Interview: Scott “Gutsy” Tuason on blackwater diving

Scott “Gutsy” Tuason is an underwater photographer with a recent book out called Blackwater and Open Blue. The book focuses on underwater photography at night in open ocean.

Wetpixel sat down with Gutsy to ask him some questions about the book and this ever exciting form of underwater photography.


Wetpixel: Hi Gutsy, your recent book, Blackwater and Open Blue beautifully photographically celebrates both the very big and small in the world’s oceans. How did you select the images for the book?

Gutsy: The selection process was tough, I wanted to show diversity of the animal & diversity of the place I went to. I also tried to not put too much of the “weird” stuff or it might end up looking like a plankton book, I also had to go back several times and cull out the backwater images because I wanted to balance it out with the blue water stuff. Eight months after the book was published , I look thru it and still want to edit out and replace images. I also had a few different sets of eyes helping me with the selection. I feel that If one looks at their images for a while, they get jaded or sometimes attached to certain images because of what it took to get them, but sometimes the images are not that strong. It took two months to select the photos and it didn’t help that I continued to shoot up until a week before we went to print.

Wetpixel: Black water diving is a technique that you have used a lot in the book. Can you tell us how it works please?

Gutsy: Basically blackwater diving is night diving in open ocean. The largest vertical migration on the planet happens every night in our ocean. the purpose for Blackwater diving to to try and capture these animal that stay hidden during the day. There is also a good chance of seeing pelagic animals that don’t hang out near a reef. Another factor is the time, you need to give the animals time to migrate up so the later the night dive the better. It was not unusual to arrive back at the resort from a double blackwater dive at 2AM.

Wetpixel: What gear do you use for black water diving?

Gutsy: I have a 20 meter rope with 4 video lights attached to it, one near the surface to attract surface floaters, one at 5 meter, another at 10 meters and the last one at 20 meters. The only change to my dive gear is am covered up from head to toe (I have seen Box jellies on numerous occasions) and I use free diving fins to help me get back to the line. Photo gear starts with my Nikon D4 or D5 in Nauticam housing, a 60mm lens, FITPro 2500 lumens focus light and I just started using the Idivesite Symbiosis SS-1 strobe.

Wetpixel: What was your best trip of 2016? Best trip photographically?

Gutsy: I have to say my trip to Cocos Island, it was my first time and the place blew me away. Best trip photographically its a toss-up between Cocos & Aurora Province on the Pacific side of the Philippines. The blackwater off Aurora was out of this world, So much stuff to shoot and the conditions were just perfect.

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

Gutsy: January was in Socorro Islands, May - Aurora, and two Tubbataha Reef trips, June - Moalboal and Malapascua, July - Southern Visayas, August - Aurora, October - Cocos Island, and December back to Aurora (but it was a wash-out due to the weather). 9 major trips plus 10 weekends in Anilao.

Wetpixel: What have you got planned for 2017? 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?

Gutsy: I always try to plan one major trip to a new place every year. I tend to target animals rather than places. For next year I have Sri Lanka in April for Blue and Sperm whales, two Tubbataha trips in May, July Iam off to Alaska for Salmon sharks, August I have a full on Visayas trip, and October I am back in Cocos Island. And at some point I will do a sleep all dive, dive all night blackwater trip to Aurora, just trying to work out the logistics

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

Gutsy: I tend to be more productive at sites I know, when I went to Cocos it took me a couple of days to figure out the pattern and timing of the sharks, the divemasters may know the sites real well, but photography needs are different and you kinda gotta figure that out on your own.

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

Gutsy: I would have to say Tubbataha Reef. Its 100 NM from the nearest land mass, its unpredictable and you just never know what will show up, the coral and terrain is amazing, water is gin clear and at night there are options to do blackwater, for me its the complete package. Wide all day, blackwater macro at night.

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

Gutsy: I was giving my first underwater camera by my father in 1985 (almost 32 years ago) a Nikonos V with a 35mm lens and one Nikonos SB103 strobe. It never really became a career because I have been working for the family business since I got out of University. I was finally able to blend the two in 2012 when I opened my shop that sells underwater imaging equipment, now that I derive most of my income from the shop, I feel like that is the only time I can say its a career.

Wetpixel: You have produced a series of very beautiful books over the past few years. How do you go about creating and collating the content. Do you go out and shoot images for a book, or look at what images you have and weave them in?

Gutsy: It starts off as a concept that comes to mind, then I look at my files and see what I have already, usually its not enough and I have to go out and shoot specifically for the concept I have in mind. It usually takes about 3 years from when the idea pops in my head til the book comes out. I also have to find creative ways to fund the book, I don’t have one publisher I work with, so that takes time. Sometimes I get a green light from the publisher and sometimes I have to pass the hat around to people who might be interested in investing in the project.

Wetpixel: Can you offer any advice for photographers wanting to create books?

Gutsy: Come up with a new, fresh, unique concept first. I mean it would be easy to just get your best of photos and slap them together in a book. I feel like that would make it look like a e-book or something you put together online. A cool title of the book is also important, its part of the hook, along with the cover image.

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

Gutsy: This actually happened just recently, I took 3 divers out on a blackwater dive, all first timers, and lost them. They got blown off the line and lost the light. Instead of going straight up, they did a 5 min safety stop, by the time they surfaced the boat was miles away and could not signal the boat. In the meantime I continued my dive oblivious to the fact that they were not with me. When I surface 67 minutes later, they were not on the boat ! I found them an hour later about 4 kilometres away on shore already. Lots of lessons learned that evening to say the least. I must say blackwater is still the most challenging, so many factors diving wise and photography wise, thats why I only like to do it when conditions are perfect. Flat sea, low winds and good boat crew.

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

Gutsy: If I am in town, I love playing tennis, if its out of town, hiking and camping with my wife and kids and following the best band in the world Pearl Jam.

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

Gutsy: Hands down David Doubilet. Old school, capture the moment, awesome lightning, no frills photography.

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

Gutsy: That would have to be my Father “The Conks” and Eduardo Cu Unjieng by partner on the Anilao book. I grew up going with them on dive trips and they were shooting images and all I wanted to do was be like them when I grew up. Shoot pictures in the Sea.

Wetpixel: Canon or Nikon? Or both?

Gutsy: Nikon since day one. My first one was a Nikon FE2 in 1983, but I just recently got the Canon G7x mk2 and love this little point n’ shoot camera.

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

Gutsy: My edits take about a minute per image. White balance is key, add black if i find it a little flat, maybe play around with the shadows and highlights a bit and then sharpen. What is acceptable? I guess its a matter of preference with the photographer, anything is acceptable really, unless you are submitting for a contest, then you gotta follow the rules. When I started digital photography I use to edit my pictures to the way I was used to seeing my images on slide film, as the years have gone by, I notice I edit my pictures with less contrast etc.., taste change, I notice am editing images on the warmer side now. I think as long as you let the audience know how much Photoshop went into it, it all part of the art of making the image. I can go on and on about this subject, so am gonna stop right here.

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

Gutsy: I think climate change is going to be the real problem here, overfishing and trash are what we see right now and its bad, but when climate change really kicks in, I think its going to be devastating. The signs are already not good.

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

Gutsy: If I had to pick one it would probably be shark finning, but I just prefer to support organisations that work with coast communities here in the Philippines, that try to merge sustainable fishing with care for the environment. I work with Oceana Philippines in regard to this.

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?

Gutsy: For sure, I mean if the public never saw images of these animals, why would they care. Now that underwater photography is much more accessible and results are getting better, I feel photographers and their images platy a part in bring awareness.

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

Gutsy: You need to love what you are doing, sony do it for the “likes” or followers and its not all about results, have fun out there and all the rest of those things will follow :)