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Capturing Whales and Turtles on Hasselblad Medium Format - Karim Iliya
~Originally published Dec 9th, 2020~

Taking a boat out to the deep waters off the coast of Moorea, Karim keeps his eyes peeled for a puff of air breaking the ocean surface. That’s when he knows he’s found Humpback whales. “When you do find them, and if the whale is interested in interacting, it is the most incredible experience I can describe. Here you are, face to face with a giant, bigger than any animal on land and it looks at you with intelligent eyes. They are incredibly gentle, compassionate, and often curious,” explains Karim. Moving cautiously around these gentle giants is key to interaction, especially when they sometimes approach as close as at an arm’s length.

"Having a whale in front of you is already such an overwhelming experience, the last thing I want to be doing is fiddling with my camera. I wasn't sure I would be able to change many settings underwater but the software design and button placement is intuitive and let me change my shutter speed, ISO, exposure compensation, focus, and all the settings I needed to underwater."

humpback whale in french polynesia

A Humpback Whale pauses in the deep blue waters of French Polynesia


Close to where Karim lives in Maui is a sunken pier that has naturally become a reef with a turtle cleaning station. Here, small fish line up for a free meal by eating the small parasites gathered on the turtles. And as turtles here have become accustomed to human presence in the water, they go about their business as usual even with a camera in front of them. “To photograph turtles, I go from shore with my freediving gear which includes a mask, snorkel, long fins, wetsuit and weight belt. At the turtle cleaning station, the turtles are often hovering while they get cleaned by the little fish. This provides an interesting opportunity to be eye level with the turtle while having blue water in the background, as well as a dynamic reef on a sunken pier,” explains Karim.

"Turtles are reptiles, and just as when I'm photographing them above water, I try to move as slow as possible around them without making any sudden movements. I relax my body, take a few deep breaths, and dive down into the blue."

photographing turtles in hawaii karim iliya sea turtle in hawaii

Familiarizing himself as much as possible with his gear before diving down is crucial for Karim to work on autopilot once he’s under the water. As a freediver, he tries to be neutrally buoyant; to achieve this, he uses an extra mask strap and attaches a weight to the bottom of the housing unit in order for it to be neutrally buoyant as well. Typically photographing no deeper than 15 meters (50 feet) where there is more light and colour, this proves to be the ideal spot for his documentation. “The lightweight housing is a pleasure to use. I'm typically using a much heavier dive housing so moving the REFLEX Water Housing through the water felt like such a privilege,” says Karim.

"When I shoot with a Hasselblad camera, my entire approach to photography changes. I try to take the time to look, to compose, and to be patient. Instead of rapidly firing the shutter, I watch and wait for the best moment to take the photo. Cameras aren't usually designed to deal with a world where everything is blue but the X1D II did just as well underwater as it did above water."

aquatech underwater housing for hasselblad x1d ii 50c

Karim Iliya using the REFLEX X1D II 50C for the Hasselblad X1D II 50C


After receiving his first point and shoot camera in high school, it took another 10 years before Karim Iliya got his first underwater housing – it felt like he was starting photography all over again. Based most of the year in Hawaii, Karim has grown up with the ocean as his second home where he usually photographs turtles and other underwater wildlife. As a professional scuba diver and free diver, much of Karim’s time is spent going deeper and documenting the lives of whales. “They represent the ocean as a whole, the delicateness of nature, a remarkable story of coming back from the brink of extinction and the importance of protecting the natural spaces and ecosystems on this planet,” says Karim.

You can find more images and information on Karim’s Instagram and Website. Thanks to Hasselblad for their support in publishing this story.