You don’t have to go far from my home in NYC to find some amazing marine life. Sure, an hour-long subway ride out to Coney Island Aquarium gets you a glimpse of a shark or two. But why not go for the real thing?
Just two hours north of Manhattan, underwater photographers can get in the water with some of the most graceful sharks roaming the ocean—baby blues. Don’t let the “baby” fool you: Full grown, blue sharks (Prionace glauca) can grow up to 12 feet in length. And when you get 15 of them at dusk… that’s when things get really fun.
I had been out with Pelagic Expeditions of Rhode Island several times, coming away with gigabytes upon gigabytes of quality blue shark images. But when we planned a dusk and sunset expedition, I knew it would be an opportunity to come away with an entirely different image.
A lot of underwater photographers—and topside ones as well—do everything possible to avoid shooting into the sun. The harsh light tends to blow out the image and can make lighting all but impossible. I embrace this light—and I love shooting into it. I am not the only one: There’s a great article on shooting the sun and light rays by the talented Aaron Wong.
The idea was to use the dusk sun, also called the “golden hour,” to capture a blue shark cutting through light rays. After several hours of successfully photographing more than a dozen blue sharks, the Rhode Island sun finally prepared to set over the horizon. The hour before dusk, referred to as “golden hour,” produces dramatic, fiery light rays at the water’s surface.
As underwater photographers (and divers) we are conditioned to detest bad visibility; but some turbidity can actually help better bring out light rays. We were fortunate enough to have just enough particulates in the water to define the rays without detracting from the image. Also, the luck of the currents was at our side: The water’s flow positioned the boat so that the sharks were coming through with the light at their back.
The real trick to a sun burst shot is lighting. To really bring out the crispness of the rays, it’s necessary to crank up your shutter speed (I maxed out at 1/250th of a second) in order to “freeze” the light. I find it’s easiest to get the ambient light right first: I turned off my strobes and adjusted the aperture to balance out the exposure. I wanted to find an exposure that wasn’t blown out by the sunbeams, but also didn’t leave the rest of the negative space in complete darkness.
Once I found this balance (1/250th @ f/7.1 in this case) I flipped the strobes back on. Positioned underneath my housing, the strobes illuminated the dark underside of the shark, while golden ambient light lit the subject from above.
Getting the lighting right makes or breaks the shot in a situation like this: With so many sharks in increasingly dimming water, it’s much safer to “shoot from the hip” than keep your eye up to the viewfinder. The key was aiming the camera to partially crop out the sunburst so as not to detract from the shark or blow out the image.
With little time safely review images in the near dark water (not to mention the smell of burgers being grilled back aboard), I decided it was time to say nighty to the sharks. It was only back on the boat, with burger in one hand and camera housing in the other, that I saw my image idea turned into a reality.