Welcome to the fifth installment in this series, to add to the previous interviews:
A Conversation With Todd Mintz and Rand McMeins
A Conversation With Martin Edge
A Conversation With the Fotosub boys
A Conversation With Espen Rekdal.
For this instalment in my Conversation With series you find me on the island of El Hierro out in the Atlantic, which before Columbus sailed to the Americas was thought of as the end of the world. It’s a suitably dramatic destination to meet one of the undoubted legends of underwater photography, Kurt Amsler.
We are both here as judges for the El Hierro Open Fotosub competition; and it is certainly a highlight of my year to spend the week together. Despite his long and illustrious career, Kurt’s enthusiasm and passion for underwater photography and the oceans remains undimmed. He is an inspiring person to be around and I honestly could have filled a whole year of this interview series, from the conversations during the week.
It is impossible to summarise the multitude of highlights in Kurt’s career here. Suffice to say that he has shot 1000s of stories for magazines, written many books and photographed high profile advertising campaigns. His competition record is also a full house. He won the 2nd CMAS World Championship in 1987, he was named Grand Master at the 1987 Brighton Festival that included the prize of a Rolex watch, his book Maldives won the best book of underwater photographs at the Antibes Festival in 1994, and he has won awards in just about every other competition, include the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year. With Kurt’s experience of so many years at the top of underwater photography, I was keen to get his perspective on the past, present and future. I also wanted to discuss what photographers today can learn from the past, to improve our images.
Kurt, of course, remains highly active, he still writes for Diving and People Magazine and still shoots for his big clients (he is sponsored by Nikon, Rolex and Scubapro/UWATEC). He also runs very popular workshops from his home in the south of France and on liveaboards. He has very active role refining underwater camera gear for Seacam. Seacam deserve a lot of credit to taking such a progressive approach of working with someone who can test their kit extensively in the ocean. It was fascinating to ask about all the refinements and design philosophy that Kurt has helped introduce into their line of housings and strobes.
It is also impossible to talk with Kurt without wanting to discuss the work he has done for marine conservation. He started SOS-Seaturtles back in the 1980s and it is no exaggeration that it has saved millions of turtles. SOS-Seaturtles still has many active causes and if you read this interview, please click on the link at the end and see what you can do to help.
Alex: I’d like to start with a historical perspective. What do you feel have been the big milestones in underwater photography that you have seen?
Kurt: It is best to start at the beginning of the 1960s, because before that it was mainly just a few divers taking pictures. At that time there weren’t many housings – most were using the Hans Hass Rolleimarin, so when the CalypsoPhot came out, it was a milestone. It made it much cheaper than shooting medium format and that really doubled the number of people.
The next milestone was the modular systems of Nikonos and MotorMarine. With one camera you could do six techniques: close-ups, two macros, two wide angles, standard lens. So that was a big innovation. From that moment on people could start taking pictures with just a little money.
Although before that was the arrival of electronic flashes, which was also a milestone. Using flash bulbs was very complicated and expensive. I remember when we were first in the Red Sea in 1964, I had a Rolleimarin and CalypsoPhot with bulbs, so each photo cost you 60 Swiss cents! It made you think. But looking back it was good training to be very selective. 12 pictures, 12 bulbs for the whole dive.
Kurt with his CalypsoPhot and flash bulb system in 1963. Photo J Lanvanchy.
Alex: A good discipline.
Kurt: And even now, shooting digital, I don’t shoot like the others I am still selective. I don’t do thirty pictures of one subject. Just because you do more it doesn’t mean that they get better, especially if you are not changing anything.
Alex: And the animal is probably getting less relaxed too.
Kurt: My training was to think twice before you bend your finger!
Then, of course, the most recent milestone is digital. Underwater photography has been exploding since then, and it is good, because normal divers have a much bigger horizon now.
Alex: I think it helps those of us who are serious about our photography. Because the more people who have tried it, the more divers there are who can appreciate what goes into a really top level photo.
Kurt: I agree. If they have tried it, they realise it is not that easy.
Alex: You mentioned discipline as something you brought forward from the early days, what do you think that photographers today can learn from the history? I think that there was a lot of creativity in the work you and others did in the 70s and 80s, which used techniques that have either been forgotten or have dropped out of fashion.
Kurt: What I have realised is that over the past 25 years the creativity has disappeared. In the early days it was black and white photography and you have to deal with light. It was available light only, even with ISO 125 film, pushed to ISO 250 you could make pictures at 70m (230ft). These photographers learned how to read the light.
Nowadays the photographers have one or two strobes and they are in love with them ! They are very high-tech, have a lot of switches and did cost a lot of money……
Alex: He he he. You are saying that they are so in love with their strobes they don’t think of anything else?
Kurt: Yes , they don’t think about other light sources anymore, And that reflects in their pictures. They don’t care about the sun, they don’t know these days if the sun is behind you the water is more blue, if it is in front of you, everything is more diffuse. They just rely on their strobe. And the key to underwater photography is mixing light, ambient and strobe. Mixing it the way you want. This is art. [Underwater] photography can be art, but these days it has become purely technical.
Alex: Which is ironic when you consider how easy the technical side of photography is now, with the newest cameras.
Kurt: We have not see one photo in this competition where the photographer has used the strobe off the camera.
Alex: I did that! I’ll show you. Here is a moray I shot on the first day.
Kurt: Yes, you did it, but not one person in the competition. When I look back to the competitions in the 1980s, that was common, we all had 10 metre strobe cables, with the E/O connector. If there was a cave then there would never be strobes on the camera. We would shoot a black foreground, and then we placed the strobe outside the cave where the model is looking in, to get depth in the picture. And the problem is not just in competitions, in the magazines it is very rare to see something creative.
An advertising image that Kurt shot for UWATEC for their touch activated Aladin computer, featured here on the cover of Peter Rowlands’ original, printed Underwater Photography magazine. There is an article inside the issue, where Kurt explains how it was done.
Alex: I have feeling that part of the problem is that these days it is very easy when you start underwater photography to get a good picture without the basic knowledge. The equipment is so capable.
Kurt: I would say this is 80% of people. The basics of understanding the light underwater aren’t necessary to get a photo when you start these days. But that will only take you to a certain level, at that point you need more knowledge. Many photographers reach that level and are unable to progress.
It is like in sport, which always and still plays a big part of my live. If you decide to become good, you have start by training all your muscles. At the beginning you will not need all of them, but when you reach a certain level you will need them all. If you forget to train the muscles that aren’t necessarily important at the medium level, you will never make it to the top.
It is the same thing in photography. It can be strange to hear that semi-professional photographers, who are publishing and winning prizes, they have absolutely no knowledge about the basics. They understand their camera inside and out, but not the light, or the basics of picture composition.
Alex: They are unable to reach their full potential. If a photographer now wants to learn more about light, do you have any suggestions on how to do this? Maybe shoot available light only for a few days?
Kurt: Or taking more landscape pictures in the evenings and mornings [on land]. Or just walking through the forest and look against the sun, through the trees and realise how the light works. If the sun is behind a trunk it is a sunburst.
Alex: I have often thought that the light coming through trees is like being underwater.
Kurt: Yes this is a good example! Just pay attention to the light wherever you are. Light is the basic of photography. In 1839, Daguerre and Niépce had to use light and we still use light. Even with digital, without light there is nothing. Once the photographer understands light, their pictures will look different.
Alex: Spend your time studying the light, not the specifications of the latest camera!
Kurt: Ha ha. Exactly.
Kurt Amsler “The key to underwater photography is mixing light: ambient and strobe. Mixing it the way you want. This is art.” Split level shot with Seacam superdome and D200.
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