“Everything I do now is through the lens of increasing awareness, underwater photographer, Alexis Rosenfeld tells us. “I want to show things that educate and engage people and make them more committed to the health and welfare of the planet’s oceans.”
That need for awareness brings us to Alexis’s latest work, a project with UNESCO called ‘1 Ocean, The Anatomy’, which accompanies the United Nations’ Decade of Ocean Sciences programme, both aimed at environmental preservation. “I’m accompanying the UNESCO Oceanographic Commission in this programme and using my photographs in a plea to protect the ocean,” Alexis explains, “the idea being to explain why marine science is essential and directly linked with the protection of the planet. Without understanding we can do nothing.”
One of the central themes of the project is exploring the underwater landscape, its unseen ridges, planes, sunken volcanoes and deep trenches. “Until now, from a technical point of view, it was very complicated to capture these great landscapes beneath the sea,” Alexis explains, “but arrival of both high resolution and highly sensitive sensors, like those in my Sony Alpha cameras, means that we can work at greater depths in very low light and tell stories that we couldn't in the past.”
“The deep water steals light away,” he continues, “but I will regularly work at 800 and 1600 ISO knowing I get superb image quality, and there are plenty of shots that I wouldn't have been able to get without my Alpha gear. The deeper you go, the more important sensitivity is, particularly when you need faster shutter speeds to freeze movement, like in this image of whale, moving extremely fast through the depths. I needed 1/1250sec. Underwater, that’s pretty amazing, and not something I could have done before.”
So, aside from the technical aspects of putting his Sony Alpha 7R II and III cameras and lenses in waterproof housing, how does Alexis go about shooting an underwater landscape? “For this project,” he explains, “I’ve been shooting wide angle and stitching images together to capture the grand scale of these submerged spaces. So, I’ll shoot many separate images before recomposing them on the computer, which adds dimension and brings these grand visions to life.”
Just as in regular landscapes, lighting is very important, says Alexis, but underwater sometimes it has to be provided by the photographer. This can clearly be seen in ‘Smoking Land,’ one of his favourite images from the series so far. Shot off the coast of Sicily, at more than 80m deep, “it’s an area of geothermal activity and gas eruption,” he explains, “where these amazing volcanic chimneys are formed. This was shot with the FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM – one of my favourite lenses to use in an underwater housing – and I lit it with two flashes, with the light and focus concentrated on the chimneys. The diver in the background gives it some scale, as well as backlighting the scene thanks to the two 10,000 lumens LED lamps they’re holding.”
Elsewhere, he likes to mix the structures of the seabed with fish, as in this image of a shoal swimming past gorgonian coral.
“The only way to light them,” he explains, “was to hide my flashes under the coral and add a third one to light the foreground. This is a picture made with a lot of patience, and again I used the FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM to help show the immensity of the ocean. That lens also lets me to focus closely,” he continues, “which is important under the sea: the less water there is between lens and subject, the sharper images and stronger colours you’ll get.”
Focusing underwater can also be challenging, but it has to be accurate, especially when fleeting encounters occur. Fortunately, Alexis’s Alpha bodies have that nailed. “For landscapes you have more time, but in shots like this photo of pilot whales, they move really fast, coming towards me and away again, never stable. Here I shot in Continuous AF and relied on the camera’s Flexible Spot mode, locking on to the subject. It performs amazingly well, even in through all that water, and gives me total sharpness.”
With the UNESCO ‘1 Ocean, the anatomy’ project continuing for ten years, there’s no lack of discovery to come for Alexis. “Soon we’ll be working in French Polynesia, on the Alboran Sea, south of the Mediterranean Sea, and we will continue the theme of seamounts and volcanoes,” he says. “Each time, there are incredible encounters to experience and what excites me the most is that you cannot predict what will happen. Each voyage is unique, as you search into the unknown, but I know that my Alpha gear is always up to the challenge.”
Beneath the surface, another world: my universe, where everything looks like a fairy tale, and takes your breath away.