Jeff Yonover took his Chicago family business by surprise when he announced that he wanted to pursue not just professional photography as a career, but with a specialization in underwater photography. Driven by a passion that called upon him to create vivid, stunning photographs under the water's surface, as well as by his sense of adventure and love of scuba diving, he answered a calling he simply couldn't ignore. Now based in Portland, Oregon, Yonover's amazing photographs of the underwater realm have earned him numerous awards, including Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year-with the promise of many more to come.
Running a business while trekking the globe in search of images is not an easy task. Yonover explains that his profit center is typically private print and stock sales-and that there's a lot more to making his business run smoothly than most might think. For one, he knows he's not alone in his underwater specialty, and he must remember this when looking for a sale. "There are lots of people who do what I do, maybe several hundred active underwater photographers," he says. "While there are many styles to make [each] of the shooters distinct, there's also a lot of overlap in the client base. I try to set my customer-service quality as high as it can go to set myself apart. That can be tough when you travel as much as I do."
Accountability to his clients, who expect him to deliver what he's promised, is an important part of his success. "I know there are other people out there who can do the work, and I don't want to send a potential client somewhere else," he explains. "I want to make it easy on them when dealing with me. So I need to shoot what clients want me to shoot, making sure everything goes down per spec. I know people appreciate what I go through in order to get their images, and when I'm traveling, I keep in touch with my clients via phone and email. I even keep hard drives with me, carrying my most popular images, so I can upload files for prints from wherever I may be."
These are all necessary steps, especially with fine-art print sales, and overnight delivery is often a necessity to meet tight deadlines; having clients who want a turnaround in three days is not uncommon. Nevertheless, Yonover manages to get the job done by doing whatever it takes. "I have a growing client base that I'm pleased with," he says. "I'm fulfilling private sales of prints for homes, and occasionally a few interesting installations-recently I had a client ask me to use an image to print an acoustic fabric panel to cover a swimming pool!"
Yonover is picky about presentation, fulfilling his print orders using Holland Photo Imaging in Austin, Texas. "I've been making my prints with them for more than 12 years; I first found them through an underwater magazine," he remembers. "They take great care of me, and their quality of work is fantastic. They can get a print back to my home for matting and signing as quickly as I need them to. I love Holland's 50-inch Chromira printer with the glossy metallic papers-the look of the prints is amazing. They're vivid and offer a three-dimensional feel."
Marketing for Yonover is tough, especially since this is a highly specialized photographic niche. But his customer service and follow-through aid him in this respect. "Word of mouth is more powerful a tool for marketing than you might imagine," he says. "If you can ensure people walk away with a positive feeling, you're more likely than not going to get them talking." Yonover sells stock through U.K. stock company Image Quest 3-D, which has a specific branch called Image Quest Marine-perfect for his specialty. This helps Yonover market his images on the commercial end.
Yonover began his underwater photography in 1996 with a Nikonos-V (once the most recognized name in underwater photography); it was not the easiest camera to master. "It wasn't an SLR," Yonover recalls. "There was estimation between you and the subject for depth of field, and no viewfinder. You had maybe one or two keepers per roll, and by keeper' I mean an image that was in focus and exposed properly-great compositions were pretty much by luck."
Yonover graduated first to a Nikon N90 with a waterproof housing; now he uses a Nikon D2X with a Subal housing that lets him use all of the camera controls manually, including the autofocus. "The advancements in housings are really great," he says. "It still requires mastery of a whole new approach, though, and it can be frustrating getting used to underwater shooting-especially when you adjust to how poorly flash works in the sea. Underwater, the power of a strobe is good for about 4 to 5 feet due to organic particulates. The water just absorbs the light, even if it seems clear and bright."
To overcome this lighting challenge, Yonover explains, "I use two strobes, one on either side of the housing, on articulated arms that I can move around for best positioning and coverage. Mastering the strobe light is very, very important-it's what really brings the true color to underwater photography. And keep in mind that I like to shoot as low an ISO as possible for quality images, hoping for ISO 100 most of the time-that means a lot of light!"
User error and accidents still make underwater photography a risky business for camera gear. With more than 1,000 photographic dives logged, however, Yonover has only lost two film cameras, long before he went digital. "Nothing feels worse-the housing fills with water almost immediately upon submersion, and something that was almost neutrally buoyant suddenly feels like a brick," he says. "I had one camera that I dropped while treading water as I waited to be picked up by the boat. Boy, was I despondent and angry with myself! The ship captain, a generous and adventurous diver, went in after it and recovered it in about 15 minutes-from 290 feet of water. He was the hero of the day, I was so appreciative-and the camera was in perfect shape. Just three days later, excited to get under and shooting, I didn't seat the O-rings properly and I flooded the housing in three feet of water."
Life on the High Seas
Yonover is in a constant state of planning, always looking toward his next adventure. He has dived in some of the world's most exotic seas, and he finds that once he's been to a location that offers more opportunity than the last, he's motivated to up the bar even further. "Diving in the Caribbean is nice, but once you've been to some of the more biodiverse locations, you look for even more," he laughs. "You end up seeking out dives that offer some of the more obscure and rare marine-life encounters. I look for the most biodiversity I can, such as in the coral triangle, northwest from Australia off of New Guinea."
Life aboard a dive ship evokes both camaraderie and isolation, as most divers stay onboard for one week to 12 days. The price of the trip covers the ride, a bunk, meals, and the crew. "It's your hotel for the trip, and most guests are addicted to diving-so your company is great," Yonover says.
Once a dive is complete, Yonover references the biological encounters he's captured; with those references come an ever-expanding knowledge base. "I've become somewhat of an amateur marine biologist for certain," he says. "After dives, it's pretty standard to head right to the ship's library and start looking up the undersea life I just encountered. You can't help but be immediately excited and curious, and you retain a lot of the knowledge simply by exposure. I'm pretty much at the point where I can recite the Latin names for everything I've photographed, and tell you where it lives and what it eats."
Yonover insists that the life of a chronic scuba addict is not dangerous if approached with know-how and preparedness. He looks upon his globe-trotting adventures not with fear, but with prudence. "Travel does make you cautious; I became so sick one time from a bad meal that I lost 15 pounds in one week," he laughs. "But the risk is worth the reward; it doesn't make me hesitate for next time. There's always the normal diving safety rules to observe, such as expanding-gas injuries, but I'm a conservative diver and don't take risks. I've only had one dive-related injury: I opened a gash in my foot, and it became infected from fish remains in the boat."
Even with the hazards, Yonover says he'll stick around to continue making award-winning images. "I hate when they sensationalize the potential hazards of diving," he says. "Unless you're doing something incredibly stupid, wildlife is not dangerous. I'm sad to see fewer sharks during dives, and their conservation is a personal quest for me. I've been in cages near great whites, hammerheads, tiger sharks-I've never once felt threatened. I know precisely one person in my large dive circle that's ever been injured by a shark, and he'll be the first to tell you it was entirely his own fault-the shark was being a shark, and he was being reckless."
For more of Jeff Yonover's work, go to www.jeffyonover.com
Tips for Underwater Photography
1. First and foremost, diving skills are essential. To keep yourself safe, know how to dive before you try to learn how to photograph underwater.
2. Practice first with an inexpensive point-and-shoot underwater camera.
3. Enter competitions; winning or placing in the contests can garner a lot of attention. Many people will see your work and its uniqueness if it's marketed for you in the winner's circle.
Most Important Product for Productivity:
Photo Mechanic software is an incredible help for my productivity. I shoot thousands of frames when on location, and Photo Mechanic allows me to quickly and accurately scroll through all of them, view them easily, and discard what I feel to be the "losers." The IPTC data on the "winners" is then easily maintained and managed-I can't live without it.
Jeff Yonover's Gear Box
Nikkor 105mm macro, Nikkor 60mm macro, Nikkor DX 10.5mm fisheye, Nikkor DX 12-24mm zoom, Nikkor 14mm, Nikkor 18mm, Nikkor 70-300mm zoom, Nikkor 80-400mm zoom
Subal ND2 housing with custom flat port for macro, dome port for wide angle
Inon Z-240 underwater strobes
Ultralight strobe connectors
Sea & Sea sync cords
Manfrotto 3229 tripod
Tamrac Pro 9 bag
Tamrac Adventure 9 backpack
Storm Case iM2975 case
Pelican 1620 case
Dell XPS DXP051
Apple 30" Cinema Display
Sony Vaio VGN-FE590
Camera Bits Photo Mechanic
Adobe Photoshop CS3
Lexar Pro UDMA 8GB 300x CompactFlash cards
Seagate 160GB portable hard drives
Holland Photo Imaging