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MY JOURNEY INTO UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY

Updated: Sep 4, 2023

Photographer Brooke Pyke explains how she unexpectedly entered the world of diving and photography. And how other aspiring ocean enthusiasts can too.


One of the questions I get frequently asked by often young aspiring photographers is how I managed to build a career around photography and the ocean. Let me share my experience with you, I hope to anyone who is considering this path that my story will encourage you to follow your dream too.


MY YOUNGER YEARS

During my early childhood I have vivid memories of being terrified by of the power of the ocean. One of my earliest recollections was at a young ages was walking along the shore with my parents. The large noisy waves breaking the shore beside us will always stick with me. I felt huge as if they would crash onto us and suck us all into its depths.


This fear of the water stayed with me for quite a few years until my dad taught me to snorkel a while later. I found that once I saw what was below the surface, it suddenly became less frightening. As most of my fellow Australian's would agree, many of us are so fortunate to grow up near the coast and as children have a close relationship with the ocean at a young age.


Photography was something that I began to dabble in when I was finishing my final years in high school. I was given an old Minolta film camera by my grandpa and I joined some after hours film photography classes at my school. I then included black and white photography as one of my final mediums during my year 12 art subjects. So this is where I developed a decent understanding of taking photos and using a camera. I have always had a knack for creativity and my aim was to study fine arts or photography at university. It's funny to think back now to my application for a photography degree at RMIT in Melbourne. Because I was actually not accepted into the photography course I wanted and I then kind of dropped my passion for it and decided to study graphic design instead.


As a kid I did really enjoy all my time on the water snorkelling and I even learned to sail at one point. But it was never truly what I lived and breathed until later on. My true love and passion for the ocean did't really hit home until I tried scuba diving while on holiday in Thailand at the age of 21. I had just finished University and had decided to take a few months off before beginning a career as a designer. Within my short trip to Thailand and learning to scuba dive I had suddenly been thrown into a new world, one where I felt instantly at home. Once back in Australia I decided I wanted to pursue a career in diving, so I moved to Thailand a few months later and took up a divemaster traineeship. A few years later I then became a dive instructor and worked and traveled around Thailand, The Great Barrier Reef Indonesia before I finally got settling on a small Island near Bali called Nusa Lembongan. I lived there for over 3 years and it was there that my love for underwater photography took form. After years of not really touching a camera, I soon went nowhere without it.


WHERE IT ALL STARTED

During my travels I had picked up a small point and shoot underwater camera to take on dives with me. I began by using it on my days off as a bit of fun. But soon I was booking dive trips to various locations around Indonesia such as Raja Ampat to dedicate time to taking photos. As my camera equipment expanded and gradually upgraded, so did my passion for taking photos. Soon it was a fully fledged obsession and something I wanted to pursue.


Over the 3 years on Nusa Lembongan I worked full time as a Dive Instructor but also took on volunteer work with MMF (Marine Megafauna Foundation). I was assisting in manta ray research and being useful with a camera made me a good helping hand. This involved assisting the researchers by compiling data in spreadsheets and using photography to get manta photo ID's for the online database. The ability to use photography to aid conservation was a great inspiration for me to keep following this path and seeing where it took me. I had kind of wished that I had studied marine biology and at one point I considered going back to uni. But in the end I chose to follow the photography path.


Above: One of Brooke's early photos taken in 2014 with a compact camera.


WHERE IT ALL TOOK SHAPE

After spending a few years on Lembongan island teaching diving and helping out at MMF, I knew I didn't want to teach diving forever. I needed to explore other options so that I had a job I could grow with. I understood that if I wanted to take photography seriously, I needed a serious camera. Buying a professional full frame set up meant I needed to save some money first and perhaps look into getting a loan. The set up I was aiming for would mean I needed to invest over $20,000 to do it properly. I moved back to Australia in 2020 with the aim to save up for my next camera. I was then also thinking about where I wanted to work, and where would be a good start as a career in photography. So I started to research where to find work as an underwater photographer and after a bit of digging the Ningaloo Reef seemed like a good option.


I had been following the work of a few of the photographers who were based on the Ningaloo in Western Australia for a while through social media. This seemed like a heaven for marine life and many of the tour operators even hired a photographer full time. So I began by emailing the companies in Exmouth and Coral Bay hoping to get a job for the following season. To do so, I compiled a CV with a couple of pages showcasing some of my best photos, as well an my extensive knowledge and experience working in the dive industry. Having years of experience as a dive instructor and a decent portfolio definitely helped me get my foot in the door. Getting a job as a photographer on the Ningaloo reef is increasingly sought after and competitive. But I got lucky and landed a full time position as a photographer in 2021.


Above: Brooke photographing a Whale Shark on the Ningaloo Reef - Photo by Oliver Clarke


Before starting my first season on the Ningaloo Reef I knew my small point and shoot camera needed to go, so I bought a brand new Canon R6, Canon 8-15mm Fisheye Lens and Nauticam housing. It took me the whole season to pay off my loan for this setup, but it was one of the best decisions I made and was essential for me to get the job done. My small compact camera had done it's job well but I knew I couldn't progress further with it. So I was ready with the tools for the job and the excitement of a kid at Christmas. My first season on the Ningaloo started off in March 2021 and while it wasn't without its own challenges, it was one of the most rewarding experiences.



Above: The Ningaloo Reef as seen from the air. Photo was taken by Brooke on a scenic flight with 'Birds Eye View' out of Exmouth, Western Australia.


Over my first season on the Ningaloo Reef I learned more than I can imagine. Trust me I had days where I was thinking to myself "I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing" and some nights I was up editing my photos until 10pm, doing 12-15hr work days, 6 days per week. The amount of swimming required was new as well and it took a month before I built up the fitness for swimming after whale sharks in open ocean and rough conditions. It was exhausting to say the least but I knew I had to push through it because it was taking me to where I wanted to be. Nothing prepares you for this job, and it took a few months for me to get on a roll. There is a huge difference between editing a few photos here and there for yourself as a hobby. Then suddenly stepping that up to 200-300 photos per day. But once I had my work flow and figured out all the tricks to the trade, this job finally became the dream job I had hoped. Getting to swim with marine megafauna all day and photograph so many beautiful animals is definitely one of those "pinch me" moments.


During my first season I learned not only about the photography profession, but how to promote my work and create a brand for myself around my images and my passion. I was also developing my style, my reputation as a photographer. Along the way I have gained a huge connection with the ocean, the marine animals I photograph, myself and the beautiful people I got to share it with everyday.


GETTING EXPERIENCE AND QUALIFICATIONS

Like many jobs in other industries, to get a job in your chosen field you need to be good at what you do, be passionate and be committed. Most importantly you also must have the relevant training and experience . As many will also have discovered it's so important to make connections and have a good reputation as well. Having good connections and friends around the world in the dive industry who are respected and can vouch for you as an employee will help go a long way. The industry as a whole worldwide is very very small. Having those good connections can often lead to other opportunities.


If you're new to the dive industry and don't have enough expertise in the relevant field then that is where you should start. Don't be afraid to try new things, take dive courses, complete first aid and diver rescue training. Get as much water time and skills as you can. Being comfortable in challenging ocean conditions is so important. If I have learned one thing over the years, it is that rarely is the ocean calf and easy to work in. Mostly its very rock and roll! I would aim as a minimum to do your dive master training as this will be a huge plus what ever dive related employment you're seeking. Also try to gain experience in other areas such as marine research, volunteer your skills for a short time to open up new opportunities. These things helped me along the way and have expanded my knowledge a lot. Doing the volunteer work with MMF meant I got to meet with leaders in the field such as Dr. Simon Pierce (leading whale shark researcher) and a learned a ton. I took Simon on a dive to meet and photograph his very first Mola Mola! We are now mates and I often message him with all my random whale shark questions. He even recently asked me to write an article for his 'Ocean Giants' magazine which I was stoked about.


Now while I never studied marine biology at uni, I have self taught myself along the way just by spending time in the field and reading a lot of papers and books. Building your knowledge and experience can never go too far. This is super valuable to have an extensive knowledge on marine life. If you have an interest in anything, you can most likely teach yourself much of what you want to know. Diving, photography and understanding of the underwater world will take you a long way. And unless you want to work as a researcher or do a PHD then you don't necessarily need to study it. But it can definitely help open more doors if you do.

PROMOTE YOUR WORK

Being able to promote your work and your art it so important when entering into any creative field. Getting yourself noticed and seen by enough people is a huge challenge. Luckily with social media it has become very easy for photographers to reach audiences world wide. Not enough can be said about the power of self promotion through the likes of Instagram, Facebook and other online publications Understanding how to use these platforms to their full potential will benefit you greatly. If you're not sure where to start with this there are even online courses for it so do some research. A lot of work and connections I have made over the years have been through my online presence. In this modern world, unfortunately you need to buckle in and get ourselves out there in the online and in the forefront of potential clients. As much as I don't like relying on social media to promote myself, it definitely works and I have been connected with many jobs through it.


Above: Brooke photo on show in a gallery in Exmouth, Western Australia. Photo taken by Renae Harvey.


SHOWCASE YOUR ART

Other ways you can get your work out there is through galleries and exhibitions. Lookup galleries in your local area and see if they're taking submissions for any upcoming exhibitions. Propose to them to feature some of your artwork and even reach out to local cafes and art stores as maybe you can display and sell your pieces there as well. You should definitely also consider selling your work at local artist markets in the form of cards and prints. Putting a face to your work can be very powerful and its a great way to connect to people as well perhaps even making new connections.


ENTER PHOTOGRAPHY COMPETITIONS

In 2022 I won the OPY Female Fifty Fathoms award which was a big turning point for me professionally. To have my work recognised internationally with such a prestigious award was honestly game changing. More than I could ever have hoped for as someone so new to this field. Just goes to show how far dedication and hard work can get you. So don't be shy, look up all the big annual photo comps and submit your work. Pay attention to the kind of photos that won last year so you get an eye for the things judges might be looking for. Entry fees are usually between $10-$30 per entry, some are even free.


Above: Brooke's recent feature in Oceanographic Magazine.


GETTING PUBLISHED

Sometimes social media alone doesn't quite cut it and you need to get your artwork to a wider audience. Early on in my career I would reach out to magazines, dive related websites, photography blogs etc offering to either write something for them or get featured. Getting your work published, even if you do it for free at first will help give you some exposure. I have written several blogs and articles for magazines over the years which I found really fun and it gave me some experience doing it. Not only did it put my work in front of more eyes but it gave me some great contacts along the way too. Don't wait for them to come to you, sometimes you have to offer your time up for free first to create some good connections. Have an idea to propose or a story to tell that you can share along with your photos.


Eventually as my work got noticed more then I then started to get requests for features, articles and interviews. I now have written articles for several magazines such as: Oceanographic Magazine, EzDive, Alert Diver, Ocean Giants and Mother Magazine, ScubaMag, DiveLog and more.



EXAMPLES OF WHERE I HAVE BEEN PUBLISHED:


Oceanographic Magazine


Camera Pro


ABC News


Yahoo News


ORMS


Journey Beyond


Watches of Switzerland


The Marine Diaries


Dive Photo Guide


Capture Magazine


Trav Media


Prestige Online





Above: Brooke's photo on display in London for the Oceanographic Photographer of the year awards in 2022.


IS THERE A TRICK TO GETTING GOOD AT PHOTOGRAPHY?

Like many things, it just takes practise, time and dedication as well as a decent camera and lens. If you want to get good at photography it doesn't necessarily mean you need to go and study a bachelor or photography. I'm a self taught underwater photographer. Now while that not be the right path for everyone it just goes to show where time and effort can get you. The more you do it, the more you will learn. If you're still flicking your camera into 'auto' mode then please stop that. You need to learn to do everything in manual otherwise you simply won't progress. Spend as much time out there in the field as you can. Learn from others, watch tutorials, attend photo workshops, read photography blogs. These are just some of the things I did along the way, but mostly it has just been hours and hours of time in nature taking photos, understanding my camera setting and learning how to correctly edit them. Don't expect it to happen over night, to break into the photography field takes hard work. Take your camera with you where ever you go. Don't stop practising!


Wishing you all the best of luck and I hope in sharing my story more people can make a passion into a career.


Brooke x


Above: A baby green sea turtle rushes towards the shore after hatching on the Ningaloo Coast.










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