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Inspiring Underwater Photographer and Marine Biologist – Valerie Cornet

Valerie, or Val, is one of the most amazing underwater photographers I’ve met. This incredible young lady is currently writing her PhD while travelling around Australia in her van, photographing all the amazing species she finds! We met while studying our Masters at James Cook University, where she not only became one of my best friends, but also eventually my housemate, dive buddy and fellow nudibranch enthusiast. I hope you guys enjoy her story and are equally as inspired as I am by her incredible work!

Blue Dragon nudibranch – Credit: Valerie Cornet

1.     Hey Val! Tell us a bit about yourself.

Hiya, my name is Valerie. I’m 26 years old, from Hong Kong/Belgium. I’m currently in my final year of my PhD, which focusses on coral bleaching prediction modelling on the Great Barrier Reef. I’ve been drawn to the ocean ever since I was a child, but this instinct really strengthened at the age of 14 when I underwent my Open Water Course and started diving. Ever since then, I have dedicated most of my time to the water, becoming a divemaster, pursuing my studies in marine biology, and now undergoing full-time research in this field too.

Valerie Cornet – Credit: Harriet Spark, Grumpy Turtle Creative

2.     What inspired you to specialize in underwater photography?

I picked up my first digital camera at the age of 13 and would bring it with me everywhere, snapping away at my friends and all the beautiful scenery I wanted to freeze in time. I then bought myself an underwater housing for it when I was 16 and found myself instantly hooked. I found that the camera made me more observant, making me develop an (almost) obsession with finding all the different critters I could find (Gotta catch ‘em all you feel me?). As anyone starting with underwater photography will probably realise, is that in the beginning, photos don’t often do justice to what you see with your eyes. It’s really the want of showcasing the natural beauty of the world I fell in love with that made me want to improve this initial hobby. Underwater photography has been a passion of mine that has grown and developed in tandem with my passion for marine biology and the marine environment. It is my way to connect my two passions of science and art, which I think complement each other beautifully.

Stingrays – Credit: Valerie Cornet

3.     Can you share one of your most memorable experiences while photographing underwater?

This is a hard one, but I think one of my top experiences was one during a dive at Fish rock cave, in South West Rocks in Australia. We had spent the first dive swimming into currents chasing hammerheads (with luck!), but the second dive was my personal highlight. We dived through the cave system and at the end of it, a bright blue backdrop of light shining into the cave and about twenty grey nurse sharks peacefully gliding in the water at the exit were there to greet us. We then spent the next 50 minutes kneeling down admiring, photographing, and filming these beasts. Anyone who knows me underwater will know that I hate rushing a dive and the slower we go, the happier I usually am. We were also blessed with fantastic visibility, which was apparently quite unusual for the dive site. The stars were aligned and spending so much time in one place trying to capture the magic of the place was truly special.

Fish Rock Cave Credit: Valerie Cornet

4.     What challenges do you face as an underwater photographer, and how do you overcome them?

I think most people will agree with me here when I say it’s fighting the urge to buy more underwater photography gear when it’s so expensive… I overcome them by reminding myself that there is always new and better equipment coming out so hold off and make the most of what I already have. I try anyway… I also live in a van, so space is also an issue.

5.     How do you stay updated on the latest techniques and technologies in underwater photography?

I follow a lot of underwater photographers and brands on social media as other people’s work can keep you inspired, showcasing new angles, techniques, and lighting that can help guide you find your style. I then often research interesting photography techniques I’d like to try.

Grey Nurse Sharks – Credit: Valerie Cornet

6.     Can you share any tips or advice for aspiring underwater photographers?

Get in the water as much as possible! The best way to learn is to go out and play around with your camera. The best interactions with animals often occur after spending countless hours in the water and stumbling upon them by chance, which allows for the best photos. As a beginner, I would recommend starting off with a compact camera, eventually pairing it with a good strobe or video light. Once you feel like you’re not necessarily progressing with your photography skills, only then think about upgrading to a DSLR/mirrorless.

7.     What are your favorite locations or dive sites for underwater photography, and why?

I have to say Indonesia because as a coral biologist, I do love myself some healthy coral. I also love nudibranchs and all things macro and this country is top tier for that. I’ve loved photographing the pristine reefs of Raja Ampat, the macro life in Bali, the turtles of the Gili islands, and I know there’s still so many more gems in this country that I’d love to visit.

Porcelain Crab  – Credit: Valerie Cornet

8.     Have you ever encountered any unexpected or dangerous situations while photographing underwater?

This wasn’t quite whilst photographing, but I’ve been caught in a strong down current during a safety stop with all my camera gear. I have a Nikon D810 with a pretty chunky housing and two long arms with strobes so carrying this in general can add a bit more chaos in difficult situations like this. Nothing bad ended up happening but this prompts me to make sure I’m always extra comfortable with the amount of gear I have on me. A tip I would give to people is to not overload yourself with more than you can handle in the worst of conditions, even if you think the conditions will be great, things can change very quickly underwater. 

9.     How do you think underwater photography can contribute to marine conservation efforts?

In plenty of ways. Sharing beautiful photographs can inspire people who don’t have access to the underwater world to feel more connected to a world they don’t know. People don’t want to preserve what they don’t know or what doesn’t concern them. Photography backed by informative knowledge can bridge this gap and share the beautify of marine animals and environments, whilst educating people on the importance of these systems. Photography can also showcase the ugly side of the marine world. I believe it is almost equally as important to photograph pollution and the malpractices that concern underwater environments, as this can highlight various issues we need to tackle.

Tawny Nurse Sharks  – Credit: Valerie Cornet


Check out more of Valerie’s work here:

LinkedIn: Valerie Cornet



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