Shooting the Titanic: How Do You Light the World’s Most Famous Shipwreck?

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.

titanic underwater photographyFstoppers: What were your camera settings for that?
EK: I was using color negatives and I took about 400 photos at one time at F3.5 and a shutter speed of 1/60 a second using the HMI lights.

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.

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Ghislain Leduc's picture

what a great interview! Good start! A little longer would be great and a video too :) GOOD JOB!!! I want more hehehe

excellent comments

Randy McKeown's picture

A great read and a great interview with  Emory Kristof...I never even considered how difficult something like this would be. I especially like his comment about not calling yourself a Photographer but rather an Image Maker....

paul gädike's picture

Nice Interview but the Layout is horrible. Text and picture elements are very anxious.

Picture 2: Shark is moving ''out of the frame'', no communication to the textblock, 

Picture 3: Same thing, shark is moving out of the frame, picture should have been placed on the left side

Picture 4: the lines are moving from the right to the left (against reading direction) = negative, no communication to text element

Picture 6 & 7: switching the pictures would restore the ''flow'' of the eyes

Picture 9: the cone of the light is moving against the reading direction + it was already used (picture 5)


paul gädike's picture

Forgot the pictures!

Meli Moda's picture

Great constructive criticism at first I thought "what a d bag!", but you went above and beyond to highlight exactly what you meant and explained yourself thoroughly while offering solutions.


Patrick Hall's picture

Thanks guys!  Since The Fstoppers Spotlight is going to be our first attempt at producing original articles we are going to have to work on our layout and editing skills.  Expect a more concise and tidy article next week :)

Anonymous's picture

Thanks for the feedback. I agree, we've got some kinks to work out... Let me know what your thoughts as we work on cleaning it up next week, Paul!

(...For deep wrecks or underwater work sites illumination.
As used for Titanic Discovery channel expeditions 1996 and 1998....)

Lee Morris's picture

Nice work Reese. I want you to score an interview with Russel James and then set us up to shoot a BTS video of him working :)

Golgo Thirteen's picture

why, he acts like a jerk on all of his shoots. He called one of his assistants "Bitch boy". Go hunt down Mario Testino instead. He's nicer.

Meli Moda's picture

that would still make for an interesting interview lol

Patrick Hall's picture

Mario doesn't do interviews though right?  Either way, I'd be happy to feature either one since they are the absolute top of the game right now

Golgo Thirteen's picture

He does if you are powerful......and KATE MOSS.

Anonymous's picture

 I'd LOVE to hunt down Testino! One of my favorites. Check back in, one of our upcoming interviews is with an awesome fashion photographer who actually got his start as one of Testino's assistants... He had to follow Testino around for 3 years to get the job though! ;)

Golgo Thirteen's picture

You guys should seriously make contact with Jill Greenberg. She's on Facebook and I'm sure she would love to have you. She is one of the TOP in commercial photography and is simply one of the coolest shooters. 

Golgo Thirteen's picture

You have great taste in photographers then. Is this photographer you are speaking of Kate Middleton? Because she was personally trained by Mario Testino. Lucky eh?

Patrick Hall's picture

wait, Kate Middleton was trained by Testino?  

Golgo Thirteen's picture

Yep Patrick. Here is the article. I had heard about this when she and the prince first started dating. I was like who the crap is Kate Middleton.

Golgo Thirteen's picture

LOL is the photographer you are talking about Alexi Lubomirski? I bet it is.

Carlo Parducho's picture

Glad to finally see a female photographer in a forum/blog/vlog/ site.

Anonymous's picture

Thanks! My question for you: What female photographer do you want to see on FS Spotlight?

Golgo Thirteen's picture

ha should you even ask that question? Annie Leibovitz. I'll make the call. LOL

Carlo Parducho's picture

I actually am prepared with answers =)

In no particular order:

Allana Wesley White
Shannon Sewell
Inez Van Lamsweerde
Maki Kawakita
Maria Carmel
Heather East
Cecilia Austin

Anonymous's picture

the fstoppers now have sex appeal.. excellent choice in adding reese!  looking forward to more of a female dynamic with fstoppers

Kenn Tam's picture

What about Jerrit?

Meli Moda's picture

I really would like to see an interviews with fashion photographers that do high end commercial work.  They seem to have an amazing handle on lighting.  I am a beginner and would like to see how the pros plan and execute their work so i can step my game up.  But interviews with details maybe referencing a specific ad campaign and discussing the challenge, concept, and approach to capture the referenced photo.  Most interviews are short on the specifics so to get into the details of the topics would be awesome!

Peter Pollack's picture

'Image Maker' I love it!

Sean Shimmel's picture

Welcome aboard Reese!

Like the intriguing quote by Edward De Bono to "Think sideways", I'd love to discover the intrigue of the MIND of a great photographer with absolute minimal fuss over gear and even settings. Much like Helmut Newton "admitting" that he typically/merely shoots on full automatic.

So I'd openly ask viewers: How have you heard fits the description for breathtaking vision with absolutely minimal gear and settings?

Thinking Sideways

Sean  :)

Anonymous's picture

Hey Sean, thanks! I think we have an upcoming interview with a photographer you might like... I've had a hard time deciding which one to post for next week, and I think you just helped me make my decision ;)

Sean Shimmel's picture

Ahhh... a teaser. Love it.

Looking forward to what you're cooking up.


Louis Rumball's picture

Awesome, would love to see someone like Simon Norfolk would do with the lighting.

Great interview!