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In deep
and up

Stephen Frink holds on to

success despite changing
tides for underwater

by Robert Kiener

62 63
s he sips a cup of coffee in a Starbucks
near his Key Largo studio in the Flori-
da Keys, veteran underwater photog-
rapher Stephen Frink doesn’t pause
for a second when asked to name
the most important requirement for
a great underwater photograph.
“That’s easy,” says the 69-year-old Frink,
whom many publications have called the
world’s most widely published underwater
photographer. “It’s proximity.”
Frink is on a roll. After taking another drink,
he launches into a mini-discourse that sounds
like it was taken from a combination of Phys-
ics 101 and Introduction to Photography. “Be-
cause water is about 800 times denser than air,
it filters out colors the deeper or farther from
the light source you are. Light is selectively ab-
sorbed as a function of depth. Red fades first,


gear underwater has kept him in demand by
magazines, advertising agencies, and equip-
ment manufacturers since he started in the
late 1970s. He’s been director of photogra-
phy for Scuba Diving magazine, a contribut-
ing photographer for Skin Diver magazine, On
and has completed assignments for clients
as varied as Canon, Nikon, Victoria’s Secret, Stephen Frink explains how to
light underwater photos
American Express, Rolex, and others.
“Learning to photograph fish is great, but
to make it in this field, I also needed to learn to
photograph people underwater,” says Frink.
“That can be trickier.” He starts ticking off
the issues involved. Communication is diffi-
cult, so he uses a variety of hand signals to
instruct a model how to move or strike a spe-
cific pose. “You may need to position a model
downcurrent so her hair is flowing natural-
ly and not covering her face or standing on
end.” Using a translucent mask that lets light
in from the side and the right waterproof
makeup are also important. “Because a mask
and regulator can cover so much of a mod-
el’s face, I look for models with very expres-
sive eyes,” says Frink. “There’s very little you
can communicate with underwater, so the
eyes are paramount.”
His favorite model was his wife, Barbara,
who passed away in 2015. “She had the most
followed by orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, you’re coming up to them for a photograph. “Because I was seeing the great white beautiful, expressive eyes I have ever seen
and then violet. And because light sources, For example, you should set your camera and through my wide-angle lens, I didn’t have and always knew exactly what I was looking
such as a strobe, are only effective for a strobe before you approach a fish and con- a good sense of the perspective as it swam for. She had extraordinary instincts and un-
few feet underwater, you need to get up close trol your breathing so your air bubbles won’t toward me. I kept shouting, ‘Closer, clos- derstood things like controlling her buoyan-
and personal—shrinking the water column— scare them off. You have to project a benign er, closer!’ By the time the shark—with his cy, posture, and how to engage marine life,”
to capture a sharp image,” he explains. “You’ll presence in the water or you’ll scare them mouth wide open—had filled the frame, he says Frink.
have a hard time getting anything worth- away and lose that moment you are after.” also crashed straight into the dome of my He remembers examining his digital im-
while if you are more than five feet away.” Being aware of your surroundings is also lens and smashed the camera—Bam!—right ages after a long day of photographing her
paramount. He remembers an assignment into my head. I was startled and dizzied as I underwater in the Solomon Islands and
Closer and closer shooting great white sharks off South Africa lay on the dive platform. marveling that in almost every image she
Is there such a think as too close? “Not really,” when he laid down on his belly atop a boat’s “Everyone else on the boat was terrified, had positioned herself precisely where he
says Frink, who’s famous for going nose to swim platform in hopes of getting an over- shouting at me to see if I was OK. I had some wanted her, in the middle of the so-called
nose (and nose to fin) with man-eating great and-under photograph of a shark. To get the nasty bruises, but it could have been a lot ball of the sun, in which the sun is refracting
white sharks, killer whales, and dangerous image he wanted, he had his camera half worse. As I lay there I heard my then 10- through the surface. “I asked Barbara how
crocodiles as well as more docile subjects like submerged in the water and instructed the year-old daughter Alexa, who had grown she managed to place herself so perfectly
dolphins. “When you are in the water you have shark wrangler to throw out bait to lure the up watching me photograph underwater all in the middle of the ball of the sun, because
to get close—within a few feet —to produce sharks to him. over the world, shout, ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ of course she couldn’t see it from her posi-
intimacy.” He smiles when he’s reminded “I was working with a full-frame fisheye “Then I turned to her and she asked, ‘Did tion,” says Frink. “She told me, ‘I could see
that newspapers recently described several 15mm lens to get the depth of field I needed you get the shot?’” Frink laughs and recalls, it reflected in your dome.’ She had so many
of his close encounters with sharks and croc- to get an image of a shark with its mouth “I got it.” tricks like that.”
odiles as “jaw-dropping” and “heart-stopping.” wide open. Eventually I saw a beautiful great
“It’s a zen-like experience, knowing how white, one of the world’s premiere predators, Commercial praise Watershed moment
close I can get to an underwater creature and approaching me,” he remembers. “I shouted While Frink’s portfolio of dramatic encoun- As he approaches 70, Frink admits that the
still be safe,” says Frink. “You have to know ‘Closer, closer, closer!’ to the wrangler as he ters with denizens of the deep have earned industry has changed dramatically over the
their nature and you also have to be careful threw out more bait, and I was thrilled to see him international praise, his skill at mas- past several decades, both for better and
not to approach too clumsily or too fast when the shark speeding toward me.” tering the art of photographing people and worse. He explains, “We are in a watershed


moment for underwater photography with
ever-improving photo and diving equip-
ment.” Optics and strobes are better, and
digital cameras allow underwater photogra-
phers to get countless images and see their
results immediately. The bad news is that
editorial and commercial assignments have
become scarcer and Frink’s stock photo li-
brary revenues, like that of many photogra-
phers, have been decimated. He estimates
they have dropped by about 85 percent from
a decade ago.
Frink, however, is still hustling, he says,
and prospering. “You cannot change the
times, but you can be nimble.” He runs a
flourishing dive tour business, offers pho-
to seminars, helps distribute the Austrian-
made Seacam camera housing, and has be-
come the publisher of Alert Diver magazine.
“I’m still having fun and photographing in
exotic locales like the Red Sea, the Great
Barrier Reef, and remote spots off Cuba,”
says Frink. “I know how lucky I am.”
His underwater experiences closer to
home, just off the Florida Keys, have made
Frink a committed conservationist. He’s on
the board of directors of the Key Largo-based
Coral Restoration Foundation and often do-
nates his photos for conservation-related
causes. “In my own backyard I’ve witnessed
reef building corals dying, invasive species
like lionfish running rampant, and the acidi-
fication of the ocean.”
And he’s seen oceans around the world
suffering similar fates. “I’m the canary in
the mine,” says Frink, who confesses he is
so alarmed by vanishing fish stocks that he
refuses to eat fish. “In my lifetime alone, the
problems have become profound. We have to
protect the oceans.”
One of the best ways to help protect them,
says Frink, is to inspire people to care about
marine conservation. “That’s one of the rea-
sons I do what I do,” he says. “I’m always
hoping to get that next dramatic picture of a
great white or a beautiful portrait of a color-
ful clownfish because people have to see
what needs to be saved in order to be in-
spired to take action. It’s all about creating
awareness.” •

Robert Kiener is a writer in Vermont.

Reprinted from November 2018 Professional Photographer magazine with permission. PPM AG.COM
Copyright ©Professional Photographers of America •

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