Marine Conservation Zones – A report

The Photographic Angle & Royal Photographic Society Environmental Awareness Bursary 2014

The Marine Conservation Zones

Project Report


This project began from a strong desire to share passion of marine life, and a wish to reach and educate as many people as possible, about the important life that is right on our doorsteps, and so often ignored.

The idea of this project was to travel as many places as possible, and show a variety of marine life, that was either in the process of being awarded the marine conservation zone status, or may have already been awarded it. The label of MaC_Sams_02-1rine Conservation Zone varies from each site, their protection specifics are decided upon through assessment of the habitat and species within it. When this project began, there were already some 27 zones in place, and now, 1 year on, there have been 23 more added to this number. Considering the huge amount of coastline we are privileged to have around England, this number of 50 zones is still fairly low. The decision on the final round of zones is still not confirmed until 2016, and so you could say that this part of the project is still ongoing.

The other main driving force behind an underwater project was not to just highlight the areas that need protection, but also just to engage viewers with the ocean. It’s no secret that in recent years a growing number of children, and adults, C_Sams_05-1are disconnected from nature. Furthermore, it’s arguable that many people are even more disconnected from marine life, and what’s under our seas, purely because it is ‘out of sight, out of mind’. By bringing the marine life out of the water with images, showing the colourful species and habitats, the project aimed to gain viewers interest in interacting with nature, and more specifically the ocean, more. Marine life is so intriguing that if one is only given the opportunity, it is easy to become hooked, to start to become fascinated with this underwater world, to love it, and to care about it.

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 09.32.54With these thoughts began the origin of the Marine Conservation Zones project, however the practicalities of it were a little more complex. The huge variety in the designated zones, and the possibilities of documenting so many different sites and the complex life within them is almost overwhelming.

The potential for covering this project is huge, one that could be documented over many years and still leave much to be explored. To make it more manageable, more accessible, local zones were selected as the photographic sites.

Towards the beginning of this project, many of the areas visited for documentation were deeper, scuba diving sites, accessed via rhib or other dive boat. These habitats are visually different to the shallower shore sites, but often the life within them is found right up to the shoreline, such as the stalked jellyfish, or nudibranch species, which can be found from rock pools, to deep wrecks.

As the project developed however, it felt somewhat contradictory to try encouraging people to visit the sea, and yet be sharing images of depths and places only reachable through boats and scuba equipment.

With the limitations of poor weather, diving access, and this thought, it seemed right to continue investigating the shore based marine conservation zones; those sites which everyone can enjoy, not just the lucky few divers.

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When visiting certain areas for C_Sams_01-1the first time, such as Padstow and the Surrounds MCZ, it was clear the potential for imagery was vast. The natural shapes and colours within this one area were surprising even to myself, and hours could be spent just in the shallows of the coastal rock pools. From being inspired by the beautiful contours of the rock formations, next to the bright colours of the seaweeds, even in the cold of winter, confirmed that there are always surprises and things to see in the ocean, no matter where you go. Even when visiting beaches and rocky sites on moody, rainy, days, the marine life still held its colour and form, affirming my own love for this almost hidden world.

At this point, the project’s direction began to take a more specific path. By selecting more of the coastal zones, and focusing on the patterns and colours available within them, the images for this story began to follow a more distinct style.

Working in shallow water, not only meant a ream of beautiful species available (reefs are more active in the first 10m of water than anywhere else), but also opened up the possibility of experimenting with the light a lot more. The water surface was usually calmer inshore, and therefore acting as a mirror, reflections of the underwater world were something I grew interested in.


C_Sams_06-1Moreover, I encouraged myself to not get obsessed in finding rare species. Even the common marine life can be complex in its physical form; the regularly viewed species can be showed in a new light when composed properly. The reality of finding rare species when diving/visiting these zones is slim, and the common species are always underestimated, it makes no sense to simply disregard something that is beautiful, because it is common.

I had originally begun to document not only the underwater scenes but also people interacting with them too, surveying, snorkeling and diving. I discovered that though these images were interesting, they weren’t as powerful visually as the more simple compositions, focusing on just the marine life. These images would feature in a larger documentation of the project, but a stronger sequence was formed from being much more specific in location and style.

The choice of a square crop as opposed to the standard rectangular image was for a number of reasons, to simulate a window, a view into the underwater world, and also to try and highlight the focal point of each image, more obvious in the species as opposed to habitat photographs. By constraining the image to the square shape, it highlights the symmetry within various images, and adds simplicity reminiscent of analogue photography to the overall aesthetic.

The aim of this series of images was always to show variety, in shape, colour, and species. I want there to be something for everyone to appreciate in the sequence, to appeal to as many people as possible. Ultimately, the images taken were through my own love and appreciation for these scenes. Through forcing myself to look closer at the marine life I may have gotten used to, I emphasised my C_Sams_07-1own passion for the sea, and can only hope that this is conveyed by the images too.

From here, I hope to eventually develop an exhibition of these images and this story, though I would like to continue to work on this project further. As mentioned before, it is still ongoing, and I believe there is much yet to discover. In the meantime, I will be sharing my stories, images, and knowledge of the story through social media. Photography is a wonderful tool for conservation and education; and just the simple fact of sharing snapshots of what life underwater can look like can encourage more positive thinking towards marine life, and eventually protection for it too. The first step towards protection is creating a reason to care, and that’s what photography can do. You can’t argue with an image, and every image in this sequence is a statement of what is accessible to everyone. Photography can change people’s minds about what may have been unknown before, and by focusing on these simple bright images, the underwater world is made available to everyone.


British marine life

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The images that didn’t quite make the cut for my MCZ selection. I love these though, the colours, and the lighting, however they didn’t quite fit into my series, and ultimately the images have to always work as a set.

The stalked jellyfish (top) is probably one of my favourites in this more fine art style of photography. Despite the fact it’s probably just out of focus, I absolutely love blurring and the backscatter here. The sand particles with this narrow DOF look like snowflakes, and I’ve mentioned this before with another image, how I think it really works and only compliments the ethereal scenes you come across underwater.

The second image is a female black faced blenny, and I was happy to achieve this image without any major editing; the spotlighting created from the strobes, and the black background from the aperture. Simple, and effective.

I like these two as a pair, the colours do reflect eachother, and fit with my common theme of black, darker images. The square crop turned out much better than anticipated too, in my next post I’ll try and share a comparison of the crops.

Fish skull photography

A fair few months ago, whilst on a dive, I came across a fish skull on the seabed. I thought, this is great! I can take this into the studio and take some more fine art imagery with it, to contrast against my usual more documentary/editorial style of working.

So…about 6 months later, I finally got round to it. My original plan was to use some 5×4 film for making these images, but due to the kit being unavailable at the time I changed to a macro flash set-up, which proved probably the better option to start off with.

It’s been a long while since I’ve done any studio or still life work, and I enjoyed it so much more than I thought I would. I’ve been getting pretty frustrated at not being able to take the underwater images I would like to recently due to lack of diving, but this shoot definitely cheered me up!

A lot of people seem to have this slight fascination with skulls, I’m not sure what it is about them that appeals to us, I think it’s related to our interest in death. Either way, I am also one of these people, and very much enjoyed scrutinising the form of this fish skull.

There’s a few things I love about this style of photography; primarily the fact that using such slow shutter speeds means there’s an element of unpredictability, and you can never be sure how your image is going to turn out, (something that’s unusual to a lot of us in this digital age). This also means a lot of the images don’t work, and therefore when they do it’s even more exciting. This reminder of analogue photography is replicated a little through the sepia colours too.

I think the smoky textures around the skull create the impression of a dragon, something that I find quite pleasing. Who doesn’t like dragons!

I’ve got to rush now so won’t say anything more, but here’s the tech specs for the first image below for those who are interested:

NIKON D800, 60.0 mm f/2.8 (& 2 external macro flash)

1.0 sec;   f/29;   ISO 100

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Photos of 2013

I’m jumping on that bandwagon, and making one of those ‘my images from 2013’ type posts. We all do them, and lets face it, it’s a good way to see some of the best images from one year in one post.

I’ve not done one of these before, and I wasn’t sure whether to try have one image taken per month, or just 12 of the best. I’ve decided on a selection of the best, because for some of the first few months of early 2013 I was doing much more editing and video shooting rather than stills.

This has been a fantastic year for me personally, and a lot of wonderful first sightings, some of which will feature below. So here’s my chosen set, in chronological order, of some of the best wildlife photographs I have enjoyed taking this year:

1- Barn owl from Screech owl sanctuary (captive). A great day, and a lovely bird to be able to get close proximity to. Later on in the year I did photograph a wild barn owl, but the images were nowhere near as strong as this one. I do love backlighting. _DSC6077


2- Sea urchin. One very very cold dive. But a pretty cool subject!DSC_2443


3- Turnstone – the Outer Hebrides. A seriously awesome trip with some amazing people. _DSC8643

4- Purple Sandpiper. Another from the Hebrides trip, I definitely couldn’t narrow it down to just the one image! Other highlights of this trip was sightings of golden eagle, white tailed sea eagle, and wild snowy owl. Phenomenal. _DSC9493

5- Pomarine Skuas – the Outer Hebrides (again yes). The time I spent sat on this headland in the stormy weather was exhilarating, and one of my favourite moments from the week. _DSC8919


6- Fox cubs! My first sightings of wild cubs. _DSC0838


7- Juvenile cuttlefish. The first half of my year was much about birds, and other land based photography, the second half I began to focus on my underwater photography, which I have really loved. DSC_4004


8- Snorkelling with grey seals. This doesn’t really need explaining! _DSC1187


9- The Scylla & the James Eagan Layne shipwrecks. The beginnings of my project, this image is in fact the Eagan Layne but both were dived in the same day and were great dives. My love for this beautiful green tinge you get in British waters grows. DSC_4694


10- Compass Jellyfish. One of the more abstract images I took, focusing on the water surface instead. Jellyfish are beautiful subjects to work with. DSC_4294


11- Nudibranch, Coryphella browni. My first EVER nudibranch (sea slug) sighting! Extremely exciting. _DSC1453-1


12- Syracusa shipwreck. The project continues. DSC_4364


13- Obelia hydriod sample under the microscope. More recent project work. _DSC3610


I may have squeezed in 13 instead of 12 images, but they were all too important for me to cut out any! There was so many more events and photo-shoots I could have spoken about here, but I think this set gives the most balanced and varied representation of my year in wildlife photography!


Happy 2014!


Microscopy moving image – obelia hydroids

This is a bit of practice I’ve made this week as a part of my study into the ecosystem of shipwrecks.
It may seem a bit out of context but this is imagery of pink seaweed and obelia hydoids, both early colonisers onto wrecks, samples of which I collected whilst diving at the weekend.

Despite my usual dislike for pink, I really love the colours throughout these clips, and the fantastic shapes against the dark background.
Filmed through a microscope, darkfield (mainly) at varying magnification between 50x and 100x.
I’m really enjoying this more experimental art filming work, contrasting to my more documentary style still images that make up the bulk of this project to date.


Isles of Scilly part 3 – night skies


I’ve never seen skies before like in the scillies, it was the first time I’ve ever witnessed the milky way with my own eyes, and was beautiful! The Isles of Scilly have recently become one of few dark skies areas in Britain, where light pollution is at its lowest and when the cloud cover is low, incredible sights of the sky are possible. Any star watchers or astro photographers in Cornwall – this is the place to go!


The first night of being on St Martins resulted in great star watching, but as I’d been up since 5am or so and travelling, I decided to only spend a while on night photography, and continue with it each night. Little did I know that the weather was going to turn and the cloud cover was going to set in after this night!


These few images are taken from my night number one –

This image I tried to focus on just the milky way, although even with a 11mm focal length I couldn’t manage to get the whole of it in. _DSC2235

The stars in this image look blurred, however this is not from camera shake, but actually from the earth moving. You can tell this because the foreground is sharp, and the shutter speed I used was a few minutes long, therefore the movement of the earth tilting on it’s axis is captured. Star trails are something I would very much like to practice another time. _DSC2242

A slight orange glow of light pollution is here, though I can’t work out which part of land it’s from, possible just some housing. There were a number of shooting stars that I saw, however I’m unsure if this is actually whats been captured in this image; it could just be planes! _DSC2232

And finally my favourite shot; the milky way and the beach at old town, St Martins. I love the blue of the skies contrasting here against the orange streetlights. _DSC2227


On another note, I’ve finally got my website up and running, if you fancy checking it out!




Compass jellyfish series.

There’s still loads of these jellyfish around Cornwall, and therefore on a local dive the other day I spent a lot of time photographing them. For a change I’d decided to use a macro lens, which I haven’t used in a long time. Working with the narrow depth of field with a subject midwater wasn’t easy, but as we spent over an hour underwater I had time to practice.

This post will focus only on the compass jellyfish, Chrysaora hysoscella. Although I did photograph other subjects and creatures, I wanted to collate a set of only compass jellyfish images. Different photographs may be posted later.

This is one of my favourite shots, slightly abstract, I love the diagonal tentacles cutting across the image. DSC_4354

I floated alongside this particular jellyfish for a while, and took quite a few photographs. They actually move a surprising amount so trying to stay with them and photograph with such a narrow depth of field with a macro lens wasn’t as easy as I thought. I do love the tendrils of the tentacles and the way they flow. DSC_4350

To show a different angle, I swum under the jelly. This image shows the underside of Chrysaora hysoscella; it’s mouth is located in the centre of this dome, between the four brown tentacles. DSC_4367

A few of the jellyfish would rise to the water surface every so often. When this happened their reflection was visible underneath the water level, so I tried to capture this. We’ve had some lovely calm, clear waters recently so I tried to make use of it!DSC_4306

Another macro shot, this time a little more ordered and linear, these lines cut across very neatly, and cut up the image in a quite pleasing way. DSC_4349

This photograph is another favourite, due to the addition of the natural light. The jellyfish was obviously very close to the surface, therefore small bursts of sunlight have reflected off the jelly’s main body, adding unusual lighting, to work alongside the strobes I was already using to light the subject. DSC_4295

This may look out of focus to some, but the effect is actually intentional. I wanted to experiment with using a fast strobe to capture movement, alongside a slow shutter to display motion blur. This was the effect. This effect usually is stronger with very fast oving subjects such as fish, but I love the soft feel it adds to the image. This was taken at a shutter speed of 1/30sec. DSC_4395

Finally, another reflection image. I chose to focus on the mirrored image on the water surface, rather than the actual jellyfish in the foreground. I am so happy with this image, in spite of, or possibly because of, all the imperfections. Some people may argue that the main subject is soft, or that the particles in the water are distracting, but I think it only makes the image more unusual and in turn, stronger. DSC_4294That’s all for now!  Enjoy.


I made a quick compilation of all the images together here, so you can see them all at once, as I realise this is a long post.  Untitled-1