Be the champ - Big animals
TOP SPORTSMEN AND WOMEN are praised not just for ability in their chosen discipline, but for their talent of being aware of the bigger picture, right in the midst of battle.
Think of the footballer, who unlocks a defence with an exquisite pass, moments after beating his opposite number with pinpoint dribbling skill. Commentators call it having spare capacity.
There is no doubt that some sporting heroes have an innate talent for keeping a cool, calculating head in the heat of the moment, but it is also a skill that can be developed.
Key is being on top of the basic skills (which comes from preparation and practice), so that they take care of themselves almost instinctively, freeing up the spare capacity.
In many disciplines of underwater photography, such as the popular pursuits of reef wide angle and macro, we have time to think and consider our pictures. But when the action hots up, when we jump in with bigger creatures, the nature of the challenge changes.
We need the sharp reactions of a striker, but we also need that spare capacity, to make sure we go beyond an informational shot and truly make the most of a rare opportunity.
CREATING IMAGES that people want to look at is an aim that unites new and established photographers, a challenge more easily met when we have exciting subjects.
My plan for the next few issues of DIVER is to look in detail at making the most of those precious opportunities that come when photographing sharks.
I am starting this month with the largest fish in the sea: the whale shark and the basking shark.
The first and, often, the biggest hurdle is finding the blighters. Apparently Jacques Cousteau saw only two whale sharks in his whole life. And the best shots will always come from the best encounters, which means that we need more than a fleeting glimpse.
Fortunately, while the oceans aren’t as full of big creatures as they were, we do have a better idea of how to find them than in the pioneering frogman’s day.
We are also fortunate that the world’s best place to swim with basking sharks is around our own coasts, particular west Cornwall, the Isle of Man and the Hebrides in Scotland. The west coast of Ireland is another hotspot.
Whale sharks are far more common, and there are now many places around the world where they can be encountered predictably and in good numbers. The Maldives, the Seychelles, Sogod Bay in the Philippines, Cenderawasih Bay in Indonesia, Isla Mujeres [see Holidays: Mexico feature in this issue] and La Paz in Mexico, Ningaloo Reef in Australia, Belize and Utila in the Caribbean, Galapagos, Djibouti and Mozambique, to name a few. It makes you wonder how Cousteau missed them!
Both species are migratory, so do a bit of research to ensure that you catch peak season at your chosen location.
IN SEVERAL PLACES, using scuba, DPVs and/or flashguns is not allowed.
I am not going to argue about the rights and wrongs of these rules, but I am going to concentrate on advice for the typical way in which we shoot these leviathans – while snorkelling and photographing using just available light.
Snorkelling encounters tend to follow a similar pattern: spot the shark from the boat, overtake it and then jump in the water a couple of hundred metres ahead and wait for it to swim into view.
Although staying motionless in the water will usually reward us with the closest pass, we often need to work hard to get into the right position to stay still.
For many reasons, I always take off my flashguns – the sharks are right at the surface, so are naturally illuminated; they are too big to light up and they are feeding on particles in the water that can’t wait to become backscatter; and, finally, I want to be able to move fast.
The photography starts long before we get in, because the better we prepare the more “spare capacity” we’ll have under water, in the heat of the moment.
While I am still on the boat I will take a photo and make sure it is in focus and comes out. This tells me that I have a battery, memory card, no lens cap and the exposure and focus are working. We may get only one pass.
Unless we drop right in on the subject, we should continue this process as soon as we’re in. I always begin by wiping my hand across my dome or lens to get rid of any small bubbles.
Now we should check or set the focus. In clear water autofocus works well, but if there are particles or we plan to shoot against the light, a fixed focus is more reliable. I tend to focus on my fin and then lock it. With a wide angle there will be plenty of depth of field.
Then we should check exposure. Auto exposure works fine with a bit of underexposure dialled in, though I tend to shoot manual.
Shoot an empty blue (or green) water frame and adjust to the correct exposure. If the blue is right without the shark, it will be right with the shark.
We’re ready! Time to stick our head out and look for the shark. Check where people on the boat are pointing and look for signs of its snout and dorsal fin breaking the surface. Then swim into position, directly in its path, but without closing the distance.
THINK ABOUT THE LIGHT before the shark comes into view. If it’s sunny, note the direction from which the sun is shining; this is our only light source, and we need to use it well.
Just before the shark comes into view, I’ll usually take a shot to recheck my exposure. Then wait.
And suddenly there it is, the shark materialises out of the haze. Wow!
I always just watch it at this stage. There is no point trying to shoot, as it will just be a speck through my fisheye.
Now it’s in sight, it’s time to set up the light. Usually we want it on the subject, so at this point I will swim just slightly towards the sun. This is enough to make the shark alter course slightly – and steam past me with the sun lighting it up perfectly.
After all this preparation, the photos usually take care of themselves.
As underwater photographers it is rare that we have to think of a horizon, but shooting at the surface, we do. Keep the camera exactly horizontal or vertical so that the water surface is straight in the frame. Small errors can be corrected in Lightroom.
Shoot to the conditions. If it is glass-smooth, think about reflections or even split-level shots, but don’t waste opportunities trying to force a split image on an overcast and rough day.
If the water is full of particles, use your widest lens and get as close as possible.
Try both fisheye and rectilinear wide-angle lenses, as they give quite distinct looks with the big sharks.
The pointier shape of basking sharks often looks best with non-fisheye lenses, while the more naturally rotund whale sharks are often more suited to fisheyes.