Behind The Lens: Pink Tank Scuba

Madeline St Clair Baker

This week we caught up with PT Hirschfield: photographer, ocean champion and creator of Pink Tank Scuba. Having logged almost 1000 dives since an incurable cancer diagnosis, her story is an eloquent reminder to all that no matter what, you should never give up fighting for what you believe in...

Hey! Tell us a bit about yourself.

Photo: Pink Tank Scuba

Photo: Pink Tank Scuba

I am an Australian based diver who takes marine life portraits and behaviour videos. I share my work on the Pink Tank Scuba Facebook, Instagram and YouTube channels as well as my website. I write a monthly column for Dive Log Australasia and am the founder of the Project Banjo Rays Awareness Campaign, which achieved regulatory change for ray protection in Victoria, Australia in 2017. I have OCD (obsessive compulsive diving!) and I have incurable recurrent endometrial cancer. I completed palliative radiotherapy in 2014 and diving has had a tremendously positive impact on my health and quality of life. I have done around 900 dives, and most of my dives last from 2-4 hrs on a single 12 litre tank. Only my very first Try-Dive was done without cancer. I am passionate about living life to the full; taking underwater images and video footage, and using them to foster greater love and a sense of custodianship for the ocean and the creatures that inhabit it. I often speak to community groups about the underwater world about how the ocean is not ‘another world down there’ but an integral part of the world they inhabit. I have a background in education and believe that education and action are critical to making a difference.

Wow! That’s quite a story. What motivated you to get into underwater photography?

I actually majored in photography (alongside film making, literature and linguistics) at university but never did much with it. It wasn’t until I started diving that I became obsessed with finding a way to share what I saw in that underwater world with those in my life who didn’t dive, and developed a sense of purpose with my photography. Initially I shared my underwater images on my private Facebook page but soon extended this to more public social media platforms and magazines.

You’re an inspiration to us all. Whose work has influenced and inspired you?

Social media provides a constant source of inspiration as I study the images being made by others around the world. I’m not sure that any one particular photographer has influenced my work, but every image I see teaches me something about technique and composition that is then integrated into my continuous learning curve.

In terms of video work, I am deeply inspired by the work of Pang Quong, a diver in my local region whose marine animal behaviour footage you most likely would have seen on David Attenborough programs and going viral through social media. His YouTube channel is mind boggling and has inspired me to be patient and persistent in trying to capture unique animal behaviours.

Another key influence on my work is a local diver called Alan Beckhurst. Although he describes himself as a humble tank-cleaner in a Marine Discovery centre, I am absolutely in awe of the depth, breadth and intimacy of his understanding about marine life that has come from decades of first hand observation and interaction. I am convinced that Alan knows more about ocean animals than most marine biologists, books and Google combined. I aspire to develop even a fraction of his understanding and often spend a lot of time with marine animals in their natural environments, just observing their everyday behaviours. That mentality of capturing an image informed by a broader understanding of that animal’s life beyond the camera and their natural place in the ecosystem inspires my photography and videography deeply.

Photo: Pink Tank Scuba

Photo: Pink Tank Scuba

Your images and videos are so diverse! What kind of gear do you use?

It’s complicated. I’ve grappled for a long time with the pros and cons of compact camera vs DSLR. People often ask what camera I use, but the truth is that cameras don’t take photos - photographers do. You can take incredible photos on a compact camera or dodgy photos with a DSLR and vice versa. Any camera with the capacity to shoot full manual gives a beginner a starting point to grow with. With plenty of practice, a versatile compact camera can be used to take exceptional images and can do things a larger DSLR rig can’t do.

Until recently I had only ever shot full manual on a compact Canon G12 in a Recsea housing with a single Sea and Sea YSD1 strobe and a triple flip diopter. This little rig with only 10 megapixels could squeeze into some tight spaces and has been used to shoot six magazine covers! More recently, I upsized to a Canon 7D DSLR and a compact Canon G16, both in Nauticam housings and dual YSD2J strobes. While I love the quality of the images produced using the big DSLR rig, I adore the versatility of a compact camera which allows me to shoot macro and wide, stills and video on the same dive. Because I do very long dives in part for my health and well being, I enjoy the long battery life of the compact camera and never having to swim away from a potential shot because I don’t have the ‘right lens’.

Because the sites I dive on a daily basis are so diverse, regularly offering super macro creatures up through to massive stingrays (and even sometimes whales!) on the same dive, I often find choosing a lens prior to a dive limiting and frustrating, rather than liberating and empowering, so I alternate my camera rig based on my needs and interests on any given day. But on days when I am targeting a specific shot or heading overseas to a dive site that is specifically wide or macro, I am happier to choose the DSLR rig and a task specific lens.

Among your works, which is your favourite and why?

I’m not sure that I have a specific favourite image, but I love working on critter specific galleries (e.g. octopuses, rays, spider crabs, cuttlefish, nudibranchs, etc) which I share through my blog. I also love taking images of divers with marine life to convey a sense of scale, connection and custodianship.

In terms of videos, the clip that moved me most to film and which has potentially had the greatest global reach is titled ‘Molt Hard, Die Harder’. It depicts the first molting spider crab I was ever privileged to film. Recording footage of the crab crawling slowly out of its old shell for me was like attending its birth and I found myself cheering it on. After about 25 minutes of filming in near freezing water, just as the crab was about to emerge fully from its old shell, I felt a nudge against my arm. It was a massive smooth ray signalling me to get out of the way so it could devour the crab. With misplaced protective instinct, I pushed the ray gently back and tried to keep filming, but the animal was persistent and I was in no position to argue with a hungry stingray. Reluctantly I moved my camera to a new position to record the fate of the crab. I was simultaneously devastated, repulsed and fascinated. Once again I came out of the water with powerful new understandings about the intrinsic connection between life and death, and the need to respect and accept them both as essential stages in the continuum of natural order.

Photo: Pink Tank Scuba

Photo: Pink Tank Scuba

I think that is such an important message - we can be taught so much from simply observing marine life. Do you have a memorable encounter with a marine species that has stuck with you?

I was photographing two seahorses together when my buddy saw a giant Australian cuttlefish come up behind me and basically tap me on the shoulder. Then it swam around the nearest pylon to stare into my eyes, face to face, inviting me to leave the seahorses and go for a long swim with it out into the sea grass. I accepted the invitation and was confronted with a choice: to stay and die with the decaying animal or to swim back to shore to live the remaining days of my life to the full. It was a profound experience that confirmed to me that, despite my prognosis and the inevitability of death, my time had definitely not yet come. That’s the extremely short version of this story... you can find the full account and video footage of this encounter here

You seem to have interacted with a lot of oceanic creatures! Are there any species encounters that are on your bucket list to photograph?

I’ve heard you can never ‘kick the bucket’ while there’s still something in it waiting to be done. So every time I cross something off my bucket list, I have to add something new. I’ve already been lucky enough to cross off tiger sharks, great whites and mantas from my must-see list. At the top of my bucket list right now are Blanket Octopus, Mola Molas and Basking Sharks.

So what challenges do you face when capturing the underwater world on camera?

Beyond the dilemmas of camera choice, I dive most days in temperate water that can be both very cold (between 8 and 22 degrees celcius) and I don’t own a drysuit. The water is frequently very silty, requiring finely tuned lighting techniques. Also because I have dived some of my local dive sites hundreds of times, it is always a challenge to try to find something new to photograph or a new way to photograph something familiar. I am always striving to take a photograph I haven’t seen elsewhere and looking for a new way to try to ‘tell the story’ in the marine life portrait I’m taking. Possibly my greatest challenge is diving too much which doesn’t leave as much time as I would like for importing, cataloguing and editing my images and footage - I literally have thousands of images that I haven’t looked at yet!

What’s your favourite dive spot, and why?

I live on the Mornington Peninsula in Melbourne Australia and never tire of diving beneath the many piers around Port Phillip Bay that are so incredibly rich and diverse with marine life. Overseas, my favourite dive location is without doubt Anilao in the Philippines. This place has extraordinary topographical diversity and is possibly one of the best macro sites in the world. I’ve also enjoyed diving the Maldives, Indonesia, Solomon Islands, Fiji and the outer Great Barrier Reef.

Photo: Pink Tank Scuba

Photo: Pink Tank Scuba

What advice would you give to people who want to get into ocean photography?

  1. Don’t even think about picking up a camera until you have done enough diving practice to develop some seriously above-average buoyancy skills.

  2. In the meantime, study marine life images (and their shooting details) on social media as preparation for starting to create your own images. Every time you see an underwater image ask: What’s great / not so great about it? How was that achieved? How could it be improved? What can I learn from that to transfer into my own process?

  3. When your buoyancy is solid, invest in a camera that allows you to grow with it. Don’t discount a compact camera with full manual options that will give you greater flexibility and creative control of the images you create.

  4. Start off shooting in TV (shutter) or AV (aperture priority) mode rather than in automatic mode to improve your results and as a stepping stone towards gaining confidence in full manual shooting.

  5. Add at least one strobe and learn how to position and control it effectively to add colour and dimension to your images.

  6. Be absolutely meticulous in setting up your camera o-rings etc to avoid expensive, heart-wrenching leaks and floods. If you ‘think’ the o-ring is clean and good, that’s not enough - you must ‘know’ it’s good before you get into the water.

  7. Test your camera before you leave the house to make sure everything is working properly (eg batteries, cables, memory card, lens cap off, etc). Do another test before you take your camera from your car to the dive site - just in case.

  8. Respect your subjects and learn as much as you can about them through research and observation. Marine animals have a life beyond the photo you want to take of them. Find the balance between patience and harassment without causing them distress.

  9. In the underwater world, energy is the cue that marine animals use to assess whether you are friend or foe. Stay calm at all times and do not touch, chase or harass your subjects, so the animals you are trying to photograph do not perceive you as a threat. Basically, ‘become a fish’ and you have a greater chance of being accepted into their world with the best photographic opportunities.

  10. Practice, practice, practice, practice, practice. Review your images underwater and on land to help improve your results. Make plenty of mistakes and learn from them for next time. That’s the way practice moves towards mastery, one dive at a time.

  11. Learn how to shoot with purpose and to tell a story through composition, lighting and other shooting techniques.

  12. Invite constructive criticism of your images from more advanced photographers to pick up tips on how to improve your style, technique and overall results. Read articles and books on underwater photography and revisit them as your skills progress to help you to move to the next level.

  13. Learn the benefits of using a good editing program like Lightroom to take your photos from ‘good’ to ‘great’.

  14. Find some way to use your images to make a difference in the world.

Photo: Pink Tank Scuba

Photo: Pink Tank Scuba

The ocean has changed rapidly in the last couple of decades. Could you leave us with any words of wisdom about ocean conservation?

As small as we can feel in the face of global oceanic crisis, the ocean needs individuals who care to both be her voice and to take action on her behalf.

At the start of 2017, I realised I could not swim past one more slaughtered fiddler ray (aka ‘banjo shark’) beneath the fishing end of my local pier dive sites without stepping up and doing something towards less needless cruelty and more positive outcomes. This led to the formation of the Project Banjo action group including a petition signed by 33,000 people, meetings with government departments and regulatory change to improve protection of stingrays across the state I live in.

When you become aware of human carelessness, negligence or abuse impacting the ocean, you have an opportunity and a responsibility to take some sort of action. Be willing to make some sort of personal sacrifice for the greater good. Start conversations and either launch or support campaigns and initiatives aimed towards making a difference.

You have a voice and need to make a choice - to remain silent and in doing so become an accomplice to what you’ve seen, or to use your voice to make a positive difference. Connect with others and add your voices together. Where possible, find ways to work collaboratively, proactively and respectfully with authorities and government bodies who are in a position to bring about the necessary changes. Provide evidence of the problem and help to devise and negotiate solutions. Harness local, national and world media and social media to bring attention to the cause you are championing.

The ocean isn’t ‘another world’ or ‘someone else’s problem’. Ask yourself - what can I do to make a difference today?

Behind the Lens explores the lives of those who capture the underwater world on camera

If you’ve enjoyed this interview with PT, follow her here @pinktankscuba and check out her website