How does a recreational diving course turn into a lifelong career, both intellectually, professionally and romantically?
To get an answer to that question, I interviewed the German nature photographer Georg Nies. At the NPOTY contest 2021 he was winner in the category ‘Under Water’. Through the years Georg found the perfect way to combine his big passions – underwater photography and marine biology – with his professional life. He became the German representative for SEACAM underwater photo gear. He is a diving instructor. And he is organizing workshops for underwater photography in the most beautiful places in the world. So it is fair to say he spends most of his time under the water. And when he does spend time on land, he loves to photograph big cats in Africa.
Georg has been photographing underwater for more than 30 years now. He loves to go diving with his wife and their three daughters, two of whom are also photographing under water. But much to his regret none of them is willing to model in his photos. Time to learn more about this enthusiastic and environmentally friendly underwater photographer.
A soft coral against artificial background, Red Sea, Egypt, © Georg Nies
Georg grew up in the middle of Germany, far away from oceans, seas and other open waters. As a child he had no special interest in the underwater world. At the age of 23, a friend invited him to take a recreational diving course together in Italy. Part of this course was an introduction in marine biology. They learned about the complexity of the underwater world, how the circle of life works under the surface and they began to identify species. During this course, he not only became intrigued by the underwater world, but also met his future wife, who took the course together with him. Back in Germany, he started studying marine biology in Kiel to learn more about the fascinating marine life. He completed his studies with a doctorate in Limnology (Fresh Water Biology).
A window in the wreck of the Numidia, Brother Island, Egypt, © Georg Nies
Nevertheless, his initial interest in photography had nothing to do with water. It started with an apprenticeship at a long-established specialist shop in Cologne. Now he is running the SEACAM competence center in Germany, specialized in underwater camera equipment, for the last 10 years. And he also organizes trips and workshops all over the world. Whether in Mexico, in the Maldives, on the coast of South Africa or Egypt, he is happy to share all his knowledge with the participants and having fascinating stories to tell from 30 years of underwater experience.
Small blenny on a shell, Jackson Reef, Egypt, © Georg Nies
“I started using the camera underwater in a documentary way, taking pictures of species to identify and document them. In 2006 I took a course with Kurt Amsler, a famous Swiss underwater photographer, in the south of France, in the area where Jacques Cousteau made his first films. In this course I was thought how to take interesting and creative underwater photos. This was a turning point for me and completely changed my approach to underwater photography.
And as I run the SEACAM Competency Center, I have the privilege to talk to SEACAM Ambassadors visiting Germany, giving me the opportunity to discuss with them. I also organize workshops, where I bring together the best German underwater photographers and have them explain everything about the techniques they use.”
Engine room of the Giannis D, wreck in Egypt, Red Sea, Egypt, © Georg Nies
“Of course there are many inspiring photographers. Like for instance Kurt Amsler, David Doubilet, Imran Ahmad, Amos Nachoum, Aaron Wang, Ace Wu, Christoph Gerigk and Tobias Friedrich.
For me, Laurent Ballesta is one of the most inspiring photographers today. This famous underwater photographer, author and wildlife photographer of the year 2021 is among others the expedition leader of The Gombessa expeditions. These expeditions are intended to testify to the inaccessible mysteries of the underwater world through innovative diving methods.
And together with the famous wildlife photographer Vincent Munier, he photographed the treasures of the immense Antarctic nature reserve. They shared their photographic impressions in an incredible book called: Adélie – terre et mer.”
Detail of a feather star, Halmahera, Indonesia, © Georg Nies
“Underwater photography is totally different. To start with you must always bare in mind that you have to survive. And the deeper you dive, the harder it gets physically. About halve your brain is occupied with survival routines, the other halve is available for photography.
Add to this the fact that underwater photography is technically totally different. I think it is much more difficult than photography on land. To begin with you need a good housing for your camera, allowing you to hand dial aperture, shutter speed and ISO. You are forced to use strobe, because of the lack of ambient light. But the light metering in the camera is not accurate under water. Plus you are mixing ambient light with strobe light, so getting a correct exposure is tricky. And with the ambient light loosing one stop every 10 meters you need good cameras to deal with the high iso’s.
Finally the position of the strobes is important. If the strobes are too close to the lens or the angle of the light is wrong, the artificial light will highlight the little backscattering particles and ruin your photo.
But the absolute most important thing is that you stick to the rules for ethic photography, even when these rules are still unwritten. You have to make sure you always photograph in an environmentally friendly way. Tampering with animals and the environment to get a good picture must be avoided at all times.”
Tail of a lionfish, Maledives, © Georg Nies
“With that said it is time to prepare for a photo trip. The way I prepare myself totally depends on the journey I have planned. Normally when you go to an interesting diving area, the local diving guide will tell you what you can expect. And you just go into the water and see what happens. The only thing you have to decide up front is what lens you will use; a macro or a wide angle lens.
The preparation is totally different if you go out to find and photograph specific species like sharks, whales, or the like. Through the years a lot of knowledge about the whereabouts of these species is gathered by scientists and underwater photographers. So if you know what you want to photograph you know where to go. Mantas for instance are known to gather in huge numbers at so called cleaning stations where little fish eat the parasites.
On these trips you don’t just go into the water and see what happens. You work with local dive guides. Things like the whereabouts of species and which local guides to use are common knowledge in the small community of underwater photographers. Furthermore there are specialized tour operators to help you plan and execute these kind of trips.”
Longimanus, Brother Island, Egypt, © Georg Nies
“Typical for my kind of work is the abundant use colors. Many times underwater photos are dominated by “a lot blue”. When you look at the selected photos in the category ‘Under Water’ you will see that mine was the most colorful one.
When I am in the water I like to play around with my gear. I try to do creative things like using a slave strobe to backlit the scene. Or I like to use tools to create bokeh, which is not easy under water. And I am doing UV fluorescence photography, which is even harder under water than on land.”
Arm of a feather star against artificial background, Forgotten Island, Indonesia,
© Georg Nies
“With my photography I want to show how beautiful nature is, especially nature under water. This world is so different from the one we know above the surface of the water, and I am happy to share it with those who are unfamiliar with it or who do not have the resources or capabilities to explore this fascinating world.
I regularly give lectures about the underwater world. And during these speeches I pay attention to what is going wrong in our natural world. But I always document these stories with photos that show the beauty of nature. Because showing the beauty of nature is necessary to arouse the interest of your audience. And then you can tell the story around it, what we’re doing wrong and where it’s leading, knowing they’re listening. By showing the ugliness and the effects of our behavior on nature to the public, you make people look away and automatically stop listening.”
A large soft coral with surgeon fish, Forgotten Island, Indonesia, © Georg Nies
“For me taking part in photography contests like Nature Photographer of the Year is especially inspiring. I think it is important to look at the previous editions to see which photos win and compare them with your own photos. Looking at other photos gives an opportunity to discover and learning, and getting new ideas. It is almost like a workshop to me.
I haven’t signed up for the 2022 edition of NPOTY yet, but I definitely will. And I expect it to be with something different than what people are used to from me.
To those who have little or no experience with photography contest I would say it is important that your image tells a story. The worst thing is hearing people say: “Oh…it is a picture of a lion!” Instead people should say: “Oh…it is a beautiful picture!”. Realize that good photography is about story telling instead of documenting subjects.”
In a small mountain lake in the Alps, Austria, © Georg Nies
“During the pandemic we were not allowed to travel, so I could not go anywhere, didn’t get into the water. I only did some photography close to home. Besides it was not good for business because customers could not go anywhere either. I could not organize underwater photography workshops. I think of it as two complicated years.”
Soft Corall and a tunicate in a small cave, Raja Ampat, Indonesia © Georg Nies
At the end of the interview I asked Georg the question: “if you could ask another nature photographer one question, who would that be and which question would you ask?
Georg answered right away: “It would be Laurent Ballesta, the underwater photographer I mentioned before. He is organizing outstanding trips, doing real expeditions and extreme things like Jacques Cousteau did in his days. He is not that old but already a legend. I would ask him: “Can I join you on your next trip?”.”
Screw sabella - Sabella spallanzanii, Malta © Georg Nies