­tion will be a D4 or D5, then a D800 and now maybe I will also carry a D7200 or D500.

How do you stay on top of your im­age work­flow?

First of all, I don’t delete any pic­tures on any of my cards. I bring enough cards to cover the whole trip, so when I come back from a dive at the end of the day I will back up my cards onto a por­ta­ble hard drive. I have all my cards there and I know I have some good shots then, so I look through it and I start re­nam­ing the shots, and en­ter­ing any new an­i­mals or in­ter­est­ing in­for­ma­tion, and at the same time in­clud­ing the me­ta­data. When I get home I load up the whole thing onto my hard drive at home, so it’s now backed up twice. Then my as­sis­tant will get in­volved and start look­ing at the good pic­tures, and the edit­ing and post-pro­cess­ing I will han­dle my­self.

You must take a lot of cards then – how many and what size?

I still won’t go to those ex­treme cards like 128Gb – I still pre­fer to work with 32Gb cards be­cause if they get cor­rupted, you know, the big­ger the card the more trou­ble you get. I like to take my card out at the end of the day, or even af­ter a cou­ple of hours. I like to load up with a new card on ev­ery dive. You don’t want to go into the wa­ter with, say, half a card, be­cause you know when you do that you will run out of pic­tures and you’re stuck un­der­wa­ter. I don’t like that hap­pen­ing to me, so I bring 50 to 100 cards all the time.

I have just placed an or­der for another 20 cards to­day.

Where do you de­rive your pho­to­graphic in­spi­ra­tion? Are you ever in­spired by other un­der­wa­ter pho­tog­ra­phers like David Doubilet?

David has been my per­sonal friend for a long time now, since the mid-1990s. He al­ways man­ages to stay ahead of the game. How do you get ahead of him? That is the chal­lenge! I al­ways try to do some­thing that he hasn’t done be­fore, and ev­ery once in a while I man­age to do that and I can go to David and say ‘Look, I’ve just

done this.’ That is my mo­ti­va­tion, to do some­thing that he has not done be­fore.

Is there a par­tic­u­lar species of marine life that you never tire of pho­tograph­ing?

I like to say sharks, but that’s not true. The an­i­mal I find that can al­most an­tic­i­pate what I am do­ing is ac­tu­ally a species of fish, the blennies. They’re small with big brown eyes. They seem to read what you’re do­ing. They bounce around a lot. That has been a chal­lenge for me since I started shoot­ing in the early 90s. So, to this day, I will al­ways have my cam­eras ready to shoot blennies, be­cause that fish has per­son­al­ity and there’s maybe about a hun­dred species of them found in all parts of the world, in­clud­ing the Arc­tic and Antarc­tic Oceans, but es­pe­cially in the Trop­ics there are a lot of them.

You also men­tion sharks?

I have a lot of time for sharks be­cause they are like this beast in the ocean that peo­ple are afraid of and they are very smart, they can read you. I al­ways say the most dan­ger­ous shark is the shark that you can’t see. Some­times, one will come up right in front of you and give you a dare, and that’s when you put your cam­era in front of you and it will come at you and give you a nudge and take a bite on the hous­ing port. I lead dive trips, and in one sit­u­a­tion I had six guests around me and I saw a shark come in and check up ev­ery sin­gle port and then he came back to one and just bit the port. So, I’ve got time for sharks. I’ve done all ma­jor sharks from the tigers to the ham­mer­heads, to the great white, silky sharks, thresh­ers.

Which as­sign­ment has pre­sented you with the big­gest chal­lenge?

The last few years from 2009 to now, be­cause of cli­mate change, we have to work more in the po­lar en­vi­ron­ment and we’re not meant to sur­vive -1°C wa­ter! In 2001 we were con­stantly deal­ing with -1° and -2°C wa­ter, then last year when we were in the Arc­tic, be­cause of global warm­ing, we were deal­ing only with +1°C wa­ter, be­cause it’s warmer now than ever be­fore. But for cam­eras, equip­ment, our own com­fort, cold is a big chal­lenge. If your hand is frozen you can’t shoot, so it’s more chal­leng­ing as an en­vi­ron­ment and your cam­era takes a beat­ing.

You’re off to the Arc­tic again soon. What is the pur­pose of that trip?

I’m off with a sci­en­tific group from the Univer­sity of Alaska. We’re go­ing into the Bar­ents Sea, so we’re shoot­ing above wa­ter and at the same time un­der­wa­ter and do­ing a lot of sam­pling of an­i­mals, see­ing how warm­ing wa­ter af­fects the food source, plank­ton, of an­i­mals up there. It’s a 45-day ex­pe­di­tion. There will be whales as well, I hope!

Are you ex­pect­ing to find some species that you haven’t pho­tographed be­fore?

With the deep oceans you al­ways get new an­i­mals. Al­ways. We know so

lit­tle of the deep ocean. When you start trawl­ing, start bring­ing an­i­mals from the deep up to the sur­face, you al­ways have some­thing new.

Speak­ing of marine an­i­mals, has there been a par­tic­u­larly close en­counter with one that you have ex­pe­ri­enced as an un­der­wa­ter photographer?

My most mem­o­rable ex­pe­ri­ence was in about 2005. I did a shoot in French Poly­ne­sia and this guy says, ‘I can get you to the open ocean and we are go­ing to bring some open wa­ter sharks into your en­vi­ron­ment so you can get some pic­tures of them.’ I said, ‘What will we get?’ ‘Oh, you’ll get some silky sharks, some great ham­mer­head sharks.’

There are four of us: him, me and my as­sis­tant, and the driver of the boat. We head up the chan­nel and out into the open ocean, then de­scend down to 25 me­tres. The next thing I know the guy in the boat is throw­ing rocks into the ocean. So it’s rain­ing lit­tle rocks and these rocks stim­u­late the sharks to come up from the deep to in­ves­ti­gate what is hap­pen­ing up above. In the ocean, lit­tle rocks rain­ing down is like sick fish, or fish strug­gling in the wa­ter, that’s how it sounds, and a big shark comes in to check us out. Open wa­ter sharks are al­ways very hun­gry sharks, as there’s not much to eat out there, so they be­gin cir­cling us. I’ve got my set-up with me and my as­sis­tant has my other cam­era with her.

I’m shoot­ing for 20 min­utes and when I fin­ish with one cam­era I take the other cam­era. Half­way through, I think “This is not good be­cause we can’t go to the sur­face,” be­cause

when sharks are cir­cling you, they go tighter and tighter. Sure enough, the shark comes in and charges me, so I have to use my cam­era to push it away! Of course, you can do this a few times but you get tired. So my as­sis­tant is hold­ing me, and her eye­balls are wide open and she is push­ing the shark from the back and I’m push­ing the shark away from the front. The guy on the sur­face has no idea what’s hap­pen­ing be­neath be­cause we’re 25 me­tres down and he is still throw­ing lit­tle rocks in and get­ting more sharks!

The shark takes a bite out of my strobe and the whole thing ex­plodes. He’s still com­ing and this strobe is dan­gling from its arm, but we are for­tu­nate in that while all this is hap­pen­ing a dol­phin ap­pears.

A dol­phin?

A group of dol­phins, ac­tu­ally. Half a dozen of them. As soon as the dol­phins come the shark dis­ap­pears. Once you go into the open ocean there’s no place you can hide. Now, when­ever I’m deal­ing with big an­i­mals I’m very care­ful.

What is the best piece of ad­vice you can give to some­one wish­ing to be­come a pro­fes­sional un­der­wa­ter photographer?

You need to an­swer another ques­tion: how much do you want to do it? You must have the pas­sion. If you want to be a pro­fes­sional at do­ing this then you have to keep on try­ing, never stop, get out there and shoot as much as you can. Keep on try­ing and you will get your break. Now, with so­cial me­dia, it is quite easy to get at­ten­tion, but get­ting likes on Face­book, putting pic­tures up there, that’s not what you want. What you want is to get peo­ple to recog­nise your work, and to do some­thing new. Get out there and do some­thing that no­body has ever done be­fore. I think that is the most im­por­tant thing.

The shark took a bite out of my strobe and the whole thing ex­ploded

Pre­vi­ous page Bryde’s whale gulp­ing down sar­dines Nikon D3s, Nikon AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G ED , 1/250 sec, f/9, ISO 800 Clown fish liv­ing in white anemone Nikon D300s, Nikon AF-S 60mm f/2.8G ED , 1/160 sec, f/36, ISO 250

Deep Sea jel­ly­fish Clock­wise from top:

Pygmy sea­horse on coral

Yel­low Box­fish, lar­vae stage

Sar­dine run, South Af rica Nikon D3s, Nikon AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G ED , 1/250 sec, f/3.2, ISO 2000 A leop­ard seaL comes in close to in­ves­ti­gate michael’s cam­era Great white, Guadalupe, Mex­ico Nikon D2x, Nikon AF-S DX 12-24mm f/4G IF-ED , 1/250 sec, f/8, ISO 250

scal­loped ham­mer­headS, CoSTA RI CA Nikon D4, Tok­ina 10-17mm, 1/640 sec, f/20, ISO 1250 Dol­phins, ba­hamas Nikon D3s, Nikon 14-24mm, 1/500 sec, f/2.8, ISO 1600

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