FEATURE Pyjama cardinalfish_Richard Smith

Photographer’s Picks

Published July 21, 2014 in Dive Sites, DIVING & SNORKELING, Underwater Photography

Wakatobi Dive Resort is considered to be one of the world’s premier destinations for underwater photography. We asked several prolific and highly-acclaimed underwater image makers to share what they like best about Wakatobi, along with favorite images and a few tips on how others can achieve their best results with any type of camera. With many thanks we share their contributions.

Warren Baverstock

Warren Baverstock is one of the most recognized underwater photographers in the Middle East. He lives in the United Arab Emirates where he is an aquarium curator in Dubai. He also manages the region’s only sea turtle rehabilitation project, which has successfully rescued and rehabilitated just under 700 sea turtles over the last 10 years. He calls Wakatobi “a photographers dream.” His reason for this high praise includes “reliable visibilities,” reefs teeming with both soft and hard coral slopes, a diversity of colorful marine life, and ample opportunities for both wide angle and macro imaging.

“Wakatobi is the real deal.” says Warren. “There are more than 40 protected dive sites easily accessible from the resort, which means less time on the boat and more time in the water.” Reef profiles that begin shallow also come into play, he says, allowing for dives that routinely last 70-plus minutes or more without decompression obligations.

“I dream of photographing underwater marine environments in wide angle where the water is clear, the light is beautiful and the reef is healthy and teeming with marine life. Of all of the destinations I have visited around the world, Wakatobi remains the one where I was really excited on every dive by an incredible underwater perspective that made me think: ‘OMG, how beautiful.'”

Another factor that sets Wakatobi apart is the professionalism of the guides, Warren says. “If you have your own dive guide on a one-to-one basis, you can dive at your own pace instead of having to keep up with a group. As a wide angle photographer, this can allow you to either move quicker to get in front of the group or slow down, which will help you in either way to reduce the chances of other divers being in your shot,” he says. “As a macro photographer, having your own guide is hugely beneficial and ensures that you can request specific subjects that may be found on different dive sites.”

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Glass fish swarm a cluster of tube sponges at Teluk Maya, one of Warren’s favorite Wakatobi dive sites. Photo by Warren Baverstock ©warrenbaverstock.com

When asked to name a favorite site, Warren recalls Teluk Maya, where massive shoals of glassfish swarmed him as he descended to a giant cluster of tube sponges perched on the side of a sandy slope. As the dive progressed, he then encountered an amazing school of convict blennies, he says. “I spent 20 minutes immersed in a morphing show of different shapes, with the sun and lovely coral slope to the surface in the background.” Following this unique encounter, Warren says he ascended to a sloping field of hard corals swarming with equally large shoals of sweetlips and bat fish, then continued on upward to a shallow reef densely covered with coralline and leafy algaes that provided sanctuary for a magnificent collection of juveniles.

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Once this nervous shoal of convict blennies had settled they seemed to put on a show of different shapes, including this formation, which Warren refers to as the “Stairway to Heaven.”  Photo by Warren Baverstock ©warrenbaverstock.com

Warren’s advice to aspiring underwater photographers using simpler “point and shoot” cameras is to stay shallow whenever possible. Wakatobi’s excellent visibility and plentiful marine life will create ample opportunities for photography at depths of 10 to 15 meters, he says, with the advantage not only of longer bottom times, but also the ability to use natural light rather than rely on the limitations of small in-camera strobes. For the advanced photographer, Warren feels the best strategy is to work with a personal dive guide. “It’s worth the money,” he says, “and can make a world of difference when you are searching for a specific subject.”

More of Warren’s imagery can be viewed at warrenbaverstock.com.

Stephen Frink

For more than three decades Stephen Frink has remained one of the most published underwater photographers in the world, and his images and article have appeared in numerous dive publications and websites. He is currently the publisher of Alert Diver Magazine, and a repeat visitor and group leader to Wakatobi, which he considers one of his favorite destinations.

“The House Reef at Wakatobi is extraordinary in the way that the best of marine protected areas often are. When fish associate divers with predation, whether spearfishing or hook and line or nets, those who survive do so by being wary and elusive. Wakatobi has achieved an understanding … a symbiosis … with the neighboring villages and their fish are left in the water, to thrive, while Wakatobi supports the villagers in other ways,” says Stephen.

“Wakatobi has some of the world’s best shore diving, and it is a very special marine environment, for both small cryptic creatures and wide-angle scenics of an exceptionally pristine reef complex. Combine the fabled UW photo opportunities of Wakatobi with a first-class, professionally-run resort dive operation, and Wakatobi should be on every underwater photographer’s hit list.”

Stephen also feels that one of the many nice aspects of diving at Wakatobi is the profile of many reef drop-offs, which allow for multi-level profiles.“You can start your dive at a reasonable depth, say 80-feet or so if you wish, and then gradually work your way up the wall, finding different habitats and reef denizens along the way,” he says. Stephen appreciates being able to explore at the end of the dives the coral gardens which remain in less than 10-feet on a large number of Wakatobi’s reefs. Corals nearly awash at low tide are perfect candidates for over/under shots and will often take a fisheye lens to these hard coral gardens, says Stephen. By getting very close to the corals in the foreground, it forces the perspective to make them appear even more impressive and imposing.

“Wakatobi is world-renown for its marine life and extraordinarily observant guides, putting photographers into the best position for the best images, consistently and with ecological awareness at all times,” he says. Yet, he believes the reefs at Wakatobi provide spectacular wide-angle opportunities as well, testament to the water quality surrounding the islands, as well as the buoyancy control of the guest, and in many cases for Stephen, the underwater model.

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“The brilliant colors of these reefs are revealed with the artful application of artificial light, bringing color to the crimson fans and soft corals, and illuminating the model’s face mask.”  Photo by Stephen Frink  

He also likes the proximity of many sites to the resort—often a boat ride of ten-minute or less. But some dives are worth traveling a bit farther afield, he says, such as Blade, which is a massive structure covered in sea fans and soft coral. “Quite often at a site like this I will revert to a very simple lighting scenario: a single hand-held strobe with a diffusor. By handholding I can assure the shadows are cast in the direction intended, and the second source of light is the sun. Depth and time of day and surface conditions will all influence how much light is transmitted at depth; but a balance of shutter speed to control ambient light and strobe power to control foreground light allows the photographer to execute the image they see in their mind’s eye.”

Close-up of a school of Blackfin barracuda (Sphyraena genie).
Stephen believes sites such as Cornucopia, where schooling fish better tolerate proximity, allows the photographer to reduce the water column between them and their subjects, resulting in images with better contrast, color, and sharpness.  Photo by Stephen Frink

“Silvery fish, like barracuda and jacks, are difficult to photograph because when they orient directly parallel to the camera’s sensor plane they can reflect the strobe’s light like a mirror. In this scenario I like to shoot a lot of photos, knowing that small variations in position can render huge difference in exposure. At sites like Cornucopia, where the fish school in large numbers, they tolerate proximity quite well. That allows the photographer to reduce the water column between them and their subjects, resulting in better contrast, color, and sharper pictures.”

Stephen Frink’s studio, Stephen Frink Photographic, is located in Key Largo, Florida, USA. His portfolio can be viewed here > stephenfrinkphoto.com or visit stephenfrink.com.

Wayne MacWilliams

Wayne is an accomplished photographer who has been passionate about underwater imaging for more than two decades, and has honed his craft at sites throughout the Caribbean, South Pacific and Indian Ocean, often in the company of his wife, Miriam. He was first drawn to Wakatobi by its reputation for healthy reefs and large numbers of marine life, but now considers the dive staff to be an equally important asset. “Most of the experienced underwater photographers that I dive with are pretty good at critter spotting, but we shine the most on our own turf,” he says. “At Wakatobi, I have found that the Wakatobi guides are a real help at spotting marine life, and they fulfill many other roles in the water depending on the needs of the guest.”

“It would be difficult for me to pick one favorite dive site at Wakatobi, because I dive for many different reasons. I may be spellbound by marine life behavior, or simply overwhelmed by the breathtaking beauty. Those feelings are spread throughout the multitude of dive sites available at Wakatobi.”

After three visits to Wakatobi, Wayne says the thing he most appreciates is the big picture. “What I mean is the overall experience,” he says. “The employees, accommodations, food, dive vessels… it requires a real team effort to create a successful and luxurious dive resort on such a small, remote island. I appreciate those efforts and can say that Wakatobi has continued to get better and better.”


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Fish with large eyes like this Crescent-tail bigeye, are typically nocturnal feeders and usually prefer to hang out back in the shadows, under ledges during daylight hours. Photo by Wayne MacWilliams

One of Wayne’s favorite photos, seen above with the sunburst and red crescent-tail bigeye, was taken during a trip in November 2013. “Typically, fish with large eyes are nocturnal feeders and usually will prefer to hang out back in the shadows, under ledges during daylight hours. This fish was doing just that, but another trait in this species is curiosity as well. So, I composed and set my exposure settings to capture the sunburst and banked on the curiosity trait of the fish to bring itself out and become a part of the composition. Now, regulate your breathing and maintain really good buoyancy control helps you become a “fish whisperer” and now be patient-take the shots.”

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“On a night dive near the resort, we came across a small squid that decided to give me an escort. In reality, it was probably hunting and was attracted to whatever my lights might possibly bring in. Of course I took my share of standard squid shots, but when we got close to another diver who was using a little handheld focus light and a GoPro video camera, the squid also veered over to see what his light might be attracting,” says Wayne.

Wayne’s advice to aspiring underwater photographers is to start by doing some homework before submerging. “The Wakatobi website, blog and Facebook page has hundreds of images offered by fellow photographers” he says. “Look, enjoy and educate yourself as to some of the many wonderful subjects you can find there. This will help you prepare yourself and your gear to capture that type of image. One of the most difficult decisions an underwater photographer has to make is which lens to use on any given dive. Research, combined with advice from the dive guides can give you a great start toward success,” says Wayne.

Wayne resides in Jupiter, Florida in the USA. See more of Wayne’s imagery at the South Florida Underwater Photography Society website > click here.

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Wakatobi’s house reef provides many macro photo opportunities such as this Denise’s pygmy seahorse, says Richard Smith.  Photo by Richard Smith

Richard Smith

Richard Smith is a marine biologist and accomplished underwater photographer who has made extensive study of the pygmy seahorses found in the waters of Wakatobi, and completed his PhD on the biology and conservation of this miniature creature in 2011. He is a published author and photographer whose work focuses on conservation, marine life and scuba-related travel. Because of his focus on very small and fragile subjects, Richard is very appreciative of the way Wakatobi’s guides help him get the shot without compromising the safety of the animal or disturbing it in any way. “I am very passionate that this approach should be adopted at more dive centers around the world,” he says.

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The Xenia coral crab must moult its external shell in order to grow; seen here is crab next its old shell.  Photo by Richard Smith

I have many favorite shots from my time at Wakatobi, but one that sticks in my mind was a chance to capture a rare behaviour. Like all crustaceans, the Xenia coral crab must moult its hard external shell in order to grow. They don’t have the ability to grow day by day as we do; rather they have a very limited time after they moult when their exoskeleton is soft and malleable when they can expand slightly. One night dive I found a crab that had just moulted and managed to take a shot of the crab next to its old shell.

“The diving at Wakatobi is so very easy, but at the same time once underwater it is dynamic, unique and the reefs are refreshingly pristine. The staff also makes it easy before you are the water, from the meet and greet at Bali airport to the seamless transfer to the resort and most importantly, the hassle-free daily diving routine.”

Richard has spent hundreds of hours on the Wakatobi House Reef, and considers it to be one of the world’s best shore dives. “The wall is covered in a kaleidoscope of colorful soft corals, gorgonians and sponges with hundreds of species of fishes,” he says. “There are many macro photographic opportunities with pygmy seahorses, frogfish and ghost pipefishes living along the wall.” He appreciates the ease of being able to visit the site at any time, and finds the ability to visit the same site repeatedly allows a photographer to build the familiarity needed to discover small animals and document unique behaviors. “I tell people to always to dive slowly and soak in the animals and behaviors you see,” he says. This allows you to gain more intimate insights into how they act, and ultimately get better pictures.”

Richard resides in the United Kingdom and travels extensively in his quest to continuously learn about our marine environment. More about Richard Smith on Facebook.com/OceanRealmImages.

Kevin Deacon

Kevin is one of Australia’s most accomplished underwater photographers. His images have have graced the pages of prestigious books and magazines for more than 25 years. He feels that the reasons why Wakatobi is ideal for photography go beyond the pristine environment, and involve the guides. “Wakatobi’s dive guides are exceptional,” he says. “They know the species or subjects that have universal appeal for underwater photographers and just where to find them. The guides are also willing to provide a stabilizing hand or shoulder to steady the photographer and keep them off fragile formations while composing a shot. Not only does this protect the underwater environment, it also helps the shooter create better images. Nowhere else have I seen such assistance on offer,” he says.

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Lionfish are abundant on Wakatobi’s reefs and make good subject matter for a wide angle scenic such as this. Photo by Kevin Deacon

“I love using wide angle lenses extremely close when there is an exciting subject with an exceptional backdrop,” says Deacon. “The lionfish among schooling baitfish was also shot at the dive site Blade. It’s not a technically difficult photographic technique, and was more a case of spending less time shooting and more time looking for the subject and opportunity.”

The guides can assist even before entering the water, says Kevin. “Creating better images at Wakatobi begins by taking note of the dive briefings and talking with the dive guides, they will predict the unique subjects you might see on the dive so you can prepare your photo equipment and camera settings before the dive,” he says. “Enter the water on each dive with a plan to shoot one genre, Macro, Wide Angle or Wide Angle Macro. Don’t try to do it all on every dive, otherwise the diversity of subject matter at Wakatobi will overwhelm you.”

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On a dive at Blade, one of Kevin’s favorite Wakatobi dive sites, Cheri Deacon, along with this lionfish and swirling baitfish, provide a lovely wide angle vista. Photo by Kevin Deacon 

Kevin has a number of favorite images from Wakatobi, but one in particular that stands out for him is of Cherie Deacon encountering lionfish with a backdrop of beautiful coral and baitfish. “Capturing a nicely composed image of multiple subjects in a wide angle vista is the most challenging genre of UW photography,” he says. “The photographer has to find that magic moment when all the subjects are perfectly positioned, and balance the lighting with perfect sunlight exposure and individual levels of power control over two strobes that are lighting multiple subject matter at different distances from each strobe. This can’t be done with TTL so it requires a highly developed sense of underwater lighting. It would also be impossible without an excellent model who understands the role needed to help create the image.”

Learn more about Kevin Deacon and view more of his imagery at dive2000.com.au.

Right-handed Hermit Crab
“Get close to your subject to minimize the amount of water you’re shooting through,” says Michael Zeigler, who captured this crab image at the Zoo, a popular shallow dive at Wakatobi.  Photo by Michael Zeigler

Michael Zeigler

Michael’s award-winning photos have been featured in magazines, websites, juried art displays, private collections, and by non-profit organizations including The Fin Foundation, Reef Check, Kelpfest, and the Aquarium of the Pacific. He is trained as an AAUS Scientific Diver, is a dive instructor and trip leader for Samy’s Camera Underwater Photo & Video. Michael led a group of Underwater Photography Guide followers to Wakatobi in November 2013.

One aspect of Wakatobi that Michael particularly appreciated as a photographer is the level of service and care the staff provides for equipment. “Someone always offered to carry my housing to and from the boat,” he says, “ and there was always plenty of room onboard for the larger underwater housings in our group.” He also appreciated their shooting suggestions for selecting either macro or wide-angle at each site. “My dives were typically over 70 minutes long, and I never felt pressured to end the dive as long as I had ample breathing gas,” he says. “The guides did a great job of not only demonstrating perfect buoyancy and care for the reef, but also succeeded in pointing out an abundance of subjects for us to photograph.”

“What made Wakatobi a special experience for me, besides the amazing photography, was how the entire staff treated me, and my family,” says Michael. “Seemingly everyone at the resort knew our names by the end of the first day, and they made our young daughter feel very special everywhere she went.”

“One of the best ways to obtain good results with any underwater camera system, he says, is to get close to your subject to minimize the amount of water you’re shooting through. This improves the color, saturation, and contrast of your photos and your strobes are more effective the closer they are to the subject.” It’s also important to have patience, he adds. “It’s so easy to see a great subject, focus, fire, and move on. This is often referred to as the ‘happy snappy’ approach. When you see a subject with great potential, I would encourage you to take some time to evaluate and plan how you want to shoot for the best results.”

Crinoid on Sea Fan
“The crinoid and sea fan composition is one of my favorite images from Wakatobi. Reef scenes are often best portrayed vertically, especially when you can include the surface of the water, which helps the viewer connect with the subject in terms of where it is in the water,” says Michael Zeigler.

Michael Zeigler lives in Huntington Beach, California. Learn more about Michael at www.seainfocus.com.

To learn about a visit to Wakatobi contact our office at office@wakatobi.com or complete a quick trip inquiry at wakatobi.com. A guest experience representative will be in touch with you to answer any questions and provide information about your next dream dive vacation.

To view more great Wakatobi imagery visit us on TUMBLR.