Aimee Jan - Drops in the Ocean

In the world beyond the water’s edge, you’ll find Aimee Jan, camera at the ready. 

Aimee Jan - Nikon Creator - Photographer | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesAimee Jan - Nikon Creator - Photographer | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories

Aimee Jan and the ocean’s deep are inseparable. Born and raised where the land meets the sea in Nelson, New Zealand, 10-year-old Aimee fell in love with ocean swimming and whale spotting. Eventually moving to the Gold Coast and discovering diving, her path to underwater photographer was well and truly underway. 

For the past decade, Aimee has called the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia home. Whale Shark tour work progressed organically into a career as a professional photographer. She now devotes the winter season to photographic-based tours, where she celebrates and immortalises sea creatures both at home and abroad. 

Aimee operates in stark contrast to the anything-for-the-photo mentality that defines the Instagram age. Her work is fuelled by a deep respect for habitat and species conservation. In her mind, the sanctity of the natural world always comes first, and getting a great shot is just the icing on the cake. 

If you were to meet and talk shop with Aimee, it would become quickly clear why she is so good at what she does. She is humble, personable, and sensitive to her surrounds. There’s no assertion of ego, to the point where she’s still yet to list a highly prestigious award  on her personal website. We have a feeling that for Aimee, there are many more awards to come. 

We sat down with Aimee during a visit to her folks in NZ to discuss her work, her life, and all sea creatures great and small. 

Do you remember your first encounter with photography?

It was back in high school.  One of the classes I chose was photography, and I used a film camera. I think we had to make a calendar. I used my little sister as my subject – I took her out into the garden and made her dress up. She still has it somewhere. It's really cute. That was the first thing that comes to mind. Then, we had to develop the photos in the darkroom. 

Aimee Jan - First Photoshoot 1 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesAimee Jan - First Photoshoot 1 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories
Aimee Jan - First Photoshoot 2 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesAimee Jan - First Photoshoot 2 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories
Aimee Jan - First Photoshoot 3| Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesAimee Jan - First Photoshoot 3| Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories
What age was that?

I want to say 13 or 14?

Was that a one-off trip to the darkroom or was it ongoing?

We used it quite a bit for different things. I think I would have studied photography at school for about two years – once a week. But photography was already more than that for me. I always had a camera on me and would take photos of friends, and things, and that continued after I left school. 

What kind of effect did the darkroom experience have on you? Did your interest explode?

At school, I always liked hands-on projects more than normal classes, maybe like most kids. But I really did enjoy the creative side of it. You could play around with exposure, changing different things as you go. I remember really liking that side of it. Now, people don’t really do it manually anymore. Or at least, not many do. I certainly don’t. It was a long time ago, but I do remember enjoying the creative side of it.

Do you think from working with film and in a darkroom, you learned anything that you took with you that still applies today?

I haven’t thought about this in a long time, but I guess in terms of framing? Mostly what I do now is wildlife, so obviously that’s a bit different. I still do a little bit of creative photography for brands and things on the side for fun. I’m sure that experience helped in some way. It definitely sparked my love for photography.

It’s interesting you make a distinction between creative photography and wildlife/ocean photography. In my mind, there’s a lot of creativity on display in your underwater work. I don’t think shots need to be overtly arty to be creative.

No, that’s true. I only say that because a lot of the time I’m taking photos of the same thing, day by day. Every now and then if I have lots of time with a Whale Shark, I ask myself “what can I do that’s a little bit different and get a little creative”. But you’re right. 

Do you come from a camera family? Were cameras around a lot growing up?

Yeah, my dad took photos and videos of everything. Everything. We have a lot of photo albums. I guess I just thought that was really normal until I made other friends pose that don't really have that many photos from their holidays. But yeah, Dad would always be taking photos and we would just feel like this is so annoying. Eventually, we learned to just smile for the camera. So yes, definitely a camera family. 

So, what was the journey from studying photography at school and taking photos of your friends to thinking this could be something you wanted to do with your life?

I moved away from New Zealand when I was 20, to the Gold Coast. I always loved animals, but after moving, I started diving and surfing. I then made friends that had travelled around Western Australia, who said “oh, we've come across this place [the Ningaloo Reef], we think you'd really love it - the Whale Sharks and whales.” I thought “well, that doesn't sound like it's in the same country. But I'll go and check it out.

I moved there and started working as a WhaleShark guide. Somewhere in that first season, I bought my first camera that actually allowed you to change the settings, and I bought a housing, and I’d use it during the afternoon snorkels. I did that for about three years.

I had that camera while I was guiding, then I switched companies. The new company said “oh, you want to give the photography a go?” and I said “yes, I would love to.” The photos I would take while guiding would be given to the guests as a gift. I used to put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure the photos were really good, even though the guests weren’t actually buying them and there wasn’t much pressure on me.

Aimee Jan - Underwater | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesAimee Jan - Underwater | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories
How long ago was that?

It would have been about 2011. After they said I could have a job doing underwater photography, I realised that this is what I wanted to be doing. I loved seeing the animals. 

Did you have photography at the back of your mind when you moved to WA, or were you driven more by your attraction to wildlife?

It all happened so organically. I just remember loving the animals and wanting to see them and then slowly beginning to think that I needed to hold onto these memories. Then it progressed to wanting to hold onto other people’s memories more than my own. Now it’s both, for sure.  

Do you remember the first shot you took that made you think “wow”?

Yes, I remember the first one that made me think “this is amazing”. It was during my first season as a photographer, around 2014. 

I got in the water and there were heaps of Manta Ray’s in a mating chain swimming towards the camera – and there were a bunch of Moon Jellies in the water column. Do you know what they are? Harmless jellyfish. I swam down and took a couple of photos and it wasn’t a great camera. Back then I didn’t really understand what I was doing, so for some stupid reason I deleted the RAW copies. I have a sketchy copy of the photo somewhere. I just remember thinking “wow, this is amazing”. I learned later that it can take ages to get those moments and you don’t have them very often. 

Aimee Jan - Manta Rays | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesAimee Jan - Manta Rays | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories
Was there an animal that you just couldn’t get a good photo of and you had to keep trying to make it happen?

These tours that I’m talking about are for Whale Sharks – the big spotty fish. On the Ningaloo Reef where I work, we have Manta Rays, as I said, and they’re really beautiful to photograph. Whale Sharks are pretty easy. One of the main things I love is whales and Humpback Whales. I’ve started doing overseas trips for a different company, taking small groups swimming with different whales, like Blue Whales, Sperm Whales. I do that twice a year and I love that. It was my dream as a child and I didn’t even know it was a job. 

With animals like Humpback Whales, what’s the learning curve in photographing them?

Humpback Whales and whales in general are so random. With Whale Sharks, they just cruise along and you can move around them, whereas Humpback Whales are so aware of everything around them that you can’t just chase after them. They’re very sensitive animals and you have to be really patient. Spend lots of time in the water. 

The main thing you need is clear water, and obviously whales that take an interest in you. 

We have, I think they say, about 35,000 humpback whales coming past the Ningaloo Reef. We start our Humpback tours in August, and go out every day. We get in and out. Most of the Humpbacks aren’t really interested. Then every now and then you get one that’s a little bit more curious and we’ll circle around the group or something like that, but you cannot just force interactions. 

With whales, one of the main things I learned is that if they don’t want anything to do with you, they just change their path and they’re so fast that you’re never going to see them. Again, you just need a lot of patience. 

Aimee Jan - Humpback Whales 1 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesAimee Jan - Humpback Whales 1 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories
Aimee Jan - Humpback Whales 2 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesAimee Jan - Humpback Whales 2 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories
Aimee Jan - Humpback Whales 3 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesAimee Jan - Humpback Whales 3 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories
Have you ever filmed the same Humpback Whale twice?

With Humpbacks, you wouldn’t. There are so many that you don’t really know if you’re seeing the same one. They do have different markings, but it’s still hard to tell the difference. With the Sperm Whales, which I go overseas to photograph, they’re known individually. So, when we’re getting in, the captain knows when you do see the same ones – they may have scars or things like that. But honestly, they don’t really care that you’re there. They just go about their day. At home, we do see the same Whale Sharks, especially after seeing them all these years. 

I’ve probably watched too many Pixar films, but has there ever been an animal that you’ve formed a kind of relationship with and interacted with regularly?

The only things that come to mind – and we’re not allowed to swim with them in Australia – are the Orca/Killer Whales. There are a couple of groups, but one in particular, that we see every winter. They come and predate on Humpback Whale babies, which sounds awful, but it’s just the cycle of life. We know this family and we see them every year. They see all the boats every time they’re in the area. I’ve seen one specific group every year since 2011, so that feels really special. We only photograph them from the boat, but it’s still really cool. 

Aimee Jan - Orcas 1 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesAimee Jan - Orcas 1 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories
Aimee Jan - Orcas 2 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesAimee Jan - Orcas 2 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories
Aimee Jan - Orcas 3 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesAimee Jan - Orcas 3 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories
Is there any animal, whether in or out of the water, that you’ve always wanted to photograph but never managed to get it right, or even see one at all?

Oh, I could think of a million animals that I’d love to see at home. In terms of animals that I’ve seen but never with a camera, would be Sunfish.

I’m just going to Google them now and get a mental picture... oh, wow. 

Yeah, they’re weird. 

I saw quite a few turtles across your channels. Let’s talk about turtles. 

We can talk about turtles. 

Tell me something about photographing turtles. 

We’re lucky at home, because we have three main species that we see, and right now is breeding season, so we have all these little hatchlings. I’ve been posting a lot of turtles lately. When I get home to WA, I’ll be chasing them for sure. They’re really beautiful. And actually, there’s one Loggerhead that I feel like I made friends with – she was always at the same snorkel site for a whole year. I named her Lucy but I haven’t seen her again. 

Then there’s a Green Sea Turtle that’s pinned on my page that helped me win an award a few years ago. I’m really grateful for that guy. 

Oh, I looked on your website and didn’t see that mentioned. 

I know, I’m so bad at updating it. 

Just too humble! So, what was the award that the turtle helped you win?

So it was in 2021, just after COVID, and it was the Oceanographic Awards. Oceanographic is a beautiful magazine. Every year they have awards for ocean Photographer of the Year, and then a bunch of different categories. The photo that won me it is pinned on my Instagram page. 

I took it in 2018. It's a Green Turtle surrounded by glass fish. At the time I took it I was checking my exposure and that it was in focus, and it was, and I thought “I think I've taken the best photo I've ever taken in my life.

Aimee Jan - Green Turtle | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesAimee Jan - Green Turtle | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories
I just found it. That’s amazing. What’s the light source?

[ Link to Original ]

Just natural. It didn’t have a lot of colour as it was – but I think I actually might have taken a bit of the colour out because sometimes I don't really like yellow. It was about eight metres or so under the water and under a little ledge, so there wasn't much light. I think I managed to take three photos before I had to shoot back up to the surface.

There’s another pinned photo with you diving and holding what looks like quite fancy equipment. Is that contraption just housing for your camera?

[ Link to Image ]

That’s for when I used the Nikon D810. That AquaTech housing was great – I had it for years before I upgraded to the D850 and had to upgrade the housing too. That AquaTech housing is made for surf photography, so it wants to float to the surface and therefore is hard to swim with. In that photo, I’m swimming down while the camera is trying to go up, but I got used to it. 

Aimee Jan - Underwater Dive with a Whale Shark | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesAimee Jan - Underwater Dive with a Whale Shark | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories
Are there escalating costs, the better you get at underwater photography?

It’s just that you want to have the best gear. You learn the difference between having okay gear and the best gear. Now, I’m wanting to move into mirrorless and will hopefully talk to Nikon about that soon. 

You buy the camera and the lens, which is fine, but then the housing that goes around the camera is more expensive. I’d say almost double the cost. And then if you want to have lights, it’s a whole other ballgame. I don’t bother with lights at the moment because I’m always snorkeling not scuba diving. 

And beyond housing and photographic equipment, is diving equipment an additional expense? Things like flippers? Am I using the right term?

I call them flippers. You’re meant to call them fins but it’s okay. 

You probably want the best gear in those respects too?

Yeah, I mean it’s like if you work somewhere where you need good boots – work boots. You live in them. That’s the way it is with fins. It’s certainly an expensive hobby or pursuit when you’ve got wetsuits, fins. And then when you’re travelling you need to carry all that stuff around with you – and you don’t want to check in a lot of in. Especially the housing, you want to have that with you all the time. 

I noticed you travelled to Africa and took photos on land. Can you pinpoint any differences that some may not have considered between capturing wildlife on land vs underwater?

If I’m underwater, I’m quite confident and comfortable. If an animal is there, I’ll probably take a reasonable photo. In Africa, I was using a long lens and felt a little bit out of my depth. It took me a while to figure it out. You have to hold the camera a lot steadier. You do have more time, and the animals are usually relaxing in position, but it was still different. Also underwater, you don’t have as much light as when you’re on land, so that side of it is alright. But overall, yes it was very different. 

Aimee Jan - African Wildlife 1 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesAimee Jan - African Wildlife 1 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories
Aimee Jan - African Wildlife 2 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesAimee Jan - African Wildlife 2 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories
Aimee Jan - African Wildlife 3 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesAimee Jan - African Wildlife 3 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories
Aimee Jan - African Wildlife 4 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesAimee Jan - African Wildlife 4 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories
Aimee Jan - African Wildlife 5 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesAimee Jan - African Wildlife 5 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories
Did that trip make you hungry to take more out-of-water wildlife shots?

I definitely have a few things I’d love to do that aren’t underwater. I’d love to capture Polar Bears. I love apes. But I really love all animals. 

I’m guessing that wildlife and habitat conservation is quite important to you?

Definitely. The really cool thing is that when I won that award. SeaLegacy - you've probably heard of them. They were sharing my work a little bit. And they did this print sale and all the money for the prints they chose went towards ocean conservation around the world. And for me, that was probably almost better than winning the award. 

One thing I also love about it is being able to help people that don't get to see or appreciate animals underwater, because a lot of people are scared of the ocean. They might not ever go in there. And that's fine. But for the people to see how beautiful it is, as well, I think it's really, really important.

Another good thing about being in the water a lot with my camera is that I can document change and help with citizen science. There are alot of great citizen science projects out there that are driven by people taking photos of wildlife.

Over the past decade or so, are you seeing positive change when it comes to conservation, or is it getting worse?

Some parts of it are better – like people are more aware. But on the other hand… don’t get me wrong, social media is great, but now there are lots of people flocking to these places. I always want to get a good photo, but I’d rather get a good photo in a nice way than in an unnatural way – getting dropped on top of the animals or chasing animals. I just worry people aren’t being responsible. I worry about how some are trying to get their photos. 

That brings me to my next question. I know that for photographers these days, it’s really important, or perhaps necessary to have a social media presence. But then at the same time, there’s that war for eyeballs that makes people just, as you say, trying to get the photo no matter what. What is your feeling on social media and photography?

It's hard, you have to have it. I'm quite bad at posting, but I feel I need to, because otherwise you just sort of disappear on there. Everyone’s making reels and all of that. I'm hoping I can do a little bit more filming. Hopefully, after I talk to Nikon and get the Z 8. I try with my GoPro, but it's just not as good. 

When I do guide.. everyone that comes out with me, I tell them that you cannot expect anything. If we get to see the animals, great, but we're certainly not going to be chasing anything. 

So, I try to teach people while I'm with them. I’d like to use social media more for that side of it. Like, informing people – teaching them how to be responsible with their wildlife photography. 

Do you get people contacting you on Instagram or other channels, offering you work or expressing interest in your prints?

Every now and then. You probably saw my website hasn't been updated for a while and I'm really bad at it. I'm really bad at advertising my website too. I do have some prints on there. But I need to update everything. That's my job this summer! 

There is something on your website that looks current – a 2024 calendar for sale?

I do that every year. Make a calendar with all the best shots I’d taken over that year. I’ve done it since I started photography. I give them to my family and sell a few. It’s pretty cool. The price is down at the moment because it’s already the new year.

So, tell me about Coralcoast – a creative endeavour you’ve taken with another creative?

It’s my friend and I. We’ve been doing a little bit of work for brands over the years. Mostly for fun, because we love going out and getting creative – taking photos of things or beautiful people. We’ve been asked to capture images for random towel and swimwear companies. She’s about to have a baby so we probably won’t be doing much for a little while. 

Because it’s summer, apart from going to Timor for a couple of weeks in November, I don’t work again until March. It’s our offseason. So, it’s good to have other things to do. 

That’s a long break. How do you subsidise your craft during such a period?

This summer I’m working at a supermarket. Night filling.

Do you have plans to make photography a year-long thing, or are you comfortable with it being seasonal?

I’m happy that the Whale Shark tours are seasonal. Because it’s a lot. They’re big days and we work hard all winter. I think in an ideal world, I’d do one other trip over the summer. The rest of the break, honestly, I’m fine doing night fill at IGA, or other little jobs. It’s a nice change. Then I can work on my website and do other things I should be doing over the summer. 

If someone had the dream to get into underwater photography but has no idea how to go about it, what would you say to them?

I would say, learn how to be in the water. If they’ve already snorkelled heaps before, that's fine. That's sort of what happened to me. But if they have no water experience, it’s probably best to be doing a freediving course. 

And then, get to know a camera out of the water, for sure. I run workshops with a friend of mine once a year. We go through a bit of freediving and then a lot of underwater photography, and there's a pool there. We go out on a boat and do ocean stuff as well. And we've had people join us over the last two years that have gone onto being full-time underwater or surf photographers. We love helping people like that. I'm not so technically minded. So, it's just nice to be there and go through everything, the way I do things, all the mistakes that I've made over the years, so they can avoid them. 

But I would definitely say just go out and shoot as much as you can and find any excuse, whether it's in a pool or snorkel site…go out with a friend, take a photo of a friend snorkeling if you have to. If wildlife is your thing, then there are heaps of different tours you can do. 

Similar question. But if a budding photographer were to come to you and say they were struggling with self-doubt, what would you say?

It’s definitely good to talk to friends or other photographers and ask them what they think. There's nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from other photographer’s work - like thinking “I like that style. I wonder what they've done” and then trying to do it that way. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I would also say –and this is hard and I am bad at it, but— but share your work. 

Another thing is that in the past, I maybe did a bit too much with the editing, when a lot of the time you don't really have to do much at all. If you're not sure at the start, don't do a lot of editing. Just do a little bit and then build off that, I would say. 

Do you have a really quick underwater photography tip that you wish you knew years back?

Yeah, I think one the main things that I learned pretty quickly is taking notice of where the sun is. Shooting into the sun underwater can be harsh. If the water isn’t crystal clear, it'll pick up all the particles. If you've got low light, obviously, it doesn't matter, but certainly in the middle of it, I always try to make sure the sun is on my back. 

If we were to peek inside your gear bag, what would we find?

My Nikon D850. My 8-15mm NIKKOR lens. I don’t really travel without my 70-100mm NIKKOR lens, and I usually have my 35mm NIKKOR lens as well. Then my second camera is the NIKON D810. 

Finally. If for some ridiculous reason, every photo you’ve ever taken was going to be destroyed and you could only hold onto one, which would it be?

Just one? Wow. I really wouldn’t want to lose that turtle photo we spoke about. It was a really cool moment. I would say some of my experiences with whales are more special, but winning that award for that turtle photo was really big for me and my career. Even though a lot hasn’t happened since, little things have come out of it that I’m really grateful for. 

See Aimee's work here. Browse her Instagram here. See her award-winning photo here

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