Paul Colley served in the UK Royal Air Force for 37 years, achieving the rank of 2 star general. His mainstream career was as a top gun instructor and he flew many aircraft including the F4 Phantom and Tornado F3, eventually commanding one of the UK’s most famous fighter squadrons and flying nearly 40 combat missions in the Middle East. Later in his military career he commanded a task force supporting conflict resolution in war-torn Darfur. More recently he has been a global security analyst with a reputation for strategic thinking, rising through the ranks of a government think tank to become its director, after which he retired to pursue new careers, including his real passion, which is underwater photography. For his services to UK defence, he was appointed, in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list for 2012, to be a Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Bath. He is now increasingly well-published as an underwater photographer and achieving international recognition for his new work, culminating in awards this year of a gold medal for the best image of a shipwreck, and two runner up positions, all in an annual international competition that had 12,000 entries from 123 countries.
Paul is an active member of the British Society of Underwater Photographers and holds the first level of distinction for photography with the Royal Photographic Society. He currently has three projects in hand: one to publish a book about the marine life of Ascension Island in the remote South Atlantic; another to write a book about advanced techniques for underwater photography; and finally his work to achieve the next level of distinction with the Royal Photographic Society. You can explore his work at MPColley.com
Let’sBeWild: As a former commander of a fighter squadron, you’ve experienced adventure both in the skies and beneath the waves. For those who have never experienced the magic of diving, can you describe the experience and what makes it so special to spend time underwater?
Interestingly, there are some similarities between military flying and diving. In both cases you are equipped with life support systems for environments in which you could not otherwise survive and, until you are used to them, it can feel restrictive and uncomfortable. Your attention can be distracted by what you are wearing and trying to do. These small things can prevent you enjoying the experience to the maximum extent. But, as with all things new, once you become accustomed to what at first seems an alien and indeed potentially hostile environment, your focus shifts away from cockpit (or your scuba gear) and onto the world around you. In both cases it is spectacular and rewarding: Pilot Officer Gillespie Magee described taking his aircraft into the long delirious burning blue in his most famous poem High Flight. The image has a strong resonance for me in the deep cool blues of the oceans. And the sensation of drift diving is not that unlike flying, especially in a strong current. And you can experience weightlessness in both environments! But I love two things more than anything else when diving, which you cannot experience in the air. The first is the extraordinary amount of marine life and its sheer diversity. Like a thousand other schoolboys, I was introduced to it by Jacques Cousteau in his remarkable (for the time) window into the silent underwater world. I never cease to be fascinated and captivated by it. The second striking thing is the serenity. It is not quiet per se, but once you become familiar with the unusual sounds of the underwater world, you can experience an isolation from the noises and voices that generally tend to fill our lives. It is something that I value hugely, because you can truly escape into a world where nobody will trouble you and it is immensely relaxing. And because divers travel underwater at speeds rarely exceeding single digit knots, it is somewhat easier to take in the spectacular scenery than when flying at speeds in excess of a thousand miles an hour!
Let’sBeWild: When and where did you first learn to dive?
I first learned to dive with my wife in Jamaica at the turn of the century. It was a great thing, because we have progressed fairly evenly in our experience and qualifications, and I now have the perfect buddy. We thought it amazing at the time that we could stay underwater for 20 minutes using a 12 litre tank of air. We now routinely squeeze over an hour out of one tank and I’ve even managed just shy of 2 hours in the pursuit of macro images. My wife enjoys diving as much as I do, although she prefers to use her memory, which is exceptional, rather than a camera to capture the underwater experience.
Let’sBeWild: You’re the president of the Royal Air Force Sub Aqua Association. Can you tell us a bit about the association, how you became involved, and what your duties as president entail?
The Royal Air Force Sub-Aqua Association promotes and supports sub-aqua diving as an adventurous training activity to help the personal development of young people in uniform. As with all adventurous training, sub-aqua diving involves controlled exposure to risk, but it also helps to provide challenging experiences, which can foster and develop leadership, teamwork, self-confidence, initiative and self-reliance, all of which are vital attributes for the kind of people that I work with. Adventurous training expeditions and activities are also a great way for people to unwind on their return from arduous duties: it is an excellent form of psychological decompression. I became involved, because in my thirty seven years of Royal Air Force service, I had been given so many excellent opportunities by others to pursue adventurous training and I massively appreciated its value. It helped me to achieve what I have. So I wanted to give something back to the next generation of youngsters in particular. The appointment of President is entirely voluntary and the main task is to encourage and support those who wish to learn how to dive, to help those who undertake the more challenging expeditions, and to reward the high achievers for their services to diving. Sometimes I will just accompany groups as their photographer to document an expedition. But I am also a reasonably experienced dive leader, so I take my turn to lead some of the diving activities.
Let’sBeWild: You are an accomplished, award winning underwater photographer. How did you first get interested in underwater photography and how does it differ from other types of photography?
I had been diving for a few years and on a trip to the Red Sea saw one of those cheap disposable underwater cameras in a shop. It was a traditional film camera in a plastic box that was only designed for snorkelling down to a few metres. I shot the whole roll of film, mainly on Parrotfish swimming under a pier, and was hugely excited waiting for the results to be printed. I was so disappointed in my results, because I had failed to replicate the beautiful colours and I immediately set about researching why. I read Martin Edge’s superb book on underwater photography and things started to become clear. I then bought a digital compact camera and started to get some better results. But I was still nowhere near the standard of those many amazing images in coffee table books and I was thirsty to know more. My dear wife recognised the passion building in me and booked me a day of one-to-one instruction with Martin Edge. That was the moment it took off for me. And Martin made the deliberate mistake of letting me handle his SLR camera during our swimming pool tutorial session. That completely hooked me and when I asked Martin to write an inscription in my copy of his book, his words were prophetic. He indicated to my wife that this could be an expensive venture. How right he was. But like many other people I work hard for a reason and I was able to make the critical investment. With a Nikon D300 and Subal housing in my hands only a few months later, I knew that my erstwhile hobby was about to turn into something more serious. That all happened between 2006 and 2008 and I have since been on photo workshops with another top photographer, Alex Mustard, who really takes the final credit for extending my knowledge, competence and appetite to strive for award winning images. But in truth I’m still actually quite new to the game and have much yet to learn and achieve.
Underwater photography differs from other types of photography in two principal ways, but the most obvious first point is that the camera must have a waterproof housing. This can make operating the camera more difficult, but the very best housings have superb ergonomics that allow you to exploit the full functionality of both compact and SLR cameras. The first principal difference is that water attenuates light and colour at an alarming rate. You lose the reds and oranges in the first few metres and then all of the other colours except blues and greens, which tend to persist at even the deepest of typical sport diving depths. This means that natural light photography is much more demanding, and restricted to the first 15-18 metres in good lighting conditions if you wish to bring out the true colours. So underwater photographers tend to use coloured filters or powerful flash lights (called strobes) to bring back the colours. But then you are immediately up against the second principal problem. All water, no matter how clear it looks, has suspended particles in it that reflect the bright light of the strobes back to the camera sensor. Images can look like they are engulfed in a snow storm It is what photographers commonly call backscatter, so the lighting techniques are very important to avoid this phenomenon. But perhaps the biggest difference is that you are having to dive safely as well as take photographs, so task loading is a big issue; something that we’ll discuss later, I think.
Let’sBeWild: Tell us a bit about your underwater photography setup, technique, and post processing. Do you enter the water with a specific mental image of particular shots you want to take, or are you opportunistic, taking pictures of whatever you encounter that is of interest?
Right now I use a Nikon D300 in a Subal housing with two Inon Z240 strobes and a variety of both wide angle and macro lenses and the appropriate port systems. For wide angle, you need a dome-shaped glass or perspex window through which the lens can look out into the water column, and for macro photography a simple tube to protect the lens, ending in a flat glass window. My toolbox for a typical overseas assignment would include Nikon AFS 60mm and 105mm macro lenses with teleconvertors and diopters to increase magnification where required, plus a trusty Tokina 10-17mm fisheye for wide angle work. It is a very flexible set up that can take images of big reefs and big animals like sharks, down to the many tiny, but beautiful critters that inhabit coral reefs. I’m on the cusp of buying a wider format camera like the Nikon D4 or D800. As my images have got better, I do less and less post processing, but I always shoot raw images and usually tweak the colour saturation and contrast in Lightroom software. For printing I will adjust the sharpness as well. I also like to crop slightly to optimise less-than-perfect compositions; I always strive for good compositions, but still fail to get it just right on many occasions.
As all of the good underwater photographers will tell you, it is absolutely fine to take opportunistic photographs during a dive, and we can all do that to an extent, but if you want to create really good images, you must plan it well and dive with specific objectives. It means that you are generally looking for a pre-defined subject, under the best possible lighting conditions, with the right camera set up in hand and a clear idea of what you wish to achieve. You can get the occasional great image from a general drift along a reef, but the serious photographer moves slowly and methodically underwater, looking for his subject and then working it hard to get the technical aspects perfect, whilst also concentrating on great composition. It helps to some knowledge of your subject’s behaviour; wild animals can be skittish and will not tolerate people who are not sympathetic to their environment and behaviour. Good images generally come from careful thought and preparation before the dive and concentration during it, not from drive-by lucky snapshots. But if you wish to enjoy the dive for its own sake and just take snapshots, it is a perfectly valid approach and many divers love to do just that.
Let’sBeWild: Even what may appear to the casual observer to be a simple underwater photograph can be quite difficult to capture. Are there any photos that you have taken that were especially hard to capture?
The most difficult image that I have created recently looks remarkably simple, because I did it in only six inches of water. It is a split-level image, half in the water and half out. I love these images and I think that they appeal to a very wide audience, because most people can relate to looking into shallow water or they have been snorkelling, if not full-on diving. The image that I have in mind is of my young nephew looking into a rock pool, where a starfish was walking across the sandy floor. I wanted to capture him above the surface and the starfish below in one image. It is simplicity itself as a concept, but I can assure you that it is a very difficult image to pull off. One of the big problems is that the different densities of air and water create problems for the photographer in both focusing on both subjects and lighting evenly across two very different mediums. For example the water, even only a few inches of it, absorbs so much more light than air, and it is thus easy to hugely over-expose the upper half of the image, even if the underwater part looks good.
Let’sBeWild: Having been coached by top underwater photographers like Alex Mustard and Martin Edge, what underwater photography advice have you received that has proved invaluable to you, and do you have any tips that you would share with beginning underwater photographers?
Both of these superb photographers and instructors have been an endless source of knowledge and inspiration for countless photographers. Martin teaches the basic principles so well. He tells you to get very close to your subject, which eases so many of the lighting problems. And to get the eyes of any creature that you photograph in focus; it is what we are naturally drawn to when looking at an image. Also to create a good neutral background to make the subject pop out, by using a shallow depth of field (a wide aperture) to help de-clutter typical reef backgrounds, or even better to set the subject against open water and shoot upwards to bring the texture of the water surface into view. That is what tends to make many pictures so obviously underwater images. Alex is a master of understanding and teaching how to use or blend the two types of light, namely natural and artificial. When using both light sources, for example in close-focus wide-angle photography, he stresses that the trick is to make everything look natural. It means taking great care with the position of your strobes and the strength of artificial light that comes from them. Jacques Cousteau captured the idea in beautifully succinct prose: he called it ‘painting with a kiss of light’. I have also learned to almost invariably use manual modes to take complete control of the shutter, aperture and light source. It not only gives you more control over the outcome; it makes you understand much more clearly how all of the technical parameters interact. Alex also encourages experimentation and developing a personal style; something that I’m still working hard on.
Let’sBeWild: Can you tell us about your most memorable underwater experience?
One of the great things about diving is that memorable experiences come along frequently. There are so many, it is difficult to single one out. But I guess that photographing stingrays in Grand Cayman must be way up there on my list. It is a very unusual experience, because the rays have adopted – over several years – what seems to be unnatural behaviour. They gather to feed in a very small area over a shallow sandbar, which is perfect for a photographer, because the lighting conditions are superb and the animals come to you. This all began when fishermen used to clean their catch before landing it ashore. The rays worked out that it was an opportunity for an easy meal. But it is such a spectacular sight that the feeding was soon staged for tourists, albeit very carefully controlled. The rays gather in huge numbers and actually school together, which is very rare. They approach closely, often gently nuzzling their super-soft skins against you in the hope of being rewarded with a squid tit-bit. I have dived or snorkelled that sand bar quite a few times now and never get tired of it. But another memorable experience was without a camera. It was the only time since I learned how to use an underwater camera that I ever dived without one. I was finishing some deep dive training in the Red Sea and thought that I had better concentrate on the training, so I left my camera on board the dive boat. When we settled on the sea bed for the diving exercise, two huge thresher sharks came out of the deep blue, circled us and made some very close passes. It is a rare event; I had never seen one before and have never seen one since. They are extraordinary-looking and graceful creatures that move with a sinuous sweep of a long and elegant tail that is as big as their bodies. It was absolutely magical, but I later cursed not having my camera and have never done a dive without one since. Just in case.
Let’sBeWild: Does underwater photography add an additional element of difficulty and danger to diving, due to the risk of distraction and disorientation? What preventative measures can underwater photographers take to stay safe?
The short answer is yes. It is very easy to become task-oriented and to forget the basic skills that you need to survive underwater, for example frequent checks of your air supply. But the preventative measures are easy enough. You have to recognise that diving is always priority number one. If the dive is getting difficult for any reason, such as fighting a current, it is time to stop taking images and start giving your full attention to diving. And you cannot be a good underwater photographer unless you are a master of buoyancy and all the other drills and skills. The answer is to become a good diver first so that your safety routines become second nature. I think that my days flying served me well in this respect; an ability to multi-task without getting stressed is a great skill, which I had been taught very well as an airman. And my non-photographing and very patient buddy is an invaluable safety aid!
Let’sBeWild: As a diver and underwater photographer, you are able to see firsthand the changes taking place in the oceans and reefs around the world. What do you feel are the biggest manmade threats that the ocean currently faces and how can individuals make a difference?
The biggest threat is quite obviously mankind. I think that very few people set out to wilfully destroy an environment, so it helps to understand different perspectives if we are to find solutions. I have seen the effects of overfishing in the Mediterranean and it is stark. But trying to reason with somebody who needs to feed his family can be counter-productive. Sustainable policies are a good approach, but that needs to be driven by governments who must answer to their electorates. I’m a great believer in marine reserves; there are so many examples of their positive impact, but we have far too few of them. I was once the director of a UK Government think tank and one of the subjects that we studied a lot was climate change, which is having major effects on the world’s oceans. The evidence can be presented in different ways, but I have little doubt that it is being created by, or at the very least exacerbated by, human activity. One of the things that people cannot argue about is the waste that is being poured into our oceans, particularly plastics. It is creating extraordinary damage and, even in relatively well protected areas, I have seen the effects. Although the international efforts to grip these problem are awash with different interest groups and the associated frustrations in taking meaningful action, individuals can do something about it. We all have a voice and we can all adopt the right kind of behaviours. Small contributions from large numbers of people do make a difference. There are lots of avenues. As a photographer, I let some environmental agencies use my images of endangered species, such as the Bluefin Tuna, free of charge, especially where it is obvious that they are not-for-profit charitable organisations trying to make a difference. I particularly value the work of agencies like the Center for Biological Diversity. And I think that education, particularly of the younger generation that will inherit the problems that we have created, is a winning strategy. In that respect, modern social media is both wide ranging and powerful and I see people using it to great effect. We can all teach somebody something and I’m a great believer in persistent education and persuasion, but without getting too emotive, no matter how passionate we might be about something. Whilst I have huge respect for those who believe in direct action for a just cause, it is not my way; it can sometimes be marginalised, no matter how altruistic the case might be. Yet for all that we must surely worry about the great damage being done to our oceans, I also think that it helps to be optimistic. Going round with a smile on your face and enthusing about the many positive aspects of the underwater world is by far the best way to get more people involved in it. Those people tend to become the most natural conservationists and advocates.