Matty Smith – Going above, below and beyond.
Behind Matty Smith’s eye, his left and right brain unite to cast the ocean in a new light.
UK-born Matty Smith is most at home in the water. One look at his work exposes you to the closest thing we’ve got to the cosmic without leaving earth’s atmosphere. His underwater photographs depict creatures both iconic and underseen, and always in ways that hold the imagination hostage. From Bluebottles to Great Whites to toothy Crocks, Smith goes to great lengths to celebrate the ocean and its inhabitants in a style that is unquestionably his own.
Over the past decade, Smith has attracted a slew of local and global accolades. His work has been featured by an exhaustive list of renowned sources, including National Geographic, The Washington Post, The Guardian and the BBC’s Blue Planet 2 documentary. His photographs have also been exhibited all over the world from the London Natural History Museum to the Australian Museum.
Smith shot to stardom thanks to his unique approach to “split” photography, which is the complex art of capturing both above and below the water simultaneously. This approach was made possible by his background in engineering – one that allows him to solve technical problems and achieve creative feats by building or modifying his own gear.
Here, we go deep with Matty Smith.
How did you get started in photography?
Through surfing. Back in the early-to-mid-90s, when I was around 18 or 19 and based in the UK, I did a lot of surf travel down to Europe to places like the Canary Islands. The father of my girlfriend at the time was really into photography - he had a dark room and was shooting black and white. I got a second-hand camera off him. I’d take it with me and shoot all my buddies surfing.
Eventually, the photography took over from the surfing. Any time I went anywhere and got a good surf break there was always this dilemma: do I go in for a surf or do I shoot?
So, my camera’s always been pointed at the ocean right from the very start.
I ended up buying a waterproof housing for a film camera – my first Nikon stills camera, which was a Nikon F80. I was just swimming out into the waves, shooting all my buddies surfing, or anyone else who was around.
At the house I was living in in the UK, I put a dark room in the basement there. I’d go on these surf trips, shoot surf, then go home and develop/print it all myself on black and white paper.
Can you tell us a bit about your journey from then to becoming a professional underwater photographer?
In 2007, when I emigrated to Australia, I was still predominately shooting surf. Then, organically, I got more and more into diving and progressed slowly more into underwater photography. Eventually I gave up on surf photography altogether.
I became very interested in the natural history of the water – that sort of stepped it up another gear. In those days I wasn’t shooting professionally and hadn’t shot anything particularly great. Nobody knew who I was. I was doing it all myself while working for an engineering firm. It was very much a hobby and a passion up until around 2012.
Do you remember a significant moment in your timeline where you thought “ok, this can be more of a hobby”?
The doors all started open when I started getting obsessed with half-over, half-underwater photography. I do shoot a lot of dive stuff, but my signature shot is a split shot, as they call it, or an over/under. The turning point for me, I guess, was when I started working on a portfolio of Bluebottles – people call them jellyfish but they’re not actually jellyfish, if I called them that in any magazine, I’d be…
Hang on. What is a Bluebottle if not a jellyfish? I think most people would be under the impression that a Bluebottle is a jellyfish.
Yeah, no, it’s actually more closely related to a coral. It’s a siphonophore, a group of four different animals that all live together in a kind of community and float on the surface of the ocean. It’s not actually related to jellyfish at all.
Anyway, because I got so obsessed with shooting over/under pictures, the Bluebottle was perfect because it lives its entire life half-in and half-out of the water. I got this idea to shoot a portfolio of them at sunrise.
It took me about six months to get a good shot – that became a bit of an obsession in itself. I was up at the crack of dawn many mornings in a row for all those months. I knew there was a good shot in there somewhere, but it just took me a long time to get the technicalities right. I kept that portfolio and those pictures very close to my chest as I thought I was onto something good.
Eventually, when I was happy with the shots, I began entering them in competitions such as the Australian Geographic Awards and the London Natural History Museum Wildlife Photography of the Year Awards (basically the Oscars of nature photography). That year, things really took off because the shot that I took had basically never been seen before.
I was awarded at the Natural History Museum so I went over to the UK and had dinner with David Attenborough. That was huge. Huge. I still haven’t been able to return to those awards, it’s very difficult to get in there again. I also won the overall winner for the Australian Geographic Awards and first, second and third prizes in the Ocean Geographic Awards.
That year, 2013, really got my work out there and my name noticed. Basically, it was just that one idea and getting really lucky with the competitions that just launched my career as a professional photographer. I’d always worked hard at it but never thought I was good enough to make money from it. The next minute I went from zero to… I wouldn’t say hero… but being in demand I suppose.
Can you tell us a bit more about how you achieve the over/under shots?
So, an underwater housing consists of two parts. There’s the body that the camera goes into. Then you have the port, which is the “window” the lens goes into. You have different ports for different types of lenses – flat ones (macro), dome-shaped ones (wide-angle).
Taking a split shot is quite a technical thing to do. You’ve got to be able to focus above and under the water at the same time, and you’ve got to have quite a thin, sharp water line. The bigger the dome port you use, the better – it gives you better focus, better depth of field, a better water line.
But commercially, you cannot buy bigger dome ports. The biggest one you can buy off the shelves is about 9 inches across. So, I make them between 12 and 18 inches. They’re basically these huge, dome-shaped hemispheres that make taking over/unders so much easier.
In order to get the shots that I wanted to take, I needed to build the dome ports myself. I come from an engineering background. I planned it all out, I drew one up. I had it made, I used it and was overjoyed with the result it gave me.
Off the back of getting this new notoriety from all these competitions, people were asking me “well, how did you do that?”. I said I made these dome ports and did it myself and suddenly they became popular.
Was the first incarnation of a split shot you took an accident or was it intentional?
Intentional. I’m by no means the first person to do it. There’s a very famous underwater photographer, a guy named David Doubliet. He’s a master of split shots and he’s been doing it for many years. He was my big inspiration to have a go.
The first one I ever took was of a coral reef in Tonga back in 2012. From that moment I was hooked, because it’s amazing to be able to see above and under the water at the same time. You can’t even do it with your eye. If you put a dive mask on, you can’t do it – it’s physically impossible. So, to be able to create an image that shows the underwater world next to the world that everyone’s used to, there’s just something very unique about it.
It's a tricky thing to do, but it’s quite magical.
Do you ever get people on social media questioning whether the split shots are doctored or composite or computer generated?
[Laughs] Yeah. It’s funny, because the kinds of competitions I enter, photoshopping and post-processing is heavily frowned upon. You can’t do it. They ask for the RAW files, straight as it was out of camera to prove it was an original image. There’s no post-processing of images, or combining things or adding things or taking things away.
You can do small changes in post, like changing colour and saturation. Global changes. But you definitely can’t be changing things out. Sometimes, just for laughs, I’ll Google one of my pictures and get led to reddit and there’ll be this big thread of people arguing about how I did it, whether it’s real or fake.
Do you ever get the urge to jump on anonymously and have your say?
Nah. You’d just be opening a can of worms.
You said you’ve always been around the ocean, but when you moved from surf to deeper waters, did you have to face any fears or trepidations in the process?
Not really. I’ve always been very comfortable in the sea – I feel more comfortable in there than anywhere else. There’s only one real moment that got the heart pounding a little bit and that was back in 2015 when I went over to Cuba with Ocean Geographic magazine.
We went over to photograph the saltwater crocodiles that live in the Caribbean, in the mangroves on the outskirts of Cuba. I know people had got in the water with them before, but it was my first time. On the flight over, I was super excited, but it wasn’t until I was in the tinny and there was a life-sized crocodile next to us, that I suddenly took stock of the situation.
I was like: this is going to be either the dumbest or best thing I’ve ever done. It turned out to be a fantastic experience.
And it was done with great safety, it wasn’t at all reckless. We went at high tide, when the crocs are quite docile and if anything will just turn and move away from you. If we went at low tide, it would have been suicide.
I came away with a beautiful split shot of the crocodile, really up close to its face. It’s called The Smiling Assassin and believe it or not I’ve sold lots of prints of that one to dentists all around the world.
What’s unique about the Pacific Ocean over other bodies of water?
I guess it’s the diversity, really. There are a lot of beautiful coral reefs in the Pacific. I guess I’ve photographed more in the Pacific than anywhere else because it’s right here on my doorstep. I do really love the Indian Ocean and all the Pacific all around Indonesia – places like the Coral Triangle which is the most biodiverse underwater environment on the planet.
Speaking of place, is there any reason why you decided to call Stanwell Tops home?
Yes, there is. I came to Wollongong because it was cheaper to live than in the big cities. But also, it’s a great surf spot. I was a backpacker in 2000 and did a lot of travelling all around Australia. I was down here looking at certain surf spots. In 2005, I ended up coming down to Wollongong again while working for an engineering company.
It’s a wonderful place, really. Often overlooked when it comes to the east coast of Australia. So many world-class surf spots but also world-class dive spots too. As far as ocean activities go, Wollongong’s got it all.
Do you have a clear favourite image that you’ve ever taken?
Nah, it changes all the time. It’s a bit of a cliché and photographers say it all the time, but I think my favourite image is the next good one I’m going to take.
I like the croc shot, the Bluebottle shots, and I do like that recent shot of the Great White Shark. Though, I do think there’s a better shot of the shark out there. I’m going back down to Neptune Island for five days in December and I’m definitely going to be looking for a better frame.
What would a better frame look like, in this case? Are you talking about the division between the water and the surface? The angle? Because it looks awesome to me.
Thanks very much and I’m very happy with that shot, don’t get me wrong. It’s a great shot and has won a couple of nice awards. I like the pose of the shark. I like its facial features. I’m not into all these guts-and-glory, mouth-wide-open, teeth-on-show Great White shots – I think it puts the wrong impression out there. I generally won’t publish anything like that. I like that shot because the shark’s almost got a scruffy, puppy-dog cuteness to it.
But the way I think it could be slightly better, would be a better sky in the background. Like a stormy sky or a big cloud. Something with a bit more drama. And it’d be great to get the tip of the dorsal fin coming out. If I could just get the fin breaking the water, that’d be nice.
So, there’s definitely a couple of things that could improve the shot, but I love the expression of the shark. I wouldn’t want his mouth any wider.
Is there anything that you wish you could do underwater, craft-wise, that isn’t possible due to technological restraints? I guess, with your engineering background, if you face a problem, you can just build the solution…
I don’t think so, no. Without wanting to come across as arrogant – generally if I come up with an idea and I think it could work, I’ll draw a few things out on the computer. If there’s something that I can build to get a unique shot, then I’ll build it and do it.
What about when it comes to actual camera technology? Is there anything you’d like to do but you need camera tech to develop first?
I’m looking forward to getting the Z 9 in the water, for a few reasons.
I’ll just rewind for a bit and tell you why I use the Z 6II. I do have a Z 7, which has got a bigger sensor and is a more powerful camera. But the good thing about the Z 6II is its speed. It does 14 frames a second, which at the time was the quickest camera you could get, before the Z 9 came out.
Having a lower megapixel count means that it’s better in low light. When you’re shooting split shots, depth of field is key – you need a high f-stop. If you shoot wide open, generally the top side is out of focus and the water line is a bit blurry. The Z 6II handles low light/high ISOs better than any other Nikon camera I had at the time.
Now, I’m really looking forward to using the Z 9 because it’s much quicker again. It does 20 frames per second in RAW and 120 frames per second as a JPG. You get that many more frames, which is great when your subject is moving quite quickly.
Another thing I’m really looking forward to with the Z 9 is this ‘pre-release’ mode. Let’s say you’re trying to take a photograph of a bird taking off from a branch. You’ve got your finger ready and you’re waiting, waiting. When it takes off, you almost always miss it – a quarter of a second too late, or whatever.
With the Z 9’s pre-release mode, the camera is constantly taking photos without you being aware of it. It will remember everything that’s happened, in frames, before you press the button. So, you hit the button when a bird takes off from a branch and it’s remembered everything that’s happened in the seconds before.
Some might say that’s cheating but I say that’s great advancement in technology.
I haven’t used the Z 9 yet, even though it came out a year ago. Long story short, I’m sponsored by Aquatica, who make amazing underwater housings. I had to wait for the housing to be developed and it will be shipped next week. I’m really excited.
What tips would you give to someone interested in underwater photography?
To start with, underwater photography is much more expensive than most other forms. You don’t just have to buy the camera, but all the extra equipment too.
But putting that to one side for a moment, first and foremost, you’ve got to be confident in the water – before you even take a camera into it. You’ve got to be water-safe and water-aware. If you want to go diving, make sure you get plenty of dives under your belt. Diving should feel like riding a bike. If you’ve still got any anxiety about going underwater in the ocean then leave the camera behind for the time being. Safety first, always.
When it comes to gear, as I said it can be expensive. So maybe just start small. Nikon make some great compact underwater cameras, like little COOLPIX cameras.
One of the most important things when it comes to underwater photography is light. When you go underwater, light levels drop quite rapidly, particularly the red end of the spectrum. As soon as you go underwater, everything looks blue and green. You need to take a light source with you in order to get a great photograph with great colours. A worthwhile investment is getting the most powerful light you can get.
You can get either a constant (torch-like) light, or a strobe. If you’re shooting stills, most people will use strobe. There’s a lot more to it, but my advice is to never scrimp and save on lighting.
Also, because there are animals involved in underwater photography, you’ve got to act like a hunter. You’re not shooting to kill; you’re making a photograph. But you’ve got to learn animal behaviour. It’s good to have a target species in mind rather than going into the water blindly. It’s best to concentrate on that one species until you get a great shot of it. Over time spent with a species, you’ll learn its movement and behaviours, how it reacts to a diver, where’s the best place to find it. You’ve got to become a bit of an animal enthusiast.
I guess in your circumstance you’d have less of a gear bag and more of a gear truck, but if we were to peek in your “gear bag”, what would we find?
At the moment it’s the Z 9, the Z 7II and the Z 6II; they’re the three bodies. My go-to underwater lens is the NIKKOR Z 14-24mm f/2.8 S. Beautiful, beautiful lens. I’ll also use the AF-S FISHEYE NIKKOR 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E ED. And then the two macro lenses – the 50mm/60mm and the 105mm.
If you want to go further afield, then I’ve obviously got the Aquatica water housings. Strobes. Dome ports. It doesn’t sound like a lot but it all adds up.
Do you have any plans for the future of your craft?
I love teaching. I love teaching underwater photography. Nothing gives me more fulfilment or more of a rush than sitting someone down in a classroom, teaching them the principles, then taking them out to the ocean and seeing them come out with a great big smile on their face because they’ve achieved something they’ve never done before. And then, even go on to win competitions. It’s an amazing, amazing feeling.
So, do a workshop with Matty Smith and you’ll win competitions.
[Laughs] Well, let’s not put that. But it happens.