After more than 40 year of shooting for National Geographic, photographer Emory Kristof has done almost everything. From discovering new species on the ocean floor to photographing the Titanic and pioneering remote submersible cameras, Kristof’s career is the stuff dreams are made of. Fstoppers catches up with the world-famous photographer to ask, “How DOES one photograph the Titanic?”
by Reese Moore
Fstoppers: How did you get your start in photography?
Emory Kristof: As the yearbook photographer at the University of Maryland. I wanted to be an engineer, but then I changed my mind and decided I wanted to be a magazine photographer, which was about like wanting to be a rock star in those days... And I was later an intern at National Geographic.
Fstoppers: How did you end up specializing in deep water photography?
Emory Kristof: I had two interests in college: photography and scuba diving. I worked underwater photos into every assignment I was given, so National Geographic sent me out to shoot a shipwreck in Bermuda with this young writer named Peter Benchley, who ended up writing Jaws, and they also gave me a story on the Loch Ness Monster... I think that assignment resulted the most expensive picture of an eel ever produced. But I started thinking about wide angle lens and larger lights and lights being spread out.
Fstoppers: How did you approach shooting the Titanic?
Emory Kristof: We conceptualized the project in the 1970’s, but I didn’t actually shoot the Titanic until 1991, so I had several years to map it out. You have to have a plan. You have to see the photos in your head first before you ever pick up the camera, and I knew I wanted to light it from multiple angles.
Fstoppers: The Titanic is in two pieces at the bottom of the ocean, 2.5 miles below the surface. How did you light the Titanic?
Emory Kristof: There’s NO light down there. We had two submersibles with lights on them to take down to the Titanic, and I had several years to figure out what sort of lights to use. I knew I needed more light, more efficient light, a way to spread the light out to take good photos. People used incandescent lights previously, but water actually filters out color. Red light gets filtered out, but with a blue light you can see further, so I used HMI lights on the submersibles.
Fstoppers: How did you feel when you first saw the Titanic?
Emory K: The Titanic has never been a “religious” thing for me. I thought of it as the mother of all photo-engineering jobs. It was like playing the Super Bowl, you’re thinking, “Well, what I DON’T want to do is screw up!” Someone gives you an $18 million submersible, you can’t start crying and go to pieces.
Fstoppers: You’ve shot the Titanic, fighter jets, you discovered life at hot water vents at 700 degrees Fahrenheit at the bottom of the ocean. What’s the most extreme shooting condition you’ve ever been in?
EK: The Vietnam War. People were trying to shoot you and sometimes you were trying to return the favor. Deep water can get pretty dicey, though. You have to decide, “How badly do I want this picture?” Shooting the Titanic, the current changed and we almost got swept under it. At the surface, they didn’t know where we were for 45 minutes, but I thought, “This thing has hung together since 1912... well, I’ll probably be fine! I’ll take it.”
Fstoppers: What’s been your favorite moment as a photographer?
EK: Whaling with the Eskimos was a real adventure, but probably the Titanic. The Titanic photos took a lot of time and years of my life. I had to build and engineer all of the equipment we used. But that photo of the bow... It was WORTH it.
Fstoppers: What’s your advice to aspiring photographers?
EK: It’s a lot rougher out there financially now. Don’t say you’re a photographer, you’re an image-maker. You have to know how to use all sorts of technology to make an image now, you have to be able to take what you see and convert it to an image... and be better at it.