Napolean wrasse eating an octopus, Red Sea, Egypt
Underwater photography is challenging, because our time below the surface is limited, and marine life encounters are unpredictable and often hard to come by. In order to get the best images, it helps to learn from professionals and dive with other photographers who have the same goal in mind when they travel. In this latest edition of our Interview with the Pros series, we talk to Simon Lorenz, a PADI dive instructor and award-winning photographer from Germany who established the travel company Insider Divers to solve that problem, and provide guided photography expeditions and workshops to some of the top dive destinations on the planet.
Acting as group leader on most of the trips, he has captured amazing images of some of the ocean’s most iconic animals. His work is well recognized and has won numerous awards and photo contests. We recently caught up with Simon to learn more about his journey and to discuss his favorite dive destinations, images and future plans.
Juvenile whale shark, Tubbataha, Philippines
DPG: How did you start taking photographs underwater?
On my very first scuba dive, I had the desire to take pictures. I think some of us are just storytellers: I like to share what I experience and discuss different animals and their behavior. I got my first camera with only 15 dives under my belt and then quickly proceeded to gobble up even more air than ever before! A continuous cycle of camera upgrades followed. In 2015, I decided to give up my corporate career and literally dive into the underwater industry.
DPG: What equipment do you use?
I have been shooting above water and below with Nikon for over 20 years. Isotta is my choice of housing company, and as an ambassador for their brand, I have been working with them for over six years now. For strobes, I trust Inon, but recently Isotta came out with the powerful RED64, and I have been testing the prototypes and using them for wide-angle photography. All of my equipment otherwise comes from Huish, which own brands likes Hollis, Atomic Aquatics, BARE, Oceanic and Stahlsac. I have always been a fan of Hollis and BARE, so I was thrilled when they kindly offered to support my work a few years ago.
Pinnate batfish motion blur, Komodo, Indonesia
The mighty blue whale taking a dive, Sri Lanka
DPG: What is your favorite dive destination and why?
There is a favorite for different purposes and subjects. For Insider Divers trips, I think Palau is my favorite location, for its combination of blue water, sharks, caves and wrecks, with the cherry on top being the massive fish spawns that you can experience twice every month. For our wreck and tech diving trips, we prefer to visit Truk Lagoon, while our macro workshops focus on Lembeh or Anilao, which provide a continuous lineup of critters for our guests to shoot. I also love sharks. Galápagos and Socorro are popular for good reason, but my favorite dive site of them all is South West Rocks in Australia, where you can swim with large schools of sand tigers.
Backlit flamboyant cuttlefish, Lembeh Strait, Indonesia
DPG: Wide angle or macro? What type of diving and photography excites you the most?
Being in the water is the most important thing for me. Depending on where I am, I like to vary the photography to what makes the most sense for the environment at the time, and I often switch lenses in-between dives. In Hong Kong [where Simon is based], the visibility is often poor, so my wide-angle lenses stay at home most of the time. Given the choice, though, I am definitely a wide-angle guy. I get a thrill out of being close to big animals—the bigger the better. Wide-angle photography offers more behavior observation and interaction with the subject, and even though I am firing away, I still feel the presence of the animal. With macro, I find that I peer at my subject through the viewfinder like through a microscope, but I enjoy the wider creative and educational possibilities, which is why most of my photo workshops are dedicated to macro. I am also a big fan of black-water macro photography, which I do wherever possible.
Spawning snapper during full moon, Palau
Blackwater Brotulas, Hawaii
DPG: This may be an impossible question to answer, but what was your most memorable marine life encounter or dive ever?
There have been quite a few, of course! Maybe one of the most unique experiences was when marine biologist and good friend Julia Hartup invited me to witness a unique behavior of manta rays in Guam. There are resident mantas around the island, but divers rarely see them. Julia discovered that manta rays know the exact time and location of reef fish spawns. One minute the reef looks like normal, and then suddenly it’s filled with reef fish going bananas and manta rays scooping up clouds of spawn!
Manta ray feeding on fish spawn, Guam
DPG: You live in Hong Kong. How is the diving and is underwater photography a popular pastime there?
One of the reasons I really enjoy living here is the ability to dive almost all year round. It is not amazing, but for a city, the diving is good enough. It is subtropical during summer and cool during winter, and the 100 species of corals that can be found here are amongst the most temperature resistant in the world, able to tolerate water temperatures from between 18 and 28 degrees celsius. Of course, the underwater world could be much better if there weren’t as much fishing and urban construction. Since the historic oyster banks have been destroyed by urbanization, the water is not as clear. But with a little patience, you can find interesting animals. Clownfish, stingrays, scorpionfish, lionfish, cuttlefish and octopuses are common, and we have over 250 species of nudibranchs. We also have some of the crown jewels of macro photography: I have found several blue-ringed octopuses, and last year even spotted a hairy frogfish.
Reef sharks at the surface, Yap, Micronesia
DPG: You regularly run guided trips for other photographers. What made you decide to do that and what can people expect when they join an Insider Divers expedition?
For me and my friends, I was always the trip organizer. I would work hard to get the best possible season, operator, and trip. It would irk me to have to compromise on the route or the activities just to make it right for a few people. And not many of my friends were ready to do the crazy trips I had in mind, so many trips remained in draft stage—or I had to go by myself. Personally, I find though that diving is so much better in a group of like-minded people, and you get much better diving because the operators are ready to adjust their dive plans for large groups. All our Insider Divers trips are therefore tailor-made to fit our intentions—which is to learn something about the marine environment and get great photos. I find many dive operations too focused on providing a show of wildlife, rather than a learning experience. On our trips, we always focus on learning by meeting experts, participating in citizen science or having talks about relevant topics. I want us all to be “ocean insiders”—which is how I came to choose the name of the company.
Lionfish portrait, Sri Lanka
Penguin pair, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
DPG: What has been your greatest achievement?
In 2018, I received the award for German Underwater Photographer of the Year. This was a major breakthrough, as Germany has some of the best underwater photographers in the world. I think I got lucky that year, but I am still immensely proud. I am also proud to have been printed in many of the leading dive magazines as well as BBC, CNN, and other mainstream media.
DPG: How have you been keeping busy through the pandemic?
At first I started Insider Academy, a platform for webinars about the underwater world and diving. We hosted around 30 talks before overall webinar-fatigue kicked in. Due to travel restrictions, local diving in Hong Kong exploded. A friend asked me to help set up a new dive shop in Hong Kong, Sai Kung Scuba. It has fun diving, a dive school and a shop, so that kept me busy for the majority of 2020. Throughout the year, I have supported the Hong Kong Shark Foundation, where I am on the advisory board. Currently, I am working on a book and a project to teach school kids more about the ocean.
Anemonefish with tongue parasite, Komodo, Indonesia
DPG: What is your favorite image you have ever captured and the story behind it?
My favorite image is of a Napoleon wrasse eating an octopus off the Brothers Islands in Egypt. I was diving a bit away from the group when I noticed the Napoleon swimming in an off line away from the reef. I went for an interception course and noticed a tentacle sticking out of his mouth, which unfortunately he sucked in just before I could get my first shot. What I really love is that my entire dive group that day is in the negative space of the image giving it that extra layer. I also really love my baby pinnate batfish black-water slow shutter photo—wow, that’s a mouthful!
Sand tiger sharks, South West Rock, Australia
DPG: What other photographers inspire you and why?
I find that you can get inspired by almost any photographer, as long as they come up with something new. For me, the biggest inspirations are photographers who create new photographic directions like Christian Vizl, Alex Mustard, Tobias Friedrich or Eduardo Acevedo. These days, every year produces new, inspiring photographers such as Grant Thomas, Alfred Minnaar or Alex Kidd. I am also fascinated by Florian Fischer’s Behind the Mask project, with their unparalleled emotional underwater videos. As a dive leader, I am inspired by the likes of Amos Nachoum and Andy Murch, who create the most outstanding and daring experiences for dive groups.
Crocodile close-up, Chinchorro, Mexico
Manta ray night black and white, Hawaii
DPG: What are your future plans and projects once we are able to travel freely and go diving again?
Right now, I have to wait out the pandemic as Hong Kong is very protective of its low levels of infections and demand a three-week hotel quarantine on return—even when vaccinated. So, I’m making the most of diving in Hong Kong by writing a book about it. It’s still in the early stages, but I have been working on it for a while, adding new sites to Hong Kong’s existing 40 dive sites. Aside from that, I am working with Sai Kung Scuba for local experiences, working on projects with Hong Kong University and local NGOs, and have several media projects for local marine life. I am shortly also going to pilot Hong Kong’s first liveaboard experience. Once we can travel again, I have a huge series of Insider Divers trips lined up.
Simon in action photographing pilot whales on an Insider Divers trip
To see more of Simon’s amazing images or to join him on a guided photography expedition, check out his website, www.insiderdivers.com.
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