Interview: David Fleetham, underwater photographer

Flying fish, at the surface

David Fleetham is one of the most published underwater photographers in the world. He began diving and photographing underwater in 1976 and has been in Hawaii since 1986. For the first ten years he photographed in the cold, but rich waters of British Columbia, Canada, and worked as a PADI Instructor and USCG Certified boat captain in various dive businesses in the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii. From Hawaii, David has been on assignments to, Indonesia, The Galapagos Islands, South Africa, The Bahamas, Micronesia, Australia, the Sea of Cortez, the Red Sea, the Socorro Islands, numerous locations in the South Pacific and Caribbean, and back to the cold waters of British Columbia.

David’s photographs have been published around the globe, with over two hundred magazine covers to date. In 1991 his photograph of a sandbar shark appeared on the cover of LIFE. It is the only underwater image to ever be published on the cover. His award winning work has been published by National Geographic (he has done several assignments for The NGS), The Cousteau Society, and every North American diving publication. Galleries and agents in over 50 countries reproduce David’s images thousands and thousands of times each year. The American Museum of Natural History, The Smithsonian Museum, The North Carolina Museum of Natural History, The London Zoo, Hong Kong Museum, The Maui Ocean Center, The Waikiki, Vancouver, Monterey Bay, New Jersey State, Ripley’s and the Aquarium of the Americas all display his work.

David is a founding member of The Ocean Artists Society who’s members include James Cameron, Wyland, David Doubilet and Al Giddings. Wetpixel featured David’s portfolio in its first-ever Full Frame feature article.

David Fleetham with a tiger shark at Tiger Beach, Bahamas
David Fleetham with a tiger shark at Tiger Beach, Bahamas

WP: What is the most challenging place that you’ve shot, and did you get any worthwhile images out of the experience?

DF: That would have to be my quest for white shark images back in the 80s. I went to Australia three years in a row trying to get something on film and on the third year I did two back to back 10 days trips. After the first trip, standing on the dock in Port Lincoln, I could say that I had been to Australia, three years in a row to shoot white sharks, and I had not even seen a fin break the surface. It was crazy. They had a real dry spell there for a while. So the first white shark I saw was on that dock in Port Lincoln. A white shark had been tangled in one of the many tuna pens up in Spencer Gulf and was strung up on the back of a fishing boat. I’m happy to report though, that on the second trip that year we had sharks in the first hour of the trip and they were around the boat every day for the 10 days. It was amazing and I got several shots that still sell today, even with all the great shots that are now so easy to get off Guadalupe.

WP: What is your favorite place to shoot big critters? Macro? And all-around favorite spot in the world?

DF: If someone told me I only have one more dive trip in my life, I would go back to Galapagos. It is such a unique destination with fantastic critters, big and small, both above and below the waves. It is an exhausting trip because there is so much to see on the islands there. Every surface interval is filled with exploring marine iguana colonies, or surfing seal lions, or another bird nesting spot or an active volcano. It is not a trip to go on if you want to relax. The Komodo area of Indonesia is a close second, but more for macro critters and reef scenic’s. The diversity there is spectacular.

WP: In your travels, what areas have you seen that are most impacted from human intrusion (fisheries, pollution, etc)? Have any of these areas, or others, benefited from conservation measures that you are aware of?

DF: Sadly, there is no area I have visited that has not been impacted by man. I was one of the early divers back in the 80s to make it to the Manado area. The reefs were relatively pristine at that time and we photographed marine life that was still unnamed. It was fantastic and had a great impact on my shooting. Even then though we would see masses of jellyfish drifting in open water and kick out only to find it was plastic bags. Countless numbers of plastic bags. I believe things there have improved with more awareness for the locals on the positive impact visiting divers can have on the local economy. The Bunaken Marine Preserve has definitely had a positive effect. The Malaysian government too has had a positive impact at Sipidan Island. With all the resorts removed from the island itself that area has blossomed into a fantastic reserve that is one of a kind.

WP: What is your current photography rig, and what are your favorite features?

DF: I have Canon 5D mark 2’s in Ikelite housings with Ikelite’s latest 161 strobes that have the LED movie light built into the modeling light. I have tried several housings that fit the camera like a glove and are crafted like German time pieces, but I keep going back to Ikelite for the TTL feature. They have really got the circuitry down to work with the cameras TTL systems, which have come a long way since the film days. Even towards the end of my film cameras I was working with TTL, although mostly for macro. When digital cameras first came out, it was several years before anyone could figure out how to mate the latest cameras with underwater strobes. I think Ikelite was the first. I now shoot 99% of my images on TTL and I know that I am the exception here. The cameras TTL eye has come such a long way that they work great, even with wide-angle. I can have a turtle or shark in blue water, filling only 10 or 15% of the frame, and TTL will still nail the exposure. This means that as my subject gets closer I don’t have to think about turning down my aperture or changing my strobe power, I can just concentrate on composing. The technology is there, why not use it?

WP: What first got you interested in photography?

DF: I learned to dive my last year in High School in Ontario, Canada. That meant diving in a man-made mud hole that someone tried to pass off as a lake. Once out on my own I worked to take a trip to the Caribbean and before I left I bought an Ikelite housing (see a pattern here) for a Minolta SLR. I knew from watching Cousteau’s specials in my youth and looking at National Geographic, a bit of what to expect and something told me I had to capture it on film. I had never owned a camera before and had no interest in shooting on land, I just knew I need to capture the underwater world. Everyone told me to get a Nikonos back then, but I stubbornly knew I wanted an SLR, and I never looked back. After four months in the Grenadines I got home and immediately moved out to Vancouver where I was born and work in the several dive businesses there for a decade before relocating to Maui in 1986.

WP: Any words of wisdom to aspiring shooters out there?

DF: Shoot what you love. You have to really look at what makes you want to be underwater and then try and capture that in a way that is you. Underwater imagery is everywhere these days. Look at what others have done in the past and try to figure out how they managed to capture what you see, but don’t’ go out with the idea of duplicating it. Try and put your own spin on what you do underwater. A number of years ago I took David Doublet out in Hawaii and watched him miss shot after shot trying to get something unique, something he had in his mind. I kept thinking to my self, what kind of shooter is this? The guy doesn’t’ even pull the trigger with what seemed obvious to me. But then I figured it out. He didn’t want the obvious. It helped me to turn a corner and try things I may not have.

For more of David Fleetham’s work, visit http://www.davidfleetham.com