He is passionate about diving, about underwater photography and about conserving marine life. And he calls the ocean his home. Sumer Verma shares his love for the marine world with Samira Sukhija.
This article was originally published in September 2008.
Imagine that you are somewhere deep in the ocean. You can see the sunlight rippling on the ocean floor while exotic, colourful marine creatures swim all around you. And you experience this as naturally as living life on earth. I experienced the same feeling, fleetingly so, while viewing Sumer Verma’s underwater photographs, over a cup of coffee on a rainy day.
From October to May every year, Sumer is at Lakshadweep, teaching diving to people who are fascinated by the oceans. Over the years, he has gotten comfortable with the water, and considers it his home. “Some people say that if you take the camera you miss the dive and the moment because you are always trying to get the picture. But I feel one with the ocean, and carrying a camera does not change my diving experience”, he explains.
Sharing the Beauty of the Ocean
Sumer passionately talks about what takes him back to the ocean every time. “The ocean is a dream world. When you see things like this, you want to share it with people. Not what I am seeing, but what is there—as nature made it.” The way the light enters the water, the mood it creates, and the etherealness makes photography in the ocean a beautiful experience for him.
Making Images Underwater
To be able to bring back images from the ocean, one needs to know how to work with the medium. Shooting marine life up-close is important, because the sea is really a big blue filter. So, one needs to work with a wide-angle lens, macro lens and even strobe lights at that depth, to be able to capture the colours and details that we don’t see normally. He relates an interesting example. “I’ve seen a shrimp so many times, but I noticed its colours only in the photographs.”
However, this is not the case with shallow waters because the natural sunlight is sufficient to make good exposures. “But you do need to add warming filters in front of your lens while shooting, to deal with the blue and green hues of shallow waters”, he advises. “It should not be done in post-processing. That should be restricted to dealing with backscatter and dust particles, or to enhance colours.”
Apart from the lights and lenses, underwater photography also requires an expensive underwater housing to protect the camera. So, it can seem cumbersome to the photographer because he is overloaded with equipment. But Sumer says, “The equipment becomes weightless in the water. Of course it helps if you are a comfortable scuba diver and have basic training in handling the equipment.”
Interacting with Marine Creatures
Underwater creatures can be hard to photograph, as they move around too quickly. If a diver gets too excited, their sudden movements can scare them away. His technique to deal with this is simple: “Breathe calmly. Keep the camera away. Make eye contact with the creature. Once it gets used to you, slowly bring out the camera and shoot a picture.” Understanding animal behaviour is also important. Sumer gives the Manta Ray as an example. “You should know when to move alongside it, rather than towards it, to get the correct moment and angle. Or you will end up with a side-angle shot.”
Saving Nature’s Bounty
If there is one thing apart from the ocean that Sumer is passionate about, it is about conservation. “With the way the planet is going, problems like global warming are real. It is going to become worse. We are going to make it worse”, he justifies. Sumer strongly believes that education goes a long way in increasing awareness. When he is teaching diving to his students, he speaks to them about conservation. After all, “Diving is not just a technique, it is a technique of the sea”, he says. “When people are already moved by the beauty of the ocean, and have become positive about protecting nature, it becomes easier to convey that we are all very much part of the process. Earth is limited in its resources, and we are plundering it at a greater rate than it can recuperate. Nothing is going to be left. There will only be images left to show. That WAS a puffer fish. That WAS a live coral reef. Where is it now? Now it doesn’t exist!” Sumer opines that if he has the energy for it, he would love to do underwater photography for another decade. And for him, the road ahead is to make himself worthy of the art form that is photography. “I’m definitely looking at the aesthetic part of my work. Compared to what I was shooting earlier, today I have developed an artistic aptitude to make more appealing pictures. And that’s the direction I want to continue taking, even in the future.”
Tips by Sumer
• Photographs need to grab attention—even if it’s a dead shark, photograph it beautifully.
• Use wide-angle lenses. Get closer to capture colours and shoot wide enough to capture the entire creature.
• Know how to react to animals, predict their movements and give them their space.
He has been a diver for eleven years and is a Course Director at Lacadives, a scuba diving school in Lakshadweep. He is video documentary on dying coral reefs called Troubled Waters received international recognition. • A chance mishap with his video equipment set him on the path to still underwater photography in 2005.
Tags: better photography, Profile, Samira Pillai, Samira Sukhija, sept 2008, SUMER VERMA, Underwater Photography