Story Behind the Shot: Swallows Cave

Take an inside look at photographer Sarah Alice Lee's creative process while pursuing this beautiful image
By Sarah Alice Lee

Swallows Cave is located at the northwest tip of Kapa Island in Vava'u, in The Kingdom of Tonga. The cave mouth is about 15’ deep and about 20’ wide. We arrived on a dingy and as soon as we entered the cave I could see the shards of light dancing into the depths of the water and I couldn’t wait to jump in. We had no scuba gear so would be only snorkeling and freediving. My favourite work is created when using breath hold only - I find it less disruptive to the wildlife and I love the freedom of movement it provides.

As we dived into the water, a cathedral of cascading light and shadow greeted us and visually played with the realms of reality. Your imagination can be free here and the thought of what was lurking in the darkness intrigued me. That familiar hand of the blue reaching up and willing you to dive down and explore, my camera in hand ready for some action. The cave was barren of life on the walls of rock which, was a contrast to the abundant coral reef that adorned the mouth of the cave entrance. It was, however, brimming with bait fish that to look at was like observing a constantly moving sculpture reflecting flashes of light as the late afternoon sun hit their scales. Bait fish at depth are tricky to expose properly when using underwater strobes because of how reflective they are, but their movement was mesmerizing and when my freediver friend entered the water, diving right into the school, I knew there had to be a shot there.

The Shot

The Shot - a diver swims through Swallows Cave.
Nikon D300, Tokina 10-17mm fisheye, Sea & Sea D300 housing, dual Ikelite DS125 strobes.
ISO 800, f/4, 1/125. Photo: Sarah Alice Lee


Our first visit was during a busy time and a few boats had entered into the space. With snorkelers everywhere I knew that we would have to come back to shoot at a quieter time, and that the image I wanted to create would need a little setting up. Luckily Cath (who agreed to model for me) and another photographer were able to visit the cave at such a time and I had the opportunity to play with the strobe positioning in correlation to the sun entering the caves entrance and decided how best to direct the subject. With the unpredictability of the bait fishes movements we were required to make dives over a period of approximately forty minutes but we knew we had the shot.

Related: Moments with Humpback Mother & Calf in Tonga


Behind the Scenes


The model first enters the water and swims through the bait fish. Photo: Sarah Alice Lee




















Working with the angle of light, sun rays, fish and dive model until all the elements came together. Photo: Sarah Alice Lee


Sarah Alice Lee learnt to dive in the warm waters of the Red Sea at fourteen and has been in the water ever since. A qualified Padi instructor Sarah attended Falmouth University College Falmouth where she specilised in underwater photography for her BA HONS degree. She worked commercially in London upon graduating and then went to explore the world with her camera. Sarah chose Australia as her home followed by New Zealand and established her underwater photography business working both with wildlife under the waves and capturing images of babies underwater in pools all over Australasia.  After ten years away Sarah returned to the UK in 2017 and can be found in pools all over the South East.

Website:     |     Instagram: @sarahalicephotography


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