Xenia cardinalfishImage by William Tan
By Mary Frances Emmons
Singapore-based underwater photographer William Tan, 48, has been diving for decades and shooting professionally for nearly as long. With 16 years of diving in Lembeh Strait and shooting underwater for magazines under his dive belt, he talked with Sport Diver about his experiences in Indonesia.
Sport Diver: What is it about Raja and Lembeh that is most attractive to you as a photographer?
William Tan: Lembeh is known for its collection of rare and weird critters. The black-sand seabed also allows your subjects to stand out strikingly from the background. I personally like the dive sites, as they are easily accessible both in distance and depth, allowing me to spend long hours underwater observing animal behaviors. Because of the abundance of biodiversity within Lembeh Strait, the chances of discovering new species are still very real. In 2006, my dive guide and I helped with the discovery of a new species and new Genus of pipehorse, Kyonemichthys rumengani. This animal created as much interest within the scientific circle as it did the photographic world. It was named within a year of its discovery.
SD: Underwater photographers seem to have 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 non-photographer looking at the same site. Is that something you are born with or a learned trait?
Tan: As much as I would love to believe the "third-eye" theory, I have to admit it is through years of experience that underwater photographers learn to assess conditions to predict if it is possible to get good images at a certain site with the setup that they are so used to. The good news is most dive guides in Lembeh, having served numerous famous photographers, are so learned that they are able to provide this "third eye" service to newer and less experienced photographers.
SD: Underwater photographers also seem to have a distinct sort of spatial awareness, is that also experience or a 6th sense?
Tan: I will have to also say that this is from experience.
SD: Variable current and a fair amount of organic material in the water column seems common in this area, how would you advise budding photographers to learn to deal with each?
Tan: When there are currents and surges, I "anchor" myself to the sea bottom with more weights. A mollified kick is also developed to avoid stirring up sediments. Most photographers, after a few days of shooting in Lembeh, will learn to adjust their strobe in a certain angle to avoid picking up backscatters. But for people with a set of old eyes like mine, the most important thing is to learn to recognize the difference between minute life forms and speckles of muck.
SD: Raja and Lembeh seem to attract 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?
Tan: When the late Larry Smith was still diving with photographers in Lembeh, there were stories of encounters with whale sharks, mantas, billfish and blanket octopus within the Strait. But when the dive guides (all trained by Larry) kept showing us precious critters each rarer than the one previously found, it became impossible to devote time to do wide-angle photography in Lembeh.
SD: What's your best (or worst!) memory of shooting in Raja or Lembeh?
Tan: My best memory in Lembeh was having a friendly trumpetfish yawning into my fisheye setup after waiting beside it for six consecutive days.
My worst memory had to be while waiting out a long decompression stop after shooting a pair of harlequin shrimp in deep water; there was a dead decaying dolphin at the surface. The dolphin's flesh was falling apart, disintegrating into smaller pieces that became suspended in mid-water. I kept purging my precious remaining air to "blow" these bits away, but the surface surge brought even back more.
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?
William: Sulawesi Seas by Mike Severns, and Beneath Bunaken by Michael Aw are the two books that inspired me to take up underwater photography. The recently published Reef Creature Identification: Tropical Pacific by Paul Humann and Ned DeLoach is also a must-have; if not for learning the various animal behaviors, you can also use it to tell the guides what is on your wish-list.