From starting his career as a diving instructor at one of the oldest diving schools in India to capturing the gorgeous underwater life for Incredible India, Greenpeace, to shooting underwater sequences for movies like Raabta, Shaandar, Sky Is Pink, and more, Sumer Verma has done a lot of exceptional work.
In 1998, when Sumer Verma was just 18, he joined a driving school out of his passion. At the age of 25, he became a professional diving instructor, but during his learning, he fell in love with the world of underwater and couldn’t help exploring it. He read a lot of books about it, visited different countries just to capture and polish his underwater photography skills, and after 10 years of hard work, self-experimentation, and training, he became an underwater photographer and cinematographer. Sumer Verma has worked on more than 25 feature films as of now, including Raabta, Shaandar, Sky is Pink, a Malaysian film, Eden, multiple south Indian movies, and a lot more.
He has captured Katrina Kaif, and Alia Bhatt for Vogue, and has even worked on an advertising campaign for Johnnie Walker. The list of Sumer’s work is long, and his journey is truly inspirational. With more than 8,000 dives and experience of 20 years in underwater photography, Sumer Verma’s journey is worth swimming! Local Samosa was in a candid conversation with Sumer about his journey of becoming India’s first underwater photographer and cinematographer. Read the excerpt from the interview below.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I am a scuba diving instructor, and I am a partner of a very old scuba diving school called ‘ Lacadives’ which was started in 1995. While working as a driving instructor, I became obsessed with underwater photography, and now I am also a professional underwater photographer and cinematographer.
Sumer Verma, What inspired you to become an underwater photographer? Please walk us through your journey.
I started diving in 1997, and I became a diving instructor at the age of 25. I dived every season and completed my open water qualification. Next year I did my dive master’s, and then, next year, I did my instructor. So, I took my time, and by the time I was 25, I became the instructor and started working at Lakswadeep. From 1995 to 2010, we operated two dive schools. During that time, I started taking pictures and learned a lot about underwater photography.
It was all self experimenting and self-learning, I’d say. Also, the minute I got into the water and saw how spacious the environment was and saw the vibrant colors of the fishes, I wanted to capture it. I loved how the light filtered in and how it created beautiful streaks in the water. I found that very magical. So, the next intention was that I must film & photograph it and share it with people. I wanted to share that beauty, as it’s a very hypnotic medium.
I started shooting much before I became an instructor. I was in the 2nd year of diving, and since then, the passion hasn’t gone, and I have been continuously shooting. Diving was my passion, and I wanted to make it my career, so I became a diver. When underwater photography became my passion, I wanted it to be my career. So, I challenged myself to make underwater photography a payable and viable option for my career.
Tell us about your first project.
It was for Greenpeace in 1998 to shoot the olive ridley turtle in Odhisa. I was commissioned for photography and a video project for it. My colleague bought all the lights and cameras in Odhisa. I reached there from Lakshwadeep and assembled all the equipment, and did underwater shoot for the first time. It’s been over 20 years, and Greenpeace still uses those images. It was about the mating turtles, who come to Odhisa every year.
As your area of expertise is a niche, how did you learn the skill?
I read many books and practiced a lot. I would do the shoot, see the images, and then do it again. During those days, the internet was not very popular, so I used to buy books on underwater photography and read them. The key was to spend lots of time in the water with the camera, which I loved doing. I would do shoots multiple times in a day.
It has always taken me into a zone, and I feel like I am absorbed by the beauty and the challenge of the moment. I thoroughly enjoy doing that. I think I have been in the swimming pool for 12 hours straight for some of the projects. In fact, last week, I was shooting a sequence for a Tamil web series on Amazon, and I was in the water for 10 hours. It’s very tiring and draining, but that’s why it’s skilled and well-paid work.
How did people around you react to your field?
All my courage to dream started with the support of my parents. They have been kind, generous in every way. They always encouraged me for the work. Now that I am doing a lot of work, travelling, and making money, they are happy and proud. My friends were also supportive. But, the actual challenge was to figure out how to make money out of it. It is nice to capture a fish, but then what do you do with it? So, I developed skills in videography and worked for documentary stories, and then I developed a highly professional skill and became an underwater cinematographer for the industry. I always wanted to achieve this, and so, I have worked a lot for the same.
As underwater photography and cinematography is a line not picked by many up till now! What do you think how many years will it take to become mainstream! Or do you think will it ever?
Underwater photography for the film is still a very niche subject as every film has different sequences. But, yeah, it is changing with the amount of content we have. Underwater has become a part of cinema like aerial photography. So, therefore, there will be work. But, I’d like to quote my mentor here that 90% of the work goes to 10% of the people, and for the rest of it, 90% of the people fight. So, remember to be always in the top 10.
Now, many people are learning diving as there are good diving schools, and professional photographers are also learning underwater photography. There are also various platforms like web series, calendars, music videos, TV serials, so people can start with that and then aspire to become better and go on top.
Also, It takes a minimum of 10 years to build a reputation. I might be getting Rs.2-3 Lakhs fees, but the production cost for the same scene might be Rs. 1-2 crores. So, a production company will not take a chance with someone who is not an expert. So, ultimately the questions would be, can they handle a professional camera, shoot properly, and do framing? Do they know the composition, can they train the actors, and deliver great work? For me, it has taken over 10 years of disappointments, frustration, some breakthroughs to get proper work. I had to prove myself. So, it requires a lot of time and hard work.
What is it about the underwater photography you love the most?
The complete stillness of the environment, the weightlessness of the body, and the complete silence of the mind make underwater photography the most beautiful thing. For me, its to capture the element and the essence of this feeling is the most addictive thing of being an underwater photographer.
The most challenging part about it?
To be honest, everything about underwater photography is challenging. To manage the heavy cameras, your body, to be aware of your driving safety, and then trying to get a good exposure is difficult. Getting the perfect shot in a moving environment is tough. The water itself is the biggest challenge, as it spoils the sharpness. It’s a big restrictive medium. So, to bypass that, we work on the correct lensing, lighting, and the right distance from the subject, which are the challenging things to get the pleasing images.
Is there a method for approaching sea animals Without Scaring Them?
You have to be a great diver and have calm breathing. You must maintain eye contact with them. You should also have control over your buoyancy. Any sudden movement, breathing, skittish behavior will scare the animal. If you are calm, smooth, still, and know when to breathe in and out, then you will have amazing encounters with all animals. I have had amazing encounters with whales and manta rays. Hammerhead sharks have swum all over me. Dolphins and turtles have come and kissed my hands. I had these magical interactions with the ocean because they are curious, and they do approach us. Not all of the wildlife are aggressive, and they are very gentle and intelligent. The only chance to get this opportunity is to learn good diving.
What About Backgrounds? Even though it’s water but what techniques do you use to keep it different each time?
It depends. So, for films, we mainly understand the lighting. For the dark environment, we use black cloth, for a chroma background where they do VFX, we use green cloth. For an actual environment, we use printed flexes. We also add various props. For example, if it’s a river bed, then we add plants, stones, and other such props to make it look real. If it’s fashion, it depends. You can put a pure white or black backdrop to not show the pool tiles. You can even be creative and do a printed backdrop.
I am planning to shoot a forest with a beautiful golden backlight printed on a large flex. I will put that as a backdrop, and keep the model in front and it will create surrealism in my fine art photography. This is an idea in my mind, and I am going to hopefully create an artistic work for myself.
The most beautiful and scary sea animal you came across during work?
When I swam for the first time in Galapagos in South America, I encountered 200 large hammerhead sharks swimming over me. Each of these sharks was more than 3 meters in size and around 9-19 ft. To see them in such abundance over me in the freezing cold water was by far the most exciting, the most frightening, and the most majestic experience.
3 skills every underwater photographer must have?
Great control of buoyancy, great finning abilities, and good knowledge of camera and lighting. Also, a familiarity with housing setup and its care is needed. The equipment can get damaged if you have not sealed it completely, and before anything else, good diving skills. So, movements, and your floatation are a must.
Your most cherished project?
It was my first feature film, ‘Maryan’ with Mr. Bharat Bala. It had many underwater sequences. Around 25 minutes of the movie is underwater. It was a massive project because usually, my sequences are 2-3 minutes in a movie. I worked with Dhanush, and it became a very iconic film. The sequence got noticed all over, and it also helped me with my self-confidence.
Another very recent project that I have done with sir Rajamaouli sir for his upcoming movie, RRR. We created a sequence that he was very happy with, and it went on for 6-7 days. I think to get trusted by one of the most successful directors of the country for such a big-budget film was a great thrill. I am humbled, and it is special for me.
Most challenging project?
The Raabta shoot! We trained the actors Sushant Singh Rajput, Kriti Sanon, and Jim Sarbh for one week, and then we met and shot the sequence. Those were 7 nights of shoot from 7 in the evening to 5 in the morning. It was very tiring, but it came out amazing.
Any anecdote you’d like to share about your underwater photography journey?
One of the rarest moments, that I was privileged to have, and possibly no other person would have experienced is interacting with the swimming elephant- Rajan. Later, that picture became quite famous too. I had never seen an elephant underwater, and I think getting to capture that swimming elephant was special as he is no more. Firstly, getting scared by its huge size, and then getting closer, and then understanding, and then by the end of the shoot patting him on his forehead, swimming close to him, and seeing him eye to eye was totally breathtaking.
Sumer is also a member of Marine Conservation that works on protecting India’s coral reefs. He says that it’s high time we take ocean life seriously and work to make a real change.