Looking through underwater photographer Josh Lambus’ impressive marine life portfolio, there’s a caption that appears all too often: “Unidentified Subject.”
The 29-year-old Hawaiian underwater photographer has spent over 500 dives photographing the strange and spectacular of the ocean’s depths, which rise from tens of thousands of feet to a mere 30 feet, every night off the Kona coast. From scientific expeditions to the pages of National Geographic, Lambus’ marvelous macro images put the “magic” in the famous “Pelagic Magic” night dive.
DPG sat down with the underwater photography sorcerer behind the magic.
DPG: You are best known for your black-water photography—how did you even get into this very unique type of image-making?
JL: When I first started, I wasn't concerned with taking images. I had simply heard about it through colleges that they were doing it, and it sounded amazing. At the time, it wasn't really being offered here as a commercial dive. It was more for the “cool kids” among the divemasters to plan and do for themselves. When a pack of jaded divemasters get excited over a local dive, I just knew it had to be amazing.
I was pretty new to the industry at the time, with only around 500 reef dives and no pelagic dives at all. I had a hard time getting any of the other divemasters to take me out on it. The boat was always “full.” Finally, a particularly laid-back group was going out, and asked me if I wanted to be “an extra target.” I, of course, jumped at the chance.
We went out about 50 times in the next year and every time was as good, if not better than, the last. Trying to explain some of the animals we’d seen to other people was nearly impossible, so eventually I started taking my camera to show these amazing animals to others.
DPG: Shooting the pelagic critters in black water is harder than it looks. What was the learning curve like to photograph macro subjects floating by in the current over 5,000 feet of water?
JL: Well, it was a steep learning curve to say the least. I’ve seen a lot of professional underwater photographers do that dive, and come back with nothing. It is just an entirely different dive to anything you've encountered before. I would say my first 10 black-water dives, I didn’t come back with anything looking even remotely like what I saw.
Never give up! I know it sounds cliché, but it can be really disheartening to do 10 dives in a row with all of these beautiful things around you and not come back with one single frame the entire time. When I first started I began to believe that it was impossible. Then I got my first really good shot. Boy, did that diligence pay off! I was so excited.
DPG: Any tips for anyone who might want to try this?
JL: It's hard to obtain focus, light correctly, and generally keep up with the animals themselves. Now with just about 500 black-water dives, I've learned a lot. Many of the animals look the same but require completely different lighting requirements. It really only comes with time, and diligence. I think initially I would say get used to the dive first.
If you are able, book two black waters, no camera the first time; just focus on your buoyancy and surroundings, then do another with the camera.
If that’s not possible, then find a sand patch or another safe location to hover over during a day dive and close your eyes for two minutes. Open them up and look around at where you are. This will give you an idea of what a total lack of reference will feel like. Once you are comfortable in the water, move on to shooting. Obviously, strobes are required as well as some stationary light.
DPG: What’s it like to have so many of your subjects as “unidentified”?
JL: It was really exciting at first, and still is in many ways—but now I've begun to realize we will always find “unidentified” creatures. There are so many of them out there. Funnily enough, it is very common to see very uncommon animals on this dive.
I think the most rewarding thing for me about their mystery identities is trying to unveil what they may be. I have now worked with institutions like MBARI, Scripps, Woods Hole, and recently the Smithsonian in hopes of finding IDs. Though many times we create more questions than answers.
DPG: Is there one abyssal critter that stands out in your memory?
JL: The cookie cutter shark was probably the one that made me spin the most. The first time I saw it I had no idea what it was. But after getting a few decent images of it and being told of its rarity, every time I saw it after that was a mad dash to get new images of it. To date I think my images are the only high resolutions of it alive in situ.
DPG: Hawaii is so much more than just the black-water dive. What are some other can’t-miss underwater photo ops?
JL: Of course, there’s the manta dive that everyone knows about. But what a lot of people don't know about is our topography. Being such a young island (geographically speaking), we have tons of lava tubes, as well as canyons that have been formed during tube collapses. Au Au Canyon is one of the most photographically stunning areas in terms of sheer expanse. It's so large that it has to be a very good viz day to photograph well, but well worth the effort.
DPG: Why is the Big Island a special place for photography?
JL: For me it's the diversity. I have seen so much here that most people don't even realize we have: tiger sharks, whale sharks, oceanic whitetips, caves, freshwater lakes, nudibranchs galore. That’s not even mentioning the largest percentage of endemic reef fish anywhere in the world.
DPG: Do you have a photographic philosophy that guides your work?
JL: Honestly, I just live life to live it. I am an explorer, not for anyone else, but for myself first and foremost. I bring my camera along on my travels and it captures life as I see it. People ask me to classify myself in some genre of photography; “landscape photographer,” “portrait photographer,” “underwater photographer,” or a “blackwater photographer.” But at the end of the day I just like to think of myself as a “life photographer."
DPG: I know it’s tough—but is there a shot you can call your favorite?
JL: The photograph of the Tremoctopus is probably my all-time favorite from my underwater series. Working with the scientists to track down the species was an exciting journey, and learning about the white jellyfish tentacles that it's holding for defense was an amazing discovery for me.
DPG: Your work is on display at the Smithsonian and has appeared in National Geographic and numerous other publications. So what’s next for Josh Lambus photography?
JL: Good question. I've recently taken up skydiving as a hobby, so maybe you'll be seeing some aerial shots coming soon!