Martin Stevens: From Amateur to Professional

Martin Stevens underwater photography

In our interview series “From Amateur to Professional” we will be asking established nature photographers to share their photos and see how their practices have developed, changed, and improved over time. 

You’ll get to see the progression of their images, learn how they got started, and find out how they transitioned from amateur to professional.

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Award-winning underwater photographer and marine biologist Martin Stevens captivatingly captures the UK’s marine environment, bringing the beauty and diversity of wildlife found in these waters closer to viewers around the world.

Joining us today, we talk about Martin’s journey into underwater photography, explore his work, talk about challenges and advice, and more!

When and why did you first catch the nature photography bug?

I’ve been taking photographs for many years; as a young child used an old second-hand film camera I was given for photographing landscapes, nature, and people.

Martin Stevens underwater photography

I then drifted in and out of wildlife photography as spare time permitted, but it was during the pandemic that I became ultra-passionate about wildlife, especially underwater photography.

Show us one of the first images you ever took. What did you think of it at the time compared to now?

This is a photograph of a pair of shield bug nymphs from my mum’s garden, taken with my first digital camera.

Martin Stevens underwater photography

I’ve always been fascinated with colour in nature. My day job is as a biologist who studies animal vision and colouration, and so although it’s hardly the greatest wildlife image anyone would come across, I’m personally still fond of it.

Show us 2 of your favourite photos – one from your early days, and one from your professional career. Why do you like them, what made you so proud of them, and how do you feel about the older image now?

I still consider myself an amateur, albeit incredibly passionate about wildlife and photography, but the main transition for me was from taking snapshots to photographs in which I try to aim for both wildlife and art imagery (often with varied success).

Martin Stevens underwater photography

The older image is of a spiny starfish taken with a GoPro from a few years ago, and the second is of a catshark in the morning sunshine. Both were taken freediving and at wide angle, close to where I live in Cornwall.

Martin Stevens underwater photography

The catshark image is one I think sums up my approach to wide angle images: shallow water, sunbeams and lots of natural light, and trying to show the animal and its environment.

The starfish image is a photo I’m still very fond of, and at the time it was very popular and part of the reason I felt people really related to some of the photos I was taking, even if they were simple images.

I’ve learnt a lot about composition and image processing since then, but it’s still true to the type of photos I always wanted to create.

Was there a major turning point in your photography career – a eureka moment of sorts?

I think there were two. The first was when I started to move away from ID style photos and snapshots to capture more aesthetics in my images and to show the wider scene or habitat.

Martin Stevens underwater photography

The photos in truth were nothing amazing but I was taken aback by the positive reception I received from people when sharing them.

UK wildlife, especially marine life, hasn’t always received enough attention and people seemed really surprised at how beautiful it is. I realised that there was a lot to show of our underwater environments through photography (and there are lots of other fantastic UK underwater photographers doing this too).

The second was not specifically a eureka moment but really a series of step changes where I increasingly began to try and make my photography more artistic.

Martin Stevens underwater photography

I read books, magazines, looked at a lot of other photographers’ work online, joined the British Society for Underwater Photographers, and started to enter photography competitions all to try and work towards taking more artistic photos and gain feedback and inspiration.

It’s an ongoing process and I have much to learn, but when I look back at my photos I can see clear changes over time in my approach, technical skill, and style.

Are there any species, places, or subjects that you have re-visited over time? Could you compare images from your first and last shoot of this? Explain what’s changed in your approach and technique.

I’m very lucky to live in Cornwall, just a 15-minute walk from the beach, and one of the best snorkel and dive spots in the UK.

Correspondingly, the overwhelming majority of my photos come from around Falmouth, with the transition from ID-style shots to the photos I take now all from this place – including the GoPro photo of the starfish to my more recent images.

Martin Stevens underwater photography

I’ve changed setups over time, from the GoPro to a compact Canon camera, to my current set-up (an Olympus EM5 Mark III with various lenses) but it’s always been a case of trying to maximise what I can achieve with each setup, and since I take photos in lots of ways, from freediving and scuba diving to shallow rock pools, I’ve always wanted a setup that is not too heavy or bulky.

The biggest change has been to combine photos showing the creatures and seascapes in the natural environment in a way that is more artistic or aesthetically appealing rather than snapshots, and gradually learning approaches to do this.

Martin Stevens underwater photography

And to be much more selective about picking subjects and circumstances that would hopefully allow me to create better photos.

The other major advantage to going back to the same place repeatedly is that it greatly aids field craft, and simply knowing what is likely to be around where, and when. I plan a lot of my images, and fieldcraft is invaluable for that.

Has anything changed in regards to how you process and edit your images?

I mostly use Lightroom and have over time gradually learnt to use a wider range of tools. Perhaps the biggest change is in using the suite of tools available more effectively for each specific photograph and the style I want to create, rather than relying on making similar changes to every image.

Martin Stevens underwater photography

I consider RAW files like negatives that need some processing, but I generally don’t do a great deal in Lightroom beyond the basics and in moderation – but if needed, I’m better able to use gradients and masks and other approaches to tweak parts of images for exposure and suchlike to more effectively get the most out of them.

Martin Stevens underwater photography

I might push changes a little further for some types of more artistic image, but I’ll always try to achieve effects and styles in camera first. 

What was the biggest challenge you faced starting out, and what’s your biggest challenge now?

I’m self-taught so the main challenge was mostly in researching and learning the fundamental techniques and from there what approaches can be used to make more pleasing images.

Martin Stevens underwater photography

Now, I’m more aware of resources and others to learn from, but I’m absolutely still learning. One of the biggest challenges is in trying not to get stuck in a rut of doing the same things and taking similar types of photos, especially as many of the subjects I have locally are the same species.

Martin Stevens underwater photography

I have to keep looking for ways to push creativity further and try new things, and to generally keep learning from others.

What’s the one piece of advice that you would give yourself if you could go back in time?

I’m honestly mostly very happy with my journey so far, in part because the process itself, including my mistakes and bad photos, is how I’ve learnt!

Martin Stevens underwater photography

But I could have spent more time learning about composition sooner, and more time looking at the work of others early on. In particular, in my macro work, I spent quite a while taking mostly ID style or routine shots.

Nothing wrong with doing that, but my macro photography was definitely an area where creativity took longer.

Martin Stevens underwater photography

Otherwise, I’d try to pay less attention to what might be perceived to do well on social media and being hesitant to share things I thought might do less well – it’s just not the best guide to what makes a good photo, especially in these days of short videos. 

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