Michaela Skovranova is a world-renowned underwater photographer, filmmaker and Olympus Visionary whose work captures the beauty that exists beneath the water’s surface.
Ironically, Michaela began her journey into the realms of underwater photography in a bid to overcome her fear of the ocean; she moved to ocean-rimmed Australia from landlocked Slovakia when she was 13 years old.
Now, she is renowned for her breathtaking visuals of marine life and aquatic environments captured in her signature, hauntingly ethereal style. From projects on humpback whales to coral spawning, her work has been shared by brands such as Adobe and Instagram, and she has collaborated with the likes of Greenpeace, The New York Times and National Geographic to produce captivating underwater stories.
CameraPro was very lucky to have Michaela present a masterclass at one of our photography festivals.
Here’s what we learnt.
Michaela says she doesn’t usually go deeper than 15 or 20 metres, and often her images are captured just below the water’s surface.
“You don’t want to be wondering, ‘how do I change the settings?’ while a beautiful moment is unfolding in front of you – especially with the underwater camera housing, which can have lots of little buttons.”
To begin with, Michaela suggests using a fixed focal length, choosing the desired shutter speed and just changing the aperture or ISO as needed to keep it simple.
She says she doesn’t usually look through the viewfinder. “Instead I use the back screen, but sometimes the visibility is so poor that that option may not be available.” But being familiar with the settings of the camera and characteristics of the lenses allows her to capture the shot she was going for, even with limited visibility.
In low visibility, Michaela suggests pre-focusing and using a wide-angle lens – and again, really knowing your equipment.
“Keep practising. Even if you go to a local pool, a lake or a river – a place you are familiar with – it’s a great place to learn and get comfortable.”
“I took swimming lessons and completed a free-diving course in addition to my scuba dive training. This gave me the tools to hold my breath for longer. I’m a big advocate of safety and simplicity,” she says.
“When I first started experimenting with underwater photography, I was taught to venture out in ideal diving conditions – which is a wonderful and safe way to learn, however, those ideal weather moments can be rare.
So what to do? Once you are comfortable in the ocean, Michaela suggests practising in adverse weather – so you’ll be better prepared. “Those days when you don’t want to go because the weather is less than ideal, are the times you need to go – to get used to working in those conditions.”
“It’s important to have a versatile setup to suit how you work.” But at the same time, she says, “A great challenge is to keep it light, versatile and simple.
“If I am breath-holding and want to be able to keep up with fast-moving creatures, it’s beneficial for me to have a small, lightweight system to conserve oxygen and energy.
“I am open-minded with the equipment I use, and I will make my choices based on the job and the conditions on the shoot day.”
An example of her setup? When Michaela shot in Antarctica, she said she used an Olympus 12mm and 25mm fixed lens, and a 12-100mm zoom lens for above water capture (24mm, 50mm, and 24-200mm full frame equivalent).
“For most projects that I do – personal projects included – I choose to work with experienced guides and scientists. For instance, while documenting humpback whales off the coast of Tonga, it was required that I go with a licensed operator and an experienced guide. Their expertise and knowledge will allow you and the creatures to have a safe and positive experience.”
“Collaboration is key. When entering new environments with challenging conditions, it’s always worth it to go with someone familiar with the region and the local wildlife.”
Michaela points out how important it is to be respectful of the creatures alongside you in the water, and understand how what you’re doing is affecting them.
Video is a fantastic way to capture the movement, the life and the atmosphere underwater. Almost all digital cameras can record movies, so experiment with video as well as stills while you’re at it.