Be the champ! - Reef Sharks
REEF SHARKS ARE THE MOST commonly seen and snapped sharks, a factor that raises the photographic stakes, if we want our pictures to be the cream of the crop.
We get the chance to photograph reef sharks both in natural conditions and on shark feeds, and the two situations throw up very different challenges and opportunities.
Baited dives mean that the sharks will come close repeatedly. However, most shark-divers aren’t photographers, so they will usually just plonk the bait in the middle of a large sand patch, where they can keep an eye on everyone.
If possible, we should ask if some bait can be positioned out of sight behind an attractive coral head.
The result will be striking photos of reef sharks on the reef, pictures that are much more informative and attractive than a standard portrait.
Many photographers have laid claim to coming up with this idea, but the master was retired British underwater photographer Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch, whose 1980s shark book is filled with them.
SETTING UP THE SHOT is much easier if there is current running, because the sharks will, nine times out of 10, swim upcurrent, following the scent trail to the bait.
We should wait slightly upcurrent of the bait, take some test shots to get our lighting right and, soon enough, a shark will sweep in, over the bait and perfectly into our shot.
If working with a fisheye lens, it is important to remember how quickly the shark will go from being too small in the frame to no longer fitting, because of the steep perspective of this ultra-wide lens. It is best to shoot ever so slightly early for a balanced composition.
Verticals work particularly well, with the reef at the bottom and the shark at the top of the frame.
Non-feeding encounters often yield more interesting images, because the sharks are doing their own thing and not simply reacting to the bait.
Our big challenge is getting close enough for useable results.
We should look for nurse sharks or reef whitetips resting on the bottom, and approach quietly. Or, if sharks are circling, we should duck down behind a coral head on their path and wait for a close pass. Chasing sharks will only leave us snapping at their tails.
Lens choice is crucial for producing successful images of non-baited reef sharks, and the best option is a mid-range zoom. However, these lenses come with a warning and can lead us into temptation. If we try and use them instead of a dedicated wide-angle and macro lens, we expose them as jack-of-all-trades, master of none. The result will be second-rate images.
But if we use them to cover mid-range subjects, they will unlock a fresh range of perspectives in our images.
The other pitfall, when we use a zoom under water, is laziness, zooming in instead of getting as close as possible to the subject. Shooting through too much water is the surefire way to poor underwater pictures. We should always start with the zoom at its widest view, and zoom in only when we can’t get any closer to the subject.
On a full frame we need something covering about 28-70mm, while on a DX/APS-C camera my favourite lens is the Sigma 17-70mm, which focuses much closer than its competitors.
On M43 I use the Olympus 12-50mm; with compacts the standard lens is ideal.
PHOTOGRAPHY IS A MEDIUM of still images, yet the world we record is always on the move. Typically, we use flash and a fast shutter speed to stop motion, to freeze that moment in time and allow the viewer to examine the scene in far more detail than they could in reality.
But there is another way. Instead of freezing movement we can use a longer exposure and infuse our pictures with a fluidity that clearly shows the kinetic energy of the subject.
There is nothing new in this technique. Impressionist painter Claude Monet famously painted everything from crowds of people to fields of flowers, using blur to show movement.
Introducing movement blur through longer exposures is well suited to shark images because it creates dynamism within the image, and this works well with the exciting subject matter.
The technique was made famous by Tobi Bernhard’s movement-blurred grey reef shark, which was the overall winner of the BBC Wildlife Photographer contest back in 2001.
Producing an effective blurred photograph is a technical challenge and always takes some trial and error.
In short, it is something that we should attempt only when we know we are going to get multiple shark passes.
Key is mixing sharpness with blur.
A completely blurred photo will rarely work. We can mix blur and sharpness on land by panning at the same speed as the subject, which keeps the subject sharp but blurs the background.
Under water this doesn’t work, because without flash everything ends up blue, and even the supposedly sharp bits lack contrast. Instead we use a burst of flash to freeze the subject, during a long exposure.
On a bright, sunny, tropical day, the ambient light on a reef is usually too bright for long exposures, so this is a technique for low light, such as cloudy conditions. We need to achieve a shutter speed slower than 1/15th second.
An important, but often overlooked point is that the background needs to have quite a bit of detail in it in order to show blur. Open water and featureless sand are not suited to this technique – we need a reef.
In short, the key to memorable reef shark shots is given away by the name. Getting the shark is not enough; we need the reef to contribute to our image too.
On non-baited shark dives, the sharks are never going to come that close, so remember to place your flashes on long arms, positioned well away from the camera to minimise backscatter. Open the aperture to help with the flash exposure.
Use rear-curtain flash synch for blur with a stationary camera, so that when the shark moves across the frame it creates a blurry trail, before the flash freezes it in the image. Rear-curtain synch ensures that the sharp image is at the front of the blur, creating a sense of forward movement.
We can create more blur by panning with the shark. Standard front-curtain synch works best here, so that the sharp image is produced at the start of the exposure, exactly where you want it in the frame.
If you want the blur to extend behind the shark, simply pan faster than it is moving.