I have always been fascinated with great white sharks. I have dived with them for several years and seen and taken many images of them. After a while, the images start to look similar and it’s hard to find unique ones. I have been fascinated by over-under (split) images as well, but they can be very difficult to do well unless conditions are just right. Being a person who loves challenges, the question was, can I take a great over-under image of a great white?
Planning, Preparation and Patience
You can’t just jump in the water at the surface with a great white shark like a normal over-under subject. The sharks can be rather unpredictable at the surface—that’s why most people use cages after all.
You can’t float and wait to shoot an image of a great white floating on top of the ocean. And if you’re inside a shark cage, you are likely submerged so you cannot take an over-under image that way either. Thus, the only way I figured you can do it is sitting at the edge of the cage or, depending on the design of the cage, standing from within the cage hanging over the top.
I recommend using a large camera and housing, not because it is any more effective in taking high-quality images, but the bulk will provide some sort of physical protection if needed. Also, don’t expect your camera dome (at least 9 inches) to come home scratch free. I personally use a glass dome with anti-glare coating—with glass it takes a large scratch or dent to cause damage.
This is the preferred method for safety reasons, but I normally don’t shoot this way because divers are usually in the cage below and you are in their way and/or many cages aren’t built this way
A great white shark approaches from the distance in one of my first attempts at an over-under image. I like this shot because of the reflections on the shark and the apparent thickness of the surface
Great White Split Shot Safety
There are definitely safety concerns when attempting to take these images—it cannot just be done by anyone. Parts of your body are exposed and you can be bitten while attempting to take a photo. In addition, most of the time, when you are sitting at the surface, you actually can’t see the shark approaching because of the glare from the surface caused by the sun and the coloration of the shark.
You should use a spotter to tell you which direction the shark is approaching from, or you risk injury. The higher the spotter is, the better. You will eventually see the shark approaching but only when it is within just a few feet of you, which may be too late especially if it is moving fast or comes from the bottom. Unless you have a special protective cage made at the surface (unfortunately I don’t), you have to sit on the edge, lean in and put your camera in the water, which also means your hands, part of your feet and other leg parts are exposed to the shark.
This is my normal position on top of the cage, but this is also the most dangerous position. There is not much room to move out of the way fast if something happens. Usually my foot is in the water and I lean in to place my camera halfway into the water
Also, you cannot just get up and move quickly out of the way if the shark tries to bite you. You have to use the camera as a barrier between the shark and you (and your body parts), so you have to be quick thinking and not panic in this situation.
If you attempt this type of activity, you should only do so with someone who is appropriately skilled and trained and can give you advice while you are attempting it. (To see an example of how dangerous this position can be, see this video clip.)
Here the great white is inches away from me. You can see how much clearer the image of the shark stands out in terms of detail and lighting
The shark is close by just after jumping out of the water, producing this eery result with just the head visible below the waves
Great White Shark Over-Under Techniques
It is important to think about the composition of images beforehand, especially since you’ll want something visually interesting above the waterline as well. This can be the dramatic cliffs of Isla Guadalupe, interesting cloud formations or the chance passing of a bird.
Under the water, the biggest concern is finding clear water amongst all of the chum. There are lots of tiny particulates floating in the water that can cause backscatter throughout the image. If you can’t find a clear area of water away from the chum, you will spend awhile removing backscatter in post-processing.
Usually, I use a higher ISO of around 300–400 and then I bring the aperture to around f/11 or up to f/18 to make sure as much of the image (both above and below the waterline) is in focus. The more landscape and clouds you have at the surface, the better.
The great white makes a splash with its tail and begins approaching me. The island, a dramatic sky and the seagull above adds to the composition
There’s lots of action in this image as the great white grabs the chum from the yellow buoy line (no hook is used to prevent injury), with reflections at the surface, the chum in the mouth, and the movement shown by the stream of bubbles from the tail
Lighting is the hardest to account for depending on the time of day. I prefer the sun at my back like most photographers. Having surface glare is not only a problem for the image, but also for safety, as it is harder to see the shark approaching facing into the sun.
Strobes are very important and you need to make sure they are in the water and submerged and pointed slightly out and away from the dome. That sounds obvious, but when you are excited and taking photos, you tend to forget to look as you move your rig around. If your rig is as heavy as mine is, it is very diffifult to get it in position fast, and pull it out fast if need be, and the strobes tend to move from the weight no matter how much you tighten your strobe arms.
Try to take the image when the shark is closest to the camera. The further away it is, the harder it is for your camera to achieve focus—and your strobes will have less of an impact eliminating underwater shadows.
It is also really important when you are shooting these over-unders that you trust your instincts as a photographer. You don’t have time to fine-tune settings or stare endlessly at the LCD to review your shots. It is possible to produce stunning split shots of great whites—but at the end of the day, it’s not worth risking your life or limbs. Safety first—art second.
It’s nice to get that iconic image of the shark’s fin out of the water while seeing the body as well