In black waters

Interview with and photographs by Robert Stansfield

The term Blackwater DIVING describes a special kind of night dive; one where the diver hangs on a rope miles offshore and attracts larval and pelagic subjects with a light source. underwater photographer robert stansfield has honed his blackwater photography skills for years.

Oceanographic Magazine (OM): How did you get into underwater photography?

Robert Stansfield (RS): I got into underwater photography after buying a little waterproof point and shoot camera for a trip to Indonesia. The plan was to spend a few weeks on Bali and after that, I would travel to Komodo. On the liveaboard ship I spent my time around Komodo, I met the award-winning Russian photographer Andrey Gladyshev. Seeing the incredible images he was able to take during our dives, I realised I really wanted to get into this field. At the time, I worked as a video producer for touring live events but underwater photography really pulled the two things that really excite me together: diving and image making.

OM: How did you first start your blackwater photography journey?

RS: When looking at my catalogue in Lightroom, I’ve noticed that I’ve always been taking photos of odd things floating by during safety stops. I’ve always loved looking up on dives rather than just staring down at the reef. I don’t think I was aware that taking photos of those aliens was an actual thing until I came across it on Facebook entirely by chance. Mike Bartick’s blackwater photography group has been a source of wonder and a really valuable resource of information for what to look for.

OM: What does fascinate you about this special field of underwater photography? How does it work?

RS: Blackwater photography generates some of the most interesting images I’ve ever seen. It captures some truly alien-looking critters that you usually wouldn’t see. The buoyancy and fin control needed to get a nice photo makes backwater photography a really fun challenge and one that never fails to entertain.

OM: Which one of your images is your favourite blackwater shot? Tell us a bit more about the story behind the photo.

RS: I think I have two candidates that are my most interesting shots. The first one is an image of a longarm octopus. It’s the critter that really sealed the deal for me and my addiction to blackwater dives. Seeing this octopus with its arms fully extended, hanging there in the black space, looking just like the mythical kraken, was absolutely incredible. I took a series of photos of the animal and for me, the best moment was when it was swimming away from my light. It suddenly looked just like a space rocket. The other shot I really liked was of a recent sighting of a whalefish larvae – a really alien-looking fish with an incredible story.

OM: What equipment and which skills are needed to get started with blackwater photography?

RS: All you really need is a camera and a light to get started. Some of the best subjects can be relatively small so that choosing a camera and a lens with a macro-function is advantageous. All in all, the key to blackwater photography is good buoyancy. Once you have that nailed, it is relatively simple.

OM: Did you have any scary experiences in the ocean at night?

RS: The biggest obstacle in blackwater diving is your own imagination. The mind can play tricks on you when you stare into the darkness. Mythical monsters are a big mental barrier when taking the plunge.

OM: In what way do your diving skills influence your blackwater photography skills?

RS: Blackwater photography is all about buoyancy and fin technique. A well-balanced rig and good stiff fins with a good sidewall are essential to get the right angle on a subject. As an example: There is little to no current in the blackwater around Cozumel in Mexico. Once you spot a critter, the trick is to get into the correct position to take a nice photo of it without staring up the water. If you’re a little enthusiastic with your movements you will swirl the water around, making it impossible to properly focus your camera. You need to remember that there isn’t anything to stabilise your camera or to push yourself away from the subject in the open ocean. So, good blackwater photography is 100% down to buoyancy and fin control.

OM: What tips do you have for people wanting to get into blackwater photography?

RS: Just do it. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. It’s good to have a nice bright narrow beam spotting light and a soft focus light that has the ability to go red if necessary. Red light makes it easier to approach some subjects. Also, make sure all your equipment is secured to you. The bottom is a long way away and retrieving a lost item in 1,500 feet of water is practically impossible.

OM: How does it feel to step into the deep ocean at night?

RS: The first time you step off the boat into open water at night, I think most people feel excited and nervous at the same time. Taking the plunge into the unknown is something that some people are unable to do but after the first time doing it, the nerves usually calm down and you’re left with the excitement of what you could find. Every blackwater dive seems to be completely different so it never gets boring. It’s a very exciting type of diving.