A mother humpback and her calf frolic in the sun rays, Moorea, French Polynesia
It is pretty safe to say that most divers or photographers reading this have probably already heard of Ron Watkins. Perhaps for his award-winning images, for his workshops and trips, or perhaps just as one of the nicest human beings in the dive industry.
Ron’s pictures have been awarded and published just about everywhere you can think of, and he currently runs trips and photo workshops for Backscatter Underwater Photography & Video. Ron has traveled to just about every corner of the globe for diving and underwater photography, as his diverse portfolio—even just what is featured here—shows. Take a few minutes to read my conversation with Ron and learn a little more about who he is as a person and photographer—and cancer survivor.
Face to face with one of the most venomous snakes on Earth, Dumaguete, Philippines
DPG: I know you are a recent cancer survivor, so before we dive into the nerdy underwater photography stuff, I’m curious to know how you’re doing and how your health issues may have impacted your diving and underwater photography.
Thanks for asking me about that and allowing me to share my story with others to raise awareness. I have had several family members and friends that have been impacted by cancer and I have always actively supported the Dive into the Pink cancer nonprofit founded by my friend and fellow cancer survivor, Allison Vitsky Sallmon. In December 2021, I found myself on the other side of the cancer stick when I was diagnosed with a fairly aggressive prostate cancer. A hard mass was found during a routine checkup and I was referred to a urologist, who did the biopsy and despite having extremely low PSA scores, it came back positive for cancer. I decided to undergo a radical prostatectomy procedure in March 2022 and then started my road to recovery.
I had a personal goal of diving by the end of summer for trips I was leading to Moorea and Fiji. I had to cancel several trips earlier that year, including one to Alaska in July to photograph the salmon sharks. I was devastated to be missing that one. As July approached, my recovering and physical therapy was going well and I got a call from Boone Hodgin at Ravencroft Lodge saying he had a last-minute cancellation and asked if I was interested in coming up the following week. With the encouragement of my wife Manomi, I decided to give it a try and booked flights that night. Even though I wasn’t able to dive quite as much as I usually do, just being up there with friends in nature, getting in the water and seeing the salmon sharks and jellyfish was a really positive thing for me. Not only physically, but emotionally. It was the first time I really felt like I had kicked cancer’s a** and had a positive outlook for the future! I finished off the year with two workshops in Moorea swimming with humpbacks, two weeks in Fiji for a workshop, and three weeks in Bonaire for diving, relaxing and reflecting on what I had accomplished in the year. I get tested regularly and so far, I am cancer free—knock on wood!
A sea fan growing in a beautiful reef cut in Fiji
DPG: How and when did you begin taking underwater pictures?
My father, who learned to dive in the 1950s while in the Navy, introduced me to scuba diving as a teenager and that ignited my passion for the underwater world. When a medical issue forced him to stop diving, I got into underwater photography in the mid-90s as a way to still share my underwater adventures with him. In 1999, after fumbling around teaching myself, I took my first underwater photography class while on a liveaboard in Australia. After each day, we processed the slide film and the instructor critiqued my images and suggested how to improve. By the end of the trip, I saw significant improvements in my photos and entered my first photo contest. One of my shark images won first place in the Seaspace 2000 international photo competition. Since then, I have continued to learn more about underwater photography, experiment with new techniques, teach workshops, and just have fun with it.
The marine iguana, one of the Galápagos Islands’ most iconic critters
DPG: What equipment do you currently use and why that particular gear?
My primary camera is a Nikon D850 in a Nauticam housing. For wide-angle lenses, I use the Nikon 16–35mm and Nikon 8–15mm fisheye lenses. My rig also sports two old-school powerful Sea&Sea YS-250 strobes for wide-angle scenes and fast big-animal action. For macro shooing, I use both the 105mm and 60mm Nikon lenses with and without diopters. I really enjoy using the Backscatter Mini Flashes with Optical Snoots. They are the perfect size for macro photography and take the guesswork out of positioning the light. I also have several creative lenses from Saga, like the Magic Tube and Magic Ball, which can make common subjects very artistic. As we do this interview, I am starting to think about a jump to mirrorless and looking at getting some new wide-angle strobes. It is hard to make such a major change when your gear is performing well for you!
A school of blue tang, photographed with Saga’s Magic Ball, Bonaire
DPG: Do you have a preference between wide angle and macro photography?
As [DPG Publisher] Joseph Tepper said in 2018, it’s hard to pigeonhole me, as I love the artistic nature and challenges of both. I love the big animals and reefscapes as well as the tiny critters. I consider myself a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, which has really helped me with regards to my underwater photography workshops, because I am able to teach basic and advanced techniques in macro, supermacro, snooting, close-focus wide angle, split shots, ambient light, working with models, and other creative techniques. I go through phases where I will do a bunch of wide-angle focused trips and then get low and slow with a bunch of macro-focused trips. So long as I can get some water time, it’s all good!
The crisp details of the face of a banded coral shrimp, Bonaire
The business end of a crocodile in Cuba’s Jardines la Reina
DPG: What is your favorite animal to encounter/photograph underwater?
I would have to say sharks and more specifically the elusive salmon shark in the chilly waters of Alaska. They are such an amazing and beautifully adaptive animal, and it is such a treat when you see one, let alone have the stars align to capture a good photo. As you know from your own Alaska trip, Matt, conditions have to be just right to spot them from the surface and then you have to be lucky enough to have them stick around while you slowly slip into the water to attempt a photo in murky cold water as they approach and turn with lightning speed. Our buddy Boone Hodgin is the salmon shark whisperer and knows how to get them close to the boat and keep them around just long enough for your chance at the shot! You also just can’t beat the time spent at Ravencroft Lodge during the Alaskan summer. For me, it is like being at summer camp with lots of activities!
The smaller, faster (cooler?) cousin of the mako and great white, the salmon shark, Ravencroft Lodge, Alaska, USA
DPG: Do you have a most memorable marine life encounter or experience?
It has to be when I had a chance encounter with a transient pod of orcas at Darwin’s Arch in the Galápagos. We observed and photographed the pod, consisting of one male, three females and a calf at first from two pangas. I managed to convince the dive guide to let me get into the water with them. Initially, nobody else wanted to go so I was able to spend about 15 minutes with the orcas alone as they curiously interacted with me. First, the large male approached me quickly; then the females with the calf hidden safely behind them. To my pleasant surprise, the calf swam up under one of the females and right at me for a closer look. Eventually, after viewing the images on my LCD back on the panga and hearing that they were not aggressive towards me, my workshop group of 15 slowly entered the water one by one and got to share in this once-in-a-lifetime encounter. Evidently, the fear of missing out (FOMO) is greater than the fear of getting attacked by an orca! None of us will ever forget that special day back in 2016, way before orca encounters were more common and trips were offered to dive with orcas in Baja and Norway.
An orca and her calf taking a casual break and lounging at the surface, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
DPG: What is your favorite image you have ever captured and the story behind it?
Matt, I am sure you know this answer, as we have spent time discussing this picture, but it has to be my jellyfish photo titled, “One in a Million.” I made the image in Prince William Sound, Alaska, over an enormous moon jellyfish bloom with a single predatory lion’s mane jellyfish rising above its prey. It was a surreal experience to be in a jellyfish smack so thick it blocked out the light. Their little pulsating bodies hypnotize you and when the lion’s mane appeared, I took several images from below and the side with the faint cloudy sunlight peeking through before I had the idea to go directly over top of it. I lined it up in the viewfinder as straight as I could and popped off a few shots. It was not until I downloaded the image that I realized the impact of the image, which has gone on to be the one photo I am most known for.
A lion’s mane jelly, bane of the moon jelly’s existence, slowly hunting down its prey, Ravencroft Lodge, Alaska, USA
DPG: What animals or destinations are still on your must shoot/dive list?
I have been very fortunate over the years to have traveled all over the globe and have had encounters with some very unique and rare species, but I still have a big wish list! Basking, sleeper and porbeagle sharks are high on my list for sharks. As far as locations, I would like to dive the wrecks in the Great Lakes and some epic deep-water wrecks in Sri Lanka. Antarctica, Azores, Southern Australia, Tasmania, and around the southern parts of Africa are also on that long, long, long list. I am always adding to that list and one thing I learned from cancer is “live in the moment” and carpe diem!
A huge green moray eel, photographed with a slow shutter, Bonaire
DPG: What other photographers inspire you?
There are so many newer inspirational photographers out there pushing the limits and being very creative, like yourself with your attention to detail and moody, surreal, balanced lighting. I also enjoy following some of the veteran accomplished photographers and have books by Brian Skerry (big animals), David Doubilet (always getting the shot), Dr Alex Mustard (creativity and pushing the limits), Ernie Brooks (black and white) and Martin Edge (one of my first books). I would have to say, the person that has inspired me the most and has had the largest personal impact on my life would be Berkley White, owner and founder of Backscatter. I first met him at The Digital Shootout over 10 years ago and was blown away by the quality of his work, his knowledge, passion, and willingness to share with others about diving, photography and videography. He is still just as humble and soft spoken today as he was then, which is a unique and special quality in this industry. If you ever get a chance to go on a trip with him, do so.
An oceanic whitetip “mean muggin” Ron’s camera, Moorea, French Polynesia
DPG: Speaking of Backscatter, you lead trips and photo workshops for them now. What is your favorite aspect of leading trips?
Leading trips over the past 10 years has been a lot of fun! Sharing my knowledge with photographers of all skill levels, as well as learning from them, just never gets old. The Backscatter clients have a great sense of adventure, like to have a good time, and are passionate about photography and diving. I love sharing my knowledge of macro and wide-angle photography and get as much of a rush from nailing a shot as I do from teaching someone else how to do the same. In addition to teaching the fundamentals, I really like showing people some of the more creative or advanced lighting techniques and slow shutter motion blur photography, which I know is a favorite technique of yours too, Matt. I always get a kick out of seeing students applying a new technique and sharing it with the group.
A Napoleon snake eel lit with snoot and backlit snoot, Dumaguete, Philippines
DPG: Do you have future plans or projects with regards to underwater photography that you can share with us?
I am really excited to be one of three photo pros invited to host the Capturing Critters in Lembeh Underwater Photography Workshop in January 2025! Best of all, I will be there with my long-time close friend Renee Capozzola as well as Paul Duxfield from the UK teaching a week-long workshop packed with incredible diving, presentations, and passing on our tips and tricks through one-on-one instruction and feedback. It has been several years since I have been to Lembeh, but Lembeh Resort is the perfect place to host a workshop, with its amazing house reef, 3:1 diver-to-guide ratio, spacious camera room, luxury hillside cottages, and sumptuous meals. You should sign up and join us, Matt!
The flashiest of all cuttlefish, the flamboyant; this one just caught a tasty morsel, Dumaguete, Philippines
To view more of Ron’s world-class imagery, please visit his website, www.ronwatkinsphotography.com, and follow him on Instagram. Also, take a look at some of the upcoming trips he is running and consider joining him at an exotic, far-flung location!
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