Based in both Hawaii and Colorado, USA, Karim Iliya creates work that incorporates aerial and underwater photography and filmmaking along with leads guided tours to swim with and photograph humpback whales.


What first got you interested in photography?

Curiosity. As a child, science was my favorite subject. The natural world fascinates me, so I would spend a lot of time exploring bugs, animals, and the natural world. I love to photograph things that might normally be inaccessible (things that are too small, too dark, or too fast to see, and places that are hard to get to such as aerial and underwater). I’ve also been very fortunate in having vibrant locations and content to shoot.

Spending summers in Maui, me and my brother spent a lot of time in the water. For years, we talked about getting an underwater housing for our little cameras, but they were so expensive. Nine years and five cameras later and I finally got an underwater housing. I started just by photographing turtles, holding my breath and diving down for a few second. I got a job as photographer on a boat during snorkel trips. This led me into the world of freediving which changed my life.

What is your background in photography?

Practice. I have no formal education in photography. Trial and error, and lots of practice. Digital photography enabled me to learn in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to do with film. The instant feedback from the camera screen allowed me (and still does) to experiment, try things, see how it changes in the photo, and adjust until I’m satisfied with the result. As I see it, there is no end to mastering photography. Light is so complex and dynamic, and there are an infinite number of situations, places, animals, and ways to look at the world. Formal education in the realm of photography can be useful to learn the technical components and how colors and composition are used, but ultimately, photography is about physically placing yourself in front of the subject. At least for wildlife, nature, and documentary photography, how you move through the world as a human is far more important.

When I work in water, I feel like I’m in another world.

What is your Masters series about?

In Costa Rica, the most interesting part of photographing the country’s biodiversity was the frogs. Strange and interesting creatures with their stunning colors and patterns, some, like the glass frog, are even translucent, allowing you to see their organs. I wanted to create super high-resolution photos of these small creatures that people don’t normally look at in detail or even see. The challenge was how to innovate using light to photograph these amphibians in a way that truly showed their beauty. For a few of the photos, with the assistance of a biologist, we created a mini studio environment in the wild that helped us photograph the glass frogs. We used little lights and photographed them on a wet piece of glass before placing them back on the leaves or soil where they were.