Featured Artist: Joshua Lambus
Underwater photographer shares what it takes to run a successful gallery
An interview by Scott Gietler
During a recent trip to the island of Hawaii to photograph manta rays at night, Scott Gietler stepped into a local art gallery. The sign over the door read, "J. Lambus Photography."
Joshua Lambus was one of the pioneers of blackwater diving photography in Kona, Hawaii. He has logged over 400 blackwater dives to date, through leading guided dives for customers, as well as venturing out on his own. In blackwater diving, the boat drifts at night over water between 4,000 and 10,000 feet deep, while divers enjoy pelagic animals floating by. A “sea anchor” helps slow the boat so divers are not dragged through the water too quickly. More recently he has been concentrating on freediving, and other adrenaline-laced activities – in addition to running his gallery.
Scott's visit, and his conversation with Joshua, led to the interview below.
Juvi Blenny. Nikon D80, 60mm lens. F16, 1/100th, ISO 320.
SG: How did you start photographing pelagic inverts?
JL: I was intrigued when I first heard the about the "Blackwater" dive. I had a few friends that were doing it but I had just started diving and didn't feel ready with only 100 dives under my belt. I began doing the Manta Ray night dive with some regularity and would often find myself more excited about what they were eating then the mantas themselves. Soon I realized I had to do it, and set out with a borrowed boat and 3 of my friends. The very first night I saw a Nautilus! I of course had no idea how to photograph this dive and didn't get a single picture, but just seeing it was all I needed. Soon it became a weekly thing. Then once a week wasn't enough. Along with diving off of our own borrowed boat, I applied to work at a local dive shop that did the "Blackwater" dive once a week as well. When I started working there, I pretty much took charge of the dive and started pushing it so that I could get out more often. Soon we were heading out into the dark on a bi-weekly basis, have been doing so ever since.
SG: What are the challenges in this type of photography?
JL: Well the very nature of this dive is so different from others. Taking photographs during the dive is also about as different as it gets. The only way to practice for this dive is by doing this dive. Though I often say if you take a piece of aluminum foil and a piece of plastic wrap into your closet, turn out the lights and are able to photograph them together, in focus and both well exposed, you should be able to photograph blackwater. For the dive we head straight out a few miles, get over water that is thousands of feet deep, and jump in. It is a drift dive, in the open ocean, with tethers, at night. Keeping track of your buoyancy, while trying to stay righted in the current, and staying clear of tangling in the tethers, while trying to maintain your composure and fight off the vertigo, can be very difficult for some people. After doing this dive almost 400 times it still throws me for a loop from time to time. Not to mention the BIG animals we see out there. We've had Oceanics, Blues, Galapagos, Makos, Threshers and even big Marlin give us a spike in heart rate. Trying to track 3 Oceanic white-tips posturing at night with a focus light can be a bit disconcerting to say the least. Ok, so that's just the diving. The next thing to consider is...focus. Does your camera focus well in low light? If not are you good at manual focus? Which is better? Next is lighting. Best positions for strobes? How do you light up your subject without lighting up the rest of the plankton around it? Do you expose for the reflective part of your subject or the transparent part? How do you do both? How comfortable are you with knowing where the controls are on your camera? Because at night you can't see what you're doing, and you better have a good hold on that camera because if you drop it you don't get it back. Trust me.
National Geographic. So I totally didn't know till one of my divers told me, but I made National Geographic Photo of the Day with this shot. Pretty stoked.
SG: What made you decide to open a gallery? Was it a big investment?
JL: After getting numerous requests from museums, marine organizations, and magazines like National Geographic and Sport Diver, I figured people wanted to see my work. Kona is a small town, and that's why we like it, but along with that, it means there's not much in the way of higher culture. Not many live music shows, no operas, no ballets, and no MUSEUMS. I decided Kona needed something for people to "oooh and aahh" at. My mindset was that it didn't need to make money, but if it did, Great! I was stilling working two jobs when I first opened my doors. I was working as a divemaster and a lifeguard, putting in a minimum of 60 hours a week. Taking on the load of the gallery was no easy task. I was very fortunate that one of my very good friends, Chance, took the gallery into his own hands, manned it, and was ordering and selling prints while I worked on the water. Soon we out grew the first location and decided we needed a bigger spot, so we moved into a spot on the main strip here in Kona. The first spot was a pretty easy investment but the second one required a remodel of the space, as well as larger prints to fill the walls. Not to mention framing. I had never realized just how expensive framing prints was till I had to frame sixty of them!
Charlie Getting Devoured. "This is only a very small part of the bait ball too... not only can you not see most of it in this photo, but another huge piece showed up and joined this one about 20 minutes into the dive. Back to my film addiction again. I love the grain and contrast. And how small the camera is! All of these bait ball photos were taken on film with a Nikonos V / 20mm sea&sea, while freediving (breath hold diving, no tanks). Depths up to 70ft."
SG: What are the challenges in opening your own gallery?
JL: The biggest challenge is how to juggle still getting in the water and running both a storefront and an on location business.
Why I Dive. Nikon D80, 60mm lens. F40, 1/60th, ISO 320.
SG: How was business been, who is your typical customer?
JL: Well, business is business. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's not. If you find one that's ALWAYS good, be sure to let me know. I typically sell to other divers. But a lot of people love to just come in and look at the images and imagine being underwater themselves. One of the things that has helped me quite a bit is that I have a lot of diversity. I am only recently turned underwater photographer. I have my background in photographing people. Concerts were my main draw, but later modeling work and even portraiture. I began landscape work in my teens. Though I do sell prints, a lot of my business is commissioned work in studios, on location, for both individuals and publications, and also digital retouching and design. I also sell stock to a number of magazines and newspapers.
Larval Ribbon Fish. "A very rare fish to come across usually, I've only seen two in the many times I've done the blackwater dive.... but this night for whatever reason i saw 4 in one dive! Maybe a spawning of some sort - or maybe I ought to go buy a lottery ticket! Anybody with any ideas on what the scientific name is, would be much appreciated." Nikon D80. F9, 1/100th, ISO 320.
SG: What kind of photo projects have you been working on lately? Anything you can share with us? Anything you plan on adding to the gallery?
JL: My latest venture is skydiving photography! I'm setting up my helmet camera using a Canon 60D. I couldn't use the 5D because it's too big in 200mph wind. Who knew? A whole new world of imaging to learn about! Can't wait. I'll always add to the gallery. As long as I keep shooting, I'll keep adding. Photography is the risk I'll always take.
Dolphin Gang. "They look angry don't they? Like scary intelligent torpedoes or something.... they were pretty friendly though, and I didn't get beat up. Although I wasn't so sure I wouldn't right as I was taking this photo. This was taken with my cheapest underwater camera - a 5MP Oly C-5000." F4.5, 1/200th, ISO 80 @ 18mm.
SG: What kind of camera gear are you using today to capture your awesome images?
JL: Camera: A black one.
Housing: One that doesn't leak.
Lenses: Fast ones.
Strobes: Bright ones.
Basically what I'm trying to say is that I'm no loyalist. Most of those shots I sent you were taken with a Nikon D80, but I shoot with a Nikonos V all the time, and occasionally even a Nikons III. Lately I've been shooting a Canon 5D MKII. Sometimes I've got Sea&Sea strobes on there, and sometimes old bulky SB's. I even had a couple of Ikelites but they just weren't bright enough for me. I usually buy third party lenses but I've been known to buy L series glass too. Some of my wide-angle stuff is old Olympus glass with adapters on them to fit my Canon and Nikon bodies. All manual focus and I'm stuck with my aperture, but some old Oly glass just can't be beat. I've been mostly freediving and shooting waves recently so my two favorite setups lately have been the Nikonos V for its compactness and depth ability, and a Canon 7D in the beautiful, entirely carbon fiber CMT underwater housing. Right now I'm diving a 5D MKII in a Subal Housing, but I think I might sell that and buy a new Ikelite and a Ferrari.
Nikon D80. F2.8, 1/125th, ISO 100.
Hippocampus fisheri. F22, 1/100th, ISO 320, 60mm.
What in the Ocean!? "Ok so I'm getting a little more knowledgeable as to what this thing actually is...an octopus of some kind. I'm guessing a Tremoctopus male or something similar. Those white filaments I've decided are cnidarian tentacles that it ripped off and is now using as defense. This guy was pretty tiny...maybe 4 inches in length from mantle to tip of longest tentacle. Any guesses?" F9, 1/125, ISO 320.
One More for the Book. F9, 1/80, ISO 320.
Next time you're in Kona, be sure to stop by Joshua's gallery!
About the artist
Joshua Lambus is a fine-art and underwater photographer from Houston, TX. Now living in Hawaii, Joshua once focused on the candid emotion of people, but now finds an even greater muse in the ocean.
"I never cared much for modeling and posed portraiture, that wasn't alive to me. I liked seeing life, I love photographing life. After a shoot, I'd sit and look through my prints, I would see a world moving, shifting, living...dying. This is what's always caught my attention. Now being underwater I'm inundated with stories, struggles, triumphs. Seeing our fragile ecosystem inch ever closer to the verge of destruction pushes me to continue my work, not only for artistic value, but for a far greater purpose. I hope to tell a story and ask for help for those without a voice"
Publisher's note on visiting Kona, Hawaii
The "Big Island" is a great place to visit. I highly suggest staying in Kona for diving, and staying a couple nights in Hilo for top-side nature activities. When I was in Kona, I did the black water dive with Jack's diving Locker, they call it "Pelagic Magic" - which I will be writing about soon. It was a very well-run operation, and the trip runs at a reasonable time in the evening. And of course, be sure to stop in Joshua's gallery and say hi! - Scott