Engbretson Underwater Photography

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News From Behind the Scenes at Engbretson Underwater Photo and Stories about the Freshwater Environments We Visit.

Friday, June 28, 2019

The Best Thing About Being An Underwater Photographer

What's it like to be a professional underwater photographer? It’s like every day is Saturday!  

Sometimes in the mornings when I’m driving to a lake I plan to shoot in, I’ll see people on their way to work.  Inside the other cars are guys wearing suits and ties holding cellphones in one hand and spilling coffee from the other.  Often they have scowls on their faces.  The stress and despair is evident in their zombie-like gazes and they haven’t even arrived at the office yet.  Meanwhile, I’m in shorts and sandals and heading to my office: the lake bottom.  I never forget that I was just like them not too long ago, and I feel so grateful and appreciative of the life I have now. I’m really lucky to love what I do, and do what I love.  I wouldn’t trade places with anybody.  

The early days were tough. I began taking pictures professionally in 1993.  I was disillusioned with my previous occupation (radio broadcasting) and was looking for some kind of business where I could set my own hours and be my own boss.  I had no training or education in photography whatsoever and knew nothing about the business aspects of shooting, selling and marketing stock images.  But I had a passion for my subject matter that made up for my lack of experience and knowledge. I loved fish, and I just wanted to show people images of common freshwater fish that perhaps they’d never seen before.  Seeing underwater Images of freshwater fish in their natural habitat were almost as rare then as they continue to be today.  I was motivated by three things:  1) I wanted to create a self-sustaining income that would replace my regular 9-5 hamster wheel job, 2) I knew it had to something that I enjoyed, had fun with, and would never regard as work, and 3) I wanted to generate in others the same kind of awe and appreciation I had for fish, and I thought that through photos I might be able to do that.     
During those humble early years, it was difficult to even find a mentor. There were many underwater photographers, but none who worked in freshwater with the subjects I was interested in.  One guy who did a little of the kind of photography I wanted to do was Doug Stamm.  He became a role model to me because of the way he was able to sell and market so many of his images to the same venues that I would later work for.  I remember going to the magazine stand and counting the number of covers and inside pictures he was selling in any given month and being astounded.  One of my goals then was to generate an income I could live from, so seeing what Doug was doing gave me hope that it was indeed possible. 

I’ve gotten so much help over the years.  I can’t begin to tell you about all the different individuals who have made it all possible.  From fisheries biologists who share information with me about lakes and fish behavior to lake-front property owners who grant me access to their lakes and suggest specific places to check out. There’s been family members who gave me financial support in the early years that made it possible for me to spend time shooting instead of “working”.  There’s literally been hundreds of people who certainly share a part in my success.  

But not every association was useful. Because of the uniqueness of what I was doing, it was difficult to find a group of people to relate to.  I dive underwater to photograph fish, but I’ve found I have little in common with either photographers or divers.  The photography people just wanted to talk about cameras.  The scuba diving people just wanted to talk about dive computers or dive vacations.  Nobody wanted to talk about fish.  I felt very alone until I began meeting professional fisheries biologists. Those were the friendships that were naturally harmonious. I'd finally found a group of people, who like me, could talk about fish all day long.

I'm often asked what advice I have for aspiring underwater photographers. I think today it's very difficult to make a living in this field. The saltwater environments are really saturated with photographers, many of whom have the world’s best locations in their back yards.  It would be extremely difficult to compete with them.  They actually live in the same places that others spend thousands of dollars and travel thousands of miles to get to.  How can you possibly compete with someone who has access to places like that 51 weeks of the year more than you do?  Freshwater however, is a different situation altogether.  Freshwater material is an area nobody is covering, so there is no competition.  On the down side, the demand for freshwater images isn’t as great either.  I’m hoping to draw more awareness to freshwater environments so that more people will become aware of the importance of these ecosystems.
I think there’s always room for more good photographers, and I think interest in underwater subjects will continue.  I encourage beginners to learn about their subjects.  Become an expert on the life and behavior of your animal subjects.  Become a steward of their habitat.  Think of yourself as a PR person for that particular animal.  If you do this, you’ll show them in the best light, you’ll be mindful of disturbing them, and your work will automatically show these creatures at their most magnificent.  Don’t sell pictures.  Instead, fall in love with your subjects and sell that love!  And instead of exploiting them for personal profit, you’ll become partners with them in calling attention to their inherent beauty and value in the ecosystem, and the special problems each one of them face in an increasingly crowded world.   You know, the freshwater world has never had an ambassador in the same way the oceans had Jacques Cousteau.  Perhaps, all of us who spend time in lakes can collectively be some sort of equivalent to that.  At least that's my dream.
Speaking of dreams-  I often refer to the small group of freshwater photographers that my stock photo agency represents as the “dream team”. I look for people who have a genuine interest in freshwater subjects.  They’re not as glamorous and sexy as whales, dolphins and sharks, so very few people are attracted to them.  I look for people who can competently take a picture and get it technically right.  And I look for people who are going to be shooting freshwater with some regularity and frequency.  Anybody can get a picture here or there, but I want someone who’s going to be generating new material often.  That essentially means someone who's spending a whole lot of time in freshwater.  
I see how miserable many people are at their daily jobs, and I still remember what it was like to live that way.  I’m thankful and appreciative for what I have and the niche I’ve carved out.  I guess my only goals are to be able to get up tomorrow morning and do the same thing all over again.  For people lucky enough to have a career that brings them genuine joy, it’s indescribable.  You’d do it for free because you’re so passionate about it.  It’s like being on vacation every day.  When there’s no distinction between work and play, you know you’re there.  What more could anyone want?