Monday, June 20, 2011

A Chat with Terence Zahner, Underwater Photographer Extraordinaire

Every since "meeting"  Terence Zahner, the mind behind ZahnerPhoto on etsy, I've been fascinated by his underwater photography. He takes lovely photos of things on dry land too, but it's the intimate portraits of squids, corals, fish, and other underwater denizens that seem most mysterious to me. I asked him a few questions about his artwork, and he's been kind enough to share the answers here. If what you read here doesn't make you want to visit the nearest seashore, I don't know what will!

How long have you been diving? Did you start taking photos right away?

I got certified in 2000, while on my honeymoon in Hawaii. We decided to try SCUBA at the recommendation of friends that honeymooned there the year before. After the first dive, we were so blown away by the experience that we started studying for our certification the same day. I am so fortunate to be married to my dive buddy.

I’ve always had the desire to share the underwater world with others who will never see it firsthand in the way I am privileged to. My first underwater photo attempts were with a disposable film camera. The images are abstract blobs of blue that I assure you were actually a turtle or a beautiful fish to my eye. I started shooting underwater in earnest with a compact digital camera and plastic housing in 2005. I’ve outgrown several camera systems along the way.

What's the most exotic place you've ever been on a dive?

The most off-the-map place is Saba, my new favorite place to dive. It is a tiny volcanic pinnacle in the Dutch Caribbean, a short flight from St Martin. Only about 1,400 people live there. It reminds me of Hawaii in several ways, and is much closer to home.

What's your favorite subject? I've noticed a lot of very detailed images in your shop lately, but I see a lot of tentacled creatures too. Do you play favorites?

I’m most obsessed with nudibranchs. For those who don’t know, nudibranchs are sea slugs, like snails without shells. They are typically flamboyantly colored and patterned and can be somewhat hard to find, especially in the Caribbean. I have a small but growing collection of photos that I have contributed to NudiPixel, an online nudibranch reference site:

I also love photographing cephalopods, in part because they are interactive. Most critters tend to ignore you or hide, but when I encounter squid or octopi there is really a sense that I am being observed and evaluated. One time an octopus even tried to take my camera. Their ability to camouflage and alter their appearance is so fascinating to watch and makes for a memorable occasion. I’m discovering that they are also very popular with my audience.

The natural labyrinth patterns formed by coral growth are another source of inspiration. I find them very relaxing to look at. Ultimately I have to be ready to photograph anything, because I almost never know what I am going to find.

What's the strangest thing you've ever seen underwater? Did you get a photo of it?

The strangest things tend come out under cover of darkness at night, my favorite time to explore the coral reef. Decorator crabs are some of the strangest things I’ve seen. They cover themselves with all sorts of debris, including other living organisms such as sponges, hydroids and algae. In addition to being cryptic, they are also very skittish. I do have a number of perfect photos that look like nothing special, until the crab is pointed out. I’m sure some people just think I am seeing things.

Anything else you'd like to tell us?

Support ocean conservation! I hope that my photographs help educate people on the incredible world that lies just below the waves.

I'd like to extend my gratitude to Terence for taking time to talk about his work and about the amazing world beneath the waves. Check out these links to see more:

ZahnerPhoto (Etsy Shop)


  1. Thanks for sharing!!! I'm starting to get more into photography (primarily nature) and was playing with my boyfriend's Canon for a bit. I was actually quite surprised how much easier it was to frame and focus a shot with his camera versus my point-n-shot (yeah duh, but I'd never actually handled one before). I can't even imagine what it would be like to shot underwater!

  2. Erin, I just got my first "real" camera too! I feel like there's so much to learn. I'm totally in awe of shooting underwater though!


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