When seals want to play, photographing them can be as tricky as when they're elusive.
The seal can be a tricky subject for underwater photographers, says Elaine Whiteford - but there are a few shortcuts to success
SO THERE YOU ARE in the Farne Islands, standing on the boat, ready to take a giant stride and eyeing the hundreds of seals on the shore opposite, as well as the dozens of seal heads bobbing in and out of the water around you. Amid all this lot, surely you'll get one decent picture of a seal? They're big, there are lots of them - how can you go wrong? Quite easily, because seals are surprisingly tricky underwater subjects. The first thing you realise when you try to photograph seals is that they're tremendously quick. They dart about so speedily - up and down, side to side, round and round, in and out - that you may find that by the time you've pressed the shutter release all you have in frame is green water. The solution is to pan - to follow the seal with the camera and shoot as you go. Because camera and subject are moving at the same speed, you should get a sharp image (all other things, which we'll come to, being equal!). You could use a very fast shutter speed (around 1/500th of a second) but you will probably have to set a speed of more than 800 ISO to ensure decent exposure which, in turn, can degrade your image quality. Seals will often come very close to divers, providing great opportunities for close-ups. In fact, sometimes the problem is keeping them away from your camera and flashguns (I have several intimate shots of whiskers and noses pressed up against the housing port). However, to capture the grace of seals you need to get a whole body shot, which means having to use a wide-angle lens, or the widest setting on your camera. Aim to get as close to the seals as you can with your camera at its widest setting. The same rule that applies to photographing other, smaller, creatures, also applies to photographing seals - get as close as you can to reduce the water between you and the subject. You'll understand why this is so important if you try to zoom in on seals from a distance. Doing this will leave you with a murky shadow of a picture rather than one that is crisp and clear. Talking of murky, what about flash? I prefer not to use it when taking seals for two reasons: firstly, I don't like to flash it in their eyes or to risk spooking them; secondly, your average flash isn't powerful enough to illuminate the whole subject. So my advice for better seal encounters is to switch off your flashgun.
ONCE YOU'RE SET WITH YOUR CAMERA on wide angle and you've practised your panning, you need to contend with the conditions you will find yourself in when you dive with seals. Usually, you will be in less than 4m-deep kelp-infested water that has no other features to speak of. On the plus side, such shallow water means that, on a bright day, the level of penetrating light will be good, helping to bring out the detail of your shots. However, be careful when shooting upwards to avoid the sun knocking your exposure off and leaving you with a silhouette. The best advice is to try to have the sun behind you, so that your seals are illuminated from the front when you photograph them. The lack of contrast can also cause problems when shooting into the green. If you aren't close enough, your images will lack detail and definition that no amount of work in Photoshop will be able to remedy. A series of shots into the green can also lack variety, so think about trying to capture other elements in the shot. For example, capturing a seal on the seabed (if it will stay still for long enough) can provide a nice textured background of fine stone. Or try to get a bit of kelp or a fin in the shot, to provide some interest. I don't care what anyone says - you can never have too many pictures of a seal nibbling your fins! Seals are among the most interactive of all the wonderful marine creatures with which we come into contact. Encounters with them are a delight. Using a few easy techniques, you can make sure that your seal photographs provide you with mementoes to keep your memories alive, until the next time you're in the water with these amazing animals.