Behind the lens with Malcolm Nobbs

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This month’s Behind the Lens guest is a talented photographer who combines his love
of diving with his skill behind the camera to produce stunning underwater images …

Please describe your earlier years – where did you originally call home?

I grew up in Folkestone, Kent, UK and lived there until 2009, when I moved to Sydney.

When did you settle in Forster, and what was it that brought you here?

My wife, Mary, and I moved to Forster in late 2011. As much as we enjoyed living in Sydney and being near our children, we prefer a quieter life, and there was no question Forster was where we wanted to settle − a great community atmosphere, fantastic scenery, amenities and a huge range of fascinating marine life.

What do you remember from your very first dive – when and where was it, and what did you see?

My first dive was near a small Egyptian town, Taba, in 1995. I was staggered to discover such a rich and vibrant world existed beneath the waves. Until then I’d had no idea what I had been missing … such stunning soft corals and colourful sea life.

How did the idea to take photos of your underwater experiences develop – which came first, photography or diving?

Diving came first. But like most divers, I had the urge to capture the moment and so it wasn’t long before I took a video camera to take home some memories. Subsequently, I switched to stills photography, which I found more satisfying.

What are some of the most exotic sea creatures you’ve photographed? Do you also photograph animals and plants who live above or adjacent to the water? 

There seem to be almost endless exotic sea creatures. Most of these are pretty small, but one of my most favourites is about the size of a laptop and can be found here in Australia – namely, the Leafy Sea Dragon, which I have photographed at Rapid Bay, South Australia. I only photograph beneath the waves.

What skills are required to take photographs under water – I imagine lack of lighting would be a significant issue?

You need good diving skills. Sometimes you have to try and remain in a fixed position to photograph, perhaps fighting a current or twisting at some awkward angle, and you often have to keep still. Move too quickly, and you can frighten your subject. Be clumsy, and you can cause damage.

Correct lighting is an essential element of a good underwater photograph. If the natural light is poor, you need to compensate with some flash, ideally from an external flash gun, rather than one built into the camera. Getting close to a subject is generally essential. Unfortunately, if there are particles in the water, the flash will illuminate the particles in front of your lens, thereby spoiling your shot. But you can avoid this if you use an external flash gun, angled so that it lights up your target, but not the water between your camera lens and your subject.

The underwater world would be regarded as beautiful and serene by most people, but it obviously also has inherent dangers. Describe an experience or two where you’ve experienced some difficulties or problems …

Although I have dived in open water with many types of sharks, including Great Whites, Tigers and Bull Sharks, I have to say I’ve rarely felt in danger. Despite some at times hysterical media coverage to the contrary, most marine life is very cautious. Their motto seems to be: if in doubt, leave alone. Divers with scuba tanks sound very noisy underwater to marine life − we must seem like strange aliens and are best avoided!

However, ‘silent’ surfers and swimmers can be mistaken for natural prey, and clearly this is a concern. Bizarrely, what felt like my most dangerous experience was an encounter with an over-friendly, large Bottlenose Dolphin. I was diving near my old home town, Folkestone, UK, for what was intended as a simple shallow dive on ‘my home patch’. The dolphin must have heard my bubbles underwater and decided to check me out. She began to play with me, spinning faster and faster around and around me. The underwater visibility turned to zero. She seemed so huge and powerful. Even though I knew that she had no aggressive intentions towards me, I felt very vulnerable. I kept still, and she eventually became bored and disappeared.

How does the local marine life around the Manning-Great Lakes stack up compared to creatures you’ve viewed overseas?

It’s one of the reasons I’ve moved here! We have some great underwater life. Offshore, we can see migrating Humpback Whales. Closer to shore, we have a huge variety of sea life, including sharks, rays and turtles. Getting good underwater shots can sometimes be tricky if there is silt in the water from the Wallingat and Coolongolook Rivers, or plankton or racks of red weed, but there are plenty of days when conditions are ideal. I’m keen to promote our local underwater world and later this year will be publishing images to showcase our Manning-Great Lakes marine flora and fauna.

What are some of the magazines you’ve written articles/supplied images for?

My most prestigious presentations have been to the United Nations and to Visions in the Sea, an annual Underwater Photography Conference held in London. In terms of magazines or newspapers, the UK’s Sunday Times, Marine Conservation Society and DIVE and Food & Travel Magazine and books, DIVE the Ultimate Guide and Dive Red Sea – the Ultimate Guide. Here in Australia, Cathay Pacific’s travel magazine, Australian Cinematographer, ABC Commercial promotions and articles for Sport Diving Magazine.

I’m presently working on a series of articles which will highlight NSW’s marine life and how best to see this. Naturally, I will include Manning-Great Lakes.

Thanks Malcolm.

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