Henley Spiers: Capturing That Underwater ‘Wow’ Factor

Henley Spiers is a renowned underwater photographer, writer, and expedition leader who has fast become one of the most highly decorated wildlife image-makers in the world. 

Henley’s award-winning and widely published work invites viewers to embark on a journey around the world through his photography, showcasing both the wonders and conservation issues present in our oceans today.

Currently installed as the first-ever Storyteller in Residence for Oceanographic Magazine, Henley joins us today to talk about inspiration, planning processes, and capturing that ‘wow’ factor.

It’s great to catch up with you; we’ve been avidly following your work over the years! For those who don’t know you, can you introduce yourself?

Hello! My name is Henley Spiers, and I work as an underwater photographer, storyteller, and expedition leader.

henley spiers

I’m half-British and half-French, and I live in Devon – although my work takes me all over the globe.

Having been around the ocean and diving from a young age, how does this early connection inspire your work today?

I grew up landlocked as I was mostly raised in the Oxfordshire countryside, so proximity to the ocean wasn’t a daily part of my upbringing.

I did benefit from early exposure to snorkelling (which I probably started around 6 years old) and scuba diving (my first dive came at 11 years old) – but those experiences came on holiday and were far from regular.

Henley Spiers

I do recall loving snorkelling and feeling as if I could swim and explore for hours on end…but I don’t think there was anything obvious in me at a young age where you could see what the future would bring.

On the one hand, I wish I could lay claim to this steadfast connection to the ocean from the earliest years, but on another hand, I think it’s an important reminder that you can change your life and find your vocation later on.

Spending time in the ocean was one of many hobbies I enjoyed but the feeling it gave me ended up being impossible to ignore.

Henley Spiers

At 25 years of age, I quit a promising corporate career in London to become a divemaster on a tropical island. It was an unusual and eyebrow-raising move, but proved to be the right one.

I had found my happy place; working in the ocean I finally felt at home. After several years as a dive professional, I fell head over heels for underwater photography and then took another leap of faith into a career as a professional image-maker.

When photographing wildlife under the waves, what planning process do you go through to capture your images?

I think once under the waves I’m a fairly instinctive shooter – I like to be very responsive to the wildlife and follow inspiration as it strikes.

Henley Spiers

Before that point, there is usually a tremendous amount of time spent preparing everything from logistics to equipment, and my physical fitness.

It’s a measure of just how incredibly rewarding these relatively brief moments of natural wonder can be that it still feels worthwhile to literally spend days or weeks planning for them.

What do you hope viewers will think and feel when seeing your work?

As long as they feel something I will be satisfied – the worst would be indifference.

Henley Spiers

Beyond that, the freedom of interpretation is vital to the enjoyment, disgust, or any other emotion prompted by a visual and I wouldn’t seek to be dictatorial about it.

It can be fascinating to listen to people’s reactions to pictures which are sometimes completely and wonderfully removed from what I see as the creator.

Henley Spiers

The most powerful images, just like music, can have a unifying appeal – it doesn’t matter how old you are, whether you’ve ever been in the ocean, you look at the photograph and just get it.

One of my favourite things is to show pictures to my young daughters and hear their reactions – if they understand the picture, it passes the test!

The old adage ‘every picture tells a story’ lends itself perfectly to your photography. As we move into the new year, do you have a particular story or project you are working on?

Thank you! I am currently installed as the first ever Storyteller in Residence for Oceanographic Magazine which is supported by a grant from Arksen whereby the recipient tells several ocean stories over twelve months.

Henley Spiers

The first of these, on protecting Scottish seas, has just been published and will be followed up by a story on Mexico’s sea lions.

I am now in the midst of shooting and researching for the last three stories in this role which will involve whales, the Galapagos islands, and the open ocean…

We’ve heard you say before that you don’t tend to look back, but rather look forward to the future, to new learnings, and to new sights to see. Does this way of thinking manifest itself in your photography?

Gosh, I’m not sure…I am driven by the desire to deliver original work and would hate to feel that my imagery had gone stale. In that sense, yes, I am not interested in repeating myself and am pushed to keep showing something new with my pictures.

But in order to do that, I think you also need to look back and be culturally aware of the photography which has come before.

Henley Spiers

I studied history at university and I continue to be fascinated by the origins of things.

I love looking at books and work by great underwater photographers – I find their imagery gets stored on an internal database of pictures, one I refer to for both inspiration and to know what has already been done. 

What is the most rewarding part of being an underwater photographer? And what’s the most challenging?

The great reward is spending time in the water with animals who will often allow far more intimate approaches than their topside counterparts.

Henley Spiers

Imagine going on a safari but all of the animals were within touching distance, and you felt safe in their company!

The most challenging part is the water, it robs photographs of colour and clarity, and you need special gear to keep your camera dry and functioning.

You also need specialised equipment and training to go underwater.

Henley Spiers

Once there, the water robs your body of heat whilst the weight of it does crazy and life-risking things to your body and the gases you breath – all of which limits the time you have there.

Oh and the water moves with currents and wind, making visits even more complicated…

As a judge and winner of several notable photography awards, what goes through your mind when selecting an image that could go on to win awards?

There has to be an ‘it’ factor, something unique and compelling – the recipe beyond that is difficult to define.

I believe we all have an innate artistic sense, and even if we can’t explain it – there is a guttural reaction to something beautiful or surprising which is nearly universal in the strongest of images.

To get there is rare, but you should feel that ‘wow’ when reviewing the picture…and then if it is mirrored in the reaction of others, maybe you have something special and a good candidate for competitions.

With a mastery of fine art photographs, what do you feel is a key element to consider when creating images that suit this style of work?

I don’t have a set answer for this…a few years ago, I was really inspired by minimalistic black and white underwater scenes. Today, I find myself more inspired by colour and by scenes which have greater complexity.

Henley Spiers

For a more fine art picture, it can be useful to ask yourself if you could imagine it hanging on a wall. That can help to draw a line between the type of images which are more suited to nature as fine art.

For instance, some of my favourite images depict scenes which have a more documentary style and I could never envisage putting them up on a wall…these suit a magazine story but are not fine art style images.

You are also well known for your underwater work in black and white. Do you think in monochrome when shooting in the moment or do you find images that convert well after a shoot?

A bit of both…sometimes I can “see” the scene in monochrome in the moment, and sometimes it is only unlocked when editing the file later.

Henley Spiers

What I always carry with me is an appreciation that colour still controls a black-and-white image – so when I see a scene separated into clear blocks of different colours, I know that a black-and-white conversion could have promise as I can play with the brightness of those colour spectrums in greyscale.

From shooting in the warm waters in the likes of the Philippines and Bali, to shooting in the UK’s more temperate seas, does a shift in temperatures impact your mobility and creativity in the moment?

The added layers of thermals layers, drysuit, and extra weights definitely impact your mobility in cooler water. It is much more liberating to be in warm water with nothing but board shorts, but do that in the North Sea and you won’t last 5 minutes!

Henley Spiers

So it’s less straightforward but by no means debilitating. If you do get very cold, that can kill your creativity…which is why you want all that gear to feel comfortable.

Once your hands are frozen and even changing the aperture dial feels like an effort, your brain cells aren’t functioning at the highest levels of inspiration!

What advice would you give to aspiring underwater photographers to help them grow their confidence in this niche?

Find a way to get in the water as much as possible. Grow your confidence operating in the water and your understanding of the environment.

Henley Spiers

If you look at the background for most of the top underwater photographers, they started as either marine biologists or dive professionals – I’d argue those prior careers helped them to get access to the underwater environment and was vital to their eventual transition to professional photography. 

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