The Travel Photo Market
An Underwater Photographer Comes Up For Air

Photos © 2003, Steve Simonsen, All Rights Reserved

Steve Simonsen learned photography the hard way. Let's see, there was a rangefinder camera, lack of lens choices, hyperfocal distance focusing, and flash ratios, not to mention backscatter of light. All of this had to be dealt with and there was no benefit of the auto-everything cameras. Did I mention that Steve learned his photography skills while breathing out of a tank? Underwater?

"I didn't want to do photography at all," said Steve. "I would watch all the dive photographers, in these absolutely beautiful settings, come topside and slam their cameras down because they malfunctioned or flooded. They'd spend the entire dive looking through this little viewfinder. When I got back up I'd be all excited by all the new things I saw. At the time, I thought, `I don't ever want to get into photography, it'll ruin my dive experience.'" Luckily for Steve, it became part of his job as an instructor at a dive shop in Boulder, Colorado. He had to learn how to use the underwater gear in order to sell it.

Steve's first foray into taking photos underwater was to shoot 10 rolls of film during a trip to the Caribbean, as instructed by the owners of the dive shop. According to Steve, "On return to Colorado I used about 80 of the slides in a slide show and the guys who taught me were jealous. The shots were so much better than they had taken in five years of photography. I didn't know what to say...these guys were the ones who showed me how to do this. The difference was, I had looked at all the underwater world with a different eye, unencumbered with the photography process, so when it came time to take the photo I already knew what I wanted to show. It was just a matter of going down and finding what I wanted."

How successful were those first photos? "I still show two of the images from that first batch of film in my slide shows today. I haven't taken a better photo of that subject, even 17 years later."

Back in 1980, while still at the hobbyist level, Steve went on a dive trip to Grand Cayman and witnessed a fellow by the name of Dicky Walls selling photos from dive trips to tourists. He decided that the money he saw being raked in was far and above what he was making as a dive instructor. It wasn't until four years later that he took his first full-time photography job with Club Med, running their underwater photo shop and lab. Like many photographers starting their first job, Steve says, "I didn't know jack! There was no one there to show me the ropes, so I bought some books and I closed down the lab for three days, read the manuals and books and learned how to run the machinery and process E-6. I was running out and taking pictures of flowers and anything, just to see if it worked." It was during this time that he got his first taste of publication with a photo in a French magazine.

After a break as a ski bum and a photography stint in the Bahamas, '87 found Steve looking for a photo dive job in St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands. Willing to do anything to get his foot in the door, he canvassed all the dive shops, offering his services as a dive instructor. He didn't have any luck until he met up with Chris Sawyer, who said, "Ah, dive instructor no. What we need is a guy to do a photo program." Said Steve, with incredible animation, "And I was like, `Whoa! Wait a second! I didn't want to be a dive instructor anyway.' That's where I got my start."

With the still photography came video and the choice each day whether to shoot stills or video. One day when he had chosen the video camera Steve encountered a pod of whales. "I shot all this great footage, just like you see on the Discovery Channel. It was about 35 minutes worth, but it turned out to be just a personal memory, because it wasn't broadcast-quality tape. I knew if they were stills I could have sold them to magazines or advertisers and I could have gotten top dollar. I decided then that still photography was the way to go. I would do the tourist photos for practice and income, but I set my sights on magazine photography. That's what I knew. That's how I taught myself. I would look at a good photograph in a magazine and look at my crappy photograph on the light box and I'd say, why is my photo so bad and this one so good?"

After getting his photos to look like the photos in magazines (because they soon were his), Steve started doing ads and brochures for water sports and dive companies. While getting photos in magazines is good exposure, editorial work doesn't pay nearly as well as advertising.

Just as things were really starting to go well, Hurricane Hugo forced a move from the island and Steve found himself in Guam photographing Japanese tourists underwater. Carrying three cameras on two dives a day, Steve sold almost every photo from six rolls of film. "Even though the money was good, it wasn't very gratifying. The side benefit was, I was getting lots of practice and refining my technique."

A return to the Virgin Islands, St. John this time, was prompted by his wife and partner Janet, who took a full-time job that allowed him to pursue the type of photography he really wanted to do. "I could concentrate on what I wanted to do vs. what I had to do to bring money into the house."

According to Steve, this is the secret to his current success. "By '93, I was selling covers to dive magazines." Steve used his position in the dive business to find out what the magazines needed. He had been having the same problems every starting photographer seems to run into, submitting images for a story that had just run. Through working with the dive shop he met the magazine advertising reps who would come to the island selling ads for that issue. He would quiz them on what was coming up in the magazines. Sometimes they would bring their own photographer, but since you can't cover a dive experience at multiple locations in one dive, Steve was able to send them better photos pulled from his years of images. Then the move to the surface began.

After initially marketing himself only as a dive photographer and doing topside photos for himself, he started receiving inquiries for these "surface" images. Because the audience is much wider, Steve quickly began selling more of these photos. He built his base of contacts a little at a time. Being a photographer in the national park was a help. When the park service received requests for photos they'd refer people to Steve. In addition, he would contact Caribbean Travel and Life whenever he heard that they were doing a story in the area, because they were showing the kinds of images he liked to take.

In the beginning, not knowing who the images should go to, or when, really hurt. It wasn't that his images weren't good, it's just that they needed to get in the right hands at the right time. Now Steve finds himself on the masthead of Caribbean Travel and Life as a contributor and fields assignments from them as well as other magazines.

In order to get more images into magazines, Steve started doing something that he's not particularly fond of, writing articles to accompany his photos. "I need maximum motivation...I don't like writing. I need clutter free time to concentrate. So what I do, I go to bed early and wake up at 3am, have my cup of coffee, and I write for two to three hours or I stare at the blank piece of paper for two hours 'til I get something going."

In addition to his editorial work, Steve began to acquire more advertising clients and his photography income began to outstrip his wife Janet's income. She left her outside job and came aboard to handle the day to day office work and promotion. This freed Steve up even more to devote time to create the images that would sell. When I asked Steve about partnering with his wife Janet he said, "Don't tell her...I can't admit how important she is or she might find out! Seriously, we always saw successful husband and wife teams in the industry and it's definitely working for us." With Janet taking care of submissions and the day to day office grind, the opportunity to produce images on deadline increased dramatically.

Topside Kit
Cameras: Nikon 8008s, N90s, or FA
Light: Nikon SB-26 Speedlight
Lenses: Nikon 300mm f/2.8; 80-200mm f/2.8; 55mm Macro; 35mm f/2.0; 24mm f/2.8; 20mm f/2.8
Film: Fuji Velvia and occasionally Provia

What's up for Steve's future? "I want to find a blend of commercial photography for good income, while still following my nature photography desire. I never want to lose track of that. I'm an underwater/nature photographer, but I have learned a lot in an environment where everything can go against you. The minute you do land photography you say, man, this is a breeze. I'm working on photography for hotels. With the underwater background I can do splits (half under and half above water), diving, or water sports, and add in aerials, architecture, and more. In addition to my first love, photographing for the editorial market with nature and travel images, I now have a second niche that I enjoy doing--and it pays better."

Learning photography the hard way--underwater--has paid off for Steve. It helped him learn his craft to the utmost. Now that he has the contacts and topside skills, he can breathe easier.

Check out Steve's website at www.stevesimonsen.vi.

Tips
Steve Simonsen's Tips For Success
1. Be true to yourself. Know when to say no just for the money.
2. Focus on what you like to do. Create a niche and fill it.
3. Don't make it a job. Do what you like, you'll do it better.
4. Previsualize. Learning to see without the camera leads to better photos.
5. Make contacts and submit, submit, submit. It can be frustrating but it doesn't mean there's anything wrong with your photos. They just need to be in the right place at the right time.

What's In Steve's Dive Bag?
Cameras: Nikon 8008s w/Aquatica UW Housing one dome port--one flat port for Macro; Nikonos V
w/15mm lens
Lenses: 16mm fisheye; 105mm Micro Nikkor
Lights: Twin Ikelite SubStrobe 300s; twin SB-105 Nikon Speedlights
Arms: Tech Light Control
Film: Fuji Velvia and occasionally Provia

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