The Story Behind the Picture: George Karbus
There’s nothing quite like Irish marine life according to wildlife and ocean photographer George Karbus. And after seeing his shot – Dance in Green – we agree! George has won numerous awards including Outdoor Photographer of the Year for his breathtaking photographs of nature. In this month’s Story Behind the Picture, George tells us about the relationship he built with a solitary dolphin, the time he was stung by a Portuguese man o’ war in the Atlantic, and why understanding animal behavior is so important to getting a great shot.
What initiated your interest in photography?
Moving to Ireland twelve years ago – I was so inspired by the coastline and beauty of the landscapes here. I was blown away by that beauty, with the green cliffs, beautiful Atlantic. When we moved to Ireland I met a solitary dolphin called Dusty – it became a great friendship between the dolphin and us. At that point everything changed and we turned into ocean people who free dived, surfed and just loved nature. That’s when I started to seriously think about underwater photography.
What inspired the shot Dance in Green?
Behind this shot lies ten years of work; tens years of relationship, ten years of thousands and thousands of hours in the cold Atlantic swimming in murky and cold waters in winter and summer. We spent thousands of hours swimming with dolphins to develop the relationship. The scene that you see in the picture is basically a relationship between my girlfriend Kate and the dolphin – it’s pretty much 10 years of incredible friendship between a wild, solitary dolphin and a human.
Was anything in the shot accidental or was it all intentional i.e. the positioning of the diver?
I always try to avoid setting things up. I like things happening spontaneously – I like to photograph the moment, with no pretending. And you can’t set up the dolphin! It’s actually something we’ve been doing with the dolphin – she’s very interested in all those turns like somersaults or underwater backflips and she just admires the human body. Our solitary dolphin is a big admirer of human hands and backflips. What you see in the picture is a dolphin who admires a woman who is doing an underwater backflip. In terms of my position – I was in the water with them and I saw Kate doing the backflip and saw the dolphin come in. I just found a nice position, so that I would have a nice backlight with the sunrays. I always like backlit underwater. I also wanted to compose the lovely seaweed in front of the picture.
What time of the day was the photo taken with those shafts of light coming through like that?
I would say it was midday, that’s the best time to shoot underwater. Sometimes evening time, when the sun is low, has its own magic, but these kinds of strong sunrays are usually during the day and it depends on the angle too. Sometimes you can capture it beautifully.
What camera was it taken on?
It was taken on a Nikon D4S
How important is using Photoshop in editing your images?
Photoshop helps to enhance pictures, and to bring up the contrast and fix the colour cast and maybe for underwater shots clean the picture from a floating plant and pieces in the water. Photoshop for every professional photographer is a tool to make the pictures more beautiful and to increase the contrast, which is the most important thing I do, but not just a contrast slider! I don’t use it at all; I change contrast using different methods.
What do you hope people will feel when looking at your photographs?
I hope they would understand that I have deep feelings for nature and I hope they would feel that every picture I take is taken with pure love and passion. If they feel this that’s enough for me. I don’t need anything else!
How do you balance getting an immaculate shot with not being intrusive to the environment you’re in?
You have to spend some time with nature. Every animal needs some time, for example if I want to photograph orcas the best way is to go where they live and spend lots of time with them and lots of time in the water. Then I will probably get amazing shots of orcas. The same goes for this shot – I spent 11 years free diving with this dolphin. I know her and she knows us. We know the environment. I know what conditions are the best. I know how to approach animals, especially marine mammals, because I know this dolphin so well. Even if I travel around the world and meet other dolphins or whales I already know them because they have similar behavior patterns, body movements and language. I can recognise that language, even in wild animals on the other side of the world. When I approach a whale somewhere in the Caribbean or Pacific Ocean I already know her. It’s all about approach and respect and just watching the animals and having a natural feeling.
Have you ever been involved in dangerous situations?
Sometimes there are sketchy situations. The most horrible situation I had in the sea was being stung by a jellyfish – by a Portuguese man o’ war. That was on a sailing trip when I was sailing from the Canaries Island to Azores and I just jumped into the sea and was stung on my neck. I went back to the sailing boat and my breathing got very bad. I got a little scared because there was no help and I was in the middle of the Atlantic. I started shivering and it was really sketchy, but I got out of it 25 minutes. I had a couple of scary ones with big seals, and swimming in bad visibility with hump back whales – they probably see me, but I don’t see them and they are huge and come from the darkness of the water.
With ocean photography you must spend long periods of time underwater. Have you learned to curb skills such as breathing?
When I started swimming in the ocean when I moved to Ireland I wasn’t a good ocean man. It’s just about the time you spend in the sea. You get more confident as you become a better swimmer and diver. You become fearless. I was scared of sharks 10 years ago, now I’m not scared anymore – I can swim with any sharks without a cage. It’s all about knowing the ocean and getting in touch with it. Go with the flow and basically train. We like to stay fit, when the ocean is not working for us we train – we run and swim and paddle board. We do it all. It’s not just free diving with dolphins, it’s surfing, running, SUP – paddle boarding. It’s everything.
Do you go in the water everyday?
When the ocean is good we try. In the winter it’s difficult, because here on the west coast the ocean is very rough and we experience huge storms. Storms hammer the coastlines and sometimes they last two or three months. We do more surfing in the winter and from spring to autumn we free dive more.
Do you photograph everyday?
I don’t take pictures everyday. I’m like a weatherman I watch the weather. I know exactly what kind of weather I need to photograph a particular moment or scene. The Irish people say ‘make the hay when the sun is shining’, so when the sun is shining and the ocean is great in Ireland I make lots of hay! When the weather is bad and nothing is happening I’m not shooting. Sometimes I’m not shooting for over two weeks.
What’s characteristic and unique about Irish wildlife that you cannot get anywhere else?
The wildlife in Ireland is pretty amazing. The marine life is great – we have lots of dolphins, we have huge population of common bottlenose dolphins and in summer we have hump back whales and huge fin whales. There is amazing marine life here – big basking sharks and blue sharks in summer. It’s all about weather – if it’s good we can go out into the sea and enjoy them. If the weather is not good the animals are still there, but we can’t see them. That’s the only problem is Ireland – the weather is too bad. It’s almost like the good weather is gifted to you after many days or weeks of bad weather. Sunsets in Ireland are one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, the light and clouds and coastline are beautiful. When conditions are right Ireland can be the most beautiful place on the planet for me.
You’ve won numerous awards including Outdoor Photographer of the Year. Has that ever influenced the way you take photographs?
No, not really. You’re not taking pictures in the mindset to win a competition. If you’ve got an amazing shot then you can think about putting it in a competition to win something, which is always nice. First you have to get a great shot, so that’s the only thing you’re really focused on. When you get it, then you can think about competitions. (Laughs)
Is your style inspired by anyone in particular?
No, not really. I see a lot of young, talented photographers coming out on Instagram. When I started Paul Nicklen, the National Geographic photographer, probably inspired me. He produced some great images of the north, Arctic Circle and Antarctica. He was a hero when I was starting – he’s still great and I really admire him. There are still lots of very good photographers and more coming in. But, I’m afraid on social media and Instagram people post very cheap pictures with no soul and those soulless images are destroying the spirit of photography. From time to time I see some beautiful pictures from people and it’s always nice to see something new. I almost prefer not watching other photographers, because I have a particular style and I don’t want to be under the influence of anybody else. I only started posting on Instagram in September and I follow about 50 people. I don’t like to watch too many pictures, because it can put you out of focus.
What does photography give you that nothing else does?
Every time I post an image that I think is beautiful and that I’m really proud of, it’s like sending a message to the world about how beautiful our planet is. That’s why photography is amazing, there’s no better thing than a great picture to send to thousands or millions of people.