Jono Tan: What’s your current camera set up?
Lewis Burnett: I’m currently shooting with a Sony A7Riii, but that was a purchase that only occurred last year. Up until that point, I’d been shooting with a really banged up A7ii which I bought secondhand, so I’m absolutely loving having a new camera with a way higher megapixel count.
Last year was a big step for me lens-wise – first time purchasing auto-focus lenses. Up until that point, I’d been using old Canon lenses which were from the film age that I bought off Gumtree. Now I’ve got the Samyang 85mm, Tamron 17-28mm, Tamron 28-75mm, and most recently a Sony 200-600mm.
How did you get into photography?
I started photography as a way of hopefully funding my future travels. After I graduated from my degree in Geology back in 2014, I went on my first backpacking trip through Southeast Asia and returned home from that trip flat broke. I didn’t really enjoy the prospect of starting a career in geology, so began thinking about other ways to fund future travels.
I’d always liked taking photos and had taken some decent photos on my Southeast Asia trip, so I thought buying a camera would be the next step. This hit to the wallet also explains why I bought older film lenses. I managed to get all that gear pretty cheap and it was a great way to break into being creative without having to spend thousands of dollars.
So what was working as a photographer at Ningaloo Reef like?
I was working up there for a company called Ocean Collective Media, who hire photographers to work on the reef for the tourist boats. It’s a really fun gig. You go out every day on the tours, take photos, and try to sell them to the visitors on the boat. Some days you do really well and others you go home with no money. I wanted to continue doing that, but as it’s all commission-based it was hard.
That’s what led me back to working as a tour guide out in the Red Centre. You’re still outdoors, can take photos, and get paid a pretty decent wage. My plan was to work a full season in the Red Centre this year, but coronavirus put a pause on that.
Whereabouts did you end up after the pandemic went down?
I caught wind of all of it just before I headed out on a multi-day camping trip out in the Red Centre. As over 80% of the people that are out there are Europeans that come to visit, we soon heard rumours that we might be losing our jobs. My partner and I decided to pack up and shoot through South Australia to Western Australia, where we found a spot in Dunsborough to quarantine. It’s not a bad place to be stuck.
What’s one piece of advice that you’d give someone trying to get into wildlife photography?
Up until a couple of months ago, I used to be that guy that would only want to take photos of really epic things. I’d head out seeking photos of big sharks but would never focus on the parrot that hangs out in my backyard every day. So my advice would be to get out there and take lots of photos. The more photos you take and edit, the better you’re going to get. It really doesn’t matter what you’re taking photos of.
Another piece of advice I’d give is to research other photographers. I used to only follow big pages and accounts that posted amazing ocean content. About six months ago, I went through and deleted all of those pages and now I mostly follow people I look up to. If you’re always looking at images that are a thousand times better than yours, you’re always going to push your work that little bit more.
‘Get out there and take lots of photos. The more photos you take and edit, the better you’re going to get.’
Who’s a photographer that has influenced your style?
I’ve recently been loving the work of Indian wildlife photographer, Shaaz Jung. He heavily edits his images but can turn a photograph of a leopard or a tiger into something that almost resembles a painting. I know some people may look at his photos and think it’s ridiculous, but his colour grading is masterful. To me, this draws you into his images and makes you want to go feel that magic nature holds.
What’s one thing about shooting underwater you don’t realize until you’re there?
The biggest thing was shooting everything while freediving. It makes everything so dynamic. You’ve got to hold your breath, dive down, frame your image, get the lighting correct; all while you and your subject are moving in three-dimensions. It all happens so quickly and it’s such a unique way to interact with animals. Truthfully most of the time your images are rubbish, but the process of nailing even one image from a dive is very addictive.
I can imagine how satisfying it would be to find your inner zen to capture a single moment down there.
Yeah, it’s definitely a good feeling. The addition of the freediving element makes things a little bit more rewarding – it just adds a whole new level to it. You have to focus on your fitness, your mental state and your relaxation to get those shots. Thankfully the Ningaloo Reef is quite shallow, so we’d never have to dive too deep to get the shots.
What’s a subject you’re drawn to shoot underwater?
Sharks for sure. I can’t get enough of sharks. Much like everyone else, I was scared of sharks as a kid and never wanted to encounter them. However, the more I understand about the ocean, the more I realise that we’re really lucky to even see a shark. As my diving progressed, I wanted to see sharks every time. They’re amazing to dive with and each has their own personality.
Obviously they’re apex predators and could eat you in a second if things lined up, but they aren’t the crazy maneater that everyone makes them out to be. This fact alone makes every dive just a little more exciting.
How would you describe the feeling of diving with bait balls at Ningaloo?
It’s amazing. I haven’t come across anything in nature that’s so exhilarating. They’re not super common and happen so quickly, but I’m lucky enough to have been able to dive a couple of them.
Basically what happens is cold water upwellings raise up a lot of nutrients, which in turn bring huge swarms of anchovies who gather together for safety. These bait balls don’t only happen at Ningaloo though, you may have heard of the Sardine Run, where billions of sardines move up the east coast of South Africa forming one of the largest marine-life migrations on the planet. When the fish band together they look like one giant fish rather than a million smaller fish, but the predators know that’s not the case and that if they work together they can feast.
The attack is usually started by the fish on the reef such as trevally, tuna, and the occasional mackerel. Even that’s pretty amazing to watch because the tuna will come through in circles, one after another – tuna the size of your torso flying through faster than you could kick a footy. The birds will arrive soon after as they realise that something’s is going down. All of this commotion will excite the sharks in the area and then, it’s game on.
In Ningaloo, there are spotter pilots whose sole job is to fly around and radio in anything they find that might be of interest to the tours running on the water, including bait balls. If it’s safe, the tours will even put customers in with them – it’s pretty awesome watching people’s faces immediately after they’ve just swum with a hundred sharks feeding. I think the energy you feel is the main thing during the experience. You can imagine the amount of noise that you’d hear if that kind of feeding event was to occur on land, but it’s reasonably silent underwater. It’s both peaceful and chaotic at the same time.
How long do they last?
The timeframe could be anything. I’ve seen ones where pilots have called it in, the boat has turned around and driven full steam straight towards it, but by the time they get there, there’s nothing but shiny scales and fish left on the water. Like a big glitter bomb had just been dropped in the ocean.
There’ve also been times where we’ve sat up next to bait balls to give them time to build up, because if you get in too early the sharks get scared off and won’t come back, but then they build up so quickly that it’s over before we even get in the water. So it could be anywhere between 60 seconds and 10 minutes.
How close are you getting to the bait balls?
Proximity wise, it really depends on the visibility. It’s usually better to stay further back, not just due to safety, but to allow the animals to do their thing. When I first started with underwater photography, my natural instinct was to get as close as I could. I soon came to realise that by doing that, I was scaring the marine life away, and that the better approach is to hold back and allow everything to unfold in front of you. So managing your distance is definitely a skill, one that the guys that have been on the Ningaloo Reef definitely had over me.
I’ve had to push sharks away with my hands and feet because they were getting a little too close for comfort. So it can depend on the shark as well. There was a time where Alex Kydd and my partner were photographing this bait ball and this big whaler plowed into them and continued pushing both of them out of the way because he didn’t want competition for food. It wasn’t going to bite them, but it made it clear that it was the top dog.
Diving with Bait Balls at Ningaloo ReefPLAY VIDEO
What’s one place that you’re hoping to shoot in the next few years?
I’ve got two trips in the works. Number one is definitely Africa. It’s a really special place and I want to go over there to take photos of the amazing African wildlife. I’ll also try and time the trip to overlap with the Sardine Run as well, so I can experience that too. It’s basically the Ningaloo bait balls on steroids.
You get whales over there as well, so you’ll be photographing dolphins and sharks eating fish and you could have a Brutus whale pop up right in front of you. If that ever happened to me I don’t know what I’d to. It’d be amazing.
I also have one last trip that I want to do in Asia. I’ve travelled through there quite extensively but I really want to go through and do a best-of photography trip in the last few places I haven’t been. There’s a place in Timor-Leste where whales and dolphins are found in massive numbers, in the Wetar Strait. I’d really love to freedive with Blue Whales there but since we’re not sure about international travel for a bit, we’re just saving and we’ll see what happens.
Sounds like you’ve got it all in the works, I’m sure you’ll get to it one day!
To see more of Lewis Burnett’s work, click here.