Burt Jones and Maurine Shimlock, the legendary divers, authors and photographers who run Secret Sea Visions, started working in Indonesia, specifically Raja Ampat, more than a decade ago. Jones and Shimlock have 40 years of combined experience in scuba diving, exotic travel and underwater photography, shooting in Raja Ampat and Lembeh on countless dives. They are the authors of Diving Indonesia's Raja Ampat, and the new, updated version, Diving Indonesia's Bird's Head Seascape.
Sport Diver caught up with Shimlock, 61, a 2012 inductee into the Women Divers Hall of Fame, to get the scoop on their underwater photography tips and memorable moments shooting in Indonesia.
Sport Diver: What is it about Raja and Lembeh that is most attractive to you as an underwater photographer?
Shimlock: For me, it's Raja's healthy reefs, with their profusion of fish and color. Schools of fish help create a necessary sense of movement in a still image, and in many places it's difficult to get sufficient fish action. Not in Raja Ampat. Lembeh is obviously about the weird and wonderful. On every dive photographers have an opportunity to see and shoot a creature they've never seen, perhaps doing something no one ever knew about!
SD: Underwater photographers seem to have almost a "third eye," an ability to look at the underwater world and know what sort of picture could be made, in a way that's not obvious to the nonphotographer looking at the very same dive site. Is that something you are born with or a learned trait?
Shimlock: Well, I think that ability is nascent in almost everyone, but artists or photographers use all elements of their composition to make successful images. In our case(s), we often look for a compelling background and then wait for a main subject to present itself. Most people are down there chasing fish and just clicking the shutter without thinking. In our classes, we really try to give aspiring image-makers the tools to think about the image they want to create.
SD: Underwater photographers also seem to have a distinct sort of spatial awareness that is much more sophisticated than the average scuba diver, is that purely experience or a sort of 6th sense?
Shimlock: Most good still photographers quickly learn that one of the most difficult accomplishments is to create a sense of movement within a two dimensional image. There are many ways to do this but spatial awareness is key. I think it's mostly learned -- over and over again.
SD: Variable current and a fair amount of organic material in the water column seems common in this area, how would you advise budding underwater photographers to learn to deal with each?
Shimlock: The mantra is "no current, no life." All that organic stuff is what feeds the reef. Without getting into post-production techniques, get close to eliminate as much water as possible, use two strobes and keep them apart for wide angle.
SD: Raja and Lembeh seem to attract underwater photographers who have a real fascination with the small -- do you tend to gravitate more toward macro or wide-angle or do you enjoy them equally? What for you is the biggest challenge of each?
Shimlock: We tend to divide the work between us. I do most of the wide-angle, and Burt concentrates on macro and is my usual model. In Lembeh or in Raja's critter sites, though, I always shoot macro. At this point our challenge is photographing the "known" in a new way.
SD: What's your best memory of shooting in Raja Ampat or Lembeh?
Shimlock: My best memories of Raja are the times we were exploring for new sites for the first Raja guidebook. Burt and I had our own boat and we did about seven to eight dives a day using scooters. Even though we were exhausted, it was just lovely to be out there and diving some of these sites before anyone else.
Memories of Lembeh will always include Larry Smith. Maybe it was finding the first pygmy seahorse or flamboyant cuttlefish with Larry back around 1997.
SD: Do you have any recommendations for self-study or preparation for amateur or pro underwater photographers traveling to the region -- books, videos or the like -- that you would recommend to readers? Any must-have skills for shooting in this region?
Shimlock: Doug Sloss's videos are great, and we have a short course that we teach on our trips. Otherwise my advice is to study images you like and try to duplicate the technique.
To read more about Jones and Shimlock, visit secretseavisions.com.