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Sandy Chestnut

Jana Murray interviews Sandy Chestnut about his passion for underwater photography and his profound love and respect for animals

Q. When did you first become interested in photography and how?

A. Capturing images has been a lifelong personal passion and very much part of my professional life. It started when I was quite young and went to sea. I had a compact film camera and took it with me wherever I went to show my friends what the world was like. I bought a ZENIT E SLR, and a prime 50mmm lens second hand because I wanted more manual control and to be more creative with the images. I started taking photographs professionally as part of my (then) job as a warranty surveyor documenting oil and gas projects worldwide. This was for inclusion in formal reports. That experience honed my skill in looking for the essential elements that needed to be captured to make the image ‘work’ for someone who could not be there, and in a way that could be presented as evidence in legal disputes. It was a chance meeting with a friend that owned a NIKONOS system that hooked me on underwater photography. It was on the cusp of the introduction of digital photography and I took that route instead of film. This developed into professional photography assignments and photographing for libraries, a passion that continues to this day. 


Q. What do you most like to shoot?

A. A difficult question since it’s not so much a ‘what’ but more a general concept. I love capturing moments in time to share with others who are not able to be there themselves. I suppose this comes from years of focusing on distilling the essential elements into an image to allow others to ‘be there’. Aside from professional documentary photography where it’s the message that is important, the subjects I choose for personal pleasure can be as varied as dramatic landscapes, events or interactions with wildlife. There is no single genre and I’ll shoot anything as long as result has an emotional impact with the person viewing the image. My aim is to try to help others know what I was feeling when I took the shot, in the purest way I can. This especially true when I photograph wild animals underwater. I can show people who will never dive the unbelievable fragile beauty and richness of life, and why the animals in their natural environment have captured our hearts so much. The challenge of doing this well is more deeply satisfying than I can describe. 


Q. What are the main challenges involved in photographing underwater?

A. There are many. From the photography perspective there are challenges associated with a low or no light environment, spectrum absorption with depth, the balance of strobe power with distance, capturing balanced and creative images of fast moving wild animals clearly in a thick opaque liquid full of backscatter in a way that is interesting and conveys emotion and creates engagement. Add to this the very significant risks associated with diving, the limited time available underwater, the physical exertion and physiological impact, and the quite extreme environmental conditions that apply in the open sea. But probably the greatest challenge is getting the animals to trust me to get close enough, since I’m seldom farther than 2 metres from the subject but most often within a metre Balancing all of this of this makes taking images underwater the most challenging but satisfying form of photography I know. 


Q. What advice would you give someone considering becoming an underwater photographer? 

A. Firstly, for safety sake don’t consider taking a camera underwater until managing the diving aspect becomes second nature - almost automatic. Taking nice photographs underwater requires such concentration it can so easily distract you from the far more important requirement of staying alive and getting back to the surface safely. It’s just not worth the additional risk. Also diving experience rather than qualification is key. Secondly, it needs a high skill level using an SLR with full manual control. The process of diving, and the specialist equipment, is expensive and requires real commitment to get high quality shots rather than snapshots. To make sure the very limited time underwater is best used practice above water first. Finally, find a good mentor (as I did). This can short cut the learning process by years. 


Q. I understand you have over 3000 photos in stock libraries? What advice would you give someone wishing to make money through stock libraries?

A. Yes, we sell our photos and video on Shutterstock, Adobe and Pond5. In the early days of stock libraries there was money to be made but nowadays you need to be realistic about what you can earn. There are huge amounts of images in libraries and limited buyers, especially when economic times are hard. Images that sell best do so not because of art or because that photographer likes them - they sell because the buyer needs or wants them and is willing to part with his/her cash. That said, there is no more honest affirmation that the photographer is doing it right than when someone is willing to part with his/her hard earned cash for their images. This is a deeply satisfying part of it. Curiously, we often have no idea why people buy a particular shot. Library criteria is quite strict. It has to be to maintain quality levels. The upside is that it encourages skill development. 


Q. Please can you share three favourite photos and tell us the story behind them.

A. Because of the broad spectrum of my photographic interests and my passion for underwater photography, this is quite a difficult ask - but here goes. 

This first one reminds me of a very important lesson I learned when photographing wildlife - patience and empathy. It took me over a year to gain the trust of a herd of truly wild desert oryx enough for them to allow me to take photographs like this. I was eventually accepted into the herd enough that they would let me touch them and let their young lie down next to me. This continues to remind me not to rush anything as far as photography is concerned.

The second one is from my very first professional photography shoot for Seraph Production. I like it not because it’s particularly good but because it captures a moment in time and reminds me that clients often have unrealistic expectations. I was asked to produce 400 images in 3 hours, or 2 shots a minute in low light conditions. It was the start of a journey for me. 

I know it’s a bit tongue in cheek but the final one is more of a personal snapshot but it reminds me that while photography is a serious matter it should also always be fun. I was roped into an aerial shoot of a factory but there was no budget for a helicopter. We could only hire a tiny aircraft with just enough room for a pilot and a camera bag inside. I had to strap myself to a wing spar outside for the flight. Not only was the client happy with the shots but I was enriched by the experience of trying to take professional shots in rather unusual circumstances. It’s a memory that still makes me smile to this day. 


Q. What’s next on your photographic journey?

A. Continue to travel, developing my skills and technique, above and underwater, so that I can better share my experiences with others in a way that enriches their lives too.


This article was originally published in August 2019