Life in black and white

Interview with and photographs by Hengki Koentjoro

Hengki Koentjoro’s fine art photography knows how to showcase underwater landscapes in an entirely new light. By focusing on black and white underwater photography, the Indonesian photographer puts special emphasis on showcasing the special textures, lines and shapes of Indonesia’s diverse ocean environment.

Oceanographic Magazine (OM): How did you become a photographer? Have you always been fascinated with cameras and taking images?

Hengki Koentjoro (HK): At the early age of 11 , my parents gave me a Kodak Pocket as a birthday present and I have never looked back ever since. The ability of photography to keep memories forever has always fascinated me. We can freeze a moment in time and preserve it forever. And this is exactly what I enjoy doing: documenting the weather, different animals and the underwater world. It is such a beautifully creative profession.

OM: Why did you specialise in black and white underwater photography? How did you come to love this special field?

HK: A friend of mine exposed me to the masterful work of Ansel Adams, an American photographer and environmentalist who was famous for his black-and-white photos depicting the American West. His images were the most gorgeous images I’ve ever seen. I have never thought that black and white images can be so beautiful. I therefore started to study his work more and more and began to experiment myself. I kind of became obsessed with the tonality of monochrome images. This also led me to study photography in the USA at Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara.

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

HK: I primarily want to travel the world, while expressing myself through the lens of my camera. It is a great tool that can evoke strong emotions among viewers, if used correctly. I hope to inspire others to follow their own black and white journey.

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

HK: In black and white underwater photography you need to pay closer attention to shapes, lines and textures. Since I don’t use colours, I try to achieve an atmospheric photograph underwater by depicting the strange, weird and wonderful biodiversity that the underwater world holds. It can be presented in an entirely different light in black and white. I try to portrait a somewhat different mood and ambiance than coloured underwater images would.

OM: What are the hardships when taking black and white photographs below the surface?

HK: First of all, we need enough light to create luminosity. Without this, the final image would appear flat and dull. In my images, I never use a flash underwater. That’s why I heavily rely on strong sun penetration for my black and white underwater images.

OM: Tell us more about your approach to underwater imagery. Do you take colour images first before processing them or do you shoot in black and white from the start?

HK: I first look for certain atmospheres and then I also search for graphical composition, details and interesting textures in the underwater world; anything that I perceive as beautiful, surreal and atmospheric really. After taking the image, I expose the colour and convert to black and white by using Adobe Lightroom and NIK Silver Efek Pro. I accentuate the mood and atmosphere in the post-production process by using traditional digital Darkroom tools such as dodging and burning. It’s a creative process and gives me so much freedom to convert an image into something that can evoke strong emotions within viewers.

OM: Do you have a favourite image you have taken so far? What makes it special?

HK: Yes, two photos are my favourites. The first one is called ‘Liquid Garden’ and it shows a lively coral reef scene. The second one is ‘Fertility’ and it depicts a school of hundreds of fish swimming in unison under the surface. They both portray the beauty of the underwater world in a surreal way and are very atmospheric. ‘Fertility’ has a heavy focus on composition and details and the subjects seem to dance in synchronised movements to create a beautiful nature scene.

OM: What is in your underwater camera bag? Which kit to you rely on?

HK: I use an Olympus TG-4 with an underwater housing, as well as a Nikon D80 with an Ikelite housing and a Canon G10 with a Canon housing. I heavily rely on my Olympus TG-4 which I find to be a very reliable point and shoot camera.

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

HK: I take life and photography as it comes, so I never have a target. I just enjoy the moment. If it comes with an exceptional image, great. If not, there is always another dive to look forward to.

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

HK: Just remember that black and white photography is not just about two colours. There are many grey shades and tonalities to consider. You have to know them and embrace them all. After all, those tones will allow you to see the world in black and white one day.


If you want to find out more about Hengki’s work, check out his recently published fine-art underwater photography book here.