This freediver was actually modeling for another photographer, who is just behind her. They had been been annoyingly swimming through my shots for the entire dive while I was trying to just focus on capturing the shoal. When I snapped this, I had no idea she was on the other side of this wall of fish when she suddenly burst through. Initially, I was a little irritated that she had once again found her way into my shot, until I saw how the fish perfectly framed her
If you’re at all like me, traveling to some of the world's most renowned diving destinations and capturing the magic within these places and the species that inhabit them with a camera has always sounded like the dream job. But unlike becoming a teacher or an architect, where clear paths guide you to those careers, there is no one path marked “underwater shooter.” Unfortunately, this lack of signage has resigned many people to leaving it just as that, a dream.
Yet now, more than ever, becoming a professional underwater photographer or videographer is a far more realistic prospect than it was in the past. While career norms have shifted dramatically with the millennial generation, travel is also significantly easier and cheaper, and of course, high-quality imaging gear is very affordable. Although this new generation of young adults seems to take pride in seeking alternative career paths, it can still be more than a little daunting: “underwater photographer” is still a very niche career choice. Where do you start?
Jellyfish are some of my favorite subjects, but we don’t get many of them in Indonesia. On one evening in Wetar, in the Maluku Islands, hundreds of these beautiful jellies just started coming into the bay where the boat was moored, and I spent hours photographing them. Moments like these are what make boat life all worth it
Fortunately, thanks in a large part to social media and some new marketing trends, there are significantly more options for turning this “hobby” into a job that actually pays money. One of these options—and easily one of the best for those just starting out and needing a foot in the door—is to find a job as the videographer or photographer on a liveaboard. Not only is finding these sorts of positions relatively easy if you are motivated to do so, but the time on-board can be invaluable for your budding career. Immersing yourself in this lifestyle allows you to concentrate your time on honing your craft, puts you in an ideal position to provide editors with relevant stories, and also gives you a golden opportunity to witness those unexpected surprises that the ocean offers up at random.
I had no idea this wobbegong was on the other side of these sweepers until I started snapping away. While wobbegongs are everywhere in the north of Raja, I had been waiting a few years for a composition such as this and didn’t waste a moment trying to get it just right
The Dream Job Doesn’t Come to You
From October 2013 to October 2018, I was lucky enough to have what I considered to be the best underwater film and photography job in the diving industry. For those five amazing years I was the photo and video pro for one of Indonesia’s most prominent liveaboards. The boat rotated seasons between Raja Ampat, Komodo, Alor, Ambon, and the Banda Sea, where I racked up over 4,000 dives with my camera and was able to capture some of the ocean’s greatest spectacles, including the world's largest stingray and Raja Ampat's first ever sunfish.
It was my responsibility to film and photograph the guests as they went about their trip in these iconic locations, while also providing the company with social media content, and conducting film and photo courses for the guests when requested. Also, since boat life doesn’t provide much of a social life outside of fraternizing with the guests, I used this time instead to work on articles for various publications. As someone who desperately wanted to spend as much time as possible in Asia’s best dive destinations while also building up my own portfolio and reputation in the underwater imaging community, I can’t imagine a more ideal position.
Not finding any mantas on the cleaning station, I had a hunch they would be in the channel where the current was ripping at the time. I zipped over to the channel and spent 40 minutes hanging out under these guys
Similar to jellyfish, large stingrays like this marbled ray are not so frequent in Indonesia and they are often quite deep. This one, however, seemed to be digesting a large crustacean and just sat there for the entire dive as the fish schooled behind
So, how do you find one of these dream jobs? Good question, and there’s no one way to go about it, but here are a couple of different ways that have worked well for me. First of all, it’s a good idea to have a decent portfolio and/or showreel of your work, and it won’t hurt to have it organized nicely on a website. Most of you, like myself, won’t have a really exceptional portfolio or showreel, as you probably don’t have much experience at this point, but not to worry. What I’ve found that most liveaboard managers are looking for are nice clean shots with lots of color and a clear subject. A colorful bouquet of soft coral with a blue water column and a diver can really go a long way.
My second tip, and one I can’t stress enough, would be to reach out to those more well established in the diving community. As you've probably noticed, most jobs like this won’t be posted online, as everyone has a friend eager to fill the spot. So, in order to get privy to the grapevine, first you need to start making friends, either the old fashioned way—in person—or online though the different diving forums. Of course, it won’t do any harm to send an e-mail to the company itself to let them know you’re available. For me, it was a friend of a friend that was the tour leader on-board who told me the current video pro would be quitting soon. All it took was my well-timed email to the boat’s director.
I was lucky enough to get this photo in my first year on the boat, and in the 3,000 or so dives since then I have yet to be able to do it again! Finding a seahorse whose coloration is not only complementary to its background, but is also willing to stare straight into your lens is—at least for me—not something that happens all that often
A Dream Job Is What You Make of It
With the sea quite literally on our doorsteps and the opportunity to dive daily, photo/video pros working for resorts or liveaboards are in the most ideal position to polish their skills as photographers and videographers, rather than one or the other. While the repetition of diving the same sites week after week may become routine, the absolute best thing you can do is embrace this routine and use the time to learn how to perfect your skills and shoot the same subjects in every conceivable way—in both stills and video.
I know we’ve all had shared that all-too-familiar experience of finishing a dive and thinking you nailed a shot, only to realize you just didn’t get it quite right once viewed on your computer’s larger monitor. As liveaboard camera people, we have the supreme luxury of getting a second, third, and fourth chance with these same subjects to really perfect our shots. By opening up our minds and looking for alternative ways of capturing ordinary subjects, such as a sea fan or a nudibranch, we set ourselves apart from those who approach the same subjects with more straightforward lighting, composition, and camera movements. Besides, shooters who can do this in both stills and film will be even more appealing to clients later on in their careers.
While on my first assignment for DPG, which took me to the outstanding Siladen Resort in Bunaken Marine Park, I was lucky enough to have a sunset at low tide, which put the seagrass beds in a few inches of water. While this opened up some outstanding over-under possibilities, the magic moment was when a drop of water fell from my dome port’s shade just as I pressed the shutter
There is no better place to be an un underwater photographer than in mangroves when the light pierces though the dense canopy above. If you’ve seen those classic shots from Raja’s mangroves with the red soft coral framed within Snell’s Window and the sun bursting through the trees, many start to look similar to each other—my photos included. When I found this large barrel sponge spawning with the sun beaming down from behind, I knew this would be a truly unique moment that I needed to capture
One of the unfortunate downsides to life on a boat is the lack of social life. At the beginning of my time on-board, I would divide this downtime (which would have normally been spent sat at a bar with friends) between watching viral cat fail videos and binging on the newest TV series. Eventually though, I curbed my addiction for videos of cats being jerks and found a new, more-productive way to spend my downtime that would grow my CV along with my reputation as an underwater shooter. I started writing to the editors of magazines, both online and print, to let them know who I was and what I thought I could offer. Never having written anything professionally before, I was surprised to find many were interested, as my position allowed them a readily available source of fresh content from popular diving destinations.
I found myself writing everything from little blurbs of interesting encounters with unique subjects to tutorials on underwater shooting. As I developed these relationships, the assignments became more interesting and I found myself traveling on my time away from the boat to locations I had always wanted to visit on behalf of these publications to put together highlight videos and trip reports of the area. Also, because I lived and worked year round in places like Komodo and Alor, I had the pleasure to test out some cool new gear, as it was far cheaper and easier to send the gear to me rather than pay for someone to fly all the way to where I already was.
Being able to regularly dive in places like Alor—which is a bit off the grid, but offers some incredibly pristine diving—was one of the best things about living on the boat. I would always look forward to jumping in on this one site where the substrate is blanketed in anemones and witness the local fishermen hunting the smaller fish with their homemade goggles and spears
This jetty in Raja Ampat has become a very famous dive site over the years, as people are eager to capture moments like this with the schooling scads. The only thing is, these scads aren’t here all the time. You might have one random week during the season where they come together like this. Being able to wait for that moment to happen, rather than just hope it happens on your trip, was another bonus of the job
Perks of the Dream Job
While I was able to master some highly valuable film and photo skills and build a professional network with others in the industry in a short amount of time, by far the most rewarding aspect of living on a boat and working as an underwater cameraman in some of the ocean’s most iconic locations was having those once-in-a-lifetime encounters on a regular basis. When you book a trip to a place like Raja Ampat, you have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to see on your week-or-so-long trip there. But when you live in Raja for six months a year, you really have no idea what you could see. Everything from whales to megamouth sharks to some never-before-discovered species all become very real possibilities.
Even though I never had any luck with Raja’s whale sharks—one animal I was desperate to see but consistently the only person on-board to miss—I did have some pretty remarkable encounters that made up for not hanging with those spotty sharks. One of these was the time a very large sunfish came paddling past our boat during a surface interval. Not only were we able to spend a good 45 minutes snorkeling with this deep-dwelling beauty, but as it turns out, it was the very first one ever documented in Raja Ampat. While such encounters are few and far between, the best chance of witnessing these surreal moments is by working on a boat—and the best person to be, when it happens, is the one holding a camera for a living.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when this beauty came paddling past our boat and allowed us all to swim with it for almost an hour. These are the moments you can’t plan for, but just need to be ready for when they do happen
Life Beyond the Dream Job
Your time as a photo/video pro on a liveaboard will be absolute magic—so long as you’re working with a reputable company, a solid crew, and your diving in areas constantly challenging your skills. But at the end of the day, there’s a lifespan for how long you can live on a boat making souvenir videos for guests. The absence of a social life, missed holidays with family, and lack of personal space do take their toll after a while—no matter how great the boat and awesome the diving.
Obviously, the longer you do it, the more opportunities you’ll have. For me, five years was just the right amount of time. I never tired of the diving and I was able to get myself to a point, in terms of skill and reputation as both a photographer and videographer, that has really helped open some doors now that I have stepped off the boat (one of which being a Field Editor for DPG).
Green turtles in Komodo are very common. In trying to break away from photographing them the same as I had been in past Komodo seasons, I decided to try something new. It took a while to get it right, but having the whole season to work on it—and no shortage of subjects—was hugely beneficial in perfecting new techniques
If you approach your time on-board as “just a cool job for a while,” you’ll no doubt walk away with some great experiences and some fantastic shots attracting a few likes on your social media pages. However, if you treat the time the same way you would your time at grad school, for example—an intensive educational opportunity aimed at future goals—you’ll come away with a viable long-term career as an underwater shooter.
Just like most things in life, there are many different ways to arrive at the same place. Living and working on a boat was just the most suitable path for me to follow my dream of becoming an underwater cameraman. Regardless of the path you take in turning your underwater passions into your chosen career, you’ll no doubt arrive where you need to be as long as you reach out to those around you, always maintain a dogged sense of determination, and never stop trying to be as creative as you can be.
An octopus in a bottle might be a fairly common occurrence in places like Lembeh, but for me where I was diving, it wasn’t. An octopus in a bottle had been on my list for a while and I was lucky enough to be able to come back to this little guy week after week and really spend some quality time with it, as I knew it would be some time before I had a composition such as this again
About Alex Lindbloom: Alex is an award-winning underwater photographer and videographer originally from Boise, Idaho and Seattle in the USA. His work has been featured on the Discovery Channel, in various dive magazines, on display in the United Nations building in New York City, and even on a 100-foot monitor in one of Jakarta’s skyscrapers. After leaving the States in 2010 to pursue film and photography in Asia, Alex quickly fell in love with the never-ending diversity of Indonesia, where he has lived and worked since 2013. www.alexlindbloom.com
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