Tyson Rininger Spends Quality Time with Natural Underwater Beauties

“Very few people have ever been as close as I have,” explains Monterey Bay Aquarium’s photographer Tyson Rininger when asked how incredible his job is. He’s had some fascinating encounters with underwater creatures big and small and has a job many photographers would envy. How many photographers can actually say they’ve spent time in an elevator with a shark?

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The one thing I’ve always struggled with when photographing fish at a public aquarium is the distortion from the thick glass that separates us from them. If I were brave enough, I’d probably go into the designated visitors’ tanks to dive with them. But I always chicken out and blame my camera’s lack of proper underwater housing. As much as I think they’re magnificent creatures, I doubt I’d ever want to get close enough to a great white shark to photograph it. For a lot of us, the choice of whether to visit an aquarium or not depends on how enticing the advertisements are. At Monterey Bay Aquarium, Tyson and the marketing team have been doing fantastic work on this front for some years now. Scroll through some of their images on a high-resolution screen, and it’s almost like you’re in front of the display themselves. In 2014, they became the first aquarium to have a Google Street View of the inside of the facility (this virtual tour is addictive).

The Essential Photo Gear Used by Tyson Rininger

Tyson told us:

I currently use Nikon cameras with Speedotron power packs and Godox portable strobes. My predecessor was entirely Canon, so that was a fun experience working together. It did give us an opportunity to compare brands in the real world and work on compatibility solutions. 

The Phoblographer: Please tell us about yourself and how you got into photography. Did you have any experience with animals before joining the Monterey Aquarium?

Tyson Rininger: Hello, and thank you for the opportunity to share how imagery is produced here at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. 

I’ve been a photographer for about 35 years and have published about a dozen books, primarily in the field of aviation. However, as with most photographers, my interests expanded to that of architecture, food, products, nature and more. I grew up in the days of film and worked with every format from 35mm, 6x6cm, 4x5in and 8x10in. 

As for working with animals directly, not a whole lot, but I do love animals, and I think people could tell when I first began working with the Aquarium. Though I do sometimes feel like I cheated on a test to get here since I can’t spit out the Latin names of every animal and species like our Animal Care folks can. They are truly amazing and are the heart of our institution.

The Phoblographer: Tell us how you stumbled upon this vacancy and about your first few days at the job.

Tyson Rininger: Part of my past was my involvement in working in camera stores. When I moved to Monterey, CA, in 1996, I worked for Myrick Photographic. One of our good customers was Randy Wilder, who was the current Monterey Bay Aquarium photographer at the time. We browsed his slides together following the opening of the Aquarium’s Open Sea exhibit, which features the iconic gold Sea nettle jellies on a blue background with which most people are familiar. I blurted out how I would enjoy seeing how the images were created and thus began my twenty-year adventure as a volunteer assistant photographer working with Randy. That eventually became a contract position as the workload increased and the option of hiring a second photographer was explored. Once Randy had reached his 30-year tenure, his retirement resulted in me being given the position in 2016. Randy then became my contract photographer as our roles were reversed.

jellies, Sea nettle jelly, Chrysaora fuscescens, Open Sea Exhibit OS, close-up, macro Sea nettles jellies (Chrysaora fuscescen)

The Phoblographer: How long do you think it took for the animals there to be comfortable around you and your camera gear? What were some of the early challenges when trying to get photos of the residents?

Tyson Rininger: The care and safety of our animals are our priority. Our Animal Care Team keeps a close eye on the animals under their direct care, depending on the species. Only once they are comfortable with the animal’s health and strength will they then allow me to photograph them. The animals we tend to be concerned with the most are our otters as well as any that require a fragile ecosystem to thrive.

Most of the time, we set the animals up for success by exhibiting or placing them in a photographable environment that refrains from unnecessary stresses. In other words, as close to their natural habitat as humanly possible. By doing this, not only can we get great photographs, but so can our visitors.  

There are, however, still challenges. Sometimes animals choose to remain at the back of the exhibit, and sometimes they choose to hide really well. If the animal is un-photographable, I move on to other things until it becomes more comfortable with its surroundings and the unfamiliar noises it may encounter while in our care. 

The Phoblographer: What’s a typical day at the Monterey Aquarium like? Is there a set schedule of images needed for each day, or do you also capture whatever catches your eye as the day progresses?

Tyson Rininger: I receive assignments from the various departments at the Aquarium. They can be for portraits, gift store products, animals, political messaging, social media, press announcements, volunteers, visitors, VIPs and even local activities that pertain to wildlife and Aquarium involvement. While working on those assignments, I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for unique behavior animals may be exhibiting along with seasonal plumage, new species, energetic staff and more. There is always something to photograph at the Aquarium!

When not holding a camera, there is quite a bit of administrative work to do, such as keywording, image archiving, online database management, licensing contracts for both needed imagery and requested imagery. We also have a physical film archive where transparencies may need to be researched and scanned.

The Phoblographer: Animals tend to astound us when we least expect it. Have there been such memorable and unforgettable moments for you while photographing them at the Aquarium?

Tyson Rininger: My favorite line is that I got to spend time in an elevator with a white shark! The Monterey Bay Aquarium successfully exhibited a few white sharks years back in an effort to learn more about them than we could in the wild. Each shark was successfully released after the study, and the project came to an end. But my time with them was simply incredible.

Other amazing opportunities would include one-on-one time with our ambassador African penguin, Rey, as well as the times I get to spend with our surrogate sea otters. Unexpected opportunities have recently arisen with the 2022 opening of our new exhibit, Into the Deep, where I can spend time with creatures that live so deep in the ocean that very few people have ever been as close as I have to such bizarre creatures. Once the exhibit opens in the Spring, guests will have that same opportunity.

The Phoblographer: How do you balance the feeling of being in awe with focusing your mind (and camera) on getting the right shots when you’re underwater?

Tyson Rininger: That’s an interesting question as I really don’t think about it in the moment. I’m more concerned with the lighting, camera settings and making the most of the environment I’m in. I think my aviation experiences have kind of ruined the awe one might experience in the wild. Whether it be a Navy F-18 forming on the wing of your photo ship or a vintage warbird, those are incredibly awe-inspiring circumstances. Still, with so much money on the line with gas and flight-hour maintenance, not to mention safety, the feeling of awe needs to wait while the job gets done. The same translates to my experience with animals. There may be an expression, movement or angle that can’t be repeated, so the opportunities can’t be overshadowed with emotion. Afterwards, it does hit me, and I have photos to prove it!

On an interesting note, although I am a certified diver and have been in the exhibits, camera and lens technology have improved so much so that I don’t often find the need to dive. With ISO clarity reaching new highs and optics able to provide sharper images than ever before, not to mention the world of digital editing possibilities, staying dry and utilizing equipment without the need for underwater housings has proven to be extremely efficient. But don’t get me wrong, there is nothing better than swimming amongst the fish, especially with our amazing kelp forest right off the back deck.

horizontal, Open Sea Exhibit OS, Scalloped hammerhead sharks, Sphyrna lewini, elasmobranchs A Scalloped hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini) swims about the Open Sea exhibit

The Phoblographer: What are some of the friendlier animals there? Which ones are always up for a photograph when you stop by? Which ones aren’t that interested in being in front of the lens?

Tyson Rininger: I may lose a bit of credibility in admitting I can talk with the animals, and they talk right back, sort of. After a while, you start to understand movements and gestures along with basic signs displayed by the animals, and if you can play into them, the animals can become very good models. These signs can also tip me off to whether the animal is accepting of my being there or doesn’t want anything to do with me, and I act accordingly. I may look at an animal and move on without taking any photos. Other animals, I’ll spend a good hour working with.

Pufferfish are amazing! Always interacting. They’ll follow me around as try to find new angles in the exhibit. This can also pose a problem if I need to photograph other animals since the pufferfish will always be in the way.

Octopi are also really fun. There’s a Common octopus that fist-bumps me when he’s in a good mood in the mornings. That tells me he’s open to being photographed and will swim from side to side of the exhibit, almost showing off.

The Phoblographer: You’ve probably got your own favorites, but tell us about some of the public’s favorite animals (the ones they always love seeing more and more pictures of).

Tyson Rininger: Penguins and sea otters, for sure! 

Our incredibly successful Sea Otter Program enables people to view these cuddly floating cats up close as they display absolutely adorable behavior with their teeny, tiny feet. It always brings joy to the faces of our guests as they witness enrichment exercises, feedings and even just watching the otters sleep.

The African penguins are another huge favorite and are benefitted through the Species Survival Plan. This plan ensures that endangered species are cared for through various zoo and aquarium programs. So while these penguins are only seen in South Africa, we have the little rock-hoppers here in Monterey.

One of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s African Penguins (Spheniscus demersus), Rey, explores the various exhibits before opening hours during a regular early morning enrichment program.

The Phoblographer: Your work is the primary medium through which people come to know the aquarium’s residents, employees and its facilities. Has it become easier managing this responsibility over the years?

Tyson Rininger: It actually has become easier, but I think that’s simply due to knowing the staff, the facility and those who make it all happen. As a volunteer photographer, I worked primarily in the evenings after the Aquarium had closed, so I never really got the chance to meet a lot of people. When I took on the role of staff photographer, they all became my coworkers, and I got to know them better. As most photographers are aware, the better the rapport, the better the photos.

Additionally, as I learn things that seem interesting to me, a non-biologist, I can identify with what the public would be interested in as well. As an example, I tried out a time-lapse of sea stars and sand dollars moving around the seafloor. Turns out, not a lot of people knew that these incredibly slow-moving animals actually moved. The short clips became one of our most popular posts. To me, that is the ultimate joy of the job I do, showing the world an ordinary object as they’ve never seen it before.

The Phoblographer: A lot of your Tumblr posts come with some very punny captions. Who comes up with these creative lines and how do they keep consistently belting them out?

Tyson Rininger: This would be the task of our Social Media Team. I provide the photos; they provide the puns.

I don’t believe the brand of camera can help achieve a vision as opposed to how understanding the tool can offer more success. I was a Canon guy for 20 years until Nikon wooed me over from seeing my aviation work. I have no regrets as the Nikon system works great. 

The Phoblographer: What are some tips you can provide our readers for getting clearer shots through the thick refractive glass separating them from sea creatures at aquariums?

Tyson Rininger: The two most important tips that come to mind are:

  • 1. Shoot head-on to the acrylic, not an angle. Acrylic distorts everything, and even though your eyes are able to adjust for the perceived angles, camera lenses can not.
  • 2. Turn off your flash. We ask this not only for the health of the animal; imagine getting flashed 2,000 times a day! But also due to reflection. Not only will the flash bounce right back, but years of cleaning have left small, microscopic scratches that we can only see with the addition of a flash. Raise your ISO and use natural exhibit light. You’ll get much more realistic photos this way as well.
One of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s African Penguins (Spheniscus demersus), Rey, explores the various exhibits before opening hours durnig a regular early morning enrichment program.

The Phoblographer: Without sounding biased, tell us what types of shots you enjoy taking the most at the Aquarium (macro / underwater / birds etc).

Tyson Rininger: I really enjoy macro-photography. Even the most common animals like abalone, nudibranchs, sea stars and more, have insanely intricate features that can impress even the most uninterested people. Exploring macro-photography of sea-going animals illustrates that nothing in Hollywood is original. All of those eerie aliens and creative life forms already exist here on earth.

At the moment, however, I’m having a blast photographing our deep-sea animals that will soon be on public display. Some of these animals are creepy to the extreme, while others have attributes that are simply amazing. From biofluorescence to see-through abdomens, these species make my job easy since that job is to show people stuff they’ve never seen before.

All images supplied by the Monterey Bay Aquarium . Used with permission. Please visit their website and their Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr pages to see more of their images. They also have some great videos and live streams on their YouTube page.

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Feroz Khan

Never seen without a camera (or far from one), Feroz picked up the art of photography from his grandfather at a very early age (at the expense of destroying a camera or two of his). Specializing in sports photography and videography for corporate short films, when he’s not discussing or planning his next photoshoot, he can usually be found staying up to date on aviation tech or watching movies from the 70s era with a cup of karak chai.