IF YOU HAVE BEEN an underwater photographer for a reasonable period of time, you would probably agree that the market has become “flooded” with the same old pictures, especially in the macro category.
Black backgrounds were all the craze, then it was super-macro dioptres, then along came the snoots again, then bokeh, then doughnut bokeh, then super-duper dioptres and so on.
The gadgets and gizmos have been taking over underwater photography, and for good reason – who wants to see another nudibranch portrait?
A few years ago, my enthusiasm for macro photography was really dwindling. I had shot thousands of nudibranchs and hundreds of frogfish.
I had used teleconverters and dioptres until my 40-year-old eyes were virtually blind, but the passion just wasn’t there any more.
Like many other photographers I was looking for an alternative angle, and in search of inspiration I came across some images online that had been taken by Christopher Boffoli.
He was shooting miniature people from model train-sets, and creating amazing humorous scenes with food.
I then bought a book by another photographer called Slinkachu. He was creating art installations by placing the model train-set characters on the street in funny and interesting predicaments.
He was shooting images of the scene and then leaving the installation for people to see.
It was one of Slinkachu’s pictures that became my moment of inspiration – an image of miniature people and a dead rat. I suddenly thought: What if you did a similar shot but with something living, something that wouldn’t run away?
The idea of taking these train-set characters under water and creating surreal scenes suddenly entered my head, and I couldn’t stop thinking of various marine options – snake-eels, scorpionfish, frogfish, mantis shrimps, in fact all the crazy critters you would find in the best muck locations such as Lembeh and Mabul.
I was visiting a good friend, David Cheung, in Singapore and started telling him about my ideas. He thought I’d lost the plot! But he did know of a few model shops in Singapore, so off I trotted to find some miniature people.

THE FIRST I BOUGHT were soldiers, a few workmen and a very poor-quality excavator. On returning home to Kota Kinabalu (in Sabah, Malaysia) I planned a day of diving in the local marine park to test them out.
Things didn’t go according to plan at first, and I realised that it wouldn’t be as simple as I had hoped.
I had to make some modifications to the little people to make them more “negative” and stop them floating away. As a result, most of the miniatures in these images have coins or small weights glued to the undersides of their feet, which are then covered with sand.
Once this was all sorted and the miniatures now stood upright under water and were neutrally buoyant, I headed back out and found some co-operative subjects – devil scorpionfish, a snake-eel and a very friendly shrimp goby complete with blind shrimp.
I managed to capture a few images I was happy with, but I wasn’t sure how they would be received. I had been very careful not to damage or harass any marine life, but with all the “diver police” online I expected some negative feedback.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. The response was great, and this only inspired me to create more ideas for more scenes.
I realised that I needed lots more miniatures. I searched the online shops for other model-railway people and found an enormous variety of options online, some quite crazy. Why anybody would want X-rated miniatures on their train-set is beyond me!

THIS WAS THE start of a bizarre obsession. Every time I visited a new city I would check out the model shops for alternative miniature people. I would arrive at dive-resorts with boxes of “toys”, and try to explain to the guide and other guests that this was actually my job!
I’ll never forget the looks from all the tourists at Jellyfish Lake when I was swimming around with a plastic hot-air balloon trying to get the image I had previously planned.
The entire process became very well planned. I would first see what miniatures were available, then go through previous images from dive-trips to see what would work with various creatures and how guaranteed the subjects would be.
I would then sketch out the image so that it would be easier to explain to the guide what I was planning.
The miniatures would be prepared, nails glued to their feet, coins glued to the underside of the trucks etc, and I would then dive purely for that image.
Some shots would take an entire dive, others perhaps longer. The plane-cleaning shot with manta in the background took two days at German Channel in Palau.
With the increased response online it dawned on me that this could be a great opportunity to reach thousands of non-divers and educate people on marine-conservation issues. But it needed an overall theme and storyline.
That’s when the idea of global warming forcing the miniature people to live under water came about.
The images then fell into three categories, which are the three chapters of my upcoming book. The first is the “Monster Movie” scenario, in which the miniature soldiers invade the underwater world and the critters fight back.
Then there is the “Making Peace” scenario. A truce is made and idyllic scenes result, such as people living and working side by side with the underwater creatures.
Finally you have the “Humans Are Wrecking The Ocean” scenario, in which the people realise the negative impact humans have had on the ocean and start cleaning it up. The final chapter is obviously the most important, but the previous two chapters have the humour and lead people to the reality.

WHEN I EMBARKED on this project most of my friends and colleagues thought I had gone bonkers. With the book now being published and the fact that we are now helping to educate thousands of people and not just divers about the marine world and the environmental issues, I’m quite happy to be bonkers.
It’s certainly been fun and, from my personal perspective, it certainly beats shooting ordinary macro images!

Small Blue World by Jason Isley

It’s 2249: the booming global population and the damaging effects of global warming are pushing Earth’s resources to the limit.
With virtually all land now covered by sea, it is time to take a closer look into the small blue world and the prospect of a life under water…
Jason Isley’s Small Blue World is published on 28 April.
Jason trained as an underwater cameraman in Australia before moving to Sabah in Malaysian Borneo to co-found noted underwater filming and photography company Scubazoo.
For 10 years from 1996 Jason filmed all over the world on productions including the UK Survivor series, the Disney IMAX production Sacred Planet, Journeys of a Lifetime with Minnie Driver, Animal Planet’s The Jeff Corwin Experience, Nick Baker’s Weird Creatures and Perfect Predators for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.
From 2006 he focused on photography full-time, becoming the driving force behind Scubazoo’s publications division.
He was pivotal in the production of its first book Sipadan-Mabul-Kapalai, Sabah’s Underwater Treasure, which has sold more than 200,000 copies worldwide.
Jason’s images have won several international awards, but as his publisher says: “It is his passion for marine conservation that drives him to connect people with the underwater world in weird and wonderful ways.”

Michael O’Mara Books www.mombooks.com
ISBN: 9781782435655
Hardback, 112pp, £12.99
There will also be an ebook version.