Interview with Jim Catlin, underwater photographer. Photo cover by Pat Freysinger
When did you become interested in underwater photography? How did all of this start?
I first became interested in underwater photography in 2001 when working as a volunteer on a marine expedition to Fiji. I started out with a disposable film camera and was happy to be taking away some memories of the incredible underwater world I was seeing. Unfortunately, I was so eager to capture everything I saw I inevitably took the camera beyond its 15m depth limit and lost all of those first images! I vowed to return one day with a better camera!
This appeared to be like a revelation, right?
This trip really opened my eyes to the opportunities that lay ahead and soon after finishing my undergraduate studies in the UK I traveled to Egypt and the Red Sea to become a Dive Master. With superb visibility and colourful diving the Red Sea is one of the best locations for underwater photography, and although I was still taking pictures on disposable cameras, my interest grew.
What did you do then?
From Egypt to Thailand a year later, and it was here I really saw the potential for making a career from underwater photography. A good friend I was traveling with was offered a job as an underwater videographer on Koh Tao. He had invested in an underwater housing for his DSLR and was beginning to take some great shots! At the time he had limited experience filming underwater but was a competent diver and learned quickly. Although it would be a few years later until I began working in a similar role, it was his experience that showed me it was possible to make a living diving with a camera. For many people, myself included, it was not necessarily a planned progression, but one in which opportunities presented themselves at the right time and I decided to follow my passion.
Did you do particular studies then? Or specific jobs related to underwater world?
Ever since my experience in Fiji I had been interested in studying marine science, I wanted to learn more about what makes the oceans tick, so I embarked on a 1 year Master’s degree in Tropical Coastal Management. After completing my degree in 2008 studying the Bumphead Parrotfish in the Solomon Islands, I worked in the Caribbean and Egypt for various marine conservation NGO’s, carrying out marine surveys and training graduates and volunteers in marine flora and fauna identification on the reefs.
What was the most pleasant/useful topic?
During this time I learned a great deal about the behaviour of coral reef species and the symbiotic relationships that underpin the ecosystem. Initially as a method for documenting our survey work, my underwater photography really started to improve. I was still using a small point and shoot camera but through a combination of good buoyancy control and a new found knowledge of creature behaviour I was able to produce some good quality images.
Why and how did you decide to make the “big move” and work as a professional?
Since most of my jobs in the marine science field had been volunteer positions, finances eventually dictated that a change was needed. Whilst working in Egypt, friends had mentioned a dive shop on a small island in Thailand called Koh Lipe that was looking for an underwater photographer to join their team. I managed to save enough to set myself up with a new camera, housing, strobe and laptop and moved to Thailand with my girlfriend, now wife, Sarah, a dive instructor.
Was it easy there?
Koh Lipe was an interesting introduction to professional underwater photography. Strong currents, some deep dives making shooting difficult, but it forced me to learn quickly. The fact that I was the only underwater photographer working on the island probably should have told me something! We lived in a bamboo hut on the beach, which was idyllic but not an ideal environment for all my electronic equipment. I had to keep it all in an air tight box filled with silica gel packs to prevent rust from the moist sea air, and when it rained hard we would be subjected to a fine spray inside that kept everything damp!
What was the key to prosper there? And, for how long did you stay?
The key to a job like this was being able to promote yourself and learning to adapt. I have to admit, my first few weeks learning how to reduce the huge amounts of backscatter I was getting from my strobes were testing. It was a great experience overall, I had the start of a decent portfolio and we were lucky enough to do some amazing dives, including one of my top 5 dives to date, 80 minutes of Manta madness at Hin Mueng Hin Deng pinnacles. With only short seasons in Thailand due to the tropical monsoons, after 8 months it was soon time to leave and thoughts turned back to the Caribbean. I wanted to continue working as an underwater photographer and my wife and I were looking for somewhere we could enjoy a slightly higher standard of living than our beach hut in Thailand afforded. After researching places we could work we stumbled upon the Cayman Islands. It had a direct flight from the UK and seemed to be a magnet/hub for underwater photographers as well as enjoying a thriving all year round diving industry.
Which place in particular? And why?
Cathy Church’s Photo Centre caught my eye. It seemed to offer a good balance between teaching, shooting and retail opportunities, as well as having the chance to work with a true legend in the business. Cathy is one of the pioneers of underwater photography and I knew if I was to improve this was the only place to be. Since buying my first semiprofessional set up in 2012 my photography has improved greatly. I have been recognized in numerous international underwater photography competitions as well as published images in DIVER magazine in the US and the UK. This has been mostly thanks to learning from great teachers, but also from instructing others to take better pictures. When teaching I do not carry a camera myself but I learn quickly from others mistakes. In instructing them how to improve, I am constantly improving my own technique, so when the time comes to get my own system in the water, I know how I’m going to approach things. I like to try and visualize my shots as much as possible and have an idea or concept before starting the dive. I find with limited minutes underwater it’s important to try and focus on one or two techniques at a time.
Something you would like to share to beginners?
If I were to offer some advice for those looking to make a living from underwater photography, it would be that it is important to diversify. Sadly, even the best in the business don’t get all of their income from selling pictures alone. Personally I work weddings and events, as well as teaching underwater photography and selling cameras and equipment at the store. As a photographer, exposure is important but also try not to give things away for free unless it’s to help promote marine conservation! Competitions and social media are a great way to get your images noticed and a website is essential.
His pictures can be found: