This image could have been taken anywhere on Wakatobi’s house reef or one of the boat dives. With every inch of the bottom covered in life, searching for shapes and lines that will make a pleasing composition is as productive as it is fun (Sony a7R Mark III in Ikelite housing, 12–24mm lens at 12mm, dual Ikelite DS-161s, f/11, 1/125s, ISO 160)
I’ve had the privilege of visiting Wakatobi 14 times in the last 11 years. I guess you could say that qualifies me as an expert, but I never tire of photographing its amazing colors and diversity. As a professional shooter, my efforts have resulted in around 50,000 images with the keyword “Wakatobi”—so if I haven’t succeeded in capturing the beauty of these islands in Southeast Sulawesi, it’s not from a lack of trying.
The images in this collection are those of the corals and marine life that are everywhere in Wakatobi—and not associated with any particular dive site. You can go out and find these “tiny scenes” at your leisure, take your results back to the computer, and then go out and shoot again with a fresh image in your mind of what you want to create—almost endlessly.
This style of diving is what brings me back to Wakatobi. Adrenaline-filled fish chasing can be fun, but a long dive on Wakatobi’s house reef is more like an afternoon spent in a beautiful meadow with your brushes and watercolors—if you were a painter. It is also the reason that I'm never bothered what dive sites the boats are scheduled to take me to.
There are over 60 dive sites on the map they give you, many of which I’ve never heard of or visited, but the things I’m looking for can be found on all of them. Each site will be listed as macro or wide angle, or both, and although they are taking into account how the sun will hit a site at a particular time of day, I still consider all sites to be both macro and wide angle. They all hold stunning tiny scenes.
Unlike many professional underwater photographers, I enjoy sharing my secrets to bringing home the beauty of the underwater world (in photographs, of course). Visit the Ikelite Photo School for my tips, techniques, camera settings cheat sheets, and more.
A typical tiny scene: I like to search for shapes that will bend with the curve of a fisheye lens to create a frame around a splash of color and texture (Nikon Z7 in Ikelite housing, 8–15mm lens at 8.5mm, dual Ikelite DS-161s, f/14, 1/125s, ISO 200)
Red is always a surprise to me. Maybe I will be able to anticipate the splash of scarlet from a flash on this type of anemone someday. So far, it has always come as a pleasant shock when I look at my preview window (Canon EOS 50D in Ikelite housing, 10–17mm lens at 10mm, dual Ikelite DS-161s, f/20, 1/160s, ISO 160)
Since the wall is steep, one is able to get upward camera angles without coming into contact with the reef. When large turtles pick a cave or shelf to perch on, a slow approach from below will often yield a photo where the model turns to make eye contact (Canon EOS 50D in Ikelite housing, 10–17mm lens at 10mm, dual Ikelite DS-161s, f/16, 1/160s, ISO 160)
Anthias and little reef fish come out and feed in the currents, and the coral polyps will do the same. Duck into the protective cuts and crevices in the walls to search for subjects. This is the only way to get these fish inches from your dome, and with a super-wide lens, the only way to show them in detail (Nikon D80 in Ikelite housing, 10–17mm lens at 10mm, dual Ikelite DS-161s, f/11, 1/100s, ISO 200)
Wakatobi’s cuttlefish can grow pretty large in their short lives. No two images look the same: Sometimes, they’ll come out looking red, brown, or yellow, and they will also turn from smooth to spikey. They seem to be most relaxed when you approach them from below, and slowly (Canon EOS Rebel SL2 in Ikelite housing, 10–17mm lens at 10mm, dual Ikelite DS-161s, f/11, 1/160s, ISO 200)
There are schools of barracuda on several dive sites—Roma, in particular—and schools of snapper as well, but the only place I have seen with schooling jacks is a small site called Ali Reef (Nikon Z7 in Ikelite housing, 8–15mm lens at 10.5mm, dual Ikelite DS-161s, f/14, 1/125s, ISO 200)
What are the chances of seeing the exact same leaf scorpionfish—just a few inches long—in the same place a year after you last saw it? Pretty good here: This guy is in about 10 feet of water not 20 feet away from the Jetty Bar on the house reef. You can shoot small fish with super-wide lenses if they let you come close enough (Nikon Z7 in Ikelite housing, 8–15mm lens at 15mm, dual Ikelite DS-161s, f/16, 1/125s, ISO 200)
I have seen individual crocodilefish on every trip I've made to Wakatobi, but on a recent dive at Roma, I found this pair snuggling together (Canon EOS 5D Mark II in Ikelite housing, 8–15mm lens at 15mm, dual Ikelite DS-161s, f/13, 1/160s, ISO 100)
Anemones are always beautiful, and never the same. Flash doesn’t bother them, but if you use continuous lights, be judicious: They can cause anemones to open up if you keep them on too long (Canon EOS 50D in Ikelite housing, 10–17mm lens at 10mm, dual Ikelite DS-161s, f/10, 1/160s, ISO 160)
This image was taken with an Olympus TG-5 point-and-shoot and the camera's native lens (corrected with an Ikelite dome). In this type of visibility, the normal rules of focal lengths that work well can be stretched. We are so bright and shallow here that wide-angle scenes can be shot with longer lenses and without flash (Olympus Tough TG-5, f/8, 1/160s, ISO 100)
Pumped up taught and brightly colored, these soft corals range in size from a few inches to several feet. They are slightly translucent, so side lighting with strobes will produce a glow (Canon EOS 50D in Ikelite housing, 10–17mm lens at 11mm, dual Ikelite DS-161s, f/11, 1/160s, ISO 320)
This was an epiphany for me: It was the first time I noticed clouds in my images. I ended up ridiculously shallow—in about three feet of water—and held the camera out and under this soft coral, trying to capture Snell’s Window. Manual high power on both strobes was needed to match the bright sky—one of the very few times I couldn’t rely on TTL (Canon EOS 50D in Ikelite housing, 10–17mm lens at 10mm, dual Ikelite DS-161s, f/22, 1/125s, ISO 320)
Stonefish and scorpionfish just under a foot long can be found at all sites. A downward camera angle can make it hard to tell where the coral stops and the fish starts, but on Wakatobi’s vertical walls, you often get that ideal upward angle (Nikon Z7 in Ikelite housing, 8–15mm lens at 8.5mm, dual Ikelite DS-161s, f/16, 1/125s, ISO 200)
A private plane from Bali’s international airport takes guests to Wakatobi Dive Resort all throughout the year. Expect sunshine, air temperatures from 78–86°F (26–30°C), and humidity levels around 65–75 percent. Water temperatures don’t drop below 78°F (26°C), and visibility averages around 100 feet. For more information, visit www.wakatobi.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wakatobi’s house reef has been voted the best shore dive in the world for good reason: Covered in elaborate stands of hard and soft corals, it is teeming with life (Canon EOS 50D in Ikelite housing, 10–17mm lens at 10mm, dual Ikelite DS-161s, f/11, 1/400s, ISO 320)
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