Revealing the Ocean Depths
Photographer Q & A
Describe the moment or event that inspired your decision to become a photographer.
My family took many vacations to Florida and those trips inspired me to become a marine biologist. After earning an engineering degree from Stanford University, I worked as a research diver at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. That's where I got my first experiences with underwater cameras.
What is an essential piece of gear you recommend for underwater photographers?
A tripod. On my recent trip to Ambon, Indonesia, I brought a Really Right Stuff Ground-Level (their TP-243 Ground-Level Tripod), and I recommend this little marvel of engineering highly. It is made of anodized aluminum, and like all other RRS products, it has almost no parts that will rust or freeze up. It is a near-perfect tripod for underwater shooting—it's really small and low to the ground (almost all underwater close-up shooting will be of bottom animals), the legs spread out to various angles and lengths to accommodate almost any position you may need underwater, and it can get as low to the ground as needed.
What book do you suggest photo enthusiasts read on getting started in underwater photography?
I would recommend Howard Hall's Successful Underwater Photography. And because of my 30-plus years in this profession, I can also suggest one of my publications, How to Photograph Underwater. However, both of these books are over 20 years old. I recommend reading online forums and e-magazines, such as the Wetpixel underwater photo site and the e-magazine UwP. A great way to learn is to go on a diving trip with a professional underwater photographer who is leading the trip. Also, don't forget retail establishments, which are still out there! Just keeping up with the new capabilities and gear out there means forming a relationship with a retail store that specializes in underwater photographic gear. For instance, Ryan Canon at Reef Photo in Fort Lauderdale has become my go-to guy when I have questions about gear.
Most unusual item you keep in your camera bag?
A package of Pepperidge Farm Geneva Cookies; they are my favorite snack. I keep a bag of these in my Pro Roller for any air travel, as you never know if you might get stuck on an airplane for several hours.
Name a geographical place that you'd love to return to or go to for an assignment.
We are all fortunate to be living in a time when it is relatively easy to travel to just about any place in the world. There are also places that are incredibly beautiful, like the Seychelles Islands. However, in answer to your question, I'd like to go back in time 40 years, to revisit places like Florida and Atlanta, where I grew up and which have changed for the worse because of development. I'd like to dive Monterey Bay again 25 years ago, to be sure that the changes I am seeing now are indeed changes.
What photography project or assignment has been most meaningful for you and why?
I've been to so many amazing places. But I would have to say that the three seasons my team and I spent in Antarctica were incredibly meaningful and brought about a wealth of photographs and footage. The stills provided the impetus and the bulk of a well-received field guide to Antarctic marine life. They were showcased in a traveling exhibit and published in a book by the University of California Press titled Under Antarctic Ice. We photographed behaviors that had never been documented on film before—like pods of orcas racing down the channels leading from open water into the "fast" ice*, where they dove under the ice to hunt giant Antarctic cod. Besides the well-received results from those expeditions, I had lots of fun with a great group of people who were my diving buddies. We've remained friends over the years and I've come to value the fun and camaraderie of working with a good team perhaps more than the resulting images.
*Wikipedia definition: Fast ice (land-fast ice, landfast ice, and shore-fast ice) is sea ice that has frozen along coasts ("fastened" to them) along the shoals, or to the sea floor over shallow parts of the continental shelf, and extends out from land into sea. In Antarctica, fast ice may also extend between grounded icebergs. Unlike drift ice (or "pack ice"), it does not move with currents and wind
If you could publish a book on any photographic subject, what would it be?
That's an opportune question, as I've been pondering just this subject in the past few months. I published my first large-format illustrated book, Splendors of the Seas, in 1994, about ten years after I started underwater photography. My second large-format portfolio (really large), Diving the World, was published in 2004 and has become a collector's item; copies in new condition are selling for $400 and up. I hope to have a third large-format portfolio of underwater images published in 2014, sort of a 30-year anniversary of my photography career. The landscape for books has changed dramatically, however. The publisher of my previous "big" books has moved on to other things.
What do you pack in your Lowepro carry-ons?
In my roller and backpack I have:
- Cash (in small bills)
- American and United frequent flyer cards
- MacBook Pro laptop computer with AC power supply VGA and HDMI adapters for MacBook Pro for presentations Two-prong (Panasonic-type) AC power cord
- Cell phone and charger
- Mini hard drives
- Memory cards in Lowepro card case
- Media or PC card reader with USB2.0 cord
- Small inverter for using computer on airplanes and in cars two mesh pocket cases containing all kinds of computer cables
- Cradlepoint Wi-Fi router and USB data modem
- Garmin GPS loaded with maps for places I am traveling to
- One topside camera body (currently Canon 7D) wide-angle zoom lens 70-300mm zoom lens
- Set of shorts, swimming trunks, light long pants, and T-shirt (if stranded) shaving kit with toothbrush, etc in case I am stranded
- Swim goggles
- Ear plugs
- Eardrops to ward off ear infections
- Medicine for seasickness
- Large and small Ziploc bags
- Pepperidge Farm Geneva cookies or Snickers bars
- Postcards to give to "grease the wheels" at airline counters
- Business cards
- iPad loaded with e-books
- Airline baggage policies to challenge excess baggage charges
Editor's note: To see a comprehensive list of Norbert's and his assistant's gear, take a look at his blog.
What do you love about your Lowepro bags?
I've been a huge fan of Lowepro products over my 30-year career. I've used their bags for everything, undoubtedly over and beyond what their engineers and designers intended them for. I used a Super Trekker AW II to carry around my Hollywood-sized Sony HDCAMs for four expeditions in Antarctica. I've always carried the bulk of my camera gear using their superb camera backpacks (the Nature Trekker AW II backpack was one of my favorites), and I've used the waterproof DryZone packs for numerous trips through the Grand Canyon and river expeditions. And the Pro Roller x-Series of rolling airline cases have been my constant companions through years of air travel. I've now used the Pro Roller Lite 250 AW as well.
To learn more about Norbert's upcoming shoots and trips, tips on travel, lowdown on gear, list of publications and reflections on being a wildlife and underwater photographer, check out his blog and visit his web site.
Norbert Wu's Lowepro gear:
Norbert Wu:Web Site
An independent photographer/filmmaker, Norbert Wu has photographed from the Arctic and Antarctic to the tropics. His work has appeared in thousands of books, in TV specials, films and museums. He holds engineering degrees from Stanford University, and did doctoral work at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Wu grants to document wildlife and research in Antarctica. He has received the U.S. Antarctica Service Medal "for his contributions to exploration and science," and the highly prized Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation, among numerous other grants and awards. His most recent publication (based on his NSF efforts), Under Antarctic Ice from the University of California Press, showcases the underwater world of this frozen region as few humans have seen.