Table of Contents
The difference between shark photography on a coral reef and shooting sharks in mid-water is like night and day. One is fairly simple while the other is far less predictable and thus much more complex.
Shark photography on a coral reef is like playing baseball. The coral reef is a comparatively level playing field and while the ball (shark) may come in high or low, you have a pretty good idea about the range of play.
Shark photography in mid-water is much more like aerial combat among fighter planes. The shark can come at you from any direction – high, low, from the bottom, from behind or from the surface. To make things worse, a shark is not likely to execute the same maneuver twice. Its actions are totally unpredictable.
The photographer in mid-water shark photography spends a lot of time pivoting in a circle, as well as rubbernecking up, down and behind. If there are a lot of sharks in the water (more than two), this sort of photography seems like a cross between sky diving and a three ring circus. There is a lot going on, a lot to keep track of and a lot of surprises.
A Shark’s Best Side
When a portrait photographer sets up a photo session, he or she tries to determine the subject’s best side. Some people look better when photographed from the left side, others from the right. The same is true with sharks. Consider the fish’s natural camouflage. Its coloration is designed to blend in with the open sea, as this is where sharks spend much of their time.
The upper body of the shark is dark, while its underside is usually white or light colored. It is more a matter of contrast rather than specific color that makes the shark blend in with its open water environment.
When viewed or photographed from above, the shark blends in with the deep blue depths below. The dark blue or black upper body almost disappears. Obviously, the upper portion of the shark’s body is not its best side.
When viewed from beneath, the shark makes a far better photographic subject. Its white underside does not blend in as well with the light blue coloration of the water above. If you add flash to the photo the contrast increases as the flash highlights the underside.
As an extra bonus, a photo taken from beneath the shark will also reveal the features of its mouth as well as its body shape, tail and pectoral fins. You might say the shark’s best side is a view of its underside, either directly or partially.
Perhaps the best photo angle is a side view. This angle provides an overall view of the shark’s body, fins, eye and mouth. The combination of dark upper body and light underside helps bring out the contrast of the creature – especially when lit by flash fill.
Other views that can prove interesting include a head on view (if you can stand the stress) or an even more provocative head on view with the shark’s mouth open (a real heart stopper). Attempts at such camera angles are not recommended for beginners; they should be reserved for advanced shark photographers only.
Now that we have a fairly good idea of how the shark looks from various angles, we can select equipment and develop some techniques for getting the shot.
Establishing The Rules
Before you make the dive, you need to have a little talk with yourself about self-discipline and following established rules. Things often get pretty exciting underwater and it is hard to know where or what to shoot first. It is easy to get confused or overexcited, resulting in simple errors that can ruin your shots. Here are a few basic rules that can help maintain order.
Find a place to perch: Mid-water shark photography covers a wide spectrum of photo situations. In some cases you may be diving in a pelagic environment where the bottom is several hundred feet below and there is nothing but blue water in every direction. In other situations you may be shooting shark pictures in a coral reef pass or on the edge of a vertical wall. If the situation is the latter, try to find a secure perch on the coral wall or pass from which you can shoot your shark pictures. Being anchored to a stable base offers two advantages. First, you do not have to worry about buoyancy adjustment or sinking deeper. Second, you do not have to keep looking behind you since the action will be happening in front of you.
Another advantage of a perch is that you will be able to blend in with the background and the sharks are more likely to come closer.
Take lightmeter readings: Before the shark action gets started, take a few lightmeter readings through your camera’s built in TTL exposure meter. Get an idea of what the range of f/stops is when you point the camera down (45 degree angle), horizontal, up (45 degree angle) and straight up. The range could be as much as five f/stops, depending upon water clarity, depth, visibility, time of day and so on. Try to memorize these f/stops for future reference. When you start shooting photos of sharks there will not be time to check exposure settings.
Avoid shooting down: One of the things that does not work very well in mid-water shark situations is shooting pictures on a downward angle. The deeper zones are the darkest for ambient light and the shark’s dark upper body blends into the background much too well. The contrast values are very poor and you end up with a black blob on a dark blue background. The only exception to this rule is a shark swimming over a white sand bottom. The sand provides an excellent contrast to the shark’s dark shape.
Shoot horizontal: Shooting horizontally is one of your best camera angles for illustrating a side view of the shark. This angle provides an excellent view of the fins, mouth and eye – as well as color contrast between the shark’s upper and lower body.
Your basic rule of thumb in shooting sharks in mid-water should be “any camera angle from horizontal to straight up is considered great for shark pictures.”
Shoot on an up angle: If at all possible, shoot on an upward angle ranging anywhere from 15 to 45 degrees. This angle provides an excellent view of the mouth, body and fins. Flash illumination of the shark’s underside will provide the added contrast needed to make the creature pop out from its background.
Use flash for fill: Set up your camera/strobe exposure controls for balanced flash and use the strobe for fill. In other words, your basic aperture control should be adjusted for available light photography so that the ambient background is a nice bright blue. The strobe is used as flash fill, adding contrast, color and highlights to the subject.
If you set up your camera and strobe for total flash, the shark will be correctly exposed but the background will be black. This type of flash photo is not half as interesting as one where the shark is framed with blue water behind it.
Wait for the shark to get close: The trick in getting good shark photos is allowing the shark to get as close to the lens as possible (within reason). Many photographers get too excited and shoot prematurely. When a shark is coming toward you, wait until the very last moment before triggering your camera. Avoid any sudden moves with your hands, feet or fins as this may frighten the shark. Also, breathe very slowly and evenly – avoiding sudden bursts of exhaust bubbles.
Overexpose if shooting down: If you have no other choice and must shoot on a downward angle, open your aperture an extra f/stop to overexpose the photograph. The overexposure will help to brighten an otherwise low contrast photo.
Avoid shooting all your film: Avoid shooting all 36 frames of your film. Save at least two frames for your return to the surface. Quite often, the best shark photo opportunities occur at the end of the dive, as you are heading for the surface.
Safety Rules You Should Follow
In addition to photo rules, you should establish some clear cut safety rules. This kind of diving is often distracting and photographers tend to forget basic safety.
Be aware of your depth: Diving in deep blue water has its own set of problems. It is very easy to end up deeper than you plan to go, because there is no reference point such as the bottom or wall.
Continually monitor your depth while shooting and make the appropriate corrections. You will tend to sink as you attempt to photograph the sharks from a horizontal or upward angle.
Quite often, I will put my instrument console over my left forearm while holding the strobe or camera. This allows me to glance at the depth gauge periodically while continuing to shoot pictures.
Check your air supply often: Photographing sharks is a high voltage situation that can accelerate your breathing. As you become more excited, your breathing quickens. And, since your concentration is focused on photography, you tend to lose track of time. You need to check your instrument console frequently.
Maintain neutral buoyancy: Achieving and maintaining neutral buoyancy is a big part of mid-water shark photography. If you are negative, you will tend to sink constantly and have to correct for the increased depth. On the other hand, if you are too buoyant, you will tend to sink constantly and have to correct for the increased depth. On the other hand, if you are too buoyant, you will have to work too hard at staying at depth – thus using your air supply much too soon.
Watch out for subtle currents: As mentioned earlier, mid-water diving is tricky because there is no visual reference point other than the surface. Unless you are making a drift dive, you have to watch carefully for subtle currents that could carry you away into open water. Keep a watchful eye on your dive boat, descent line, vertical wall or any other stable reference point. Avoid drifting too far from the dive boat.
Do not exceed your no decompression limit: Shark photography can be distracting – especially if there is a lot of high voltage action. It is extremely important to keep track of your bottom time and dive computer (if you have one). Be careful not to exceed the no decompression limits.
Some dive computers have built-in audio alarms that beep when you reach the max dive time allowable. This sort of warning signal can help but you should also make frequent visual checks. Self-discipline is very important in these situations. Avoid being lured into staying a few extra minutes, just to get a couple of more shots. No shark photo is worth a case of the bends.
Go with experienced dive guides: Shark photography entails extra risk above and beyond a normal scuba dive on a shallow reef. You can improve your odds by going with experienced dive guides who know the sharks and understand their behavior. Experienced shark diving guides can position you where the action is best but still safe.
Avoid spearfishing: Under no circumstances should you attempt shark photography while anyone is spearfishing nearby. The spearing of fish can transform an ordinarily safe shark dive into an incredibly dangerous situation. The sharks can instantly change from passive to crazed animals that will bite anything. Spearfishing is far too provocative and makes shark behavior unpredictable.
Do not exceed your comfort level: Shark diving is often filled with long periods of waiting and sudden moments of anxiety. Sometimes, the shark action reaches such an intensity it is wise to retreat. If you feel uncomfortable in such situations, it is probably time to leave. Don’t push yourself beyond your comfort level.
Shooting sharks in mid-water is one of the all-time adventure highs in diving and one of the greatest challenges for an underwater photographer. Don’t be discouraged if you experience a few failures along the way. Poor exposures and fuzzy images are all part of this wild and unpredictable type of diving. When you finally do get a great shark photo, you will know it was all worth it.