Diving Into Underwater Wildlife Photography with Kristi Odom

Nikon Ambassador and internationally acclaimed photographer and videographer Kristi Odom joined the PetaPixel Podcast this week to discuss underwater photography. Alongside joining us to talk shop, Odom also separately selected and explained her top three images of 2023, one of which is, perhaps not coincidentally, an underwater photo.

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The Ocean’s Great Migration

Odom’s favorite shot of 2023 is her image of two dolphins beneath a school of sardines. The brilliant underwater image tells a very powerful story and offers compelling shapes, tones, and texture. Like so many great underwater images, the photo feels otherworldly.

Kristi Odom top three images of 2023 -- Wildlife photographer joins the PetaPixel Podcast
Odom shot this image using her Nikon Z9 and a Nikkor 14-30mm f/4 S zoom inside a Nauticam underwater housing. It was captured at f/8 and ISO 1000 with a 1/500s shutter speed.

The image was shot “off the coast of South Africa during the sardine run,” Odom explains to PetaPixel. “Every year, the sardines and other little fish swim together in masses, often forming bait balls. This brings in the sharks, dolphins, birds, and whales. It is basically the great migration of the sea.”

Part of the image’s relative darkness is due to underwater just being darker, but much of it is due to Odom’s personal style and creative choices.

“A lot of my toning reflects my personal style,” she says. “My images tend to be a little on the dark side with highlights bringing your eyes to the subjects.”

“I use histograms throughout my whole process, from shooting to editing. I love that my Z9 lets me see them while shooting; Lightroom and Photoshop also show histograms. The majority of my images, when processed, have a very similar histogram.”

She also wants to note that she removed the back-scatter from the image to ensure a clean background. This clean background also showcases Odom’s expert use of negative space throughout her work.

“When underwater, I see the ocean and its vastness as part of the narrative. Which is why I decided to include it here,” the photographer says. “These dolphins and the bait ball that they were swimming towards were actually pretty small when amongst the large ocean.”

Bolivian Bees: Years in the Making

“This image took me three years and multiple trips to Bolivia to achieve,” Odom says. “It was super challenging.”

The image is part of a much larger story of rehabilitation from Amazon deforestation. This specific bee, a native Bolivian species called Tetragonisca angustula, known locally as “senorita,” is only four to five millimeters large.

Odom called on fellow Nikon expert Paul Van Allen, a NPS rep, for help. Her Z9’s excellent autofocus also helped.

“My autofocus settings were as follows: AF-C, Wide area AF with bird tracking, which worked like a charm on these little bees.”

Kristi Odom top three images of 2023 -- Wildlife photographer joins the PetaPixel Podcast
Odom shot this image with the Nikkor Z MC 105mm f/2.8 VR S macro lens.

To achieve the incredible dynamism in the image, Odom used multiple artificial lights, including a Nikon SB-5000 speedlight, a Nikon SB-910, and a Godox lighstick. She controlled her Nikon flashes using the WR-R11a Remote Controller. Odom also used a black cloth backdrop.

“I worked with a bee expert to make sure that putting up the black cloth didn’t interfere with the bees in any way,” she adds.

“I used the lighstick to show the path then by using the right flash duration, which I hit by setting the flashes at 1/8th power, I used the WR-R11a to trigger the SB-5000. The light from the SB-5000 triggered the SB-910.”

B&H Photo and Video was on-site with Odom recording her as part of an upcoming five-part wildlife video series, so the full process will be featured in one of the episodes. “Keep an eye out,” says Odom.

Cheetah Cubs Watching Mom

For a total change of pace, Odom’s third favorite photo of 2023 is from an early morning adventure in Tsavo East National Park in Kenya.

“They’re looking at their mom,” Odom says of the photogenic young cheetahs. “They were getting up to walk over to her, then they walked off together into the vast savannah.”

“I’m so drawn to how cheetah siblings work together, learn together, and play together. It is amazing to see.”

“In this case, they were all focused on the same spot, and got up together to walk towards her, but got up at different speeds — showing togetherness, yet that they are still individuals.”

Kristi Odom top three images of 2023 -- Wildlife photographer joins the PetaPixel Podcast
© Kristi Odom

“I was lucky that this one shot caught catchlight in all three eyes,” Odom explains.

While Odom could have gone for a wider field of view and maybe caught mom in the frame, she opted to leave her out because she was surrounded by very distracting elements and she didn’t fit the overall narrative.

“To me, the story is in her three cubs.”

The storytelling of seeing all three cubs looking out of the frame, and wondering what they’re staring at, is really compelling. An expert visual storyteller, Odom knows how to perfectly arrange everything in the frame to tell the best story, which often includes deciding what not to include in the image.

She also knows how important a good background is to an image.

“I definitely use a shallow depth of field a lot to make the backgrounds more textural and not so distracting. It is important to show a sense to place, but not to pull people’s eyes away too much from the main subjects.”

“It is important to look all around your frame before taking every photo,” she adds. “Everything inside that frame is a part of the narrative, and it all needs to work together.”

More from Kristi Odom

Kristi Odom is a photographer, educator, Nikon Ambassador, and Associate Fellow at the International League of Conservation Photographers.

PetaPixel recently spoke with Odom and a budding young photographer she’s mentoring, Devon Matthews, about the tarantula migration in La Junta, Colorado. Odom offers many great tips for photographers in the article.

Below are a few more of her underwater photos, and even more of her work is available on her website and on Instagram.

Kristi Odom underwater photography

Kristi Odom underwater photography

Kristi Odom underwater photography

Kristi Odom underwater photography

Kristi Odom underwater photography

Kristi Odom underwater photography

Kristi Odom underwater photography

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In This Episode

Image credits: © Kristi Odom