Oh boy… where do I even begin to describe this guy. Well, he lives in Arizona. That, and he is always wet. Not from the rain (it never rains in the desert) but because he is always on some exotic vacation scuba diving all over the world. My favorite cousin Chris introduced me to him, and when she told me that he was an underwater photographer, I just had to learn more. I just got my certification a year ago, and I have no interest in taking photos… but when you see what this guy has done, you will see the attraction. I haven’t been diving with him yet, but I have a feeling we will be soon. We have become fast friends, and if all else fails, we can talk about one the dives he has been on. He has been on over 1,000 dives! At any rate, I can’t wait to get wet with this guy! It is my absolute pleasure to introduce you to the man behind SCUBAREWS and All Wet Portraits, Ron Watkins. (What a cool name… All Wet Portraits. I love it!)
You are a scuba diver… know that diving will be a HUGE focus of this interview! Let’s start at the beginning; how long have you been diving?
My dad first took me diving in Lake Mead, Nevada in the summer of 1983. He had learned to dive while in the Navy during the Korean War on the USS Oriskany. That summer we dove several times in Lake Mead and even though the visibility wasn’t great, I was hooked. Later that summer we went over to California and did some beach dives near La Jolla and there was much more to see.
Surely you are certified. What certification(s) do you have?
I actually wasn’t certified in 1983 when I first dove. My dad and his friends weren’t either, but back then the certification process wasn’t well established and if you knew a buddy with an air compressor, you could get your tanks filed. My dad just took me in our pool and showed me the basics of breathing compressed air and told me to never ascend faster than your bubbles. He was always with me when I dove and we never went deeper than 40 foot. Actually when he started diving, there were no recreational diving certifications and so he never did get certified.
After graduating from college, where I didn’t dive because I was broke, I took a tip to Jamaica in 1992 and went diving again after taking a brief resort course. The waters of the Caribbean were the best I had ever seen and quickly I got hooked on diving again. So in 1993, I took PADI open water classes from a friend in Phoenix and I did my open water dives in San Carlos, Mexico.
After a few years of diving, I got my first 35mm underwater camera, which I quickly traded in for a more advanced model that allowed me to control aperture underwater and had different lenses that could be changed underwater. I used it on a few dives and had moderate success with it, but struggled to consistently take good pictures. So I signed up for a PADI underwater photography class on a Great Barrier Reef 7 day live-aboard trip. My instructor was an Israeli name Uzi and he would teach classes on the boat, then dive with me and assist underwater. Once back on the boat, we would process the slide film and view it on a light table and he would critique and provide feedback on how to improve my images. That instant feedback was great and I quickly mastered the basics of that camera and drastically improved my images. In fact, I entered a shark image from that trip in the Seaspace 2000 international underwater photo contest and took first prize. My prize was a trip to Roatan, Honduras where I got my PADI advanced open water certification.
Do you teach others how to dive? I was certified at Indy MPH Watersports, and the guy that taught me had a day job and taught lessons in the evening.
I never got my instructor certification, so I don’t teach scuba diving. I do enjoy informally teaching others underwater photography on live-aboard dive trips. If someone is interested, I am always willing to share tips and lessons learned over the years diving. I meet a lot of people on dive boats with new cameras and they do not know the basics of photography so mostly shoot in automatic mode which will not consistently deliver quality images. So I help them use the manual settings on their camera and provide them photo tips. Over the years, I learned a lot from other more skilled photographers, so I am just trying to pass that on.
You have been diving a long time… how many dives have you been on?
Good question… I actually stopped logging dives at about 600 dives because I found my photography to be a better log book. My dive computer also stores each dive in it so that is another record in case anyone needed to see what my dive profile was for a given dive in the event of an emergency. I typically will take a picture of the dive map that the dive master draws as a reminder of the site and then tag my images with the location of the dive. When I am on a dive trip on a live-aboard, I am typically diving 3-5 times a day so on a 10 day trip, I can really get a lot of dives in. I do try to keep a dive journal during the trip that I make note of unique experiences or conditions as well as the conditions of the operator and boat. I will then typically write up a trip report and share it on my website so that others can see what to expect if they are planning a trip. I now typically put my trip reports on my blog (http://www.ronwatkinsphotography.blogspot.com/) and then create a new gallery on my website.
Your tank, in some of the photos I have seen of you, says “NITROX” on the side. What’s that mean? Does that require a different certification?
If you are going to be doing a lot of repetitive dives for several days in a row (like on a live-aboard), NITROX is a certification you will definitely want to get for a number of reasons. NITROX or enriched air NITROX is a mixture that contains a higher percentage of oxygen and lower percentage of nitrogen. A standard air filled tank is around 21% oxygen and 79% nitrogen and as you know from your certification, nitrogen absorption into your blood stream is what limits your bottom time. So, by increasing the oxygen to 32-36%, you reduce the amount of nitrogen you absorb and therefore can increase your bottom time significantly. You also reduce the risk of decompression sickness and you can decrease your surface intervals so you can spend more time in the water. There are also side effects associated with the nitrogen, like feeling lethargic that you minimize. But there is a risk to diving on NITROX and that is oxygen toxicity, which can kill you. To avoid this, you have to know the maximum depth allowable for the percent oxygen you are using. When you take the NITROX certification classes, they teach you all about this and you also use a special dive computer that you can program your percent oxygen in to.
What’s the best dive you have ever done? Is it even possible to pick?
This is one of the most frequently asked questions I get and the most difficult to answer. It really depends. The easy answer is Indonesia, but that is like saying my favorite state is the United States because Indonesia is about the same size and is an archipelago made up of thousands of islands. Indonesia has incredible biodiversity and the remote regions are pristine. Not only the diving, but the people and culture are phenomenal. Some areas can be challenging though for diving and photography, but if I could only go one place and dive there the rest of my life, it would be Indonesia. I would live in Bali and use it for my base camp for diving expeditions because it has good diving; the nicest people and is a beautiful island. Some of the places I have been in Indonesia include Bunaken, Lembeh, Wakatobi, Komodo, Flores, Alor, and Raja Ampat. All together, I have spent over 4 months there.
Besides Indonesia, here are a few of my other favorites… For wreck diving, Truk Lagoon in Micronesia has hundreds of sunken WWII Japanese ships and planes. The soft coral and people of Fiji are also hard to beat. Venture out into some of the 300+ islands and find fantastic diving. Hawaii is my favorite US diving. Cozumel is my favorite in Mexico and the Cayman Islands my favorite in the Caribbean.
That’s a lot of dives… have you ever run out of air?
Can you define “run out”? Technically I have never run out of air or I wouldn’t be doing this interview! I have had a few occasions where my primary tank of air ran low and I had to share my buddies air all the way up to the surface. You know, buddy breathing. I am usually really good about monitoring my air, but on occasion, I get so in to my photography, that I allow my air to get lower than recommended. Buddy breathing works fine, but when I am diving with other photographers (the worst kind of dive buddy, me included) or when I dive alone, there isn’t always a buddy nearby. On one dive, my dive buddy and I separated early on in the dive and I found myself at 40 foot with only 250 psi (supposed to surface with at least 500 psi). I saw another diver in the distance, but couldn’t get his attention, so I had to decide to either do a controlled ascent on the air I had or swim after him which would use up air quicker. I swam for him and finally caught him with the take near empty and he quickly gave me his primary air hose and he switched to his back up. We did our 3 minute safety stop at 20 foot and surfaced together.
The other time that was a closer call was on a recent photography dive trip in the cold waters of California where I had not dove in 20+ years. I found myself separated from my dive buddy photographer after a few minutes into the dive but since I was in only 50 foot of water, I decided to continue on with the dive and photograph. I was breathing more air than usual because of the chilly waters and slight current. I was focused on a colorful nudibranh when I tried to breath in and felt resistance. I immediately looked at my gauge and it read empty. I didn’t panic though. I looked around and saw no one, so I slowly ascended remembering what my dad had taught me about never go faster than your bubbles. I had to skip the safety stop, but I was on NITROX in shallow water for only 50 minutes, so I was fine. I actually had to manually inflate my BC because there was not enough air to inflate it and surface swim on my back to the boat. I was very fortunate and that close call reminded me that safety has to come first.
Do you own all of your own equipment?
I went on one trip to La Paz Mexico in the early 90s after getting certified without my own equipment, and the rental equipment was so unsafe and I almost drown. When I returned home, I bought all of my own equipment. But times have changed and the rental equipment at diving resorts and on live a-boards is often better than what I have. It can be expensive to buy and maintain your own gear, so unless you dive more than 10 days a year, I would seriously consider just renting. It is also a major hassle traveling with all of that extra weight and paying those baggage fees.
You travel all over the world diving… your job also helps that, but still. Does the cost of diving in say, Micronesia differ from diving in the Bahamas?
Dive travel can be very expensive… from the airfare, to the dive boat and the accommodations. Most liveaboards cost between $300-400 dollars per day but you will typically get the most dives in on one. I especially like this option because my camera equipment is safely stored on the boat and there is usually ample space to service it. So for me, unless there are great land attractions, I try to do a live-aboard because that is my best value to maximize the bottom time and have the most time for photography.
For land based destinations, I think Cozumel and Roatan are two of the best values in the Caribbean and you can usually get low cost airfares. Cozumel has inexpensive hotels, great food for much less than in the US and good dive operators for reasonable price. I do however use a dive guide in Cozumel named Jeremy who owns Living Underwater because he is the best and worth the extra money. His boat, the Jewfish, has a custom made rinse tank that fits my camera exactly because he used it to design the tank. Now that is service!
I typically will do all of my own trip planning to save money, but do have a few travel agents who specialize in dive travel to remote places. I always first try to use my airline frequent flier points if possible,and plan ahead. Many of the southeast Asia destinations like Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines are cheap once you get there, but the flights can be expensive.
As you have mentioned, you do more than dive. You are a professional underwater photographer. What prompted you to start taking pictures down there?
I have always like photography, but really got seriously into it when I took up diving and wanted to capture the beauty I was experiencing and share it with others. Particularly my dad, who can no longer dive, is still able to experience my underwater adventures through my photography. I have also been able to use photography to increase awareness on just how fragile the underwater ecosystem and how we are destroying it. I have given several photography presentations and done photo essays and use them as forums to educate people on the dangers facing the oceans and the creatures that call it home. I am now on my 5th camera setup and it is a really addictive activity.
I have seen sharks, dolphins, sea lions… Do you prefer to shoot any one kind of creature over another? Do you plan the dive for that specific shot?
I go through phases. I shot sharks a lot and planned all of my trips to sharky waters for several years. They are incredible creatures and I am always trying to get that majestic image that shows the beauty of a shark in contrast to the perception of them being man eaters.
I free dove with dolphins in the Bahamas and that was one of favorite shoots ever. I was able to get some great shots of them feeding on squid at night. I was in the water for about three hours with them well after midnight until a large tiger shark showed up and spoiled the party. Sea lions are very playful and fun to shoot because they are like puppy dogs underwater. I also like to shoot macro and capture all of the amazing little critters like pygmy seahorses, squid, crabs, shrimp, anmonefish and eels.
As far as planning the dive for a specific shot, I always try to do that, but sometimes you just get lucky and see something that you never expected. Then, you hope you can capture a great image. I enjoy researching the marine life of the area before I go. That way I can know what rare species are in the area, their habitat and behaviors. I am also a bit of a history buff, and love to read about the ship wrecks and how they came to their final resting spot. Several years back, I dove in Truk Lagoon in Micronesia, which is considered the wreck diving capitol of the world. It was the site of a major allied offensive during World War II called Operation Hail Storm. There are over 50 Japanese ships and 100 airplanes in the area that you can dive. Seeing these wrecks with their deck guns pointed upward, military artifacts scatter around and the crew’s living quarters was very moving and better than anything I could have read in a history book or seen in a museum.
It’s not just animals you shoot… tell me about All Wet Portraits.
All Wet Portraits presented a new challenge in underwater photography… photographing children underwater. It is so much fun for me and the kids. I use different backdrops, lighting, and even costumes for the kids. It allows me to be very creative in a controlled environment (a pool) and experiment with different techniques. It also allows me to do photography when at home in Arizona. I have partnered with several swim clubs and also do private shoots on location at pools. These images are a lot of fun and can be seen on my website www.allwetportraits.com. If you have young children and want to get their picture taken underwater, let me know! I have photographed babies as young as 6 months old.
What’s the deepest you have ever been?
I only dive as deep as I have to in order to get the photo and to date that was 145 foot. There was a Japanese transport ship with tanks strapped on the deck that I had to photograph. It was a quick 15 minute bottom time and then several safety stops at different depths. Not exactly a fun dive, but the tanks were really cool. Usually most of what I shoot is in less than 60 foot, and I prefer shallow water so that I can use the ambient light along with my strobe light.
You are originally from Las Vegas. I LOVE Vegas, but I am not sure I could live there. Do you miss living in Sin City?
Not at all! It was a neat place to grow up in the 80s, when the mob still ran the town and crime was organized. Now, crime is out of control and there are some really bad parts of town. You can get a really cheap house there, but I could never live there again. Usually after 3-4 days, I am ready to escape the strip and head home.
Do you ever exhibit your work? I could totally see a fish on the wall at my local coffee shop!
I use to exhibit my work a lot and participate in several juried art shows a year, but I don’t have the time to do that now. I do have some art in a local coffee shop and a permanent exhibit of 9 prints at the Peoria Library in the kid’s book section. My main exhibit now is in my home and online.
I have only been on a few dives, but I LOVE it. Do you get the same thrill 1,000+ dives in that you did when you first started?
I do get excited every time I dive and feel fortunate to be able to do so. I must admit that I do get less excited when I am diving in the Caribbean after diving so much in SE Asia because there is a lot less marine biodiversity.
Tell me more about the Sonoran Arts League.
The Sonoran Art League (SAL) is a wonderful group of talented artists of all kinds. SAL allowed me to not only network with other artist and learn more about the business of art. The SAL Hidden in the Hills Studio tour is one of my favorite events each year. I participated 3 years in a row and unlike the typical tent art show, you get to see the artist demonstrating their art and spend more quality time with the artist in a relaxed setting. For me, it is difficult to demonstrate my art at the tour, but I do have all of my underwater photography equipment on display and enjoy explaining the process to interested people. I encourage everyone to come out and the tour which is held the weekend before and after Thanksgiving each year.
Does diving get easier the more you do it?
It does come very natural to me know and I rarely consciously focus on breathing. Buoyancy is also something that improves with experience and the less weight that you wear (new divers are typically over-weighted). I have a mental checklist that I go through before each dive with my gear and camera equipment. If I haven’t been diving for several months, it usually take the first dive for me to get back in my groove, but then after that, I really feel at home.
You have done a few liveaboards. What’s that experience like? Take me through a week on a boat.
Eat, dive, sleep and repeat pretty much sums it up. Most the boats I have been on hold between 10-16 divers and are really nice inside and out. You get your own cabin and usually your own bathroom. On low end boats, like in California, you may just sleep in bunks and share a couple of bathrooms. Food is great and plentiful, the service excellent and the dive setup really easy. They usually wake you up shortly after dawn and you have a light bite and then dive. When you get out of the water, you sit your tank in a designated spot and put away your gear under your seat. They fill the tanks and everything is ready for the next dive, which is after a full breakfast. You repeat this and dive about 3-5 times each day. If you don’t do a dive, you can relax, read a book, nap or work on pictures and camera equipment. The boat may move a little bit throughout the day and so you will dive different spots. At night is usually when they make the major moves. They also usually have land tours to local villages or sites. It is a diver’s paradise and will spoil you.
Have you ever been bit?
I once got bit by an anemone fish (Nemo) when I was too close to her eggs. They have really sharp teeth and it did draw blood. I have suffered a couple of severe jellyfish stings on my neck that really hurt. I also got a hickey from a stingray in the Caymans.
Your work is SO good. Have you ever won any awards for your photography?
Thanks Ricky. Glad you like it. I won The Digital Shootout two years in a row in Bonaire and Little Cayman and have also won awards in several international photography competitions over the years. I also won the photography category in the Cave Creek Film & Arts Festival 2 years in a row and the second year won the people’s choice award. The prizes for these contest include cash, some really nice dive trips and dive/camera equipment. The latest underwater photography competition that I have entered has over $82,000 in prizes!
You are currently living in Scottsdale… that’s the desert. There is no water! If you get the itch, where do you typically go to dive?
Besides pools, I have only been to Fossil Creek, which is about 2 hours north of Phoenix. There I photographed the native fish and scenery and wrote an article that was published in the Arizona Wildlife Views magazine.
When I was learning how to dive, the instructor always said before we got into the water, “Let’s get wet.” I say that EVERY time I get ready to jump in. Do you have any rituals before you jump in?
No cool sayings like that, but I like it! On the liveaboards, they usually say, “the pool is open” and you are free to dive. I always double-check my camera seal so that it doesn’t leak.
What’s the coldest water you have ever dove in?
This trip to the Channel islands just his last October for the Southern California digital shootout. Water was a chilly 63, which the locals said was warm. Screw that… I prefer the warm water, but the diving is California is really good and I will be going back soon.
Speaking of getting wet, what’s your preferred entry method? I prefer the giant stride!
Me too. Back rolls are okay though. I always have to swim back to the boat after jumping in and get my camera though.
You are all over the place… how many stamps are on your passport?
When I was living in Singapore, I filled up all of the pages on my second passport and had to get additional pages. I haven’t counted recently, but my current passport is getting full again. I also have Visa’s for China and Indonesia in there as well.
When you take photos, do you post them as is, or do you take them into Photoshop and clean them up?
Some of colors you see underwater are like no other color you have ever seen before. However, the deeper you go, the darker it is and the more color you lose to the naked eye. But when you add light with a flashlight or the strobes on my camera it brings back the true colors. I am sometimes asked by people viewing one of my exhibits if I enhance or change the color of the marine life in the image. This is often because when they have seen that fish of turtle while snorkeling or in an aquarium, it appeared with less color or a different shade of color. I currently use an SLR digital camera for my photography and shoot all of my images in a RAW digital negative format. Like the earlier slide film that I worked with, RAW files have to be post processed in a “digital” dark room environment using software instead of chemicals. Most of the adjustments made to the image are the same types of adjustments that were made in a traditional darkroom. The goal of my fine art photography is to represent the subject as close to its true colors as possible and allow nature’s palette to shine through. I do not manipulate any of my images by adding elements that were not in the picture.
Do you ever shoot on dry land?
I do and love it. My favorite subject is wildlife and have gotten some of those images published as well. On a recent trip to Canada, I photographed black bears for three days in the wild. I was able to get pretty close to them and captured some awesome shots. Another fun trip was when I took snowmobiles into Yellowstone National Park in the winter. I got some nice images of bighorn sheep, bison, elk, deer and a bald eagle all with a winter wonderland backdrop.
We talked about your scuba gear, but what about your camera gear? I bet you have some pretty high-end cameras and lenses. What all are you shooting with?
My equipment is pretty high end, but not the highest end. I have been shooting with my Nikon D300 DSLR camera in a Sea & Sea housing for the last 3 years and feel really comfortable with it. I use two Sea & Sea 250 strobes and a focus light. On land it weighs about 22 pounds, but under water with some floats it is almost neutral buoyant. Depending on the type of lens you have on the camera, you have a different port on the housing. This means you have to commit to shooting macro or wide angle for the entire dive.
It is definitely not the camera that makes the photographer though. I have been out shot by some camera setups a lot less than mine. There are so many factors that go into a good image. On a recent trip to La Paz, a friend with a point and shoot Canon G12 got a lot better whale shark photo than the one I got and it was her first time diving with that camera. So all it takes to take good images is to be a good diver with excellent buoyancy, have a quality camera that you know how to use, a good eye for composition and lighting, and a little luck never hurts.
There are so many places to dive… but what’s next? Where is the next dive? Are there any places that you have never been but want to visit?
First where I want to go still! Maldives, South Africa for the Sardine run and possible Alaska if I can brave the cold. My next trip this April is to a new place and I am very excited about that trip – Papua New Guinea! I will be on a 10 day live-aboard dive trip and can’t wait. I also hope to explore some the local tribes that live there and get some nice land photographs. And I want to “get wet” with Mr. Ricky Lee Potts in the near future. Maybe we could get some cool images of you underwater that you can share with your followers!
We have been talking about scuba diving and photographs all day… but what else do you like to do? What other hobbies do you have?
I really enjoy flyfishing and hiking. Actually anything outdoors I love. I like golf, but I am just a hacker and enjoy being outside. I also love to travel and experience new places, culture and food.
Speaking of golf… diving is like golf… something you can do forever. Do you see yourself diving your way into retirement?
Absolutely! My dad was able to dive pretty late in life, but had to stop after he damaged his ear drum. I have been diving with people in their 80s before. So as long as I am healthy enough, I will dive!
Man, I feel like I could ask you questions all day. This has been fun… we need to go diving soon! In all of the interviews that I do, I always give the artist last word. Go.
Life is short so make the most of it. I have been fortunate to pursue my passions and experience some wonderful places in my life. Another one of my passions is preserving the ocean and all of its inhabitants. I also use my art to increase awareness of the reefs and marine life. The oceans support a diverse and important marine ecosystem which humans depend on. Over the years I have been diving, I have witnessed the deterioration of reefs, decreased fish populations and the decimating practice of shark finning. I hope that by people seeing my images, they will take more of an interest in the conservation of this fragile natural resource. Shark finning kills tens of thousands of sharks every year and is senseless. Please do not support any establishment that serves shark fin soup. Thanks for this interview Ricky and I look forward to getting wet with you soon!