Gannets dive beneath the surface near the Shetland Islands, UK
I’d wager my house (almost) that if DPG readers have paid attention to just about any underwater photography competition in the last few years, you will have seen Kat Zhou’s name. The diversity and skill displayed in her portfolio—here and on her website and Instagram page—is stunning, especially when you consider she has only been shooting for around five years!
Kat is a prolific traveler and shooter, having criss-crossed the globe, from well-known locations like Indonesia’s Lembeh Strait to more off-the-radar locations like Patagonia in Argentina. She has won Underwater Photographer of the Year and the Ocean Art Competition and been awarded in numerous other imaging contests as well. If you have been curious to know a bit more about the shooter behind some of the most spectacular images in recent years, please read on.
DPG: How and when did you begin shooting underwater pictures?
I started underwater photography in 2019 after an ice diving trip to Lake Baikal [in Russia]. I was just using a GoPro at the time, but there were a few people on the trip with DSLR camera rigs, and I was so impressed when I saw what they were able to capture that I started researching underwater camera gear once I got home! I started with a wide-angle lens, and I shot only ambient light at first to learn how the camera controls and settings worked. A few months later, after going through an underwater photography course online and reading countless articles, I added strobes to my setup and started practicing with lighting. A while after that, I started trying out macro photography. And the rest, as they say, is history.
If looks could kill: A peacock mantis shrimp guarding a precious clutch of eggs, Bali, Indonesia
DPG: It is a question we—actually, I, as a gear nerd—must ask everybody: What photography equipment do you currently use, and why that particular gear?
I still shoot with the same equipment I started with: my trusty Nikon D850, Nauticam housing, and Inon Z-330 strobes. For my wide-angle setup, I mostly use a Nikon 8–15mm lens with a Kenko 1.4x teleconverter behind a 140mm minidome. I love how compact, versatile, and easy to travel with this setup is. The only time I’ll bring out a larger dome is when I know I want to try taking split shots. I also appreciate the extra reach from the 1.4x teleconverter, which lets me zoom up to 21mm. For blackwater photography, I use a 60mm macro lens with the Nauticam MWL-1 on a flip holder, just in case something big shows up. For muck diving, I use a 105mm lens with a Nauticam CMC-1 and Nauticam SMC-1 on flip holders. I carry both because, as long as the subject isn’t too tiny, the CMC-1 still gives me a good amount of magnification, and it’s so much easier to focus!
A beautiful white southern right whale calf striking a pose for the camera, Patagonia, Argentina
A wacky looking polychaete worm peering out of its burrow in the Lembeh Strait, Indonesia
DPG: Do you have a preference between wide angle and macro photography? I rarely get a clear cut answer for this one!
I honestly love both wide-angle and macro photography. I love getting to see and photograph any form of marine life. But overall, my favorite type of underwater photography is blackwater photography! I love the variety of critters you can encounter on blackwater dives, as well as the surprise of never knowing what you might find next. I also find it very rewarding when I am lucky enough to get a decent shot of a subject that moves very quickly and erratically.
A cooperative arrow squid showing off for the photographer, Palm Beach, Florida, USA
DPG: What is your favorite animal to encounter or photograph underwater?
Hmm, that’s a hard one—there are so many animals that I love. Sharks are definitely up there; I think all sharks are adorable, and I always get excited for the opportunity to spend time with any species of shark. Interestingly, though, the animal that I’ve taken the most trips to photograph has actually been the goliath grouper—I’ve traveled to Florida every year since 2020 to dive during the goliath grouper aggregation. They’re such a blast to dive with, and it’s an amazing feeling to come across the friendly ones who will spend an entire dive right in front of me, kissing my dome port. I also love visiting Florida in general and getting to spend time with all my friends there; it’s really become a second home to me.
A goliath grouper surrounded by baitfish on a wreck off Palm Beach, Florida, USA
DPG: I think this one might be a tough one for you, knowing how many incredible experiences you’ve had underwater, but do you have a most memorable marine life encounter?
I can’t think of just one! There have been many different occasions when I was so in awe that I put my camera down for a bit to enjoy the moment. One example was in Socorro: The rest of my group had finished their dive and were beginning to ascend. I was about to follow them and ascend as well, when suddenly three oceanic mantas showed up out of the blue and started swimming in circles around me, dancing all over around where I was. I was so moved I actually started crying underwater!
Another example was earlier this year on a trip to photograph northern gannets in Shetland. On my first day on the water, the sea was a bit rough. I got so sick I almost threw up in the boat, and I was wondering what I had gotten myself into. By my last day, though, the seas had calmed down, and the sun had come out, creating gorgeous light rays in the ocean. I was in the water with gannets diving all around me through these beautiful sun rays, and I’ll never forget the mix of adrenaline and wonder I felt in that moment; I knew that photos and videos would never do the experience justice.
A giant oceanic manta passes overhead, Socorro, Mexico
DPG: What is your favorite image you have ever captured and the story behind it?
Even though it’s not one of my most distinctive images, I’d have to pick one of my first blackwater photos, a shot of a sharpear enope squid in its iconic “crane pose.” Although there are many other photographers who have more impressive photos of these squid, this photo still means a lot to me, as it reminds me of how I started my photography journey. The photo, taken in 2020, was one of the first underwater photos I took that I truly liked; it represents a turning point in my learning curve where all the elements I was working on started to click together. Enope squid are still one of my favorite blackwater critters, but I have yet to see another one since that day. I would love to find one soon, so that I can hopefully capture an even better image!
A glass-like sharpear enope squid doing the crane pose, Palm Beach, Florida, USA
DPG: What destinations or animals are still on your bucket list?
There’s way too many to count! My list of places I want to go to and things I want to do is over 120 pages long at this point, and it grows every year. I don’t call it a bucket list because I know I’ll never even come close to finishing everything on it. I am especially drawn to weird, lesser-admired animals though, especially deep sea creatures. Two animals I’d really love to encounter and photograph someday are a larval gibberfish and an adult oarfish.
Looking like a basking shark with an oversized nose, this is a paddlefish, a smaller, freshwater filter feeder, Tennessee, USA
DPG: What other underwater photographers inspire you?
I really owe a lot of what I’ve learned on my photography journey to the amazing people I’ve met along the way. Seeing the photos that my friends are able to capture has always been my biggest source of inspiration to continue learning and improving. While it’s impossible to name everyone here, I do have to specially mention my friends Michael Walker, Steven Kovacs, and Deb Devers—these amazing photographers welcomed me into their South Florida community when I was first starting out, and they generously shared their cool critter finds with me and taught me many valuable techniques on how to photograph various animals. They will always continue to inspire me with their photos and their deep understanding of animal behavior. I also want to mention my friends Ron Watkins and Shane Gross, who both constantly wow me with their artistic vision and their dedication.
A stunning pink river dolphin in the Amazon River
DPG: You have had some exceptional—and well-deserved—competition success. How has that success impacted your underwater photography and career?
It’s truly been such an honor to have my work recognized in competitions this year. I owe a big thanks to friends who encouraged me to submit my work and convinced me that I had images worth celebrating. The recognition has opened the doors to exciting opportunities: I certainly never imagined when I started out as a hobbyist photographer that I’d have magazines, books, and museums reaching out to license my images! I’ve also made new connections in the underwater photography community through the increased visibility, which has led to great new friendships. Of course, it also feels good to get validation from judges whom I highly respect. Overall, the experience has helped me grow, and it has motivated me to continue to improve my art and push the boundaries of my creativity.
The close-up details of the eye of a nurse shark, Bahamas
DPG: Do you have any projects or future plans for underwater shooting that you can share with us?
While I don’t have any specific upcoming projects at this moment, I love to research new ideas, and I try to always stay open to any opportunities that might come up. I plan to spend the next few months expanding my portfolio as much as I can, and I’m eager to see where inspiration takes me next!
A juvenile lemon shark is joined by its reflection in a mangrove forest, Bahamas
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