One of the scuba world’s most well-known underwater photographers, William Tan has been exploring our oceans since 1994. When he’s not playing the violin with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (the full-time gig), he’s off diving and taking photos of marine life. His specialty? Capturing the behaviour of fascinating critters all over the world – something which, the man will admit, requires plenty of patience and time.
Q: You seem to have a penchant for behavioural underwater photography. How did this come about?
A: Long ago, I attended a presentation by behavioural guru Ned DeLoach when we were both invited to play judge at a certain underwater photography competition. Despite the horrifying colours from the rundown projector, the subjects in his unique images did not fail to impress. I thought to myself, “I want my photos to be like that, too!”. Ned and his wife Anna were so kind, they let me dive with them on numerous occasions, and groomed me to become the photographer I am today.
Q: Tell us about your most memorable experience as a diver/underwater photographer.
A: I was in Manado years ago when I received a call on Boxing Day from Mimpi Indah Resort on Bangka Island. It was about a rescued baby dugong. Needless to say, I immediately rushed over and spent two days with this dugong. It was an orphan, estimated to be only two months old, and it was recovering from severe malnutrition and had cuts on its body that’d been caused by the ropes that were used to tie her to a jetty. The kind resort owner of Mimpi Indah had convinced the local government to order the baby’s release from a local fisherman, and took on the responsibility of returning it to its mother.
To have a baby dugong in your arms is pure heaven, but having to endure its stinking breath at the same time was something else. When I left the resort, I decided the images I took were not of “publication quality” and quickly arranged a return visit to the resort for another two days. Until today, I have yet to figure out whether that was just an excuse to spend more time with the little dugong… you be the judge!
Q: What are some of your favourite dive destinations?
A: I think everyone goes through phases of wanting to shoot different animals at different periods of time. Right now, my current favourites are:
Ambon – Probably the best place to shoot the brilliantly hued (but nightmarishly fast) flasher wrasse. The very deep bay also holds many surprises; many species that live here are still unknown to science.
Anilao – Similar to Ambon, many undescribed species of marine life are still waiting to be discovered here. During the months when the waters turn cold, the entire reef is usually covered with rare nudibranchs. The sites for wide-angle photography are truly beautiful, too!
Sri Lanka – I like the fact that my operator let his clients in the water at a good distance from the whales, giving these gentle giants time to react and decide whether to dive down, turn away, or come a little closer for a brief interaction (I was told some irresponsible operators drop their divers right beside or on top of the whales). The trick here is to swim into the whales’ path and then stop all forms of movement and wait. The few times when the whales were curious enough to approach, they came within touching distance, filling up the entire frame of my fisheye lens.
Q: Any tips or words of advice for fellow underwater photographers out there?
A: Shoot. And then keep shooting. If you think you have shot enough, shoot some more! It is through these repetitions that one will be able to identify his or her own mistakes and learn from them.
Q: Are you currently working on anything? Any underwater photography projects we can look forward to?
A: I have just finished shooting a set of promotional images for Canon to use for the launch of the new EOS-1D X Mark II. It was a huge challenge to get quality images within a very tight time frame so I am taking things easy now. This June, I’ll be exploring Tubbataha for the first time and relaxing and diving with close friends in Malapascua and Anilao before I start leading workshops organised by Nauticam, Siladen Resort and Spa, and Arenui Liveaboard.
For more of William’s work, follow him on Facebook.