Exploring the Depths with Award-Winning Photographer Matty Smith
By Dave Soref
Matty Smith is an award-winning wildlife photographer whose use of innovative underwater camera techniques, like the “half over/half under” approach, have led to some stunning and unique images that allow us to peer beneath the ocean’s surface in new and exciting ways. Smith emigrated from his native Britain to Australia to be closer to the Pacific Ocean, which he calls “the world’s largest playground.”
Calmful Living had a chance to catch up with Matty Smith between assignments and ask him about how he got his start in underwater photography and how he manages to get those one-of-a-kind shots.
Calmful Living: What came first, the interest in photography or the diving?
Matty Smith: The photography came many years before the diving. Diving is just a necessity to be able to take the pictures I like. Of course, I do enjoy the diving itself, but I never dive without a camera—ever. Before I moved into the dive photography realm, I used to shoot surf photography, and before that it was seascapes from the beach. My photography has always had a strong influence from the ocean in one form or another.
OC: What made you first try and then perfect the “over/under” approach?
MS: For me, one of the most wondrous parts of any dive is the moment the water engulfs my mask as my head slips below the surface. I think it’s the suspense of the unknown of what lies beneath; the transition of moving from one element to another that feels so magical, along with the thought of what alien creatures I might encounter.
I try to convey to the viewer that majestic feeling in picture format. It may be the best way I can communicate to a non-diver what the underwater world is all about, to marry a wet and unfamiliar world with a dry and more familiar one. One of my biggest influences in this style of picture taking is an incredible photographer known as David Doubilet. He helped pioneer the techniques in the seventies, and his images continue to mesmerize me.
OC: How are you able to capture the ambient light above the surface and create the necessary lighting below the surface in the same shot?
MS: Well, to begin with, I’d like to say that nothing is Photoshopped or digitally manipulated in my work. I like to record the natural events exactly as they occurred, and if it doesn’t work out on that particular day, then I return and reshoot another day.
To illuminate the underwater elements of my images, I use powerful underwater flashguns. I will often couple these with diffusers or snoots to shape and form the light to best suit my subject, kind of how a studio photographer might when shooting fashion or a portrait.
OC: Does the waterline itself play a part in the photographs? By adding movement? By adding stillness?
MS: Yes, definitely. The whole mood of the image can be changed if the waterline is blurred and dreamy or crisp and sharp. I tend to aim for crisp and sharp. I like defined details in my images, but that’s a personal preference.
OC: Generally South Pacific pictorials have a sun-drenched look. Yours capture different kinds of colors, darker and moodier. What accounts for that?
MS: It’s just the kind of light I like to shoot in. I like mood and drama. Bright sunny days are idyllic but make for very common photographs. I try to make something different, to stir emotion.
OC: Is getting the iconic shot a matter of waiting in one place for the right moment, or more a matter of luck?
MS: I think luck favors the prepared, as the saying goes. It’s all about patience, and it’s a numbers game. One of my most popular shots is my Portuguese man o’ war image, Physalia. It took six months, a lot of experimentation with light and composition, and many, many very early mornings to nail that shot. I got quite a few frames that came close, but weren’t perfect. So, I kept going back, knowing that there was a winning shot to be had. Eventually I got it.
Prints are available for all of Matty Smith’s images at www.mattysmithphoto.com.