Focus on Matty Smith

5 mins read
14 Jan 2022

Underwater Photographer of 2022 for Great Britain Matty Smith, is actually a resident of Newcastle, NSW. However, his camera takes him all around the world. We spoke to Matty after his win in February and asked him for his top tips on capturing the perfect aquatic image.

Matty Smith’s winning photograph of a great white shark

1. Know Your Subject

Understanding the nature and habits of the marine creature you are photographing is the place to start. Matty’s award winning shot is of that magnificent underwater predator, the great white shark.

“A very charismatic and calm shark.” Who’d have thought!

Matty specialises in what are called ‘over-under’ shots. That is, the lens cutting the surface of the water to show above and below the surface. The effect creates a connection between the human point-of-view above the water and the marine creature below the water. It’s like being given an insider glimpse of their world, a privileged peek below the surface. However, when it is of a great white shark, all the human fears of attack are captured in an image that makes the viewer feel both vulnerable and fascinated.

Image courtesy of Matty Smith.

Yet Matty offers a different view on his subject.

“I needed, most importantly, a non-aggressive yet curious shark,” Matty says, revealing his understanding that a great white is more than an aggressive killer. His research took him to the North Neptune Islands off the south coast of Australia. There the elements aligned for him: calm, clear water and a curious shark. Matty describes it, surprisingly, as, “A very charismatic and calm shark”. Who’d have thought!

2. A Reliable Camera

Of course, this is a no-brainer. There is considerable commitment involved in wildlife photography which your tech must support. After research, travel and set-up the last thing you want to happen is for your camera to fail.

Hawks Bill turtle hatchling by Matty Smith using his over-under technique.

“Nikon has never let me down,” says Matty. Attached to his Nikon DSLR camera body he favours the Nikon 14-24mm f2.8 S lens. This is one of the lightest zoom lenses of its size, which is convenient for lugging to location. It boasts clarity and sharpness across the breadth of the lens.

Nikon is an expensive brand favoured by many professional photographers. Yet expense need not prohibit you from taking a great shot. For the amateur enthusiast, being in the right place at the right time can be enough. This means research and commitment. Having a trusty camera that you know how to use to get a sharp, well-lit image, will serve you just as well as a top-of-the-range product.

Matty’s control of light and dark create a striking underwater work of art.

3. Make It Your Own

This is what we are interested in for the Gowings Whale Trust whale watching competition. We want to see your take on the magnificent humpback whale in its natural environment.

For Matty Smith, this means his over-under technique. His first major break came in 2014 when he used this technique to produce a stunning and original portfolio featuring the Pacific Man of War bluebottle. This collection won him the Australian Geographic Nature Shot of the Year and Wildlife Photographer of the Year; plus first, second and third place in Ocean Geographic Photo of the Year. These awards helped him gain a Nikon sponsorship. He was invited to lecture, teach and shoot all around the world, taking his fulltime hobby to a fulltime career.

One of Matty Smith’s 2014 Pacific Man of War bluebottle series.

You can’t control nature.

However, there is more to Matty’s creative prowess than this technique. To achieve a clear over-under shot he designed and constructed his own underwater housing accessories to compliment his Aquatica Digital Housing. The winning underwater shark shot was taken with his own 12″ waterproof domeport, carrying a pole-mounted mirrorless Nikon camera. Matty specialises in constructing underwater housings and credits his technical innovation with pushing his photography to a higher level.

Australian seals by Matty Smith

Yet these techniques are just a part of Matty’s brilliance. Importantly, his shots are luminous, clear and beautifully composed in glowing colours, skilfully balancing light and dark. Matty’s framing and shot selection are as important as the over-under technique.

Take Your Best Shot

Crucially, making it your own means making your image a representation of how you see things. The camera is just an extension of your own vision. Matty believes that a successful shot is well planned. Make sure your weather conditions are suitable and find the best vantage point. Make sure the tide is right, the water clear and the sun is in the best position to illuminate your shot without glare. Planning a perfect shot for Matty can take days, even weeks.

“You can’t control nature. Focus on what you can control, on what you want. Do everything you can to set up the shot,” he says.

Most importantly, the shot needs to be well-planned. Image courtesy of Matty Smith.

A Picture of Pollution

Of course, it is important that the water contain healthy creatures to be photographed. Over 10 years of underwater photographs Matty has noticed more pollution, destroying the ocean environment.

“You can tell if it’s not a marine parkland. The big megafauna are very, very hard to find.”

Giant cuttlefish by Matty Smith.

Indeed, there is a noticeable difference across all species, as organisations like Greenpeace are reporting. Despite exponential coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, there are still some areas of healthy coral. This is in stark contrast to reefs in countries where there are fewer marine parklands. Yet we must heed the warnings and protect our reef, knowing that ocean environments all over the world are struggling.

It wouldn’t be an underwater story without clown fish! Thanks Matty, for beautiful images.

What Can I Do?

You can help by supporting environmental activists campaigning to save our marine environments, like Sea Shepherd, Greenpeace and WWF. Many dive organisations, like PADI, are also joining the campaign to save our oceans. Surf brands are getting on board with ocean environmentalism. GWT sponsor, international surf hardware manufacturer FCS, donates 1% of all their sales to the Gowings Whale Trust.

You can help protect this magical environment. Image courtesy of Matty Smith.

Listen to what Matty Smith has to say about his winning underwater photograph and visit his website to check out other images and his workshops.

Enter your own whale photo in the GWT Whale Watching Photo Competition and win fab prizes!

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