Saturday, July 5, 2008

Stephen Frink answers Divester questions

A while back the Divester blog asked me a few questions about photography, life in general, and predictive previsualization. As they are no longer online to link to, here is their interview:

Stephen Frink is the world's most widely published underwater photographer. Not surprisingly, he has a deep, color-rich library of underwater photos that most divers would kill for. In addition to being an "artsy" photographer, he's also quite articulate: he's written books, housing reviews, and loads of articles for Scuba Diving Magazine. He provides personal photo instruction as well as escorted photo tours. He's also an inventor. In other words, if it has to do with cameras in or near water, he's your go-to man. Pretty amazing for someone who grew up in Illinois. For this installment of 10 Questions for..., Stephen gets comfortable, a removes his sunglasses, and opens up about his work, including how barnacles helped shape his future, why HD video is so compelling, and what, exactly, "predictive previsualization" is.

Divester: How did you get interested in underwater photography?
Stephen Frink: It was a circuitous route for sure, but a few of significant forks in the road took me there. First, I suppose it was because I was a competitive swimmer as a kid. Did that for 13 years, all the way through college. So, I was always intrigued by water sports, but living in land-locked Illinois made scuba diving a bit more of a challenge. Second, I ended up in graduate school in California, so at least there was an ocean nearby and diving was an easier possibility. Third, I was working on my thesis in experimental psychology and had some spare time to take elective classes. I enrolled in Photo 101 and the magic alchemy of that first black-and-white print evolving in a tray of Dektol was instantly addictive. Fourth, I needed a part-time job while in graduate school and there was a marina in my neighborhood with a yacht hull cleaning service. I went in to ask if they needed any help, and they said I could have a job cleaning boats, but I had to be a certified scuba diver. So, even though I was already interested in photography, the underwater hook didn't happen until I finally got certified. All for 25 cents a linear foot to scrape the barnacles off of boat hulls.

Divester: What was your first rig? What do you shoot with now?
SF: Like many of us, my first rig was a Nikonos, and I shot it available light only. Since it was back in 1971, mine was the original Nikonos, bought used from a surfer in Seal Beach. I still had that camera when I moved to Kona after graduate school. I added a Vivitar 283 flash in an Ikelite housing and took roll after roll of spectacularly run-of-the-mill photos, but the water and reef was a lot more beautiful than the beach dives in Southern California, so I was having fun. Today I shoot a Canon EOS1DsMKIII (21 MP digital) in a Seacam housing. I find a combination of 16-35IImm zoom, 50mm macro, 15mm fisheye, and 100mm macro will cover most of the things I need to shoot just about anywhere. For strobes I use a combination of Ikelite DS125, Sea and Sea YS-250, and Inon Z220s. If I need more punch for wide angle or distant subjects, I'll use my Ikelite 200. Just this week I tested the new Seacam Seaflash 250 for Canon. It provides TTL (which isn't all that important in digital photography, truthfully, but is nice to have), and also strobe synchronization in rear curtain synch (which is an important feature previously unavailable except with housed Canon strobes). So, I'll buy one of those and add it to my travel kit.

Divester: What are the 3 best dive sites in the Florida Keys?
SF: The Duane shipwreck for sure. That may be the best shipwreck in this hemisphere for color and concentration of marine life. Once the much larger and more notorious Spiegel Grove was sunk as an artificial reef in Key Largo, visitation to the Duane dropped off. But, the Duane is a far more mature wreck, with more marine life. Plus, it is small enough (327-feet) so you can feel like you did it on a single dive, whereas the Spiegel Grove is so massive you have to decide which vignette of the ship you want to experience. For reef life, I like a site called Fire Coral Caves at the south end of Molasses Reef. Always great pelagic action, and the resident Goliath groupers and Atlantic spadefish are of interest. For sheer masses of marine life, I like Snapper Ledge, part of the Pickles Reef complex in the Upper Keys. I realize you asked in the context of the entire Florida Keys, but Key Largo is my home and I tend to do most of my local diving there. However, once my friends in Key West put the Vandenberg wreck on the bottom, no doubt that will edge right up there as one of the top dives in the Florida Keys. I am very optimistic they are going to do something very meaningful with that ship.

Divester: A lot of underwater photographers seem to be branching into video. Do you see yourself moving in this direction, too?
SF: I've always said "no way", assuming it was too hard to serve two masters. Plus, all the post-production tedium of video editing intimidated me. But now High Definition video shows such compelling promise, I can't ignore the possibility. Plus, the web and other media venues will continue to demand more and more video content. And finally, there are some subjects that are just more interesting when shown in motion, rather than that frozen moment in time we capture as still shooters. I don't see video as being an all-consuming passion, like stills have always been. But as HD cameras and housings get smaller, I can see where one might fit in the travel case. My biggest issue though is that there is a finite amount of time that one can spend in the water. Will I want to share even a moment of that with video as opposed to stills? I don't know, but until HD I never even considered it.

Divester: You're a master at photographing sharks. What are some things photographers should keep in mind when shooting sharks?
SF: Thanks for the kind words. I suppose the first and most obvious is "Don't get your butt bit". Actually, there's a lot you can do to avoid getting hurt, and the dive operators and shark wranglers out there today are a very savvy and safety conscious bunch (for the most part). If it is helpful, perhaps you could point your readers to this link as it does provide some good hints specific to shark photography.
Different sharks require different techniques; but a wide angle lens that focuses very quickly, a fast strobe recycle, quick reactions, and good peripheral vision are all important complements to effective shark imaging. We just finished doing the Shark Shootout at Stuart Cove's by the way, and really had some stellar photo ops. I think we really pushed the envelope in terms of access this year, and perhaps more than anything, that's what good shark photography is all about ... Getting close safely. I call it "Predictive Previsualization". Seeing in your mind's eye how the shot should look, setting all camera and strobe controls for what they should be when the shark gets close enough, and having the presence of mind to trip the shutter once the shark enters the shoot zone.

Divester: What's the toughest marine creature to shoot and why?
SF: I suppose the absurdly skittish creatures like the garden eel are the hardest. Telephoto work isn't effective in a medium 600 times more dense than air, and even a 200mm macro doesn't get you close enough for most species of garden eels. Of course some of the bigger and bolder Pacific species of garden eels allow a closer access, and are easier to fill the frame. I know how I should do it though. I'd put my Seacam on an underwater tripod pointing at the hole of a garden eel. Then, I'd get two powerful strobes so I could work at F-22 for great depth of field. Then I would prefocus manually on where the eel would come out of the hole. Finally, I would use a 20-foot remote shutter release to trigger the camera when the garden eel came back out of it's hole, and I would devote a whole dive to nothing but that so that I'd nail it during the random happenstance when the eel bobbed into focus. Why haven't I done that? A headshot of a garden eel doesn't mean that much to me, beyond the challenge. Maybe one day.

Divester: What is Frink's SOS?
SF: To understand the product you probably need to understand the motivation. I was off Peleliu (near Palau), and we had the combination of very rough seas and a strong offshore current. Once I was swept away from the protection of the rock I had the choice of coming to the surface too quickly and risking the bends, or to do a 5-minute subsurface offgass at the mercy of the current. When I finally surfaced, the dive dinghy was a distant spot on the far horizon. Just the year before a group of Japanese tourists had died at this very spot in a similar situation. Their dive boat had an engine malfunction, and they got swept farther and farther away. Then it got dark and the situation spiraled out of control. Anyway, there I was bobbing at the surface in 6-foot seas, juggling two camera systems that would be lost to the deep abyss if I let go. Now, I had to reach in the pocket of my BC and find a little safety sausage, unroll it, take my regulator out of my mouth, blow it up through a pea-shooter valve, tuck one camera under my arm, and hold the safety sausage upright so the boat could see me. Right then I decided there had to be a better, safer way.
The SOS (Surface Observation Signal) was my solution to that problem. I decided that the pneumatics of a buoyancy compensator should be able to deploy a safety sausage so a diver did not have to manually blow it up, or even hold it in their hands. I researched my options, went through an expensive and arduous process to have the concept patented, and licensed it initially to Aqua Lung. Actually, Aqua Lung/Seaquest was a wonderful collaborator on the project. BCs are their specialty, and together we came up with a way the SOS would mount in a pouch attached to the lower right dump valve. Inflating the BC and pulling a rip cord would allow the safety sausage to deploy, and a one-way valve would keep the SOS inflated even if the BC had leaks elsewhere, or was trimmed to personal comfort while waiting on the surface. This year Innovative Scuba will launch a similarly licensed product at the DEMA show called SMART (See Me And Rescue Tube). The SMART will adapt to other BCs other than just the Aqua Lung and Seaquest brands previously served. In the near future you'll also see the SOS/SMART concept directly integrated into high end BCs rather than an add-on accessory.

The things about the SOS that I find most compelling is that:
It is always there when needed.
It is so easy to deploy that a diver will be inclined to do so at the first hint of trouble, not too late when they are potentially out of sight.
It is hands-free, and doesn't require a regulator to be removed from the mouth to inflate.
It can be deployed by a buddy for a diver that might be in trouble at the surface.
When seen by the dive boat, it means "here I am and I need you to pick me up". It removes the ambiguity of seeing a diver on the surface, maybe waving an arm, and maybe being in distress. The message is instantly clear.
Of course I could be biased, but I think the SOS should be standard equipment for any diver on any live-aboard. We trust our lives to guys we don't know, driving dive skiffs we can only assume are in good repair. The least we can do is put the odds in our favor by helping them see us when we come up somewhere they aren't.

Divester: I'm sure everyone thinks you have the world's best job. What would most people be surprised to hear about your work?
SF: They think it is the world's best job because of the wonderful places we go for dive travel and the adventure of it all. But I think they might be surprised at all the backstage work that goes into managing a photo archive and effectively syndicating the work. To make this fit for me I've needed to multi-task, but ultimately it is all about underwater imaging. The subsets include my close relationship with Scuba Diving magazine, our dive travel business, stock photography representation, Seacam import business, and our studio/gallery in Key Largo. Collectively, it works. But, if the only part of the formula was traveling and taking underwater photos, I'd probably have had to get a real job years ago.

Divester: What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out in this business?
SF: I wish they'd told me (and more importantly, I'd listened), that a picture of a clownfish or a goby isn't worth getting bent over. When I was younger I was way too aggressive with the limits of the dive computer. Plus, the early dive computers were pretty aggressive as well. I can't blame the equipment though. I was too greedy about the photo-ops. I wanted more images, more chances to shoot, always. I spent too many hours in chambers as a result.
Gratefully, not lately. Nitrox availability most places reduces much of the risk, especially when dived on air tables. And modern computers are more conservative than the first ones we dived. There is no doubt sport divers can still spend plenty of time in the water very safely pursuing their UW photo ambitions. A dose of common sense regarding safe bottom time may be an important companion to an 8GB card in a digital camera.
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