Shark Photography

Shark Photography can be a challenging subject but for many underwater photographers the reward of capturing the moment with one of the world’s most iconic ocean creatures is worth the struggle and frustration.

To get good photographs of sharks you don’t have to have the world’s best camera but you do need to pay attention to some tried and tested fundamentals of composition and exposure. If you’re a beginner, the following advice will set you on the right path but as you hone your skills, you will likely develop your own personal style that appeals to you.

How to Photograph Sharks

Composition

Six tips for success

  1. Fill the frame with the subject.
  2. Position sharks heading into the image.
  3. Avoid distracting content.
  4. Always position divers behind the sharks.
  5. Direct models to look at the shark.
  6. Follow the rule of thirds.

Fill the Frame

Generally Speaking, when you shoot large subjects (be they animals or inanimate objects) you want them to look impressive. The easiest way to achieve this, is to fill most of the frame with shark. That means getting as close as possible and using an appropriate lens that isn’t too wide. If necessary, you can also crop the image a little during post-processing but its much better to get it right in the camera so that you retain detail and don’t lose precious pixels.
Even a 12m whale shark will look small if you ignore this principle and leave too much space around the subject.

When shooting groups of sharks the same rule applies i.e. try to limit the negative space around the entire group.

Having said all this, there is nothing wrong with composing beautiful underwater scenes where a distant shark is dramatically highlighted by shards of light or silhouetted by the late afternoon sun, but such compositions require excellent visibility and very specific light conditions. Filling the frame is the easiest way to take home ‘a keeper’.

Oceanic Whitetip Shark
Whitetip Reef Shark

Always compose sharks swimming into the frame

Even if a shark is swimming somewhat towards the photographer, if the shark’s head is closer to the edge of the frame than its tail is, it will look as though the animal is trying to flee. Obviously, if a shark has already turned away, it will look as though it is retreating. Either of these flaws will create an uncomfortable feel to the image, and will result in a less engaging composition.

If you find yourself with a great shot where the shark is swimming at the right angle but its head is closer to the edge of the image than its tail, if there is enough negative space, consider cropping away some of the space behind the shark.

Shark Photography Composition

Avoid Distracting Content

When lit by strobes, a shark’s undersides usually appear white or pale but their dorsal coloration remains relatively dark. On the other hand, bony fishes and other reef creatures are often highly reflective so when lit, they create bright spots in the image that pull the viewer’s gaze towards them and away from the shark itself.
Even if the surrounding creatures or objects are not overly bright, having too much going on makes an image look cluttered. Clean shots where the subject is nicely framed by a natural border of empty blue, or where the shark is closer to the photographer than anything else so that it is the brightest object in the frame, is the best way to make your shark ‘pop’.

Again, there is nothing wrong with composing images where the reef is the centrepiece and the shark is swimming in the background.

Banded Houndshark

Position sharks in the foreground and divers in the background

Positioning a diver behind a shark is a great way to bring a sense of scale to the subject or to make the shark look even larger than life. Conversely, positioning a diver in front of a shark (even an enormous one) will invariably make the shark look smaller than it really is. This happens because two dimensional cameras are bad at conveying distance. So a diver positioned right in front of the camera, appears to be right in front of the shark even if the shark is another 6m away, and visa versa.

Wide angle and fisheye lenses that have a degree of barrel distortion exacerbate this issue because they make anything in the centre of the image look disproportionately larger than objects near the edge of the frame.

Tiger Shark

Direct the diver to look at the shark

We are a curious species. Without thinking, we often follow the gaze of others to see what they are looking at. So if your model is looking at the shark, this draws the viewer’s attention towards the subject and increases the impact of the image.

If you’re shooting random divers that have not agreed to model for you, then leave them be to enjoy their dives, but if someone is actively modelling for you, give them some coaching before the dive, and once you get underwater, remind them with hand signals where to look.

If they’re off to the side of the image, you may find that it is better if they turn their head so that it is angled about half way between the photographer and the shark, with their eyes turned more towards the shark. This way the viewer gets a better look at the diver’s face and can see more clearly that they’re looking at the subject.

Puffadder Shyshark

The rule of thirds

This tried and trusted rule of composition states that the eye is most pleased by images in which the subject is positioned at one of the intersections of lines that dissect the picture into nine equal parts…huh? In other words, don’t put the subject right at the corners, edges, or smack in the middle. This is good advice if the shark is quite small within the image.

One occasion when you may have cause to ignore this rule is when shooting identification shots where the shark should be positioned directly in the centre to minimize distortion and more accurately display the shark’s proportions.

Juvenile Galapagos Shark

Strobe Use

Four tips for success

  1. Use at least two powerful wide angle strobes.
  2. Spread strobes apart as far as possible when particles are likely to be in the way.
  3. Angle your strobes in/out/up/down as needed.
  4. Use manual power settings to avoid blowing out white areas.

What are underwater strobes actually used for?

Strobes are used to add colour, brightness, and contrast to nearby objects. They are not used to brighten the background because strobes have a very short range. Furthermore, they will do absolutely nothing to the brightness of the blue water, other than to light up any nearby suspended particles (backscatter).

Correct background exposure is achieved by adjusting your camera settings until the right amount of light is allowed to enter the camera, and by adjusting the digital camera sensor’s sensitivity (ISO).

You do not have to use strobes but if you rely on natural light, the deeper you go, the more monochrome your images will look. In this oceanic whitetip image, even though the more distant sharks are shallower, they are completely monochromatic because the strobe light doesn’t reach them.

Whether you shoot with a $200 or $20,000 system a strobe or two will make a world of difference.

Oceanic Whitetip Sharks

Convinced? So what type of strobes do you need to shoot sharks?

POWERFUL WIDE ANGLE ONES! Strobes come with different angles of coverage and different maximum outputs.

The concept is pretty simple. In order to throw light at your subject, the strobe has to take energy from the battery pack and force it across a wire or network of wires. The wires discharge some of this energy in the form of heat and light. There is only so much energy available in the batteries and the light is absorbed very quickly by the water so the best way to throw the light as far as possible is to make the beam very narrow.

That’s not such a good thing for shark photographers. Sharks are big subjects and we need the light from the strobe to be released at a wide enough angle to illuminate the whole animal. So when choosing a strobe you need to look at the angle of coverage. Ideally it should be at least 100º wide, but a wide beam is less concentrated so your strobes need to be as powerful as possible.

Beyond 2m or so, most of the light thrown by the strobes has been absorbed by the water. Beyond that, you may still be able to vaguely illuminate your subject but you will lose the rich colours that you get by being closer. Unfortunately, most sharks don’t like coming particularly close and they are notoriously camera shy, so this is another reason your strobes need to be extremely powerful.

I haven’t used every strobe out there but there are a few models that end up in many shark photographers dive bags. The older generation of wide angle strobes were painfully heavy and unwieldy but some of the newer compact wide angle strobes pack an amazing punch for their small size. Two of the most widely used are Inon’s Z330, and Sea And Seas Ys-d3.

Lemon Shark

Two strobes are better than one

The problem with using one strobe is that the light that it puts out leaves hard shadows where it cannot reach. If you are using a very low setting it may not be too distracting but if your strobe is the main source of illumination of your subject then you need to find a way to mitigate the shadows. The way to do this is to position two strobes shining on the subject from different directions. There may still be an area where neither strobe can reach, but the area will be much smaller.

If you only have one strobe bulkhead on your camera housing, as long as your strobe is compatible with fibre optic cables, you can usually fire the second one as a slave.

Note the hard shadows on the left side of this blackmouth catshark; due to a strobe misfire.

Blackmouth Catshark

Strobe Position

Clearly, strobes are indispensable for adding colour and contrast. Unfortunately, as well as lighting up the subject, they also illuminate any suspended matter in the water column such as sand and other detritus that some shooters jokingly refer to as  ‘sea snot’ and the rest of us call ‘backscatter’.
How do you eliminate back-scatter? You cant, but you can do your best to minimize it. Each strobe produces a cone of light. So, by positioning your strobes as far apart as possible, you create two cones of light that overlap (hopefully) where they hit the subject. The area of water between the camera and the shark is not lit by the light cones so the backscatter remains virtually invisible. Any peripheral strobe light that hits the side of the suspended particles (rather than the front) is less likely to bounce back towards the camera.

Macro photographers (strange folk that like shooting really small stuff that doesn’t look anything like a shark or ray) are able to shoot with their strobes much closer together because the distance between the camera and subject is very small so there isn’t much backscatter. Conversely, on dives where suspended particulate is particularly bad, wide angle shooters position their strobes as wide as physically possible. Essentially, the more distant the subject, the wider your strobes need to be.
In order to do this, shark photographers utilize the longest strobe arms they can find, but this comes at a cost. Wide strobes are unwieldy and they create a lot of drag. Also, the further they are from your camera, the more they tend to sag and slip out of position, so you also need strong clamps aka ‘knuckles’. Some shooters use buoyancy arms that double as floats to counteract the downward force of the strobes.

When your subject gets closer, you need to shorten the distance between your strobes so that you don’t end up with an unlit area in the centre of the image. This is easily achieved by using strobe arms that are hinged in the centre, but you still need to remember to pull them in.

Great hammerhead and diver.

More on positioning

Should your strobes point inwards, outwards, upwards, downwards, or directly forward?

INWARD: Best when the shark is practically touching your camera and any other position will result in a dark spot in the middle of the image.

OUTWARD: Best when the viz is so bad that just having wide strobes still lights up too much backscatter near the edges of the frame.

UPWARDS: Best when you want to light the belly of the shark for contrasty shops against the sun.

DOWNWARDS: Best when shooting anglesharks, wobbegongs, or rays on the sand. Position your strobes higher than normal and then point them downwards.

Broadnose Sevengill Shark

TTL or Manual Strobe Settings?

You have a choice of setting your strobe power output manually, or relying on your camera’s sensor to measure the light needed (based on the distance to the subject) and then automatically set the strobe power output. The latter is called TTL.

TTL compatible strobes will do a lot of the exposure work for you. They work by measuring the amount of light that the camera thinks it needs to correctly expose the content in front of it. The trouble with using TTL in a wide angle setting, is there can be a vast range of light levels that the camera is not able to compensate for. It will also average the ambient light that it senses so unless the shark is filling the frame your camera might not get it right.For example, if the sun is behind the subject, the camera may decide that there is plenty of available light so a high strobe output is not needed. In reality, when shooting backlit sharks, an extremely high strobe output is needed to overcome the ambient light and still make the shark pop, unless of course you are intentionally shooting silhouettes.

Manual strobe settings are also important when lighting a predominantly dark shark with a white belly. TTL will average the subject area and probably blow out the white areas.

Leopard Shark

Exposure

Caribbean Reef Shark

Six tips for success

  1. Choose the right ISO for the dive.
  2. Try to use high F-stops to increase your depth of field
  3. Try to use fast shutter speeds to avoid blurry sharks
  4. Train your light meter on a neutral part of the background
  5. Set your Digital SLR on RAW if you have that option
  6. If you cant review your images, bracket

 

Exposure is an equation with three variables. Stay with me, it’s really not that tricky. All you are trying to accomplish is to get the right amount of light to hit the sensor.

The three factors that influence exposure are:

ISO

The term ISO refers to the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor. The higher you set the ISO, the less light it needs to record a bright image. Depending on your digital camera, the ISO range may run from 50 (which is extremely ‘insensitive’ or slow) to ISO 6400 or even higher which is lightning fast. Taking fast pictures means that your images will be sharper with less or no motion blur. So why would anyone use a slow ISO? Because fast ISOs produce grainy images; kind of like looking at a photograph printed on sandpaper.

Aperture

Aperture refers to the size of the hole that light enters through when the shutter is open. Aperture sizes are called F Stops. Small apertures are big F Stops and visa versa. For example a wide aperture might be F2.5 and a narrow aperture might be F29.
If you keep the aperture small (like a pin hole) the image will have a wide ‘depth of field’ i.e. everything will be in focus. If you make the aperture bigger, the depth of field will be narrower; potentially only the subject will be in focus. A small aperture is great if you’re shooting in really bright conditions. Otherwise that tiny hole wont let in enough light and your pictures will be too dark.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed refers to the length of time that the shutter is kept open. Its probably the simplest concept to wrap your head around as long as you understand fractions. Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second, with 1/40th being really slow for underwater work, and 1/1000th being faster that you’ll probably ever use.
A fast shutter speed lets in very little light and a slow shutter speed lets in much more. So why not crank it way down to 1/40th and have a really small aperture and keep everything in focus? Because it is too difficult to hold the camera steady for that long especially when you and your subject are swimming around.

Initially, that may seem like a lot of variables to consider but it condenses down to this: Correct exposure is a balancing act. You want to choose the slowest film speed possible, the smallest aperture possible, and the fastest shutter speed possible, while still allowing enough light into the camera to create a well lit image.

Most people set their ISO first, based on the amount of ambient light available. If you are shooting on a bright day in shallow water, an ISO of 100 would deliver nice un-grainy images. If it is early or late in the day, or if there is a lot of plankton that is lowering the ambient light levels, raise the ISO. Most modern DSLRs are not particularly noisy (another term for grainy) if you shoot up to ISO 800. Beyond that, it depends on the camera. If the light levels change, be prepared to adjust the ISO. Unlike the good ol’ days of film, ISO is now easy to change on the fly, so there is no reason to treat the ISO as ‘fixed’ for the entire dive.

Once you have chosen your starting point for your ISO, as a shark photographer your next priority should be your shutter speed. Different sharks exhibit different behaviors and swim at different speeds. Consequently, your shutter speed will largely depend on the species you’re shooting on that particular dive. For example, tigers move rather slowly and predictably (most of the time) so you can probably get away with a shutter speed of 1/100th of a second. Makos move erratically and swim extremely fast, so you will need a much faster shutter speed to capture a crisp image.
It would be nice if you could shoot makos at 1/1000th of a second but unfortunately, most underwater strobes won’t work at shutter speeds great than 1/250th or 1/320th. So read your strobe manual and find out what its maximum ‘sinc speed’ is. If you’re not using strobes, you can shoot as fast as you like but your images will lack contrast.

Once your ISO and Shutter speed are set, your final variable to set is your aperture. This is where you need to balance your three variables. Remember, you always want about the same amount of light landing on the sensor so that your images are not too bright and not too dark.
If you have a low ISO and fast shutter speed, you are not letting much light in so you will need a wide aperture. Conversely, If you have a high ISO and a slow shutter speed you can probably use a smaller aperture.

OK, that’s all well and good but it doesn’t give you any real settings advice does it? That’s because the lighting conditions on each dive are completely different. That’s the whole reason for all those possible combinations; so that you can take advantage of different situations. What I can do is show you bunch of images and tell you what I set the camera to in each case and why. That should give you a vague starting point. Remember that you’re trying to expose the background correctly with the available ambient light. This has nothing to do with making the colors show up on your subject which is done using your strobes.

ISO 400
Aperture F8
Shutter speed 1/100th

This Spiny dogfish picture was taken in the dark and cloudy waters of British Columbia. Even though the film speed is high, the shutter speed fairly slow (for a quick shark) and the aperture reasonably wide, the background is still a little under exposed.

Because the dogfish was moving quite fast I would have liked to increase the shutter speed to get a crisper image but that would have given me an even darker background.

ISO 200
Aperture F7.1
Shutter Speed 1/80th

Shooting a slow moving shark this close to the surface on a sunny day, I could easily have shot using ISO 100 or even lower to obtain smooth images but my old Nikon D100 didn’t offer that setting. Now I shoot with a D2X which shoots as low as 100. The newer generations shoot with virtually no noise right up to 1600 ISO so the relationship between noise and film speed (ISO) is becoming redundant.

ISO 100
Aperture F11
Shutter Speed 1/80th

Nice bright conditions at the surface allowed me to shoot on my slowest film speed, but I still needed a fairly slow shutter speed to gather enough light for the water to expose properly. My strobes were set on high so that the shark would not be just a silhouette against the brighter surface.

ISO 200
Aperture F11
Shutter Speed 1/100th

This ghost shark was shot in 110ft in the semi darkness. If it had been in mid water the background would have appeared completely black but its proximity to the reef allowed me to expose the background nicely with my strobes. When you rely on strobes alone, shutter speed can be cranked up as high as the strobes can work with.

Maybe that gives you a feel for some approximate settings but you don’t have to guess your exposures.

Lots of digital and film SLR’s come with built in light meters and you can buy separate ones for those that don’t. The technology is complicated but using one couldn’t be simpler. All you have to decide is which part of your image needs to be exposed correctly. If you are shooting a shark in the blue then you want a nice blue background and not a shark in the dark. So assuming you have an SLR with a menu, set it on manual and point it at an empty area near the shark. When you half depress the shutter button and look through the view finder you should see a gauge that tells you if your image will be under or over exposed. Often this is displayed as a rule with minus at one end and plus at the other. Now you can play with your aperture and shutter speed until the display indicates that you are on zero (half way along the rule). Now your water will be blue but only if you shoot in that direction. If you move around the light will be different and your settings need to change.

Note: your reading will get screwed up by the sun if you’re pointing straight at it so make sure you’re pointing at the most neutral area of the water with regards to brightness.

Ok now you should have your background exposure dialed in so all that you need to do is light your subject correctly to bring out the color. If you’re unsure how to do this go back to strobe use for a reminder.

Creative exposures

Like most aspects of photography you can break the rules and end up with some pretty cool results.

This Lemon shark image has a blown out background creating a sharp contrast with the shark. Its tricky to make this work because of the shark’s white belly. More often than not you will end up with a half visible shark, but if you’re shooting digital you can afford to play around and delete later.

The important thing is to light the shark well. A silhouette shot in water this shallow is more likely to end up looking like your strobe failed than an artistic attempt.

You want to over expose the background just enough to turn it almost white but not so much that it begins to flare. And, you need to crank up your strobe to expose the shark at the same level as the sky which probably means shooting on or close to full power. If your strobe isn’t powerful enough to match the background light then this shot won’t work.

Bracketing: What your internal light meter thinks is a good light level might not look so good when you download your pics. Also, they aren’t really designed to work underwater although it shouldn’t make that much difference. To make sure your exposures are correct you can take extra pictures of each shot that are 1 or 2 F-stops higher and lower than your light meter deems appropriate. This is called bracketing. There are obvious drawbacks to bracketing especially for shark shooters. Firstly, you’ll run out of film or memory space three times faster, and secondly, most sharks wont stop swimming to wait for you to adjust your F-stop.

I don’t do a lot of bracketing. I rely on my review screen that shows me a histogram of my digital image. It shows me if any areas of my picture are completely blown out. Be careful when using this as your reference because the back lighting on these little screens often make your images appear brighter than they really are. If you’re more or less on the money, a little tweak in Photoshop will help you get it looking just right.

If you are shooting in RAW (a file type available in all new DSLR cameras) the camera will gather more information than you can see just by reviewing the image. So, in photoshop you can bring out the hidden over or under exposed info until your image looks how you intended it to. There are limitations; you can’t turn a black picture into a brightly lit masterpiece but the RAW file capabilities will certainly help with minor adjustments.

Many pro shooters still bracket believing that it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Shooting sharks at night

Photographing sharks at night presents a number of unique challenges which are compounded by the the apprehension that many divers feel when entering pitch black water with hungry sharks. This is not an irrational fear because lots of shark species hunt after dark which may lead to them acting more aggressively around the bait, but the fact that it is dark does not automatically mean that they will become rabid eating machines. Unless there is enough stimulus to bring about a feeding frenzy the sharks will still exercise caution and do their best to avoid divers. Having said that a safety diver watching your back while you focus your entire attention through the lens is not a bad idea.

The first challenge to the shark photographer is how to track the sharks movements with no ambient light source. This is done by using either an independent modeling light or one built into the cameras external strobe units. Not only does this help the photographer locate the sharks in the darkness but if trained in the same direction as the lens, it creates enough light for the camera to focus. Without sufficient light the lens will hunt continuously for a surface with enough illumination to register distance. When using strobes with built in modeling lights it is tempting to angle the strobes so that the light beams cross somewhere in front of the camera but if visibility is questionable it is wise to angle the strobes slightly away from the middle to avoid backscatter.

The next hurdle is creating enough light behind the camera to allow the photographer to see what controls he/she is adjusting. This is best accomplished by a small mask strap light or helmet light. Another benefit of having this secondary light source is that it gives the diver the chance to glance around quickly (without dragging the camera) in order to check for sharks approaching from all directions.

Correctly exposing the sharks white belly against the deeply contrasting background takes a bit of practice unless you’re shooting TTL. Even then unless the shark is filling the frame the camera is liable to overcompensate for the surrounding darkness and overexpose the shark.

If everything comes together as it did while diving with these Lemon Sharks, the resulting images will have a much more dramatic contrast than the same images taken during the day.

Four tips for success

  • Stay calm but have someone watch your back.
  • Use strobes with modeling lights to focus correctly on the moving sharks
  • Use a secondary light on your mask or helmet
  • Be aware that TTL may overexpose the sharks

Photographing rays on sand

Sand can be a frustrating element in underwater photography especially in shark and ray photography. It is usually Brighter and more reflective than the subject so it over exposes easily (for this reason it also throws off TTL settings), it is easily stirred up by divers or wave action and resettles painfully slowly. It also presents a bland background to the viewer that renders the majority of stingray images unappealing except for their identification value.

So what can you do about the exposure problems? …not much. Any time you’re faced with a lighter background than your subject you face difficulties. You want to draw the eye towards the subject but it naturally concentrates on the brightest area. When your background is bright because you are shooting up towards the sun you have a couple of choices; you can resign yourself to shooting an attractive silhouette of a shark with a sun splash behind it, or you can use a really bright flash to expose the animal correctly. The background will not over expose because although it is bright your flash has no effect on it. If shooting a ray laying on the sand like the one above its not so simple. In trying to expose the detail on the ray correctly you are likely to end up with a blown out background. The reason this eagle ray looks ok is that it is also light colored so the problems were minimized. Below is an example of a much darker round stingray that is partly lost in shadow because the sand was so bright that I couldn’t use any more flash without overexposing it.

Six tips for success

  1. Shoot horizontally if you can and point your strobes slightly upward.
  2. Do whatever you can to improve your buoyancy.
  3. Get a poker to prop yourself up on to avoid stirring up the sand.
  4. Try to put something interesting in the background.
  5. Approach stingrays slowly from the side.
  6. Avoid eye contact and threatening motions.

In this common eagle ray image the sand is unusually dark which makes it much easier to expose the subject correctly.

The best defense against this is to get as low as possible and shoot almost horizontally while angling your strobes slightly upward so that they light up the ray fairly well But cast minimal light on the sand. This also tends to create a more dramatic image than if you shoot the ray from above. Unfortunately this brings us to the second problem.

Siltation

There isn’t much you can do about the surge kicking up sand but there are ways to minimize your own impact on the visibility. For starters, you need impeccable buoyancy skills. Bouncing across a sand flat in pursuit of a petrified stingray is not going to help you get that winning shot. Yes, its obvious but there’s more to it than meets the eye. Here are some of the specific skills you should possess when shooting above sand or silt (or in any underwater environment). It will potentially improve your results if you can:

  • Remain completely horizontal in the water column without holding on to anything (with or without your camera and with your camera in different positions)
  • Make vertical adjustments just using the air in your lungs (you can even do this when diving with a rebreather if you try hard – even though they say you cant).
  • Swim using a frog kick rather than a scissor kick.
  • Swim backwards without using you hands (this one is really tough!)

The only way to get good at these skills is to practice them. When you first try to frog kick it isn’t that hard (a bit like doing breast stroke when swimming on the surface) but its tiring and frustrating to have to swim along like that for long distances until you get used to it. After a while however, you’ll wonder why you ever finned any other way. It is physically impossible to swim along scissor kicking 12 inches above the sand without creating a sandstorm. Repeat the same route while carefully frog kicking and you wont move a single grain. That’s why cave divers use this kick – because if they silt up the cave they wont just ruin the picture, they may never find their way out. The same goes for the other skills; practice them and they will serve you well when that shot of a lifetime comes along.

Become a human tripod

Settling next to a ray in the sand can ruin the shot you’re trying to get but its tough to hover on the spot long enough to compose images without drifting out of position. It makes total sense to let your fins touch lightly on the sand 6ft back where they wont silt things up. Now if you breathe out and sink to the seabed whoosh. A fine blanket of sand puffs into the water column creating that irritating snowstorm look. Some photographers avoid this by bringing along a poker to rest on that has such a small surface area that it doesn’t disturb anything. It can be as elaborate as a custom machined stainless steel underwater photographers resting pointer or as simple as an old screwdriver as long as it does the job.

Composition

In my experience, many stingrays tend to hang out quite close to the reef. This makes sense as a lot of them eat reef creatures that don’t venture too far from home. So if you have the option try to put the reef behind the ray. Breaking up the background with a bit of coral will make all the difference to the mood of the image.

Spooking the subject

Stingrays are not happy when approached from above and there is a good reason for this. They are a staple food of a variety of sharks including hammerheads which swim over them and pin them to the sand. Therefore they often bolt if you hover menacingly over them. The best way to approach a resting ray is to creep up as low as possible. Do not head straight at the ray and avoid eye contact (remember that your camera and strobes look like huge eyes too). If it starts to twitch its pectoral fins either stop and drop to the sand or veer off a little as if you didn’t see it. Now while the ray is deciding whether you are a threat or not you can play with your camera (still not looking at the ray) and set up your exposure. Maybe fire a test shot at the sand near the ray to get it used to the flash and to see if your strobe settings are blowing out the sand. Now you can close in a little and casually aim more towards the stingray. I’ve played this game many times and it doesn’t always work but with a lot of patience you can sometimes convince a ray that you either don’t see it or that you are not a threat. If it works you can turn a 10 second chase and shoot session into a 10 minute composition opportunity.

Getting close

READ THIS FIRST

Following are some tips (they are not recommendations!) for encouraging sharks to overcome their natural shyness of humans. Keep in mind that any action that you take in order to get closer to these animals also puts you further into harms way. A shark can lunge much faster than you can parry so when you get within arms length of a hungry reef shark you are effectively defenseless if it decides to attack.

There are rare occasions when for no apparent reason a shark will persistently make close passes to the delight of underwater photographers. More commonly however, getting near enough to a shark to get a crisp shot with some nice skin tones in it is an exercise in frustration unless you have some kind of attractant. Chum is the obvious stimulus to encourage the sharks into the general area but sometimes even when there is bait in the water, the sharks refuse to approach the photographers, preferring to skulk at the edge of visibility until the divers leave. You can’t blame the sharks for this, they are naturally cautious creatures and you don’t reach the top of the food chain by taking unnecessary risks. If you’re patient and calm the sharks will sense it and feeling less threatened they will most likely come closer. If you’re nervous and jumpy you probably shouldn’t be trying to get closer in the first place.

Five tips for success

Photographing sharks is fundamentally the same as photographing anything else underwater. A submersible camera and a means of breathing are all that you really need. Having said that, there are a number of things you can do before you go shark diving to improve your chances of getting the shot but remember the warning about getting too close to the action!

  1. Avoid bubbles – use a snorkel or a rebreather
  2. Wear brighter gear – but remember why they call it yum yum yellow.
  3. Carry some bait – this is asking for trouble
  4. Photograph the parade – Get the feeder to lead the sharks to you
  5. Try bottling – sounds like a fish being eaten but doesn’t always work

Trying to approach a tiger shark this closely is not always easy

Bubble-phobic sharks

Picture this: you’re positioned unobtrusively behind a coral head. A large Tiger Shark is nonchalantly ambling towards you looking like a striped reef god. Its muscles ripple as it slips between some fan corals in its path. It is almost within range of your strobes. Your lungs begin to burn and unable to hold your breath any longer, you exhale a short burst of bubbles and watch in anguished silence as the shark turns on a dime and bolts for the liquid horizon. Perhaps its the unexpected movement or maybe its the intensity of the noise but for some reason sharks hate bubbles. Whether you’re diving with Whale Sharks or Wobbegongs, breathing hinders successful photography.

New divers are told to breathe continuously while under water. This is good advice but sooner or later most divers get to the stage where they are comfortable holding their breath for short periods in order to avoid spooking marine life. Photographers become masters at timing their breathing but there are ways to avoid this issue completely.

The low tech answer is to learn to free dive. There is more to free diving than simply seeing how deep you can fall without your lungs imploding. I have seen some incredible shark footage that I would not have thought possible until I found out that it was captured by free divers. The key is to weight yourself correctly and stay calm. Being able to slip under the waves for two or three minutes at a time in the company of sharks can result in some great encounters but there are drawbacks and dangers. If like me you are not an expert, you will spend most of your time snorkeling at the surface which attracts the kind of shark attention that you don’t need. Also, free divers are prone to shallow water oxygen blackouts caused by oxygen starvation and the build up of C02. Never free dive alone and consider taking some lessons from a qualified free diver.

The high tech answer is to dive using a rebreather unit that recycles each breath scrubbing away the C02 and injecting new oxygen as required. On a recent trip to North Carolina I took along my Buddy Inspiration Rebreather and I was glad that I did. While the other divers were on the wreck the Sandtiger Sharks refused to come close but as soon as the bubble blowers left I was inspected by numerous curious sharks resulting in some great images. Rebreathers are expensive toys but if you are serious about your shark photography you wont be disappointed.

You are what you wear

Shark Diving 101 looks at the safety precautions that you can take when entering the water with sharks. One of the key elements to avoiding exploratory bites is to wear dive gear that is neither bright nor reflective. By toning down your diving wardrobe, you will theoretically be left alone by the sharks and ultimately have a more enjoyable and rewarding experience (jeez, I sound like a PADI Instructor). That’s all well and good for spectators at a feed but from a photography stand point distance is usually the enemy.

To get around this, some photographers break with convention and purposely wear neon gear that they hope the sharks will take an interest in. If you’re prepared to go to this extreme to get close, then at least be sensible about which aspects of your kit you decide to brighten up. Wearing a loud wetsuit probably makes you more interesting to some sharks even if it scares the heck out of the other divers. Wearing white gloves against a black suit says “attack my hands – they’re wounded fish”. It’s your call but after photographing sharks for some time now, I am happy to patiently wait for a lucky shot while sporting my black wetsuit, with my black gloves on, and my custom black painted Aquatica camera housing in hand – you get the picture. The only compromise that I make is that I wear bright fins. I don’t mind if they get bitten in half as long as they don’t choke a shark in the process

I know of one videographer who has pushed this concept way beyond the bounds of sanity. He attaches old compact discs to his chest and shoulders to recreate the flickering patterns emitted by a school of fish. The fact that he does not move as fluidly as a school of healthy fish, adds to the attention this elicits.

Human behaviors

Thrash

Using jerky body movements is a double edged sword. If the sharks are getting worked up it will probably peek their interest but if they are already acting timidly it will more likely scare them away.

Become one with the bait

If carrying the bait around with you doesn’t seem like the smartest thing to do, don’t do it!

There is no denying that you will become the centre of attention but at what cost? Sooner or later a shark is going to pluck up the courage to make a dash at the bait and when it does, it might not simply be a matter of dropping the fish and swimming away. Other sharks may also get involved and if they get worked up enough you could easily get caught in the middle of a feeding frenzy.

I have put fish in my BC pockets, waved a carcass around, and spent the whole dive sitting on a bait crate without getting bitten but that doesn’t mean that it is a wise activity. The sharks may only be after the food but when their eyes are shut and they are being jostled by other sharks they will have a hard time telling where the fish stops and your arm starts.

Talk to the feeder

If you are attending a well organized shark feed where there is a feeder or dive master who hand feeds the sharks, it may be possible to arrange to have him or her lead the sharks past you in such a way that you can get some very close feeding shots.

Sometimes this is standard protocol when photographers are present and sometimes it requires a little persuading to convince the feeder that you are comfortable enough around sharks to act responsibly.

Remember that if the DM says no you should respect their decision. Usually there is a good reason e.g. it may be much harder to control the feed when divers are in positions that the resident sharks are not used to.

If you can arrange for this to happen, don’t waste the opportunity. Get as low as possible (usually divers are overweighted on shark feeds to keep them in position) and shoot a variety of compositions, some with the feeder in the shot and some with just the sharks. Generally the wider and closer you can shoot the more dramatic the shots will look.

Bottling

Bottling is a technique that some divers tell me they use to great effect to entice sharks to come and check them out. Personally, I have never been able to get it to work so maybe I’m doing it wrong but here is the technique as I understand it.

Take a bottle along on the dive hidden inside your bc. The best type would be a small ribbed plastic bottle e.g. a disposable 750ml water bottle. Discreetly take out the bottle and roll it between your palms with enough force to make it crackle. The resulting noise is supposed to mimic the sound of fish bones as they are being crunched between a sharks teeth. Before the sharks (theoretically) arrive from all directions to investigate, hide the bottle again so that they don’t catch on. You may need to get the pitch right by letting some water into the bottle.

I like this system for a few reasons. Firstly, it doesn’t involve killing and fish for bait. Secondly, you’re not actually feeding the sharks so there is no reason to think you are changing their behavior. And thirdly, you can carry a bottle with you just about anywhere. Its a shame I can’t get it to work.

Project Deep Shark

Objective

To build and deploy a remote submersible camera system capable of capturing high resolution images at a maximum depth of 2000 feet. The finished system must be extremely portable so that it can be manhandled easily into the water without the use of a lifting device.

The system will be employed in the search for deep water predators in an effort to capture unique images of these animals in their natural environment.

  1. Main housing
  2. Strobe housing (x2)
  3. Lo res camera housing
  4. Dome port
  5. Nikon digital SLR camera
  6. Nikon Strobe
  7. Strobe housing dome port
  8. Sled
  9. Bait station
  10. Topside monitoring station

Housings

Four independent housings will be constructed to house the critical components of the hi res system. The housings will be made of hi grade aluminum (6061) capable of withstanding 3000psi. This will allow a range extension down to a max depth of 6000ft if desired in the future without any major reworking.

Main Housing

A cylindrical design is well suited for this purpose as the round surface is the best shape to withstand the extreme pressures and the flat ends are the simplest way to mount the removable end cap and dome port. The camera itself will be mounted on a flat shelf inside the housing such that the lens lines up perfectly with the dome port without any noticeable chromatic aberration.

Strobe Housings

The twin Nikon Strobes are to be mounted in separate aluminum cylinders with domed acrylic end caps. The convex shape of the acrylic should help to widen the strobes’ angle of coverage.

Initially the system will be tested to determine whether wireless communication will work through the ports to fire the strobes remotely. If wireless communication proves to be unreliable, Seacon bulkheads can be installed to hardwire the strobes directly to the still camera.

Low Resolution Camera Housing

The monitoring camera (a tiny fisheye lens attached to a surface monitor) will be mounted in a separate cylindrical housing attached to the top of the main housing at an angle such that the topside photographer sees what the housed Nikon Camera sees but with a broader peripheral view so that images can be composed before the subject enters the field of view of the Nikon camera.

Sled

The sled will consist of an aluminum frame upon which the main housing and strobe housings can be secured. Forward of the main housing will be a bait station where appropriate bait can be attached to lure in the subject to be photographed. A bar will extend upwards and forwards from the rear of the housing so that a tether can be attached at a point which will keep the sled horizontal while being deployed.

Tether and Umbilical

A simple tether made of braided steel cable is to be connected to the sled by means of a shackle. An umbilical cable that controls the shutter release and transfers the image from the monitoring camera to the topside station will be secured at 10ft intervals to the braided cable. It is possible that the stainless cable may not be necessary if it is determined that there is a strong enough data cable available, i.e. one that is capable of supporting its own weight and that of the sled’s as it descends.

Winch System

Depending on the cumulative weight of the housings, sled and cable, the winch may require a motorized control or it may be able to be operated by hand. As the spool will contain the data cable as well as the braided cable, a special connector must be installed that can transfer the information from the rotating spool to the static line to the laptop.

Surface Control Station

In keeping with the simple nature of the project the surface station does not need to be particularly sophisticated. The only necessary controls are the remote trigger mechanism and the station’s monitoring capability. As well as these, the ability to record the activity witnessed by the low res video camera would be beneficial. Consequently the information will be channeled to a laptop capable of both tasks.

DSLR Camera

Although the ability to remotely control all settings on the submerged Nikon camera would be convenient it is not essential. The camera and strobes can be preset to make sure that the bait station is always perfectly in focus and appropriately lit. The camera settings will be pre-adjusted to facilitate the greatest depth of field so that the subject will remain in focus even when closer or further away than the optimum focal point.

Low Resolution Monitoring Camera

The monitoring camera must be sensitive enough to pick up activity at the bait station in very low light so that it is not necessary to attach a bright external light that will discourage sharks and other deep water predators from approaching. Although able to register an image in almost total darkness, the monitoring camera’s sensor plate must be robust enough to withstand the brightness of the flashes emitted from the strobes when the Nikon camera takes a picture.

Costs of components and lead time associated with the project

Prices are based on cost of raw materials and labor.

$2,000 Machining of 6061 grade aluminum housings (inc retainer rings)

$1,000 Machining of custom acrylic dome port

$300 Acrylic flat ports x 3

$1,050 Impulse bulkhead connectors x 7

$300 Strobe arms

$800 Nikon SB800 strobe units x 2

$200 Booster modem

$500 Laptop surface station

$200 Night vision camera

$200 2,000 ft braided steel cable

$500 2000 ft data cable

$300 Aluminum sled

$200 Cable Master

 

Unless sponsorship can be arranged, it is estimated that construction will take approximately one year to complete.