Written by Leanne Esposito

Award-winning wildlife photographer transforms students’ skills by taking them into the wild

So, if you think nature photography is a matter of being in the right place at the right time then you are entirely mistaken.

According to multi award winning photographer Michael Smith (APP M. Photog) whose images have gained him worldwide recognition on several different stages, the truth is that it takes years to develop photographic skills and even more dedication and patience to capture that one perfect image. After winning a Gold Distinction at the Australian Professional Photography Awards, Michael’s images have earned him international success with a Silver Medal in the World Photographic Cup (the Olympics of Photography), first place in the Malta International Photography Awards and recognition by National Geographic.  

Over the last few-years he has been generously sharing his knowledge and talent with students who accompany him on trips to the Pacific Islands where water visibility ensures a premium photographic experience.

“When photographing whales, you need to be really committed. Frequently our trips are anywhere from 6 to 9 days and we’ll be on the ocean anywhere from 4 to 8 hours every single day,” he said.

From a curious cub scout who pulled his parents’ Instamatic camera apart (just to see how the shutter mechanism worked) Michael has loved documenting nature ever since. Unfortunately, he couldn’t put the camera back together but he didn’t let that stop him!

“That was the end of that camera. But still I took over the family camera whenever we were camping. I was just drawn to it, always in the creek or bush photographing whatever I could,” he said.

Winning a weekly competition at his local pharmacy, where his images were developed, helped seal his fate to become a photographer.

“They chose my photo as the shot of the week and even though it wasn’t an academic achievement, and it was for my own joy and pleasure, I was hooked from that moment,” he said.

He is a self-confessed outdoorsy type and the teenage Michael loved nothing more than surfing and hanging out in the ocean beyond the break where marine creatures swam.

During a personal six-month sabbatical in 2009 Michael travelled around Queensland and his adult passion for photography was re-ignited.

“I bought a digital camera and did a lap around Queensland in a camper trailer.

“I was hiking and I photographed everything. Waterfalls, beaches – everything I could.

“It re-invigorated that passion inside of me.”

Relocating to Hervey Bay saw Michael step away from his metal-fabrication trade for a career in photography. Almost by accident he started photographing weddings and was soon regarded as the top wedding photographer at that time.

“I was asked to photograph a wedding for a friend. On the back of that I shot 24 weddings in the following 12 months, and then the business really took off” he said.

Michael then enrolled in a mentoring program with the Australian Institute of Professional Photography. While honing his photography skills further his business confidence was growing.

“I did that for five years. I attended seminars, workshops, everything I could. I inhaled photography. I was almost obsessive over it. I just loved it. I had a passion for the people, the technical side of it and the artistic expression” he said.

When swimming on the reef off Cairns Michael observed a scuba diving photographer taking photos of the guests underwater. It was a pivotal moment. He booked a trip to Tonga to swim with whales and later gained his scuba diving tickets.

“I bought an underwater housing for my camera and did a masterclass workshop on underwater photography. Nature was going to be it,” he said.

So committed to this new venture, he shut down his wedding business and set up shop at the Marina. His business Into The Wild Photography sold stunning photos of animals in the wild as well as landscape images from the local area.

Today he is an experienced underwater photographer who has completed numerous diving skills upgrades. He has been approached by operators in Tonga and Tahiti where he now leads photographic snorkelling tours, swimming with whales.

Whether you are a novice or an expert Michael can show you the ropes, but it takes time and patience above water to get the moves right. Teaching the technical side of underwater photography is one aspect of this pursuit. Michael said that wildlife photography depends on human interaction with, and understanding the subject in its natural element.

“We (the students) communicate with some hand signals when in the water. I will show them how to approach say a turtle and what cues to look for from the animal. We need to give them space so they can learn to trust us and know that we’re not a threat. This is how we get access. We can be within a foot of these creatures when we finally photograph them and it can take half an hour or more to earn their trust,” he said.

Michael tells us it’s not necessary to travel overseas to learn underwater photography. He regularly takes students to Lady Elliot Island. This southern-most portion of the Great Barrier Reef is vibrant and healthy and is wildlife dense. The ecology of the island is pristine.

Swimming with whales can be an emotional experience and he’s seen a range of reactions from students.

“Everyone is different. When people see their first whale in the water they sometimes cry because it’s an experience you can’t put into words. They are massive and you can’t just swim up to a humpback.  We put ourselves into their zone and we ask for permission while we wait for them to come to us,” he said.

The image of a giant humpback whale as it glides through the ocean is simply beautiful – serene.

Michael has captured their mammoth, yet graceful moves a hundred times but his efforts to capture an imagine of a breaching whale in a perfect sunset over Hervey Bay has revealed a rather unpleasant side to these great beasts.

“I regularly go out overnight on my boat.  But often, the whales make it pretty difficult to sleep – they grunt, groan and snore all night!” he said.

Well there you have it. A little-known whale fact. Whales make terrible bedfellows! If you love photography and nature perhaps a visit to Michael’s website could stoke your creative fires. The visual display is nothing short of stunning. His blog is expansive and informative. Who knows you may feel the urge to join him on one of his upcoming photographic adventures.