Be the champ! - Sharks 2
WE USUALLY ENCOUNTER sharks on the reef or out in the blue. The two situations throw up quite different photographic challenges and provide very different opportunities, so I plan to deal with them separately, this month and next.
The sharks we can encounter in open water are often the most famous and charismatic species and, if we can make the most of the opportunity, they are subjects that instantly endow our pictures with the elusive X-Factor, turning them into winners.
As a quick aside, it is nice to be writing about shark photography when, for once, there is some good news on shark conservation. Just before Christmas, shark-finning was finally outlawed in European waters.
There is a long way to go to ensure that sharks have a bright future, but I can’t help feeling positive that an important corner has been turned, and public opinion is finally on our side.
I AM NOT giving away a big secret by revealing that most stunning shark shots are taken on dedicated shark-diving trips. In the first instalment of Be The Champ!, I said that the crucial step all aspiring underwater photographers must take is changing from just taking photos while you dive, to diving for our pictures.
It follows that if you want high-quality shark photos, you must join shark-photography trips.
These give the repeated opportunities needed for great images. Fortunately, you don’t need to look far in this issue of DIVER to get 20 of the best ideas.
Contrary to popular reputation, sharks are normally cautious, and it is rare that they will hang around posing right at the end of our lenses. So we often need to modify our technique.
We rarely want a fisheye, and a wide-angle zoom or mid-range lens will often give the best results.
A more distant subject means that we should also push our flashguns out wide on long arms to minimise backscatter, and we need to open up our camera’s aperture and increase our shutter speed to help our flashes carry to the subject, while still balancing them with the ambient light.
On some occasions we may use bait or chum to attract sharks into underwater photographic range.
Some divers and photographers don’t agree with attracting sharks with the scent of a meal.
I am not here to change your mind.
I think we should all take only the types of underwater photos we are happy taking, but I will share my opinion.
I am happy to chum for sharks when working with experienced and responsible operators. A few sensible prerequisites include: a feeding site away from normal dive-sites, the right species of shark, and a low quantity of food to be used to attract rather than to really feed.
Also, many of the countries with the strongest shark populations (where they are properly protected from fishing) are the ones that have turned their sharks into valuable living commodities by running baited shark dives.
GREAT WHITE SHARK – even the name is exciting, before we make any images! It is a species that we usually photograph from inside a cage.
Diving in a cage is a unique experience and has many positives for photography, even if cageless diving tends to grab the headlines.
First, the bait is usually near the cage, so here you have the best chance of a close pass.
More importantly, in the security of the cage you can focus on your photography. When you free-swim with big sharks, the advice is never to get stuck in your camera, because you need to keep an eye out at all times.
The limitations of the cage are a restricted angle of view and also restricted manoeuvrability, although it is more common these days to find operators willing to have cages at different depths to allow a variety of shots to be made.
It is much easier to move a camera around in a cage without flashguns, but use them to fill shadows on the sharks if the visibility is good enough.
I BANG ON about backgrounds in this column almost as much as John Bantin mentions his book on Facebook! Perhaps I should rename the column “Get The Background!”.
But my reason for sounding like a stuck record is that standards in underwater photography are now so high that everyone has a great subject. We must capture that great subject in a great frame.
Backgrounds have become the great differentiator, the winning ingredient.
Photographing in open water doesn’t give many options for backgrounds. The bare minimum we should aim for is a pleasing blue, free from distractions like a buddy’s fin sticking into the corner of the frame! But the basics are not going to set judges’ pulses racing.
Including the surface improves matters, bringing interesting textures, possibly reflections and giving a three-dimensional depth to the image.
If it is sunny and calm, we can incorporate the graphic arc of Snell’s Window. If the sharks come right to the surface, we can even try a split level.
Sharks look great coming out of the sun. The strong contrast adds a drama to our image that is well-suited to the subject. They are photos that work both with flash fill and without – sharks always look great as silhouettes, such as the whale shark last month.
Key to getting a shark in front of the sun is not to race about trying to force it. Instead, note where the sun is and then look for a shark coming in from that direction. Then you only need to move slightly left or right and wait to have it lined up perfectly.
Expose for the blue of the surface and take the shot as the shark blocks the sun from view, which not only looks dramatic, but also helps to manage the exposure by hiding the brightest ball of the sun, and letting you catch the rays spilling round the sides. Great subject, great background!
Sharks are timid. The less you move, the slower you breathe, the more chance you have of a close pass. Safety must always come before photos. If it is a feeding dive, ensure that you know the rules, and follow instructions under water.
Oceanic whitetip sharks need patience and planning. Often encounters come when safety-stopping under the boat, so save some air. The best passes always come when the number of divers in the water dwindles as people run out of air or nerve.
In a cage you are unlikely to be alone and everyone will soon figure out the best spot. You can get a headstart by noting the current before you get in. Sharks usually swim into the current to the bait (following the scent), so aim for the downstream corner of the cage and you should beat others to the best spot.