Deeper levels


Award-winning underwater photographer Christian Vizl has been documenting ocean life in black and white for over three decades. His images tell myriad stories of beauty, passion and conservation.

Oceanographic Magazine (OM): How did you become a photographer? Have you always been fascinated with photography?

Christian Vizl (CV): Ever since I was a kid, as far back as I can remember, I have been fascinated with the ocean. I dreamt about what lay beneath the waves and imagined how it would look if suddenly all the water vanished, leaving all the animals and living beings under the surface exposed. In this way, I could walk inside the ocean and see them all, suspended for a moment in time and space. I think my photography is ultimately a reflection of that childhood dream.

OM: Why did you specialise in black and white photography?

CV: Photography is all about light and, in my opinion, it is the single most important aspect when it comes to creating appealing, inspiring and touching images. Beyond the technical aspects, what I find most important is how I apply and manipulate the light that is available in order to create pictures with dramatic effect, carrying depths of emotion and using contrast and tonalities as a means to emphasise form and structure of the scenery. In my opinion, black and white photography is the best means to accomplish this. So, I focus on the emotional impact of the final shot that will connect with the people seeing these images on a deeper level. Just as a poet uses words to create poetry, a photographer uses light to create images. When I’m underwater taking pictures, one of my main goals is to create poetic images through the use of light.

OM: What do you want to achieve with your photography?

CV: I believe photography is capable of serving humanity, of promoting empathy and initiating change. My main purpose as a photographer is to create poetic images that show the incredible beauty of these animals, while knowing that they carry the power of changing our perception and spark the love and compassion that we all have inside us. If we want to have a future on this planet, we need to understand that our lives are completely interdependent with all living beings, and our own well-being is directly linked to the well-being of these animals. As Dr Sylvia Earle stated, “No blue no green, if the oceans die, we die”.

OM: What makes underwater photography in black and white so special?

CV: I think it is only a matter of personal choice. All mediums can be equally special. I just love the profound variety of feelings I experience when I see a monochrome image.

OM: What are the difficulties when taking black and white photos in the ocean?

CV: They are pretty much the same as when I shoot in colour. I think the only difference is the importance of training your photographic eye to ‘see’ or envision how the object you want to photograph will look in black and white. The approach to your surroundings is different only in your state of mind, in your visualisation of your surroundings.

OM: Tell us more about your approach to underwater imagery. Do you take colour images and then process them into black and white or do you take black and white images from the start?

CV: I take them in colour due to technical reasons. Due to the way the camera sensor captures the light, you will have a greater range and depth of contrast if your raw image is in colour. I then change them into black and white in postproduction.

OM: Tell us about your favourite image that you have taken? What makes it special to you?

CV: It’s very hard to choose one. I like images that connect to a broader audience because I like to believe that among so much suffering going on in the world these days, the people that see my images can at least get a few happy moments and positive feelings out of them. I hope that my photos take their minds off their daily struggles and create the opportunity to reflect on love, compassion and interconnection within this planet.

OM: What is in your underwater camera bag?

CV: Currently, I rely on a Nikon D810 with a 15mm fisheye lens, a 16-35mm lens, two Inon strobes and an Aquatica housing.

OM: How do you use light in your images? 

CV: I definitely prefer natural light. I believe that you can create the most beautiful and interesting images simply by getting the right angle and the right time of day. However, sometimes I also use strobes – mainly to add some light to my main subject when photographed against the sun.

OM: In what way is the approach to taking black and white photos underwater different than taking colour images under the surface?

CV: Technically, it is the same but the creative and visual approach to your subject is radically different. The elements you try to find and put together in your composition vary greatly. In black and white, for example, one of the main elements is contrast.

OM: Your favourite dive destination?

CV: It’s very hard to pick just one. I tend to prefer destinations where you can find many different animals on one trip like the Revillagigedo or the Galapagos Islands. The abundance and diversity of animals there is overwhelming.

OM: In what way does underwater photography foster conservation?

CV: Photography has the power to change minds, opinions and, ultimately, the way people act. We live in very disturbing times where our ignorance and self-centred actions destroy our home and create a lot of suffering in the process by killing, altering and contaminating all the foundations that sustain our life. I believe that it is our responsibility as individuals to generate positive change and actions in our own life that will bring benefit to the entire planet, and then also use whatever tools we can to inspire other people to follow this path. Photography is one of those tools, and a powerful one at that. I feel very fortunate to have this tool and be able to use it with the intention of creating some positive change.

OM: What image do you dream of taking in the future? 

CV: The one image that will inspire all human beings to think: “All life forms are so special, my life depends on each one of them. I have to stop harming and killing them!” And then they bring this thought into their daily actions that are full of love, compassion and wisdom.

OM: Any tips for aspiring photographers that want to specialise in black and white photography?

CV: First, you need to develop a strong motivation and purpose behind your photography. The world doesn’t need yet another black and white photo. The world needs people who bring benefit to all life forms with their daily actions, especially in the sense of protecting the environment and inspiring other people to do the same. I would advise to read books or take classes to learn all the technicalities of the craft. The most important goal is to develop your own photographic style, a recognisable style that will transform into your own ‘voice’ – the way you are speaking through your images and addressing your thoughts to the world. This can take time, but you can start by imitating other renowned photographers’ styles, study their work, take thousands and thousands of pictures and gradually keep developing your own inner world and finding ways to transform this world into images by using your technical knowledge of camera. The goal is to be able to share your unique vision of the world from your finger tip into your camera by a mere ‘click’.