Charlotte Sams is an award-winning wildlife photographer who specialises in underwater photography. Based in Cornwall, Charlotte is an advocate for British marine life, and her aim is to introduce more people to the marine life we have on our doorsteps. In this Q and A blog, I spoke to Charlotte about her inspirations and experiences as a wildlife photographer.
What inspired you to become an underwater photographer?
Having originally worked on topside wildlife photography, it was a natural progression for me to move under water. Like many others, I feel a strong affinity for the ocean, and have always enjoyed being in or around it. Once I learned to dive, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t tried it sooner, and I suppose this was one of the starting points for me. The more I learn about the underwater world, the more my love for underwater photography progresses – so I know I’m on the right path.
What do you love most about marine or freshwater life and why?
It constantly surprises you. As with all wildlife photography, you can never predict what your subject is going to do, but species seem even more endearing and beautiful under water. The challenges of underwater photography, such as currents, weather and limited visibility, make it even more satisfying when you come across a good subject. I love the sense of peace of being in open water – it’s often very calming and surreal.
Can you tell us about one of the most challenging photos you’ve taken and how you overcame this?
I was in Egypt, photographing coral while night diving. Although coral isn’t a tricky subject that constantly moves around, there were lots of technical challenges with this photo. Discovering which species produced their own light was fantastic but I had to work in almost complete darkness; a very surreal situation. In one hand, I was holding a weighty housing with a heavy macro lens, strobes and all. And in the other, I had a UV torch to light my subject. So I was using one hand to aim the narrow torch beam, and the other to keep the camera steady and fire the shutter at the same time. Trying to do this in the dark, using the narrowest depth of field possible, and keep my buoyancy spot on was a big challenge. It’s a situation where your breathing and buoyancy is really tested, as well as control of your equipment with limited movement.
Can you tell us about your project to document Marine Conservation Zones in the UK and why you’re doing this?
This is something I feel very passionate about. I’d been following the progress of the Marine Conservation Zones (MCZ’s) for a while and couldn’t understand why they were getting so little exposure. So I decided to try and create some publicity for MCZ’s and British marine life myself, using the power of images. Conservation grows through education, and images are a great way to do this. Our seas need more protection but we can’t expect people to care about our oceans if they don’t know what’s in them. Through this project, I’m trying to bring the underwater world to those who can’t access it, and highlight the habitats and species that are of particular significance to the MCZ’s.
You recently photographed an English chalk stream under water for WWF – what was this experience like?
I generally stick to marine environments, so it was exciting to do something different. Although the freshwater species were quite uncooperative at times! The chalk stream I was working in was beautiful, and having the opportunity to photograph in such good water clarity made the whole experience more enjoyable. The stream produced scenes from underneath the water level that I never would have expected. I felt privileged to view these underwater landscapes, and tried to convey the variety and atmosphere throughout my images.
Why do you think it’s important to protect the UK’s chalk streams and rivers?
Like our seas, we take our chalk streams and rivers for granted. These special habitats are a lot scarcer across the globe than most people realise, and they deserve our protection. Our increased use of water is contributing to the decline in chalk stream and rivers, and pollution is damaging their health, meaning rare freshwater species are struggling to survive. It’s important to protect and preserve these habitats and the life that relies upon them. Chalk streams and rivers are icons of the British countryside, and I can’t imagine what life would be like without them.
What are your top tips for budding underwater photographers with little equipment but bags of enthusiasm?
There’s no denying it, underwater photography is hard. You need to feel comfortable in the water before you worry too much about camera equipment. As with all photography, it’s about persistence and perseverance. The more time you spend shooting in the water, the quicker you’ll improve. Knowing how to work around the environment and the wildlife is more important than owning the latest equipment. Technology is constantly upgrading and improving, but knowing how to use what you’ve got is key. So try experimenting and find ways to use your equipment to the best of your ability.
Do you have a question about wildlife photography, or even a general question for Kate. Leave us a comment.