Tuesday, May 28, 2024
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Phil Colla

I first became aware of Phil Colla from his images that grace Terry Maas’ latest book "FREEDIVE". There were many great images of marine life throughout the book. What struck me as unique was the fact that all of his images were created while freediving. Since this is not the norm by which to create images of this caliber, I decided to chat with him a little about his work and his philosophy of image making while freediving. I caught up with Phil just after getting back from photographing whales in Hawaii.

Deeper Blue:What kind of training do you do for your freediving photography.

Phil Colla: Running and swimming primarily, and of course freediving itself. Decent aerobic fitness helps when a particular dive includes a lot of swimming, perhaps because of a current or covering ground. Good relaxation in the water can somewhat make up for a lack of conditioning, especially when it comes to breathhold time, but I still like to feel I am in decent shape aerobically before doing any type of diving.

DB: How did you get started in the sport?

PC: I’ve always enjoyed the ocean, mostly bodysurfing when I was a teenager. My wife and I took up tank diving after we were married and out of school. I quickly realized, though, that many in many situations tanks are cumbersome, unnecessary and counterproductive, and began looking for opportunities to hop in the water where I didn’t need SCUBA equipment.

DB: Have you seen a change in the quality of your images since you started freediving with your camera?

PC: Most definitely. There is no way on earth I would be able to get many of the marine mammal shots that I’ve gathered had I been constrained to SCUBA diving. Quick-moving animals and spontaneous, short-lived encounters are situations that demand freediving if you want to even see the animal, not to mention try to photograph it. The limited amount of time I have underwater while on a single breathhold dive has forced me to be more efficient in how I shoot.

DB: What got you into underwater photography in the first place?

PC: The challenge of trying to capture top-notch photographs of subjects, and their behaviors, that most people don’t even know exist. What is more exciting than getting a good shot of a whale? For that matter, what is more exciting than just seeing a whale in the first place?

DB: What equipment do you work with for your image making?

PC: Primarily a Nikonos V camera with 15mm and 20mm Nikonos lenses. Occasionally I use a housing, either a Subal (Austria) or Aquatica (Canada) with a Nikon F4 inside. Strobes, when needed, are usually a pair made by Marine Camera Distributions (San Diego). Films? — Slide film, Fuji Velvia occasionally or Kodak Lumiere, Elite or E200. Sometimes Kodachrome 64, although this film can look green in some situations and is tough for my scanner to handle color-wise.

DB: Your most memorable image made while freediving?

PC: Within the last couple of years, it would have to be an adult sperm whale in the Azores, in the central Atlantic. My diving partner Skip Stubbs and I were filming sperm whales for the Tokyo Broadcasting System, using Mini-DV format digital videocameras. I had a few occasions to also try shooting stills, and finally had a sperm whale come take a good look at me when everything was just right – glassy surface, great midday light, clean blue water. I got a few shots I’m pretty happy with, but the most memorable part of the encounter was the sperm whale’s acoustics – clicking and popping sounds that made the hair on my skin stand up.

DB: Equipment suggestions for someone wanting to get into photography while freediving?

PC: Good mask and fins. Make sure you can really move when you have do, but that the fins do not cramp the legs. I use Esclapez black blades, and a small black Sherwood masks.

DB: Special techniques you use that you don’t mind sharing with our readers.

PC: Don’t wait to get in the water! You’re not going to see anything until you get in. Once in the water, then one must choose how, and if, to approach their subject. With mammals it is best to back off, and let the animal’s innate curiosity cause it to investigate you. This is also true with the odd Mola mola (ocean sunfish).

DB: With such an importance on protecting on ocean environment, many freedivers spearfish and are concerned about there being a balanced view taken on being able to do both – they fear that their rights to hunt are slowly being taken away, especially in places like Mexico. Do you feel that we can protect our marine environment and still selectively harvest without severely impacting what species are left?

PC: Of course. I am not a spearfisherman, but I spend a lot of time each year with spearfishermen (and women) at Guadalupe Island and Islas San Benito, on a trip Skip and I organize each September. I’ve learned that these spearos are not wasteful, they are looking for a challenge and are selective about the particular fish they choose to shoot. In 1994, one of the senior and most experienced guys on the trip didn’t even take a single shot, he was waiting for a certain fish and just didn’t get the right opportunity. — The spearfishing community is trying to combat a public perception that their sport is brutal, wasteful and ecologically. The challenge, as I see it, is convincing voters and legislators, most of whom have not spent any significant time in the ocean, that spearfishing is perhaps the most ecologically sensitive form of fishing possible. How do you do this?

DB: What are some of your favorite places to go and photograph?

PC: Galapagos, some parts of Hawaii, and Guadalupe Island. These places are filled with approachable subjects and good light. And, for the most part, you can be off by yourself and really know that you are in the wilds.

DB: Any words of wisdom on starting out in freediving photography?

PC: Spend your money on getting to the places where subjects are, rather than on gear. You can spend thousands on camera or video gear, but it won’t do you any good until you put yourself in the water with what you want to photograph. Mexico is nearby (for me), has incredible photo opportunities and is relatively inexpensive.

Phillip Colla Photography

7302 Azalea Place, Carlsbad,

CA 92009 USA

(760) 804-0731 tel

(760) 804-0737 fax


oceanlight@oceanlight.com or pcolla@cts.com

Marine Mammals, Eastern Pacific Marine Life, Kelp Forest

Cliff Etzel
Cliff Etzel
Cliff is the former Freediving editor of DeeperBlue.com. He is now a freelance journalist and film-maker.


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