BE THE CHAMP! - Turtles
THREE THOUSAND, THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY-NINE logged dives ago, I was lucky enough to be in South Male Atoll in the Maldives. I hadn’t yet done my GCSEs, but my mind was far more focused on other exams – my diving certification.
Although a fair few years have passed, I can remember so many details of those first few dives. Those early underwater experiences are so intense for all divers, overloading our senses with new sensations, that they leave us all with indelible memories, whether you saw whale sharks or the Canadian pondweed in Stoney Cove.
My highlight was spending my safety stop watching a hawksbill turtle, gently swimming up the drop-off. I remember being so excited after the dive, completely in awe of this amazing marine reptile.
If, like me, you dive regularly in the tropics, you may have seen so many turtles that you’ve started to take them for granted. This month’s column is here to redress the balance. I hope it helps you to capture winning shots to celebrate these remarkable creatures, which have been in the oceans since before the times of T Rex.
SEVEN SPECIES OF TURTLES live in the seas, but two are by far the most commonly encountered around coral reefs. Hawksbills are the definite reef turtle, feeding on sponges and soft corals. Although they are classed as critically endangered (a level more severe than tigers) we’re fortunate to be able to encounter them regularly, on reefs from the Caribbean and right across the Indo-Pacific.
Green turtles are also found on reefs, but not everywhere. They feed on seagrass and use reefs as places to sleep and, in certain areas, to breed.
There are many well-known spots for seeing lots of greens: Sipadan Island in Malaysia, Tulum in Mexico, Marsa Alam in Egypt, Kuredu in the Maldives and Tenerife in the Canaries, to name a few.
I will cover the two species separately because they actually offer different photographic opportunities. For this reason, it is well worth learning to tell them apart, because for one thing it will save you waiting for a vegetarian green to start munching on colourful reef invertebrates!
But before getting into the photographic individualities, I want to pass on the golden rule of snapping turtles: when you see a turtle, turn your strobes down!
Let me explain why. We don't usually jump into the water expecting to shoot turtles. We are typically shooting wide-angle scenics when we spot a shelled friend. This is why, time and again, I see photos of turtles completely blown out around the face.
The light-coloured faces, chests and flippers of turtles are a lot more reflective than the reef. And if we don’t change our settings we will over-expose them. So if you take nothing else away from this article, simply remember that when you see a turtle, turn your strobes down (not off, just down a bit).
HOWEVER, THE FIRST photographic challenge is to get into shooting range. Fortunately, most turtles are easy to approach, as long as we play by the rules.
It is most crucial not to race up to them. Instead we should close the distance slowly, swimming parallel to them and slowly zigzagging closer.
I have also found that if we can minimise eye contact, by never looking straight at them during this approach phase, we will be much more likely to get close. You may laugh, but try it!
Once we’ve got close, the rules change. In my experience turtles have a circle of trust. It takes a stealthy approach to get in, but once we’re up close they usually stay relaxed whatever we do.
Hawksbills feed on the reef, and capturing this behaviour will definitely help our images stand out. Also, turtles tend not to move much when they’re munching, so there is actually time to get our lighting and settings correct.
In the Caribbean they mainly chomp on sponges, and in the Indo-Pacific they feast more on soft corals. Both add to our pictures, because they are very colourful and, as turtles are messy eaters, they usually attract dining partners such as angelfish and wrasse keen to pick up the scraps. These are scenes that provide lots of photographic options.
The pose is important, and we need the feeding to be demonstrative for the images to work. The best shots capture the decisive moment when the beak is wide open, or there is a big chunk of food sticking out!
Hawksbills also eat jellyfish, and from time to time this makes them very interested in our dome-ports!
This provides some excellent photo opportunities with the turtle in the blue, looking straight into the lens and sometimes even with the mouth agape.
Try to position yourself at the edge of the group, so that you can get backgrounds without other divers, and don’t be afraid to shoot from the hip when the action is happening fast.
GREEN TURTLES EAT SEAGRASS, which is an interesting behaviour to capture, but feeding shots are not as good as those from hawksbills, which have more colourful food and are much more animated when they feed. We should focus on other shots with greens.
Greens have a more characterful face, and portraits are easy to take when they are resting on the reef.
The coral reef is also a good place for greens to get a clean, with algae-eating fish such as surgeonfish and blennies picking at their shells. The best location for these shots is Hawaii, where brilliant yellow tangs act as cleaners.
But, arguably, the classic image of a green turtle is one that breaks many of the rules of portraiture, because it is shot from behind.
The most famous version of this image was taken by Malcolm Hey in the 1990s and was a winner in the Wildlife Photographer contest.
At the time it was up in just about every tube station in London! Green turtles, particularly younger individuals, have beautifully patterned shells, so shooting them from above and behind, against the deep blue water of the drop-off, is a must for everyone’s portfolio.
There is one golden rule in turtle photography – turn your strobes down when you see one. Turtles are much more reflective than reef scenery, so if we have been shooting the latter and spot one, our first thought should be “don’t overexpose!” Many turtle photos suffer from burn-out.
Often we can get very close to turtles, particularly when they are feeding or when they are trying to eat our dome-port!
Remember to pull your strobes in to light the face of the turtle when they are this close to our wide-angle lens. Also, drop the strobe power down even more.
Turtles breathe air like us, so don’t hassle them when they head up from the reef after feeding or sleeping. When I spot one breathing, I will position myself directly underneath, and set my exposure for the surface.
Once they dive, they usually drop vertically and usually come straight past my lens.