Meeting with Pete West, director of underwater photography

© Noëlie Pansiot / Fondation Tara Expéditions

Pete West, technical director at BioQuest Studios and director of underwater photography during the Tara Pacific expedition, together with the creative director Daniel Stoupin provided us with images that far exceed our expectations. Their photos and videos of coral are true technological feats. At the heart of coral, as close as possible to the animal, these pictures are both rare and exceptional. So astonishing that one wonders: “Are these colours real? Are they 3D images?” Taken in super-macro format, the images challenge and intrigue, bringing coral to life before our amazed eyes. Pete West describes how they capture such images on site and in his studio.


© Pete West / BioQuest Studios / Tara Expéditions Foundation


How did you get the idea to film the coral that way?

Awe-inspiring imaging begins by understanding light and visual perception. These are subjects we have researched over many years and this has helped us to develop our unique photographic and filming techniques. We humans are very limited in our range of senses compared to many other animals. Animals can see a wider spectrum and more properties of light and their brains work differently to ours. To understand nature we sometimes need to look at the world through their eyes and appreciate the fact that the world is far more than what meets the human eye. The underwater world is very different from ours in spectral properties.

Traditional photography and cinematography is incapable of capturing most colours underwater. When we humans go underwater to film and photograph, we take our out-of-water perception, interpretation and artificial light sources. The most common question people ask when they see our images is, “Are the colours real or enhanced?” The short answer is they are real. Under ambient underwater light spectra and close to the subject, those are the colours the observer would see.

Most filmmakers do not account for fluorescence phenomena and the fact that the colour of many marine animals depends on the light they are immersed in. Take the traditional ‘balanced’ white lights underwater and many natural colours disappear. In fact, with white light we would enhance those colours animals often use as camouflage to hide themselves from unwanted attention. That is the world of colour presented in most underwater documentaries as ‘natural’ and the viewer is used to it.


Chief Scientist Didier Zoccola examining the coral covering the 73 year old shipwreck Chang Maru_Photo Credit Pete West_AG9I5964 (redimensionnee)Chief Scientist Didier Zoccola examining the coral covering the 73 year old shipwreck Fujikawa Maru © Pete West / BioQuest Studios / Tara Expéditions Foundation


How do you process to film macro images of corals?

These animals are particularly challenging subjects for imaging. We start our process by collecting the corals ourselves or purchasing them from licenced coral and fish collectors. The collecting of corals from the Great Barrier Reef is very well regulated and permits are required. We choose a subject coral based on its individual behaviour or sometimes simply for its colour and detail. It’s one thing to film coral, but it’s another thing to film coral behaviour such as feeding etc. These are the things that make a real story.

Once we have obtained the coral it’s placed in one of our aquariums and acclimatized for as long as three months. When we are ready to start filming the first thing we must do is determine the appropriate spectrum we need for lighting. We have developed our own LED lighting systems which allow us to vary individual wavelengths and simulate the lighting at various ocean depths. This is how we are able to bring out the natural colours of corals, undistorted by the lights we traditionally use on land.

The choice of suitable optics for the camera system is determined by the size of the coral or individual polyp and the end-result we are trying to achieve. A lot of our lenses are custom made and we often use supplemental lenses we produce ourselves. Next, we determine the techniques for moving the camera system to achieve the desired cinematic effect. When filming time-lapse sequences of coral polyps less than 3mm in diameter, we may need to move the camera as little as 5 mm over a period of 5 – 6 hours. The precision and vibration-isolation required for such a move is extraordinary and we have designed and built a number of systems to help us achieve the desired results. We use a variety of anti-vibration systems installed in isolated concrete studios, as the slightest movement or vibration is enough to upset the coral, causing it to alter its behaviour or the polyps may withdraw completely.

Constant advances in digital technology ensure our ability to continue to develop eye-opening techniques and reveal nature in new ways. In short, what we do at BioQuest Studios is closer to digital imaging used in science rather than traditional cinematography and photography. We are not into capturing the world we see with the naked eye. We are about revealing the invisible.


Pete_West_Hidetoshi_Nishijima_rire_credit_NPansiot-2170269(redimensionnee)Conversation between actor Hideyoshi Nishijima, and director of  underwater photography Pete West. © Noëlie Pansiot / Tara Expéditions Foundation


You have been working on marine life for a long time now. Are you still moved by what you are seeing through the lenses?

I think you can appreciate the marine environment much more when you work with super macro photography, unlike normal photography where we go underwater and have on average an hour to film as much as possible. With super macro photography in a laboratory studio situation, we may take weeks and possibly months to study the animal before we start to take photographs or film. First, you have to know how the animal is going to react, what are the best conditions and how we are going to position and move the camera.

Our work has made us realise there is so much to see and learn, if we just alter our perception of time, scale and colour.


Interview by Noëlie Pansiot

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