Keith Ellenbogen: Cartier-Bresson of the Deep

Keith Ellenbogen: Cartier Bresson of the Deep

To succeed as an underwater photographer, one needs to cultivate a subtle balance of preparedness and patience. For more than two decades, underwater conservation photographer Keith Ellenbogen has done just that, to offer us rare glimpses of the elusive marine life he photographs within the short window of his air supply. In the following interview, Ellenbogen sheds light on how his early training in diving, photography, and the marine environment have contributed to his success, while also discussing his camera and lighting gear, and offering advice to others seeking to photograph underwater flora and fauna.

Photographs © Keith Ellenbogen

Jill Waterman: Underwater photography is a very unique and demanding specialty. What kind of background and characteristics do you think are most essential for someone to succeed as an underwater photographer?

Keith Ellenbogen: I think it takes several things:

  1. It takes comfort with being in the water and swimming, and scuba diving, and being in foreign environments.
  2. It takes in-depth understanding of animal behavior, so you can capture something unique, or an interesting perspective or point of view.
  3. It takes knowledge of and experience with how to consistently put yourself in places to capture images under pressure, knowing that you need to deliver.

Underwater photography is particularly complicated because you have a limited amount of air to breathe and a short window of time that you can spend submerged. The key is to learn how to best spend your time to find the right animals and behaviors.

Ellenbogen packed and ready to travel on assignment with all his gear

JW: What were your earliest experiences in learning about underwater photography and the marine environment, and what kind of camera did you use?

KE: When I was a kid, my grandfather was an amateur photographer. At age 16, I learned how to scuba dive off the coast of Boston, up in Gloucester. And my grandfather bought me a Nikonos V underwater film camera to use when diving.

I also volunteered at the New England Aquarium in Boston during high school, and I learned about the role the oceans play in our world, and how to see things, and find things. I was a volunteer aquarist, and did everything from clean and scrub the tanks to prepare food for the animals, and make sure all the animals were healthy and being cared for. I worked in the Temperate Gallery, and each fish needed individual attention. Some have different feeding habits, some hide in different locations, and observing all this was very important.

Juvenile Magnificent Frigatebird, Mexico

JW: Was there any one thing that you learned about underwater photography early on that has really stuck with you?

KE: The thing I learned early on is how challenging wildlife photography can be. Nature is unpredictable, and the elements of a good wildlife photograph often occur quickly and infrequently. People tend to think you go to a location, get your images, and come back. But, finding the right interaction and animal behavior to tell a story is an art form that takes practice and time. As a professor in photography at SUNY/The Fashion Institute of Technology, I apply that same philosophy to my students, who are interested in developing their skills as emerging portrait, fashion, documentary and even terrestrial wildlife photographers.

Close-up of damselfish tail, Fiji

JW: When you first got into underwater photography, you were shooting with film. What was that experience like, and when did you transition to digital?

KE: It's easy to forget that shooting a film camera underwater was much more challenging. There were only 24 or 36 pictures in a roll of film. You always thought you got a great picture until you came back and developed it and viewed the images. Additionally, you had to take meticulous notes to learn what was working and what wasn't, so that you could repeat it. So, there was a lot of learning about those skills happening while I was in those formative early years.

When I completed my Master’s at Parsons School of Design, in New York, from 2004 to 2006, it was that transitional time when the world was switching to digital. Back then, the sensors weren't quite as good as the color was with film, and it was certainly more complex on the printing side. At that time, images shot with color film and processed in CMYK looked beautiful, and very well done. There was always a question of whether you could get the colors right with digital, and it was harder. It just took another level of skill to work on how to make sure those colors were accurate to what you wanted, and whether you were representing them well. Things sort of transitioned gradually away from film, but I did move into digital rather quickly during graduate school.

JW: What was your major during graduate school at Parsons?

KE: I was studying Design and Technology, and focused on photography/videography. When it came time for me to do my thesis, I had to pick a project that related to my passion for the marine environment. I didn’t really have the intention of focusing on underwater photography, but my thesis project turned out to be an integration of photography and environmental storytelling, to raise awareness about conservation using emerging technologies and cutting-edge techniques.

Humphead Wrasse, Palau. The camera manufacturer Canon featured Ellenbogen’s underwater portrait of this endangered fish as part of the ad campaign, “Wildlife as Canon Sees it.”

JW: How have the technological changes over time affected the images that you can make?

KE: Some of the technology makes shooting pictures a very different experience. It used to be that you shot 36 pictures and you were done, but you had multiple cameras. Now you can shoot 1,000 pictures with a single card. But I think I maintain the same sort of shooting style. I don't shoot tons of pictures, but I shoot with a lot of intention. One of the advantages to digital is you can work through a problem and see it in real time, and solve for it right then and there.

JW: You received a Fulbright Fellowship to travel to Malaysia in 2006-2007. What effect did this have on your career?

KE: Right after graduate school, I was awarded a US Fulbright Fellowship to go to Malaysia, to focus on photography, video, and environmental storytelling. That was a year during which I could really apply myself creatively with no other responsibility other than how to become a better underwater photographer.

Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, Mediterranean Sea

JW: Do you have any favorite images, or an image that stands out in your mind as being particularly memorable?

KE: The very first assignment I got was to photograph the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, in the Mediterranean Sea, for the nonprofit organization Oceana. They are an endangered species, and I was able to capture a series of compelling images. This is one of the proudest images I have to this day, because it’s used as the key picture to protect this species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

JW: What camera gear do you currently work with when shooting stills underwater?

KE: For all my photography, I use a Canon 5D Mark IV and a wide range of Canon lens, such as the EF 16-35mm f/2.8, EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM and EF 70-200mm f/2.8L zooms. For primes, I use a Canon EF 20mm f/2.8 USM, an EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM, an EF 50mm f/1.4 USM, 85mm f/1.2L USM, and an EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens. To protect the camera underwater and illuminate my subjects, I use a Sea&Sea housing and older model Sea&Sea strobes. In terms of a current model, the Sea&Sea YS-03 Universal Lighting System would be a good one to start with.

Dolphin feeding on school of fish, South Africa

JW: What’s required to make a good underwater photograph, and why is a close-up view so important?

KE: Underwater photography is very different from photographing on land. You can't shoot through a lot of water, and you can't see very far through the water to focus on something. You also can't illuminate the whole ocean, so you need to get in a close enough range to the animals where your lights can illuminate them well, even for big animals.

When trying to photograph marine life, it’s also important to know how to be in the right place at the right time. You only have so much time, especially on assignment, and you need to know where to put yourself. You can't be everywhere, and hard moments are hard to find. If you want to capture magical moments, the question is what do you spend your time working on? And then you decide what’s worth your time and effort to wait for in real time.

Mantis Shrimp, Malaysia

JW: Since underwater photography is all about being close to your subject, what, if any, special challenges are there to shooting macro images under water?

KE: I love macro photography, and I really like bringing tiny little creatures to life. I think the challenges with macro photography are

  1. In places where there’s a little bit of current and drifting, it’s hard just focusing on some of the animals. That’s always the complicated part.
  2. Varying the depth of field is something that I really enjoy working with, so you get a unique perspective. Sometimes I want one focal point to be the main part of the subject in the image, and other times I want a much more unified plane where all the subjects are in focus. For example, a coral polyp might be a good example of a colony. You might want the whole colony in focus, or you might want a single polyp in focus a little bit ahead of the others, so you can really drive someone’s eye.
  3. But for me, the most rewarding part of macro photography is that I do very minimal digital editing on my pictures. I realize that a lot of people can crop pictures, or manipulate them, but I like the challenge of capturing the image in the camera with the right lens. People don't believe me about this, but I do practice a lot, developing my hand and eye coordination, and holding my hand steady to build that strength. It's a very hard skill to master, so I often practice on elements in nature that are a little easier to find, like swaying tree leaves, and bugs, and stuff like that.

Close-up coral polyp, Fiji

JW: Does your shooting strategy or visual approach differ between working with stills and video?

KE: The two approaches are very different. My approach to shooting video is to position myself in such a way as to let the camera roll and the animal to move naturally—not to follow its every movement by jerking the camera, but to let it come into and out of the field of view and to track seamlessly. The viewer should feel like they are underwater, not like they are behind a video camera. Additionally, if the animal is slow moving or stationary, then I am challenged with panning the camera in such a way as to keep the visuals dynamic.

In underwater photography you must position yourself correctly, adjust your lights and settings, and patiently wait for that one interesting moment in time. However, don’t forget time is a factor and air will run out, no matter what you are shooting.

Pink River Dolphin, Brazil

JW: What are the most important considerations when shooting underwater with artificial lights?

KE: Light is always a factor in underwater photography, probably the most complicated factor. The properties of light are very different in the water from on land. It requires a lot of light to begin with, so you're adding a lot.

One challenge is there are a lot of particles in the water that you need to work around and learn how to illuminate to avoid a backscatter effect. When adding light in an underwater environment, you also add color that you don't normally see with your eyes. For example, reds that you don't really see become much more vibrant, and being able to bring that out in a picture is wonderful.

Another important consideration is how you want to use the light. If you’re lighting for macro, basically to illuminate the subject, or if you're varying aperture settings, how much depth of field do you want and how much light do you need to achieve that? Then, on larger animals, you want even light or uneven light, depending on what you're after. So, understanding the balance between ambient light, natural light, and artificial light are important.

Ellenbogen setting up with his underwater housing, Madagascar

JW: In general, how long does it take you to set up your gear and prepare for an underwater shoot?

KE: On average it takes a of couple hours to set up all my gear. This is painstakingly meticulous work, because if there's any issue, a camera would get flooded and you flood everything, so you need to be very careful. Everything needs to be clean. Plus, salt water is very corrosive, so it's very important to soak everything in fresh water after each use.

Setting up your gear isn't always done in the luxury of a home, where you have lots of space. Sometimes it’s done on boats in rough seas, where the boat could be swelling four or five feet, and everything is rocking, or I’m in a very tight, small space. Often I'm working out of my Pelican 1520 cases.

As an example of the time commitment: Typically, I start my day on a boat at 5:30 in the morning and finish around 5 p.m., then I need to clean all my gear, download images, charge batteries, and eat dinner after I return. Typically, I go to bed at 11 pm and am up at 5 am. And then I do it all over again the next day.

Spawning Tiger Grouper, Belize

JW: Do you spend a lot of time studying specific animals, and reading up on them or looking at images before a dive?

KE: Exactly, I spend time researching the animals. At this point in my career, I’m also fortunate to be able to work with a lot of leading scientists or naturalists, or people who have a lot of scientific experience, so that I can leverage some knowledge by speaking with them.

JW: You've traveled very widely and photographed some exotic and exclusive underwater destinations, but you're currently exploring the underwater world in the Boston area. Are there things that you've learned from photographing in distant, exotic locations that you find applicable to your work close to home?

KE: Along the Northeast of the United States, there's a lot of very interesting wildlife right off our coast. Unfortunately, it's much more challenging to access than other places in the world. The weather conditions are tricky, the seas are rough, and the visibility is very difficult, but I think we have extraordinary marine wildlife.

Screengrab from Ellenbogen’s 360 VR footage of a great white shark, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, Boston MA

JW: Last summer, you had a close encounter with a great white shark off the coast of Massachusetts, when you were shooting with a 360 VR camera. Was that the closest you've ever come to that large a fish?

KE: Last year, I had an amazing encounter photographing a large 16-foot, 3,000-pound great white shark 25 nautical miles off the coast of Boston using a 360˚ virtual reality camera prototype. While I did not set out to photograph this shark—when the moment happened—I did the only thing I know how to do, stabilize the camera, compose the image, and capture the moment. I have many years of photographing sharks around the world, as well as being in extreme conditions—remaining calm to capture the moment is one of the most important skills I’ve developed. This encounter, and these images are evidence that these sharks are not mindless killers but apex predators that are a symbol of a healthy ocean ecosystem.

Ellenbogen in the field with his underwater rig

JW: Finally, let me ask you this. A professional-level underwater system is very much a modular operation. In the case of photographers new to the underwater specialty, do you have any tips for taking pictures with a camera that’s economical and easy to use?

KE: The advice I would give someone just starting out is to first enjoy the feeling of being underwater and diving. A camera is an opportunity to record a moment that you like, so get a simple point-and-shoot and just get pictures that you enjoy taking because you remember the moment of being there. Be present. As your needs as a photographer and your skills as a diver grow beyond what that camera is capable of, then you build a more advanced camera and lighting system.

It's not the camera that makes the photographer, it’s the photographer who learns how to capture the image. So, it doesn't mean you need a better and fancier camera. My iPhone takes pretty good pictures. I think the real question is, can you learn how to use these tools to create an image, or find a moment when you push the shutter button? So, my recommendation for people is not to focus on the equipment, but to focus on something that's easy for them to use so they can gain success, and enjoy the feeling of being underwater and taking pictures.

About Keith Ellenbogen

Keith Ellenbogen is an Assistant Professor of Photography at SUNY/FIT. Additional affiliations include: Visiting Artist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sea Grant; Sr. Fellow, International League of Conservation Photographers; Fellow, The Explorers Club. He resides in Brooklyn, New York.

To learn more about Ellenbogen’s inspiring work in underwater conservation photography, check out his website, and friend him on Facebook or Linkedin.

For more wildlife-related news and tips, be sure to check out the rest of Wildlife Week on B&H Explora!