Let’s see. What is better to post on your social media site: a) “I saw a humongous green moray eel during my trip to the Florida Keys” or, b) an image of the eel with its jaws wide open showing a row of fearsome teeth?
With the advent of easy to use “point and shoot” underwater cameras and water resistant smart phones, legions of snorkelers and scuba divers have learned the meaning of the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words.“
While underwater photos have become prolific, great underwater photographers, who capture iconic images that seer into your memory for a lifetime, are rare.
Key Largo is fortunate to be the home base for one of the great underwater photographers, Stephen Frink, whose work has appeared in several scuba diving magazines, the cover of Newsweek and even the walls of the Murray Nelson Government & Cultural Center in Key Largo. Frink teaches master’s level courses in underwater photography, leads dive travel expeditions all over the world and (sigh of jealousy here) participates in Victoria's Secret photo shoots.
During his 30-year professional experience Frink has received numerous accolades and accumulated an impressive client list including resorts, live-aboard dive boat companies, Alcan Aluminum, American Express, Canon, Jantzen swimwear, Mercury Marine, Rolex, Neo Sport, Nikon, Aqua Lung, Henderson Aquatics, Oceanic, Scubapro, Seaquest and Subgear. He is the editor of Alert Diver Magazine, a publication of the Divers Alert Network (DAN), a non-profit 501(c) (3) organization, which provides dive safety information, emergency services, and insurance for the dive community.
Photography, especially underwater photography, wasn’t Frink’s first career choice; but, early experiences and his dream of becoming a scuba diver set the stage.
Although raised far from the ocean in Rock Island Illinois, he was at ease in water from being a competitive swimmer from childhood through college. He obtained a scuba certification, a necessary component for underwater photography, to get a part- time job cleaning boat hulls.
While studying to earn a master’s degree in experimental psychology from California State University Long Beach, Frink decided to take his first and only photography class. The black and white photography ignited his passion for photography and sidetracked him from a psychology career. Later, he bought an underwater camera from a surfer in Seal Beach, California, starting the journey that would lead him to being a world famous underwater photographer.
After graduate school Frink moved to Kona, Hawaii and worked taking pictures of tourists. He bought an underwater housing and strobe and took some “rudimentary’ underwater photos. He then relocated to Colorado, where he “pretty much dropped out of diving,” to work as a photo color lab technician.
Frink had been told about the warm, clear water in the Keys. Turns out, an invitation from an old swim team buddy who was living in Key Largo and working as a treasure hunter brought Frink to the Keys for a vacation in April 1978. He moved to Key Largo that November to open a small film processing and camera rental business.
After moving to Key Largo, Frink’s underwater images became “noticed” when he upgraded his camera gear.
At first Frink’s images primarily were of marine life. A lucky break came when he was asked to take photos for a dive magazine because the photographers’ trip was cancelled due to bad weather. Frink found a willing model, borrowed a wide angle lens, and his new-found commercial emphasis on underwater images of people was off and running. As they say, the rest is history.
O.K., without getting into too much technical talk about underwater cameras, settings strobes, and such, what does a world famous underwater photographer say about capturing underwater images?
Well, for starters, he emphasizes that you need good dive skills, excellent buoyancy control and an understanding of marine life behavior. A mistake made by many new underwater photographers is swimming quickly up to a school of fish just to discover that the fish have hurried away from that strange looking, bubble blowing and clumsy creature coming in their direction.
Timing and personal vision are also important. Think about which way the marine life is moving and what is in the frame besides the subject? What pops out at you or tells a story?
Do you really want to send to your mom in Topeka a blurry image of a distant school of grunt swimming away from you?
Frink say that knowing the effect of water on color is vital. Because water is much denser than air it filters out colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet in that order) the deeper or father from the light source you are. Underwater light sources are effective for only a few feet; photographers need get close to the subject to capture those colorful images you see in dive magazines. Even when using ambient light, it is important to minimize the amount of water between you and the subject to get those clear images you want.
Speaking of ambient light, learn how to use it when taking underwater photographs. “Blending strobe and ambient light effectively is critical in making the leap from only recording the moment to creating art,” Frink says. “Most of the better new digitally enabled strobes offer as several different power settings, so very subtle effects are possible with the turn of a knob.”
Frink has other suggestions and absolute rules for taking quality images.
Take proper care of your equipment. Leaky “o” rings, dead batteries and camera malfunctions have ruined many underwater photography outings. Don’t let your gear slosh around and bang into other camera gear in dive boat rinse buckets. This can lead to leaky housings and other problems.
If possible shoot in clear water. It reduces backscatter (particles that appear in the image) especially when using a camera's built-in flash system.
Capture images of worthy subjects. A bad photo is a bad photo. “Good images require a creative eye and brutal self-critique,” Frink says.
Frink’s work has taken him around the globe giving him an intimate knowledge of marine wildlife and the adverse effects that climate change, overfishing and pollution have on the world’s oceans.
Frink is a member of the board of directors of the Sanctuary Friends Foundation of the Florida Keys, a nonprofit organization that supports the Florida Keys and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in the preservation, restoration, and sustainable use of our coral reef ecosystem “So much of the world ties to the ocean.
“The world’s fishing fleets are extracting at an unsustainable rate,” he says. As with many divers who come to love marine life, Frink has a personal emotion about fish consumption; “I find it so ironic to be with someone on a dive boat who is happy to eat a grouper he might have photographed a few hours earlier.”
Frink has been able to visit dive spots the world over. His perfect fantasy dive spot would be slick calm, 84-degree water with 200-foot visibility with schooling great white sharks and queen angelfish.
When asked, he readily admits that his favorite subjects are his wife Barbara and daughter Alexa.
As with many divers, Frink is a fan of the artificial reef system in the Florida Keys created by several intentionally sunk ships. “They provide a great habitat for marine life and present numerous opportunities for underwater photography.”
For more on Stephen Frink and his work see: http://www.stephenfrink.com/
Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 28 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier three years ago where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers.