An interview with Daniel Botelho

Daniel’s mola mola image that was selected on one of the 25 awe inspiring images of 2012 by AOL.

Wetpixel: Hi Daniel, congratulations on your mola mola image being selected as cover of AOL awe-inspiring images of 2012. Where was it shot? I gather the image was “lost”, how did you rediscover it?

Daniel: Thank you very much! I couldn´t believe it when I saw it as the cover, representing all 25 images of 2012. The photo was made off-shore of San Diego, California and indeed after the expedition I thought that I disliked it and left it on the “lost souls drawer”. However, after two years I decided to review some of my essays and rediscovered it.

Wetpixel: Your accomplishments seem to increase year on year. What was you best trip of 2012? Best trip photographically?

Daniel: The best was without doubt the great white sharks “out of the cage” trip and it was both the biggest challenge and the best experience. I was there under assignment to Walt Disney Company and as a safety diver for adventurous clients keen to leave the cage for a while. My challenge was to make a composition of diver and shark both face to face with shark as first perspective which was quite a demanding request.

Wetpixel: You seem to travel widely. How many trips did you do this year?

Daniel: I never spend more than nine months out of home and not less than seven months out of home per year.

Wetpixel: What have you got planned for 2013? How do you plan your trips? Do you tend to go to new (to you) sites, or re-visit ones that you have been to before?

Daniel: It is very unlikely for me to return to a place I´ve worked before, unfortunately. The exception to this are very special places that can offer a wide variety of story lines to work with and can hence be visited frequently. I tend to focus my expeditions much more on the subject than on the site, but prior to arranging trips what I do is deep research on local statistics regarding animal action, averages for better visibility and weather, among others. About what I got planned for 2013: Wait for the surprise!

Daniel working (Image by Jim Abernethy).

Wetpixel: Are you more productive at sites that you know well, or sites that you are visiting for the first time?

Daniel: I have full statistics to measure my efficacy and the rate of images taken versus images sold is very tricky to determine exactly, but necessary from a business perspective like in any company. I have to follow my goals for the assignment, and this is always 15% to 18%, however if I am in the Okavango Delta with very murky water and very few encounters with crocodiles, 15% would be fine, but with blue water and “easier” subjects, the minimum accepted is 18%. For me no matter where you are or what kind of animal you dealing with, it is all about being ready for the golden second, the image that you can only take once, it is more about me and my camera and of course the opportunity of being in the water with the subject.

Wetpixel: Where is your favorite dive site (if you had to choose one)? Why?

Daniel: Come on, one is too difficult to choose! Let me do three:

Why? Because these are the best shark diving I have ever done in my life and I just love it!!!!

Ready for great whites!

Wetpixel: How long have been taking photographs? Underwater? When did you start pursuing underwater photography as a career?

Daniel: I started my photography addiction 18 years ago at the age of 14 when I did a backpacking trip across the entire US and came back home with 80 rolls of 36 exposures. I started shooting underwater 16 years ago but professionally only six years ago. I got my first assignment when I was aged 26.

Wetpixel: I know that you work with (for?) National Geographic (NG). What does it mean to be a shooter for an organization like NG? How much control do you have over the editorial process? Stories about photo editors in organizations like NG are legion, how do your approach them?

Daniel: For me it was a childhood dream, I have watched National Geographic since I was four years old. My parents had always been connected with nature and influenced me from an early age. The editor needs to trust that the photographer can deliver the demanded compositions. We usually discuss the expectations prior to the expedition, generally with an NG art director, and that creates big pressure as I am going to the field with a selection of images to be taken. Of course, improvised shots are very important and account for about 30% of my profit. The tough thing is to make the journalistic expectation operationally viable with respect to costs, logistics and animal behavior of course.

Wetpixel: Can you offer any advice for photographers wanting to approach NG or similar with pictures or ideas?

Daniel: I have never approached my biggest assigners such as NG or Walt Disney Company who are now my biggest client. It is much more a matter of education and being visible in the media market, as these companies request prestigious status from their photographers, so my advice is first to try to publish as much as you can, so editors can see you. I will never forget the email I got from NG´s senior editor saying that he appreciated a lot my work and he wanted to assign me. Education: Being a photographer is like being an engineer, lawyer or doctor in that you can´t become a professional without studying a lot and hard, no matter whether alone, self-educated or by going to university. Very important: taking photos is the right end of this business, finding stories and turning it operational is the very best differential, so the skills in photography, diving, planning, organizing and conducing expeditions are all crucial.

Daniel working with a Nile crocodile in the Okavango (Image by Brad Besterlink)

Wetpixel: You are also very active on social media. Do find that this is effective at translating into sales of your images? Is it effective in marketing your work?

Daniel: I am active in social media for the main propose of feedback, there is no better way to find the best images for a book or a magazine story, than by submitting to my family and friends. I have done some good business over the internet, but much more via my website than social media. I feel like I need to give something back to nature and conservation and feel that education is very important and the internet assists me spreading this conservation message.

Wetpixel: How would you advise up and coming photographers to use social media to attract attention to their work?

Daniel: I think that is a set of conditions, you need to publish in magazines as much as you can, on the internet. The advertising market is another brilliant way to have pictures in huge circulation magazines. Publish your work everywhere, because if you trust it is good, the world will figure that out too sooner or later.

Wetpixel: What is your most hair-raising (underwater) event so far? The most difficult shoot technically? And physically?

Daniel: The Nile crocodile “face-to-face” mission was quite tough. I was informed about this expedition two years prior, by my editor, and with the requested composition being the main requirement in that they wanted a close and intimate facing interaction. To find the right animal and to perform this image was a war of frustration and risk management. Add to this the most dangerous underwater scenario I ever been in; dark, murky and with huge currents in the waters of the river. I almost broke my leg badly on a tree trunk and the crew were all breathing 80 cu ft (11 liter) tanks in 20 minutes at ten feet deep, because we were working so hard dealing with currents and trying to slow down or stop in them in order to get pictures of the croc.

An image from Rio.

Wetpixel: What do you like to do when you aren’t at work?

Daniel: I love to be at my home and in my town, Rio de Janeiro, music is a passion as big as photography. When I am home I love to play my drum with rock and roll, boss nova, jazz and samba my most frequent styles. I would love to have a band but with all these expeditions I cannot keep it up. But even when I am not working I am always taking photos, if not with the camera, then with my eyes.

Wetpixel: How did you manage to make underwater photography your profession? What advice would you give to people wanting to emulate your career now?

Daniel: Like any career you need to plan, educate and trust that you are going to make it. I had sometimes lots of fear of failure and sometimes I almost gave up, but the main thing is to trust you can provide your clients the best product. It is not easy but education is crucial in both the journalistic and artistic environments, I studied how to communicate with one image and also made deep research in art history and art in general. Finally, light control, this is very important. Fashion photography was one of my best teachers ever. It’s a full life-time job, living in between airports and sometimes waking up in the middle of the night with no clue where I am. It´s a hard job for family plans.

Daniel with Brazilian TV presenter Karina. The show went out to a 50 million audience.

Wetpixel: Can you name your favorite underwater photographer? Photographer period?

Daniel: Again, one name only is unfair, I beg for more! :-)

Wetpixel: If you had to name someone who has inspired you photographically, who would that be?

Daniel: A photographer called Andreas Gursky, his perspectives and compositions are amazing!

Wetpixel: Canon or Nikon? Or both?

Daniel: You will get me into trouble with that one! hahaha.

I play with Nikon because they sponsor me, but I could play with Canon if they send me cameras as well :-), once you have at least 12 MP, at least 7fps and fair ISOs with low noise you are good, after all was Jim Hendrix all about his Fender? I do think Hendrix would play well with Gibson too…..

Wetpixel: How much post processing do you do? How much is acceptable?

Daniel: I like to work with color, contrast and light. Unacceptable is to include things in the image, once somebody includes something, it is not about photography anymore, it is about designing, which can also be art, but don’t call photography. The most beautiful and precious thing about photography is to freeze one moment that will never happen again, if you change it you corrupt it.

Wetpixel: Media rich capture devices are blurring the creative process. How do you see the future with still cameras catching video, cell phones capturing hi res images and video, and people looking at them on tablet computers?

Daniel: I think that the democracy of photography with so many options of cameras available will undoubtedly increase the flow of good images around the world and most important, journalistic images. Nowadays if something happens, there will be someone around with a cell phone camera for sure.

A non-professional photographer can win an award shooting with a non-pro camera, the difference between professionals and amateurs is on the score, as with assignments, one must provide a minimum number of very good images. Professional photographers and their cameras need to be much more efficacious, but an amateur photographer with a compact camera can still make a lifetime image, winning all kinds of prizes.

People looking at photos on tablets and computers in general, that’s a problem in my point of view: All my screens are calibrated, but if the viewer doesn´t have his or her screen well calibrated the image can turn out quite different from the original. This is my only worry with the change from the film age to digital era; as photos from my calibrated screen are changed on other people´s non-calibrated screens.

Wetpixel: Following on from the above, does the traditional paper printing process have a future?

Daniel: I am afraid that in the long-term, like 30 years ahead, there will be no printing anymore. For sure that this is a very slow change, as the society itself still holds the printed products as being more prestigious than the virtual ones. The first thing to disappear will be the printed newspapers, and after this I think that printed magazines now considered mainstream will go as well, simply because if you work with news you cannot compete with internet speed. I think that the final survivors will be monthly magazines which will be the last to quit printing.

Wetpixel: What is the greatest threat to the oceans’ health?

Daniel: Humans in general, and I say that because it is really hard to list all damage we´ve been doing, from shark and whale massacres, to plastic bags killing turtles, reefs dying because of water warming and industrial pollution poisoning marine predator´s blood by compromising the whole food chain from the plankton down. We humans have deteriorated our relationship with the seas over the past century a lot.

Wetpixel: Is there an environmental cause that you are especially passionate about?

Daniel: My worst nightmare is the word “extinction”, so every time I hear this word I get really passionate about protecting the species under threat. Right now my focus is the shark campaign, as these guys will be vanished soon from Earth if we don’t take good care of the situation.

Wetpixel: Do you think that photographers can be a force for good or change? Do you think that pro photographers are seeking to engage more with marine issues? The documentation of the shark fin trade for example seems to have raised public awareness, is this a sign of things to come?

Daniel: I think that all companies in the world must have “social responsibility” policies, no matter the kind of business. We need to support Earth´s conservation, and this is not charity, as we are taking care of our home, or you think Mars is a better place to live? Wildlife photographers, must to support conservation as “social responsibility” but also as a way to keep their business, as in my specific case, what will I work with if sharks and whales disappear?

Wetpixel: What is the best advice to offer an aspiring underwater photographer?

Three pieces of advice:

All images by Daniel Botelho unless otherwise stated.