Fred Buyle

The tiny Selvagens Islands archipelago is located between Madeira and the Canary Islands. The Atlantic swells constantly beat against these big, exposed, distant rocks, so it isn’t easy to anchor there, and people rarely visit. I was fortunate to go as the director of underwater photography for an expedition organized by the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco. We enjoyed the world-famous waves, which some surfers consider to be the Holy Grail, from beneath. The underwater images are powerful, but you have to be careful while getting them!

A breath of air — nothing more, nothing less

A STATEMENT ON FRED BUYLE’S WEBSITE briefly explains his approach to underwater photography: “To take his pictures and videos, Fred uses a simple formula: the water, available light, a camera, and one breath of air, nothing more, nothing less.” I would add to that list an extraordinary eye for composition and a passion for placing himself wherever the photo opportunities are. The images in his portfolio represent decades of travel to exotic destinations far from his home in the Azores. He has tolerated fewer overweight baggage fees than other photographers might, for his life and aesthetic are remarkably minimalistic for a man of such accomplishment.

Fred Buyle

Buyle came to photography naturally — some might say genetically. His great-grandfather was an innovative and acclaimed photographer in Brussels and portraitist to the Belgian royal family. His grandfather was a fine art painter, and his father was an advertising and fashion photographer in the 1960s. Buyle missed the active era of his father’s life in fashion photography, as he was retired from that career by the time Buyle was born. 

For at least two months each summer the family sailed to Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Norway. Boating was a family passion, and while his parents weren’t divers, Buyle was curious about all things related to the ocean. He began reading voraciously at 4 years old. By the age of 7 he was satisfying his curiosity about the underwater world by snorkeling, and he started spearfishing a few years later. As he had to go deeper for game, he learned to equalize. He spent more time observing than spearing fish, and freediving became a part of his life.

Cuando era adolescente obtuvo su certificación de buceo en Bélgica y se convirtió en divemaster PADI a los 18 años y en instructor un año después. No obstante, la idea de depender de un tanque y un regulador nunca le interesó tanto como la estética de una sola respiración. El buceo en apnea se volvió un deporte más organizado en la década de 1990, y Buyle fue parte de ello. En 1995, estableció su primer récord mundial de 51 metros (167,3 pies) en la categoría de peso variable y luego continuó con el récord de peso constante de 53 metros (173,9 pies) en 1997. Superó ese récord posteriormente en 1997 a los 58 metros (190,3 pies) y en 2001 a los 65 metros (213,3 pies). En 1999 superó la barrera más difícil del buceo en apnea, los 100 metros (328 pies), lo que lo convirtió en la octava persona en hacerlo oficialmente.

Para el año 2000 claramente se había establecido como parte de la realeza del buceo en apnea, pero ¿cuándo comenzó con la fotografía submarina?

By 2002 I had grown bored with freediving for records, but I wanted memories of what I saw underwater. About that time magazines became interested in freediving competitions, so photographing freedivers was a natural transition for me. The elite freedivers were a small community, and we had mutual trust. I had the skills to get deep enough to take a dramatic photo, yet I knew enough about the culture to stay out of the way and not interfere with the dive. You can’t ask your model for one more take during an international competition, so I learned to get it right the first time.

I took my first digital underwater photos in 2001, so if you began shooting in 2002, I’m guessing you never shot film.

That’s true. I began my underwater photography using a Nikon Coolpix digital camera. The digital files weren’t too bad, but the shutter lag was horrible. You had to press the shutter release and anticipate where your subject would be when the camera took the shot. I moved to Canon digital cameras for better-quality files, more lens options, and an improved shutter. Cameras continued to improve among all manufacturers, and by 2016 I had switched back to Nikon and eventually became one of their ambassadors. I had been shooting a Nikon D810 but have upgraded to a Nikon Z 7II in an effort to have a smaller and more streamlined in-water footprint.

El cachalote es el animal de superlativos: son uno de los depredadores con dientes más grandes del planeta, emiten el sonido más fuerte del reino animal (aproximadamente 200 decibeles bajo el agua) y tienen el cerebro más grande de todos los seres vivos. Son inteligentes, expresivos y sociables. Realmente es alucinante bucear en apnea con ellos y ser aceptado por el grupo, en ocasiones por horas.

Su estilo actual parece estar orientado a los animales grandes, a menudo con buzos en apnea, pero con un énfasis en la carismática megafauna marina.

I’ve always loved being with big animals, but freediving is very much a team sport. We all know the risks of shallow-water blackout, so we travel and dive together. It is important to be a good safety role model, and even today I might drop down to 200 feet for a photo opportunity, so we rely on the security that comes from watching each other’s backs. Our safety protocols are always in place, even if it is a relatively shallow dive to photograph sleeping sperm whales. Since two or more of us are always in the water, I can place a freediver near the marine life. It provides scale and human interest, and my buddies want to be next to big critters anyway. I have the benefit of being there to get the shot.

The diversity of your subject matter — great whites, tiger sharks, mantas, whale sharks, sperm whales, and even belugas — gives a sense of how geographically committed you are. Since you can travel lightly without strobes and scuba gear, do you feel that contributes to a minimalistic approach?

That is how I travel and how I live. I am very minimalistic. I live in the Azores so I can be near the sea. When conditions are right, I can grab my camera, quickly jump on a boat, and find myself in the water with blue sharks, mobula rays, or whatever else is out there. You never know what kind of encounter you might have, and interacting with it all is the great joy of my life. But my travel isn’t random. I have an idea of what to shoot and where to go to succeed. 

En 2007, por ejemplo, quería capturar algunas imágenes de tiburones blancos en agua cristalina. Mark Addison había tenido suerte buceando en apnea con tiburones en el océano Índico cerca de la costa este de Sudáfrica. Había descubierto que, si esperábamos la llegada agua cálida y cristalina sobre los pináculos, podríamos encontrar tiburones blancos. Nadar sin jaulas era inusual en ese entonces, pero Mark lo había hecho muchas veces y me ayudó a darme cuenta de que era posible. Resultó ser una experiencia mágica que mejoró considerablemente mis conocimientos sobre el comportamiento de los tiburones. Ese año mis fotos de buzos en apnea nadando tranquilamente junto a enormes tiburones tigre en Sudáfrica fueron ampliamente distribuidas y se volvieron mis primeras imágenes virales.

A lot of my other work in conservation circles happened because freedivers can do things that are impossible on scuba or rebreathers because they are too cumbersome and intimidating to the animals. We attached acoustic tags for tracking migration to scalloped hammerhead sharks in Rangiroa, Tahiti, along the Eastern Pacific Corridor (the Galápagos, Cocos, and Malpelo), and to great whites off Guadalupe Island in Mexico. Our unobtrusive presence made us valuable underwater assistants to the shark researchers.

Su cámara principal es la Nikon Z 7II sin espejo, que ofrece menos resistencia al agua. ¿Cree que esa característica es importante?

My equipment evolution is always for size and efficiency. When I travel I have one checked bag with my clothes, fins, mask, snorkel, and wetsuit. My carry-on backpack contains one camera and housing, a spare camera body, and two or three lenses. I don’t need strobes or macro lenses. For me, it is all wide-angle, available light, and one breath of air.

Hablando de eso, ¿tiene que entrenar constantemente para mantener el máximo nivel de eficacia en el buceo en apnea?

I haven’t trained for freediving since 2004, when I quit competing. It is about having a healthy lifestyle. I swim quite often, ride my bike, and pay attention to what I eat. Stretching helps me quite a bit, and I have a rowing machine for when the weather is bad. Honestly, I’d rather work in my garden or take a nice walk every day. I’m fortunate that I can still accomplish the work I want to do, and I look forward to the next grand adventure!

See more of Buyle’s work at nektos.net.

Explore más

See more of Fred Buyle’s work in a bonus photo gallery and in the videos below.

© FRED BUYLE

© FRED BUYLE

Español de México