Pink Palace: A spiny head blenny gazes out from an azure vase sponge, Anse Cochon, Saint Lucia
Henley Spiers, half British and half French, is a renowned photographer, writer, and trip leader who has fast become one of the most highly decorated underwater shooters in the world. Starting his professional career in diving as an instructor, he later fell in love with underwater imagery and made the transition to full-time photographer. Since then, he has amassed a prolific series of award-winning images, including two category wins in the Underwater Photographer of the Year, first prize in the Black & White category of Nature Photographer of the Year, and winner of the Ocean Geographic David Doubilet portfolio award.
Henley also leads trips to encounter incredible underwater wildlife, specializing in small-group adventures to rarely seen locations and events. Sought-after as a teacher, Henley’s coaching on these trips has seen a number of attendees go on to become award-winning photographers in their own right. Having previously featured as a popular Photographer of the Week back in 2017, we thought it was about time we caught up with Henley to discuss his career as a professional underwater photographer and to see more of his amazing images.
Lilies Reaching for the Sun: The vibrant undersides of lilies in the famous “Carwash” cenote, Yucatán, Mexico
DPG: How and when did you start taking photographs underwater?
My first love is being underwater, and photography came relatively late in that journey. I started scuba diving when I was 12 years old and eventually abandoned a promising career in the city to pursue the dream of becoming a dive pro. It was only after several years as a dive instructor in Indonesia and the Philippines that I picked up a “proper” underwater camera. From there, a new passion quickly flourished and I arrived at my next job in St. Lucia having invested in my own underwater rig. The passion for it grew from there and after a couple of years, I was yearning to spend all my time underwater creating images rather than teaching diving. I then took a leap of faith and decided to go full-time as an underwater photographer—perhaps a bit early in hindsight, but things have worked out okay.
Turtle and Friends: An olive ridley turtle is tended to by a group of cleaner fish, Baja California Sur, Mexico
DPG: What equipment do you currently use?
I mainly use a Nikon D850 camera in a Nauticam housing. In terms of lenses, I use a Nikon 8–15mm fisheye, Nikon 60mm and 105mm, and a Nikon 28–70mm in combination with the Nauticam WACP-1. Supermacro can be achieved by combining the macro lenses with a Nauticam SMC-1. In terms of strobes, I have sets of Inon Z-240, Inon Z-330, and ONEUW 160X models, each of which comes out at various times, depending on the shoot. I also have a Retra LSD for snooting, as well as a Backscatter Mini Flash in combination with the snoot.
He’s Behind You: A great barracuda lurks behind a false clown anemonefish, Cebu, Philippines
DPG: What is your favorite dive destination and why?
I honestly don’t have one—the variety of aquatic habitats to explore is what excites me most. After spending much of my career to date in tropical seas, I am currently most enthused about exploring temperate seas and freshwater habitats. Part of the beauty of photography is it slows us down. Once we commit to observing and capturing images of an animal or environment, it can take a long time to get a result which we feel does it justice. Whilst those who visit any given location without a photographic objective may feel like it has been ticked from their personal bucket list, a photographer could spend a long time in pursuit of a single image. Once that’s achieved, that same location will still be full of discovery for a photographer as there will still be so much to explore and shoot. What other animals live there? How does their behavior change through the day? Or through the year?
A Beautiful Invader: Invasive red-eared slider turtle in a lily pad forest, Yucatán, Mexico
DPG: Wide angle or macro? What type of diving and photography excites you the most?
I think because of the pre-dive commitment we must make to lenses, it’s become commonplace to think about underwater photography and photographers in terms of macro versus wide angle. I’ve heard some people talk about certain photographers as “macro shooters” or “wide-angle shooters.” That debate is far removed from how I see my own photography. I can get just as excited about a water mite as a whale shark, and the lenses I choose are just tools to showcase aquatic wildlife. One thing I will say is that if possible, I prefer to show a big scene, even if it is a photograph of something small.
As far as type of diving, there was a moment in my instructor career where I was getting deeper and deeper as I pursued technical diving. Underwater photography has had the opposite effect and I find I’m getting shallower and shallower! In fact, a lot of my photography now occurs at the surface on a snorkel and I derive a lot of satisfaction pursuing wildlife just beneath that surface layer. The pelagic zone is a particular source of fascination and I really enjoy the challenge of finding pockets of life in the open ocean.
Marlin Hunt: Striped marlin in pursuit of mackerel, Eastern Pacific Ocean, Mexico
DPG: What was your most memorable marine life encounter or dive ever?
Gosh, it’s hard to choose a single one so let’s just go with the most recent. I’d just finished up a guided trip in Shetland and as I stared out at the bay in front of our lodgings, the sun burst through the clouds for the first time all week. I eagerly grabbed snorkeling gear and a camera. The sun rays piercing down into the shallow kelp bed were magical and the visibility was unreal—65 feet plus, in the UK! I spent three hours snorkeling and by the end my hands were so frozen I could barely remove my fins. I’d noticed that areas of the bay were densely packed with zoo plankton so walked back up to the accommodation, ate some dinner, changed over to a macro lens, and ventured back into the bay at around 10pm. It felt a bit nuts to be there on my own, but thrilling at the same time. The decision was rewarded by a swim through plankton soup, so thick I couldn’t even seen through it at times. It was like blackwater diving on steroids, and in frigid 46°F water. Another three hours later, I crawled out physically exhausted but spiritually elated.
Wunderpus: A settling wunderpus captured on a blackwater dive, Anilao, Philippines
DPG: You regularly run guided trips for other photographers. What made you decide to do that and what can people expect when they join you on an expedition?
There’s a couple of things behind that. One is the continued passion for teaching I discovered when working as a dive instructor. It’s hugely gratifying to coach underwater photographers and watch as their skill and results improve. Secondly, as we all know, the democratization of photography has made it much harder to earn an income from image sales alone. Like many professional photographers, I have found that leading trips is an important part of my business model.
As far as what to expect, I specialize in running small group trips—four customers max—on uniquely bespoke itineraries which you can’t just go online and book with a few clicks. Scuba diving is not a prerequisite, and often we are operating purely on a snorkel. I design them to ensure the photographic opportunities are really rich, but they are very much open to non-shooters as well. The idea is we embark on an adventure together, witnessing things which very few people in the world have. I am on hand throughout as a photography coach, and the small group means I get to spend a lot of one-on-one time with attendees. We tend to come away from these trips feeling like a bit of a family, bonded by the experiences shared.
Shark Vortex: A nurse chub swims through a school of chub, Vavau Atoll, Maldives
DPG: You have had considerable success in underwater photography contests—ours included. Do you have any advice for our readers about how to prepare and shoot for competition?
The first thing to be clear on is even those photographers who have a lot of success in competitions will still have far more misses than hits. Failure is part and parcel of the process, and you should be prepared to ride that wave of emotion. There can only be a few winners, so frustration is inevitable. Additionally, we are dealing with an artistic discipline, so the subjective results of judging panels are not empirical—sometimes you will agree, other times not. Before getting into competitive photography, ask yourself what you want from it. Personally, I believe competitions can aid to fast-track those of us who wish to make a career out of photography. I also believe it pushes you to improve your photographic skill and vision.
In terms of preparation, studying past winners is a good idea. This will help you to build an internal library of what has already been done and seek inspiration. It also tells us what kind of image various competitions and categories within them will award. For example, if you never see a black and white shot winning, you know they don’t tend to like monochromatic perspectives. There’s little point in copying previous winning images, but sometimes you can draw a technique or a vision from them. This could then be applied to a different subject or environment. If you’re asking yourself “How on Earth did they do that?”, try to figure out the technique used and add it to your own photographic toolbox.
Battle of the Tompots: Fighting tompot blennies during mating season, Dorset, UK
The only clear recipe to competition success is originality. To achieve it I would recommend upping your risk factor. I don’t mean that in terms of your health and safety; I mean it in terms of risk of the picture failing. If you want competitive success, it is better to spend all dive striving for a 10/10 image which only has a 1% chance of success, rather than an 8/10 image which has a 10% chance of being achieved. Originality tends to come at a price—sweat, frustration, cold… If you’re uncomfortable, you may well be on the right track. We all want to be in tropical water and sunbathing on the surface interval, but if everyone is shooting the same subjects in the same locations, the chances of differentiating yourself are slim. There is a choice to be made: Are you on holiday? Or on a photo shoot? Neither is right or wrong, but if you strive for competitive success, you need to work smarter.
Constellation of Eagle Rays: A school of uniquely spotted eagle rays passes below, South Male Atoll, Maldives
DPG: You are well known for capturing some great black and white images. What inspired you to focus on this technique, and how does it differ from shooting normal color images?
Thank you! I think like most photographers, I dabbled in black and white, but it was only upon meeting and shooting alongside Christian Vizl that the passion for the monochromatic craft really took hold. Personally, I never go underwater with a purely black and white vision; I prefer to react to what I find. I am drawn to minimalist compositions in black and white, so in the water that part of my creative brain lights up when I come across scenes with very clear lines, distinctive silhouettes, blocks of dark and light. The image previews are all in color when you’re underwater, but you start to see the black and white possibilities. In the editing process, I will usually test any image I like in black and white, even if just briefly, but it is those compositions which are elevated to a higher plane by a monochrome conversion which really inspire me.
Jellyfish Trails: The long tentacles of a jellyfish trail behind as it glides beneath the surface, Cebu, Philippines
DPG: Last year, you released a guide to diving in Cebu and have co-authored other books. It must be satisfying to see your images in print and in bookshops. How do you prepare for these types of assignments?
Well, the pandemic has been a serious problem for us with the Guide to Cebu. My wife Jade and I worked our tails off to get it ready for a Christmas launch in the Philippines in 2019. We achieved that but soon after the pandemic really took hold and we have delayed the international launch until travel opens back up to Cebu. We’re watching the situation closely and may have news between now and Christmas 2021, so watch this space!
There’s a lot to cover in terms of planning for a book, so I’ll focus on how we did it photographically. We visited each location over a relatively short time period and under pressure to both understand the dive sites intimately, and return with images to showcase them. We would go down with two cameras, usually Jade with a macro lens, and me with wide angle. Jade would also act as the model. It was fun but intense, and on that sort of shoot, you don’t have the luxury of gunning for the “competition shots,” as time is against you and you must return with a set of good images, not just one great one.
Tiger Wave: A mouth-prodding tiger cardinalifish captured with snooted lighting and a slow exposure
DPG: You live in the UK and dive there often. What is your favorite British subject to shoot and what challenges does diving in the cold water present?
Yes, we moved back to the UK in 2020 and I’ve always enjoyed diving locally wherever we live—although up until now it was usually a good deal warmer! I think longtime British divers would say the water is “cool” rather than cold, as it’s a temperate sea, but it’s still half the water temperature or less that we had become accustomed to in the Philippines. The biggest challenge is getting cold; once you are, your creative brain turns to mush and even tweaking basic exposure settings feels like a painfully big deal. So you need to acquire and get familiar with the different exposure protection required. Additionally, there’s no mollycoddling from dive operators over here—even if you go with a dive boat there’s usually no guide and you’ll be carrying all your gear. It’s just all quite a bit harder, and that’s before you even consider unreliable sea conditions and single digit visibility. But it’s also well worth it, and even more so as underwater photographers, as the very fact that it’s harder means it has been less well documented. As far as subjects, I’ve really enjoyed encountering seabirds underwater, such as gannets in Shetland and guillemots in St Abbs [in Scotland].
Gannets: Northern gannets performing fishing dives, Shetland, UK
DPG: What is the favorite image you have ever captured and the story behind it?
A tricky question and the answer will likely vary from day to day, but perhaps “Between Two Worlds” is the strongest image I have created so far… The story: 30 feet down, I found myself hovering between two worlds. Below, an enormous school of fish covered the bottom as far as I could see. Above, a single cormorant patrolled the surface, catching its breath and peering down at a potential underwater feast. The cormorant, better designed for swimming than flying, would dive down at speed, aggressively pursuing the fish. The school would move in unison to escape the bird’s sharp beak, making it difficult to isolate a single target. More often than not, the bird returned to the surface empty handed and peace would momentarily be restored. I would squint up at the sunny surface, trying to keep track of the predator and anticipate the next underwater raid. This image captures the hostile, black silhouette of the cormorant as it dives down onto its prey, who for a brief moment remain unaware of the danger above.
Between Two Worlds: A cormorant dives down on a school of fish, Baja California Sur, Mexico
DPG: What other photographers inspire you and why?
I draw inspiration from a great many photographers, more than could reasonably be covered here. Jade is my creative compass and my own journey into underwater photography aligns almost perfectly with the beginnings of our relationship. On a day-to-day basis, she is the one I will seek out for a reaction to images. Aside from her, the most influential photographers in my career to date have been Alex Mustard, Christian Vizl, and Laurent Ballesta.
Alex Mustard’s imagery and teaching provided a great foundation as I learnt more about the techniques of the trade. As mentioned earlier, Christian Vizl opened my eyes to the art of monochrome, and inspired me to put as much weight into the art and feeling of the image creation, as in its technical requirements. Laurent Ballesta, inspires me with his ability to combine artful pictures of natural history, poetic storytelling, and scientific integrity. Most of all, Laurent inspires me to dream big when it comes to what can be achieved.
Big Mouth: Whale shark feeding, Baja California Sur, Mexico
DPG: What are your future plans and projects?
I am currently pursuing projects in the pelagic and wetland environments, both locally and abroad. As far as guided trips, the ongoing travel restrictions make it very difficult to plan, but at present I have trips in the calendar to Costa Rica, Mexico, and Shetland in 2022. For anyone interested in those, please do get in touch or sign up for my newsletter.
Into the Light: Sea lion pups frolic in an underwater arch, Baja California Sur, Mexico
To see more of Henley’s amazing images or to join him on a guided photography expedition, check out his website, www.henleyspiers.com.
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