Photographer Spotlight - Hannah Tilley
With so many new followers, I decided to feature myself as the September Underwater Photographer so you know who is behind the scenes at I LOVE NUDIS. You can follow all my PNW Adventures (not just Nudibranchs) on Instagram at @hannah_underwater - Keep reading to find out more about me and my journey with SCUBA & Underwater Photography!
Hello Nudi Colony! I am a cold water diver and photographer living in Edmonds, Washington. I live just 3 minutes from the beautiful Puget Sound and I could not be more grateful for that. I am the face behind @ilovenudis and the one trying to answer all your DMs! I fell in love with Nudibranchs on my very first open water dive at Cove 2 in Seattle when I spotted a glowing white “thing”. My love for these beautiful slugs has grown into a passion and I enjoy teaching others about them.
When and why did you start diving?
My husband grew up around diving as his Father and Uncle dove all around the Puget Sound in the 90's. His Dad knew how much we loved adventure and exploring so he kept telling us that we needed to get certified but we always brushed it off. I thought it would be too cold, too dark, too scary. Finally one day my husband called me from work and said "I did it. I signed up." I was terrified but excited and called the dive shop immediately after to register. I was skeptical but looked forward to a new adventure together. I had no idea how much my life would change after just 1 class. We haven't looked back since.
How and why did you get started with photography?
I started filming our dives with a GoPro almost immediately because I was so excited about what we were seeing and I wanted to share it with my family and friends. We would invite people over to our house and make them watch 45 minutes of shaky GoPro footage of our dives. We didn't care, we just wanted to show them how beautiful the Puget Sound was below the surface. I slowly started becoming impatient with the GoPro and it's inability to close focus so I started researching underwater photography. I took several photography and design classes in High School and always loved photography so I realized it was a no brainer to apply what I knew underwater. It gave me a purpose to my dives and has become one of my favorite things to do.
Tell the community a little about your photography setup! Dive gear and photography must haves.
I started with a GoPro and Backscatter MacroMate lens. But I grew out of that and after a LOT of research, I decided to go big or go home. I purchased a Canon 5D Mark IV and 24-70mm lens with an Ikelite Housing and 2 Kraken Video Lights. It was a steep learning curve but was everything I wanted - I could show people what I saw and capture what it really looked like underwater. However, in 2020 I flooded that camera system. The common saying with underwater housings flooding is "it's not if, it's when". I knew this ahead of time and thankfully insured my full kit with H20 Insurance. Highly recommend!
But it was also a good time to take a break because I was expecting a baby. As soon as I was in the water again, I decided to buy a smaller, more compact kit instead of replacing my Canon and bought an Olympus TG-6 for it's macro capabilities. I am trying to get good Nudi photos after all! I have been very happy with the TG6 because it is small and lightweight but performs incredibly for Macro Photography. It is definitely lacking in the wide angle space but is perfect for me right now. One day I will buy a Canon again though - my housing is intact and waiting for me on the shelf.
What is your favorite Nudibranch and where can you find them?
I am asked this quite often. It is the White-Lined Dirona (Dirona albolineata). It was the first Nudibranch I ever saw in-person and I love how striking white they are. You can always spot them from far away because they are so bright. I love watching their cerata move in current and they are the perfect subject for photos. You can find them in the Eastern Pacific from Alaska to Mexico. I have seen them year-round in the Puget Sound but usually more often during the summer months. Some of my other favorites that I have encountered include the Giant Nudibranch (Dendronotus iris) and the Hooded Nudibranch (Melibe leonina).
Some of my bucket list Nudibranchs include a Blue Dragon (Glaucus atlanticus), Sorcerer's Dorid (Polycera atra), Pomegranate (Aeolid Cuthonella punicea), Gasflame Nudibranch (Bonisa nakaza), Leopard Sea Slug (Peltodoris atromaculata), Dusky Nembrotha (Nembrotha kubaryana), and Gold Lace Nudibranch (Halgerda terramtuentis).
Your go-to resource for identifying nudibranchs or other creatures you see underwater?
I use iNaturalist religiously. I love uploading my observations but also use it for identification on a daily basis. You can search for Nudibranchia and narrow it by location to see all the observations and species in that area. When you click on a species, it will show seasonality, location, photos by others, and any wikipedia data. I love it! I also use my Nudibranchs & Sea Slugs of the Eastern Pacific regularly. David Behrens, Karin Fletcher, and Greg Jensen are HUGE inspirations to me in the Nudibranch world and I was so excited when I heard they released this book (earlier this year!). It is incredible and mine is already dog-eared and highlighted all over.
Your goals for underwater photography or diving.
As you can imagine, I have a lot. I want to discover a new species of Nudibranch, work as an Underwater Photographer, have a photo published in Diver Magazine, and so much more. I have already accomplished many of my goals like working with some of my favorite photographers (the photo contest judges!), hosting an I LOVE NUDIS popup shop (see the schedule here!), winning photography awards (like REEF), create calendars with my photos (shop here!), and inspire others to get SCUBA certified. A big step that I am saving up for is to buy a Canon 5d Mark IV again and get my professional kit up and running. I love the TG-6 for Macro but want a DSLR again for wide angle photos.
When it comes to diving in general, one of my biggest goals is to be able to do it my entire life. I met a couple gearing up to dive the Edmonds Underwater Park and they were in their 80's. It was truly inspiring to watch them help each other put their kits on and hobble to the water with big smiles on their faces. The woman told me "the weightlessness is great for my joints!" I will never forget watching them and hoping that I am there one day.
Lastly, some tips and tricks for other underwater photographers who are just getting started.
Like so many have said before me, focus on your diving skills first then add a camera. Diving should be second nature to you before you add all the task loading that comes with underwater photography. And secondly, light is everything. Don't skimp on good strobes or video lights - they make all the difference.
If you are just getting started, I recommend a GoPro with Backscatters MacroMate lens! It's a great small camera to get comfortable shooting underwater. You quickly learn how hard it is to hold a camera still and it's a great tool to work on this skill.