MY JOURNEY INTO UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY
Updated: Feb 21
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.
WHERE MY JOURNEY STARTED
During my early childhood I have vivid memories of being terrified by of the power of the ocean. One of my earliest recollections of the ocean 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. As a child the waves 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 I learned to snorkel a while later. Once you see what's below the water, it suddenly seems less frightening. As most of my fellow Australian's would agree, many of us are lucky enough to grow up near the coast and as children have a close relationship with the ocean early on.
My true love and passion for the ocean did't really start properly until I tried scuba diving while on holiday in Thailand at the age of 21. I had just finished University (studying commercial arts) 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 South-East Asia before finally settling on a small Island in Indonesia called Nusa Lembongan. I lived there for over 3 years and it was there that I discovered my love for photography.
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.
Above: One of Brooke's early photos taken in 2014 with a compact camera.
WHERE IT ALL TOOK SHAPE
After spending a few years teaching diving, I was feeling very ready for a new challenge and for a job with a little more creativity where I could grow and develop a career. I knew 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 serious money and perhaps look into getting a loan. I also was thinking about where I wanted to work, and where would be a good start as a career in photography.
I had been following the work of a few of the photographers who were based on the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia for a while through social media. This seemed like a heaven for photographers 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 diver as well as some nice photos 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!
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, 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 (Olympus TG5) had done it's work 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. And not only about photography, but also about setting up and managing business (starting my print store), promoting my work on social media and creating a brand for myself around my work and my passion. I wasn't only working on growing my photography skills but also growing my style, my reputation as a photographer and creator. Along the way I have gained a huge connection with the ocean, the marine animals I photograph, myself and what I want to achieve with my career in photography.
THE PHOTOGRAPHY INDUSTRY & WHAT I HAVE LEARNED
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. As many will also have discovered it's so important to make connections and have a good reputation as well. Even if leaving a job or employer where you weren't happy, it always pays off to not burn a bridge and leave on a good note where possible. 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 dive industry as a whole worldwide is very very small. Having good references and connections can often lead to other opportunities. Don't be afraid to try new things, take extra courses, gain experience in other areas or volunteer your skills for a short time to open up new opportunities.
A DAY IN THE "OFFICE" AS A PHOTOGRAPHER ON NINGALOO
The average day in my “office” is far from normal but it goes something like this. I wake up around 6:30am and begin prepping my camera for the day. Everything has to be cleaned and sealed up ready to go for many hours in the water. I then take the work bus, pick up our passengers and drive them out to the boat that is moored up at Tantabiddi boat ramp about 35 minutes drive from Exmouth town. Once we are out on the reef we will snorkel in the inner lagoon of the Ningaloo Reef. This area is home to some beautiful areas of healthy corals and a variety of marine life such as turtles, sting rays, reef sharks and turtles. I aim document the whole day from start to finish, even taking photos of our guests on the boat and any wild life seen from the surface. (I have two cameras, one wet, one dry).
Our spotter plane will then head up into the air and start transects along the outer reef looking for whale sharks (or whales during the season). We then depart the lagoon and head to the open ocean. This is where we can find many of our famous large marine animals such as the whale shark. Once something is spotted I have to quickly be ready to jump in, as I will be the first one to enter the water to get eyes on the animal. Once I’m in the water swimming along side the whale shark, I will use hand signals to communicate to our skipper on the direction it is swimming. Next our guide and guests will enter the water and line up with the on coming shark so that it swims right past them. Once everyone has seen the shark and is swimming along side it, I begin taking photos. My aim is to photograph each person swimming with the shark so they have some memories to take home. Swimming with an ocean giant like this can be a life changing moment for many people, and capturing this for them can be such a thrill. You relive the excitement of it each time with them.
I will then continue to photograph the shark itself, capturing all the angles as creatively as I can. After swimming with whale sharks usually we then look for other marine life to show our guests such as mantas or humpback whales during the season for them. During humpback season I aim to capture photos of the humpbacks from the surface as well especially when they begin to show off with some aerobatics. Our afternoon finishes off with another lagoon snorkel where I take more photos. At the end of the tour I will head home with around 400-500 photos to sort through. Each night I will edit the photos from that day and put together a folder of final shots which we send to our guests. I usually finish up around 6pm and then will recharge everything ready to go again the next day. This job is physically demanding and some days I can swim more than 4km in the open ocean, often in big swell and strong wind. Although the days can be long, it is one of the most rewarding jobs I have had. I have had some incredible experiences during the two seasons I have done here so far. It really is like living inside a David Attenborough documentary. Each night I fall asleep wondering what new experience the ocean will give us the next day.
Being able to promote your work and your art it so important when entering into any creative field. Luckily with social media it has become very easy for creators to reach audiences world wide. Not enough can be said about the power of self promotion though the likes of Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Understanding how to use these platforms to their full potential will benefit you greatly. 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 platforms. Step 1 is definitely get set up with an Instagram account dedicated to showcasing your best work as well as a website and Facebook page that all link together. Create an aesthetic feed with your work that fits your style and will draw the viewers in. Quality content will take you a long way, so put a lot of thought into everything you post and try to convey what is unique about your photography and what your passion is all about. Post regularly and interact with your followers. Be a real person real to them, tell stories about your photos and your adventures, add in fun facts or interesting information.
Above: Brooke photo on show in a gallery in Exmouth, Western Australia. Photo taken by Renae Harvey.
Over the past few years I have reached out to magazines, dive related websites, 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 your work 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. This will not only get your work out there into the world but will also help you make some good connections. Eventually they started reaching out to be asking to feature my work and paying me to write articles. Entering your work into galleries and photo competitions will also benefit you. Don't be afraid to put yourself out there, be bold.
Here are some examples of where I managed to get featured:
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 good camera. 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 100% self taught, now while that not be the right path for everyone it just goes to show where a lot of time and effort can get you. The more you do it, the more you will learn. 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 the water taking photos and learning how to correctly edit them. Don't expect it to happen over night, to break into the photography field takes hard work.
Working with mother nature, particularly the ocean can be such an invaluable way to spend your time on this planet. Get out there and do it! Don't wait.
Above: A baby green sea turtle rushes towards the shore after hatching on the Ningaloo Coast.