A photo can be an inspiration. It can lead us to travel to far off places or, in the case of a scuba diver, to deep dark ocean regions. This month we feature a professional diver who spent almost two years filming and photographing awe-inspiring underwater scenes in the Maldives. Meet Christian Loader, and read his tips for Maldives photography and his favorite dive spots.
This large Honeycomb Moray (Gymnothorax favagineus) could often be seen in a cavern on a reef in South Male Atoll, Maldives, and on this dive it took off across the reef searching for its next meal. As I swam with the current to keep up with it, I wanted to capture the undulating motion of the moray as it slithered around the rocky seabed. I opted for a slower shutter speed and small aperture to capture the motion, and powerful strobe-light which brought out the beautiful colour of the moray. Photo: Christian Loader
Exclusive Interview with Christian Loader, professional wildlife photographer and Maldives dive enthusiast:
Q1: What made you get into underwater photography and photography in general?
Christian: I always enjoyed taking photos years ago, just using a small compact camera. Just looking at dive magazines and watching nature documentaries, I knew that underwater photography and filming was something I really wanted to get into. When I left the UK in 2007 and became a diving instructor in Malaysia I started underwater photography using a compact camera, and very quickly wanted to concentrate entirely on underwater photography instead of teaching diving, and make a career out of it.
Every time I taught a diving course, teaching skills in the shallows, I wondered what photos I was missing out on elsewhere! When I joined Scubazoo in late 2007, I learnt underwater filming for the first time, and progressed with underwater photography and filming from then on, and in 2012, I turned my attention entirely to still photography.
Q2: How would you describe your style of photography and what you want to “say” with your photographs?
Christian: My style is varied, and I find it difficult to attribute myself with one particular style. I feel my macro photography can be quite complex, using specialised equipment and techniques, whereas the style of my wide-angle photography is often quite simple.
For the first few years that I was doing underwater photography I simply wanted to capture the ‘beauty’ of the diverse marine life big and small, and that is what I tried to convey in my images. More and more now though I try to tell a story with my images – whether it is simply about the behaviour or habitat of a certain animal, an interaction with people or other animals, or quite often images with a conservation theme or message that hits home to the viewer.
Q3: When did you first go to the Maldives and what attracted you to go there? Was photography a motivation or an afterthought?
Christian: I first came to the Maldives at the end of 2007. I had always dreamed of diving in such an exotic location, and very luckily my first job working for Scubazoo was a long-term position as an underwater videographer and photographer at a luxury resort in Baa Atoll. Underwater filming was the sole focus of my time in the Maldives, and I still can’t believe how lucky I was to be able to dive and film all day everyday there for nearly 2 years! I gradually got more and more hooked onto still photography, especially after moving to another resort in South Male Atoll for another year.
Feeding formation of majestic manta rays at Hanifaru. Photo: Christian Loader
Q4: What are some of the challenges of underwater photography and how do you overcome them? What are some of the most challenging things you have photographed?
Christian: Lighting is one of the biggest challenges, and to overcome this I use 2 powerful strobes, and have a powerful spotting/focus light attached to my housing as well. The focus light, or an extra strobe can come in very useful for additional, creative ‘off camera’ lighting. In many shallow, sunlit conditions then using just natural sunlight can be the very best option, shooting in manual white balance mode, resulting in stunning, natural colours of the animal or reef for example.
The most challenging things I’ve ever photographed are probably Blue Whales in Sri Lanka – just being able to get in the water in the right spot to even just see one underwater is the biggest part of the challenge, because they are such shy animals. Underwater, as one passes below quickly, it’s like photographing a huge, blue submarine against a blue background, which is another big challenge.
The other most challenging thing I’ve photographed is the ‘sardine run’ in South Africa. The chaotic action, and tough conditions was something I was very unfamiliar with, having spent most of my diving life in the warm tropics!
Q5: Where are your favourite spots, above and below the surface, to take photographs in the Maldives? What makes them stand out?
Christian: One of my favourite areas for photography above and below the surface is around Baa Atoll – ‘Muthafushi Thila’ is one of the most colourful dive sites I’ve ever seen, with the most anemones too, and Muthafushi Island is a cliché picture-perfect uninhabited Maldivian island. The famous Hanifaru Bay on the right day with the right tide can result in a sight that has to be seen to be believed, with hundreds of Manta Rays feeding on plankton together in this small bay, and even a few Whale Sharks too if you’re lucky. In Baa Atoll, the island Kendhoo is my favourite spot for topside photography, with a significant historical importance as being the birthplace of Islam in the Maldives. The chain of islands next to Kendhoo offers one of the best aerial photos in the Maldives to be taken from a passing seaplane.
Male is a small, crowded, bustling city, and if you have a day to spare then there are some good photo opportunities to be had, especially around the fish market early in the morning.
South Ari Atoll has some of the best dive sites in the country, and one of my other favourite dive sites is ‘Kandooma Thila’ in South Male Atoll, where on the right tide you can be surrounded by Grey Reef Sharks at a ‘cleaning station’, and then finish the dive on the top of this large thila bursting with colour, schools of fish, resident Green Turtles, and passing Manta Rays.
Q6: What is it like to stay in the Maldives? Tell us about your average day when you’re there.
Christian: Working on the resorts and a liveaboard, I never got to enjoy Maldivian resorts as an actual guest, but it was like living and working in paradise! My typical day there would be an early start at 7am and get ready for the first dive of the morning, setting up my camera and underwater housing, then meeting guests on the dive boat and deciding which dive group I would be following and filming for the day. After the first dive we would come back to the resort for breakfast, and then a second morning dive followed. If I had got some decent footage from the morning dives I would spend the rest of my day in my office editing the guests dive videos, and then prepare a screening of the video for them in the bar in the evening after dinner, which was a great time to have a few drinks and chat with guests.
The video screenings were always popular, attracting others to come and watch and inspire new guests to come diving, especially when we were lucky and had dolphins, mantas, or whale sharks in the videos. Aside from the occasional staff party, or a long night in the bar socialising with guests, I usually got to bed early, tired out from all the fun in the sun!
Q7: What is one thing you wish you knew before you started taking photographs in the Maldives? Do you have any tips for visitors trying to capture their moments in the region?
Christian: If you’re a novice underwater photographer and shooting with a small compact camera, then definitely invest in a strobe and also a wide-angle attachment lens. The Maldives is known for its larger marine life such as mantas, sharks, and turtles, so a wide-angle lens is essential.
For visitors trying to capture moments underwater, don’t let the camera take over (or ruin!) your dive. At times, just sit back and enjoy nature’s show, rather than getting frustrated with camera settings etc.
Q8: What technology/software/camera gear do you use to capture and process your stunning tropical & underwater scenes?
Christian: I use a Nikon D800 DSLR camera with various macro and wide-angle lenses, inside a Nauticam underwater camera housing, and I use Inon strobes. For viewing and editing photos & videos I use a Macbook Pro, and for my photo editing I use Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop.
Giant jawfish, Malaysia scuba diving. Photo: Christian Loader
Q9: If your camera was to get stuck in one mode or setting, what one would you hope it would be?
Christian: Personally, I’d hope it was stuck in Manual mode, because then I would have complete control over all the settings! Manual mode is what most budding photographers should get comfortable with.
Q10: What projects do you have in the pipeline that we can look forward to seeing?
Christian: We’ve just completed our latest book “The Green Heart of Sabah”, being published in November 2014, and for this we’ve been shooting wildlife in the rainforests around Borneo for the last 3 months which has been very exciting and a real eye-opener for us, taking us out of the ocean and into the jungle!
Christian Loader (31) is a professional wildlife photographer from the UK, working for the renowned Scubazoo Images based in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, which specializes in underwater filming and photography.
Christian and his colleagues at Scubazoo have published their very own stunning coffee table books “Maldives – The Underwater Kingdom” in 2011, and most recently in 2014 “Sensational Seas of Sabah”, showcasing the magnificent marine life of these two exotic destinations with breathtaking underwater photography. Scubazoo’s latest book “The Green Heart of Sabah”, published in November 2014, explores the landscapes and wildlife of the lush rainforests of Borneo.
While shooting various projects around the world, Christian’s images have been published in, and graced the covers of a number of worldwide magazines and publications, and his images have also won several prestigious awards in international competitions.
You can find more of Christian’s work here:
Bring out the photographer in you!
If you’re looking for photo opportunities above and below the water surface, check out the latest deals from Maldives Dive Travel. Recently released: couples will get great value from the Askani Couples Deal. Check out this awesome deal here.