Photographing corals

Singapore-based underwater photographer Kin Soon Cheong has documented coral scenes around Southeast Asia for a while. In this online interview, he talks about the hardships of photographing corals, his love for the species, his favourite dive spots in Southeast Asia, and much more.

Interview with & photographs by Kin Soon Cheong

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

Kin Soon Cheong (KC): I got my first scuba diving certification in December 2013 when I moved to the Philippines on an expat assignment with an US engineering company. Most of my expat colleagues dive and the Philippines are one of the best places to do so. Because of the proximity and the ease of travelling to those amazing dive sites, it quickly became my weekend activity. For the first time in my life, I was immersed in the underwater world in person. I was awestruck by the riot of colours from the corals and the rich marine life. It felt so peaceful in the shades of blue and turquoise, observing nature’s greatest gifts. I wanted to capture what I saw so I bought an underwater housing for my iPhone. After six months, flooding of two iPhones and lots of green and blue colour photos (I am sure all underwater photographers can relate to this), I decided to buy a compact camera complete with housing. Later, I progressed to a mirrorless camera and now I’m using a full-frame DSLR to photograph some of the most amazing scenes underwater.

OM: You take some epic coral photos. What do you love about them?

KC: I simply love corals. I love them for their variety of colours, shapes and sizes. The sight of healthy thriving corals is a good indication of a healthy ecosystem underwater. Corals are vital as they are essential in regulating CO2 levels in the ocean. A healthy ecosystem will help manage the effects of global warming. Some of the most amazing corals can be found in the Philippines and throughout South East Asia. My favourite location to see corals is Balicasag Island in the Philippines. With usually good underwater visibility of 20m to 30m, this place is one of the must go to places for divers who love wide angle scenes. I also take lots of coral photos in Anilao, Philippines. Although it is most famous for being the Mecca for macro underwater photographers, it has some of the most amazing corals and wide angle scenes to offer photographers.

OM: What are the hardships when photographing corals? What do you need to look out for?

KC: Corals are stationary, hence deemed to be easier to photograph compared to other marine life such as fish or turtles that tend to pass by quickly, making us lose the moment if we are not ready. However, while corals are stationary, there are environmental challenges such as currents, surges and lighting conditions that will impact the quality of our photos. Understanding the environment factors such as time of day, direction of light, direction of current, behaviour of subjects and how they interact with our camera settings (shutter speed, ISO, aperture, strobe position and power) is essential to improve the quality of our photos.

Having additional elements in the photo composition like a sunburst, colourful reef fish or divers in the frame, tends to make the photo more interesting. But it is not always possible. Sometimes the sun is in the wrong direction and it is impossible to change position. Other times, by the time you have taken the first shot of the corals that is teeming with colourful small reef fishes, all the fishes are gone. I will either have to be patient and wait for them to come back or I can dive around the corals for the fish to go back to its original position before resuming the shoot. When I dive in shallow water with strong sunlight piercing through, it’s worth considering switching off the strobes. To bring out the best of corals such as table corals or lettuce corals, I usually find that shooting from the top or downward at various angles offers good results. My favourite lens for such purpose is a 8-16mm fisheye lens.

Corals are very fragile therefore it is of utmost importance to have proper dive skills with good buoyancy control and finning techniques. Otherwise we could inadvertently damage the corals while we try photograph them. It is essential that we first master our diving skills and commit to not damaging what we want to capture before we even start underwater photography. Diving (and shooting) horizontally will ensure the least possibility of our fins kicking into some corals.

OM: You live and work in the Philippines. What makes the underwater world there so special?

KC: There are 7,641 islands in the Philippines and the country is located in the Indo-Pacific’s Coral Triangle, the area that borders the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. This is the centre of biodiversity for coral reefs with 581 individual coral species being identified out of the total of 700 that exist in the Indo-Pacific region. The area also supports over 3,000 reef fish species. It is home to pristine coral reefs, lush coral gardens, huge schools of fish – jacks, barracudas, sardines, dolphins, turtles, rare critters, manta rays, thresher sharks, whale sharks and even sightings of whales. There is something for everyone in the Philippines.

Travelling to these amazing locations is easy as most locations are just within two hours flight from the capital of Manila. Anilao, the macro mecca, where most divers in the Philippines started their diving and a favourite diving location, is just a three hours drive from Manila. Some of my favourite locations are Napaling in Panglao where one can see these massive clouds of sardines; Balicasag, also in Panglao, where you can see pristine corals, lots of turtles and schools of jacks and barracudas; Malapascua for its thresher sharks, as well as Tubbataha which is a Marine Protected Area and no take zone, where conditions are pristine and all kinds of pelagic life can be seen. Lastly, I love Anilao for its amazing critters and its lush wide angle scenes. Above the water, the Philippines are just as amazing, with white sandy beaches, palm trees, turquoise water, lagoons, mountains, and unprecedented Filipino hospitality.

OM: What are conservation concerns in the Philippines?

KC: Human activities, climate change, funding, policies and enforcement (or the lack of it) are some of the biggest conservation concerns in the Philippines. There are 337 Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the Philippines but MPAs are not marine sanctuaries,  hence most of these MPAs have not been established as no-take zones. Fishing is still allowed in these areas and less than 1% of them are fully protected. In some of the my favourite diving locations, I have seen illegal fishing and spear fishing activities – even in no-take zones. There is a severe lack of enforcement, government support to wean off the fishing dependency and awareness among the general population of the need to protect and conserve. Sure, the lack of resources is a challenge, but misplaced resources is also a big issue. There is one municipality that I know of that provides funding to fishermen to buy fishing nets to fish in the MPA. The fund could have been used for training fishermen to work in the tourism industry where they will get regular income. They could be trained as dive guides or boat men instead.

Furthermore, according to GAIA, the Philippines is one of the world’s worst offenders on marine plastic pollution, with 0.28 – 0.75 million tonnes per year of plastic entering oceans from coastal areas in Manila Bay alone. One of the main reason for this is the country’s sachet economy where it uses almost 60 billion sachets a year. Poverty makes people buy in small quantities of everything and all comes in plastic packaging. While there many conservation and environmental activists in the country who have been doing an excellent job in creating awareness and taking actions at local and national levels and the government taking actions through policies implementation, it will take a lot more efforts to turn the tide.

OM: How are corals affected by climate change in the Philippines? Have you seen them change?

KC: I have personally witnessed a few locations experiencing extensive coral damage that were caused by unprecedented and extreme weather events. One location bore the brunt of two strong typhoons which are highly unusual occurrences in that part of the country. In some areas, many critters were entirely wiped out.

OM: Your favourite coral?

KC: Table coral and lettuce coral are definitely my favourite among all the corals. Agaricia agaricites, commonly known as lettuce coral or tan lettuce-leaf coral, are found in shallow tropical waters. Its colour is usually brown, some are yellow but I have also seen some in a purple colour. But its colour is not the most impressive characteristic, its shape, texture, numerous layers and relatively big size make lettuce coral colonies stand out among other corals. They are a striking subject to photograph and a pleasure to look at. Corals that form broad horizontal surfaces are commonly called table corals. Their size also stands out among other corals and they always have small colourful reef fish around them, making it a vibrant, lively scene. I like photographing them from the top using a fisheye lens to provide the best effect.

OM: Your favourite wildlife encounter to date?

KC: Interacting with and photographing blue whales, sperm whales and humpback whales have been the most amazing experiences for me. I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to see these amazing animals. It is unfathomable to be next to a 30m long living being moving right in front of your eyes.

My first blue whale encounter was in Sri Lanka. As the whales do not stay put in one position, we were freediving for the encounters. Usually the encounters would last a mere few seconds as blue whales are shy and will dive down the moment they see our presence in the water. Photographing them is definitely not easy despite their size. I used a 16-35mm wide angle lens as well as a 8-16mm fisheye lens to photograph them.

Of all the whales, photographing humpback whales in Tonga was the most satisfying. Tonga is the mating and birthing ground for the humback whales who migrate there annually from July to October and start their long journey back to their feeding grounds in Antartica in November when their calf is big and strong enough to travel the long distance. When the female humpback whale allows it, the curious calf, very much like a child, would often come swim towards us, playfully spinning and splashing the water near the surface with their tail. This was the most magnificent encounter to me.

OM: What does the future hold for you? Any exciting projects planned for this year?

KC: Underwater photography will remain a hobby for me although I am a co-owner of Anilao Photo Academy, a dive resort in Anilao, Philippines. It’s a dive resort that specially caters to international underwater photographers, especially those who are crazy about macro and black water photography. I do not manage the place but perhaps as part of retirement activities in the future, I hope I will be able to spend more time diving there.

OM: What do you try to achieve with your photography? Adventure, exploration, conservation?

KC: I started off wanting to capture what I see underwater. The world is now at a critical moment in time with climate change caused by human activities endangering life on the planet. More than ever, I now want to share and spread the captivating underwater world and how important they are to our environment and human survival through my photos. Underwater photography is a great tool for that. We must protect and save it to save ourselves. We can’t do everything but we definitely can play our small part, weaving conservation activities into our life. And, of course, there is a very long diving trip bucket list that I have to clear while I am physically able to.

OM: Any tips for people wanting to get better at underwater photography?

KC: I strongly think that, first and foremost, we must have the proper diving skills with good buoyancy control, finning technique and safety management. Nothing good will come out of your camera if you have to struggle to keep in position. Also we might damages the corals. Knowing our camera and what it can do helps us utilise all of its amazing functions. Reading the manual is boring but is very rewarding. Or we can simply watch Youtube videos instead of reading. To get ideas about compositions, subjects, and settings, I personally find looking at photos by other photographers most helpful. Join underwater photography groups or follow great photographers on Instagram. And read books by great photographers such as Martin Edge and Alex Mustard that have provided the biggest learning curves and inspiration to me. Lastly, dive and shoot as often as possible. That is the only way that we will improve.

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