A Hong Kong photographer's guide to taking underwater shots

Trained in photography at arts college, Alan Lo's life changed when he went underwater. He uses photography to show how amazing marine life is and to urge people to better safeguard it

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 August, 2015, 2:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 August, 2015, 2:01am

Alan Lo did not take to scuba diving like a fish to water. On a holiday to Indonesia in 2008, he became so anxious during his first dive, he spent the whole time checking his mask.

He needed to calm himself and concentrate on something other than the fear that his eyes and nose were about to be flooded with water. So the trained photographer, who graduated from London's Central Saint Martins college in 1993, rented a compact camera from the tour operator and started snapping away.

"If my concentration was on the camera, I acted normal," says Lo.

And thus began a life-changing foray into underwater photography. By 2014, Lo had won a global contest organised by the UN to mark World Oceans Day.

As a commercial photographer, he undertakes assignments from architectural projects to portraits. But underwater, he specialises in macrophotography: close-ups of tiny sea creatures, sometimes as small as a match head.

"Most of my work [underwater] is on animal behaviour," he says.

It involves technical excellence and incredible patience, combing coral and rockscapes for little slices of submarine life.

It was one of these slices that won him the UN prize, a well-timed shot of a coconut octopus about the size of a plum, heaving two shells together around it for protection against predators.

"Octopuses need to find shelter because they've got no shell and a very soft body. They are easily eaten. So they find shells and use their tentacles to [pull them around them]," says Lo.

"They'll use a can, bottles, anything," he adds, showing a picture of another octopus taking shelter under a coffee cup.

The kit he uses looks something like a sea creature itself, with spindly articulated legs holding powerful lights, and a waterproof shell housing his Canon DSLR behind a wide-angle lens the size of a dinner plate.

"The difference between photographing on land and under the sea is that on land you can do a lot of preparation work," he says. "You can have models, lighting, everything.

"But when you're working underwater, you can't do that. It's just me, my camera and my lights. My models are natural."

Lo says patience and attention to detail are two of his best traits, and both were tested as he scouted for a picture of a 2cm pygmy seahorse in Anilao, Philippines.

Not only are the animals tiny and staggeringly well camouflaged, they live at more than 25 metres underwater. This is relatively deep for recreational diving, which means his tank of compressed air run out more quickly, Lo says.

After meticulously scouring every inch of several coral branches with what is essentially a screw-on magnifying glass on the front of his camera, he found the animal on a 1.5-metre-tall branch. The lens had to be so close, it was almost touching the seahorse.

"Sometimes there is nothing. But luckily once I saw three on a seabed together," he adds.

Lo has been a certified diver for six years and mostly works abroad, taking regular trips to some of the world's best dive sites, accompanied by dive masters. Each dive is between an hour and an hour and a half, depending on the depth. His favourite spots are Lembeh in northern Indonesia and Anilao in the Philippines.

He also shows off his shot of a blue-ringed octopus, one of the most venomous animals in the world ("If they bite you - it's guaranteed death").

Scuba diving and underwater photography are both popular in Hong Kong, but the visibility in local water is lower than in other parts of Asia because of the shipping, pollution from the Pearl River Delta and a natural murkiness. But there are still a lot of popular dive sites in the vicinity, particularly in Sai Kung.

Darren Gilkison, owner and course director of Splash scuba courses, says the popularity of diving has grown steadily since he took over the company in 2006. And the growth in affordable high-quality cameras has led to a big increase in the number of divers taking cameras with them under the sea.

"There are certainly more cameras on our boats, from very simple point-and-shoots to expensive DSLRs," Gilkison says.

The cloudiness of local waters inevitably affects the kind of photographs divers can get: "Hong Kong lends itself more to macrophotography, because [getting up close means murky water has less impact]. You aren't generally going to get the big, blue water shots."

But as interest in underwater photography grows, Hong Kong's marine environment is deteriorating. According to the World Wildlife Fund Hong Kong, the territory has about 1,000 marine fish species and more than 80 hard coral species. But these are increasingly threatened by pollution, unsustainable fishing and a lack of protected marine parks in an area constantly criss-crossed by fishing and shipping vessels.

Every time I dive, I might see something new; photograph something I've never seen before
Alan Lo

Hongkongers' voracious appetite for seafood is also causing problems beyond our own maritime borders.

Bonnie Tang Man-lam, oceans director of Greenpeace East Asia, says: "I think in general the Hong Kong government and the Hong Kong people don't know that we are eating a lot of fish that is leading to the extinction of fish around the world.

"We are now proposing different fishing methods for sustainable fishing," she adds.

Environmental campaigns can be effective: Hongkongers have changed their eating habits in response to increased publicity about the unsustainability of the shark fin trade.

But this can have unintended consequences.

"For shark fins, Hong Kong people have this kind of awareness that they need to stop [eating it]. But they just switch from eating shark's fin soup at weddings to fish bladder soup. This leads to a decrease in the numbers of those fish," Tang says.

Greater public awareness is needed. To that end, Lo will be showing some of his best work this month in Mei Foo in a free exhibition titled "Unveiling the Underwater World".

"I want to educate Hong Kong people and help them take an interest in underwater life and environmental protection. Most people haven't seen these kinds of animals before, especially if they're not divers," says Lo.

"All over the world, we have to take care of our oceans; to stop dumping rubbish and stop eating shark's fin soup."

Divers need to be careful to avoid causing damage to fragile ecosystems. Fins are worn to help them move efficiently through the water, but divers should not trail them along the reef or seabed "If you do that you'll damage corals and marine life," Lo says.

"Underwater photography is interesting because marine life is so amazing. Every time I dive, I might see something new; photograph something I've never seen before."

And hopefully, with greater awareness of humans' impact under the sea, future generations will still be able to see these marine treasures for many years to come.

"Unveiling the Underwater World", 1/F Mei Foo Plaza, 863 Lai Chi Kok Rd, Mei Foo, runs until Sept 17


Alan Lo's tips for great underwater shots

Skills before kit

The question most people ask me is whether they should buy expensive equipment. I say no because it's our training and our eyes, not the equipment, that we need. We don't rely on the equipment as much. I don't recommend people buy expensive things to get started. We have to learn about composition and handling lighting first.

Choose the right spot

Sharp Island is a good place to start, also Sai Kung. I recommend novice underwater photographers go to the Philippines because the flying time is short and the diving is reasonably priced. Then maybe Indonesia or Okinawa.

Learn to dive properly

The most important thing is to sharpen your diving skills. You have to get a diving certification before you even carry the camera. If you can't handle yourself, how can you handle a camera?

Create your own style and get in close - but not too close

People can create their own style. That means lighting techniques and composition. My style is always wanting to get closer and closer. Why? Because I will get more details of the creature. Some people are scared to get close to the animal. And then the result is not good, because the object doesn't stand out. It's important to get close, but without touching the animal. That's very important.

It's all in the eyes

Beginners like to shoot from the top, because when they see the animal, they just click. They shouldn't. They should go lower until they have eye contact. The pictures will be more interesting because the animal is looking right into your camera.