Silky sharks at the surface captured with a perfect balance of artificial and ambient light
Big-animal fans rejoice, as this month we speak to one of the most experienced shark photographers in the industry, Andy Murch. Andy leads trips all over the world for his company Big Fish Expeditions and has taken images of more shark species than anyone else on the planet. He has co-authored books about diving with sharks, and his work regularly features in dive magazines, including many awesome front cover images.
Besides shooting iconic sharks such as great whites, tiger sharks and makos on a regular basis, Andy also seeks out encounters with lesser-known species in unfamiliar destinations such as Japan and Alaska, and his portfolio is brimming with elasmobranchs of all shapes, sizes, and colors. As you can see, Andy has a unique ability to visit any dive destinations and come back with special images of the highest standard. He has a great collection of over-unders in his portfolio, and regularly posts amazing images to social media of all kinds of epic marine life.
I was very excited when Andy agreed to take part in this feature, as I have had the pleasure of diving with him in the past and can personally attest to his skills as a trip leader and his passion for sharks and underwater photography. Anyone who likes to shoot wide-angle images of big animals should pay close attention to his advice, as it is rare to have someone with so much experience discussing important issues such as baited shark dives and shark conservation.
The banded wobbegong is just one of more than 180 species of sharks found off the coast of Australia
DPG: How did you first get into underwater photography?
As soon as I learned to dive in the mid-90s, I became fascinated with sharks and rays (aka elasmobranchs). I bought a point-and-shoot to record my encounters, but the shutter lag was too frustrating. I remember photographing the sand in front of fast swimming rays in the hope that the subject would swim into the frame before the shutter tripped. So, I quickly upgraded to a Nikon D100, the first of many DSLRs that I have owned over the years. In 2003, I built a shark identification website called Elasmodiver, now called www.sharksandrays.com. Finding new species to add to that database soon became an obsession. Once I had a large enough elasmobranch portfolio, I began submitting images and stories to commercial photography agencies and magazines.
A “buffable” acrylic dome is the best option for shooting over-unders of lemon sharks at Tiger Beach, Bahamas
DPG: What equipment do you use now?
Right now I have a pair of Nikon D500s. Most pro shooters seem to prefer full-frame cameras, but I like the tighter framing I get from the narrower format. Combined with the Tokina 10–17mm, twin Inon strobes, and a couple of sturdy Aquatica housings, I feel I have the perfect shark photography setup, ideal for shooting sharks yet versatile enough to capture anything from gigantic blue whales to tiny stingrays. Because sharks tend to investigate objects with their teeth and noses, I mostly use acrylic domes—not as sharp as glass but small scuffs and scratches can be buffed out between dives.
DPG: What is your favorite dive destination?
It’s a toss-up between South Africa and Japan. Both destinations have great variety and abundance of sharks—an obvious prerequisite—but these two spots also have exceptionally colorful, healthy reefs. False Bay [southwest South Africa] in particular has the most vibrant reefscapes I have ever seen.
A Japanese bullhead shark photographed on a Big Fish Expeditions “Shark Safari”
A dark shyshark hunting on the reef in South Africa
DPG: What was your most memorable underwater encounter?
I really enjoy watching shark behavior. One time, a mako thought I was trying to steal the mackerel that he was about to consume, so he swam up to me, stopped dead in the water, opened his jaw as wide as he could, and vibrated his teeth at me until he started to sink. Then he circled and did it again, and again. I’m sure he was trying to explain to me that I was no match for his impressive dentition and I should probably back off, but having a static mako with a gaping maw hovering right in front of my camera was a photographic opportunity I couldn’t pass up!
This shortfin mako repeatedly vibrated its teeth at me, a threat display intended to intimidate rather than an actual attempt to cause harm
DPG: Your company Big Fish Expeditions organizes trips to dive with apex predators all over the world. When did you decide to set up the company?
I started Big Fish Expeditions in 2009. At the time, it was a welcome addition my meager photography income, and a great way to share some of the world-class encounters with like-minded divers. What I didn’t realize at the beginning was how much fun it was going to be, traveling the world with a bunch of friends that loved sharks and other big animals as much as I did. Eleven years on, we now run trips to see all types of wild animals, but I still enjoy our special “Shark Safaris” the most—where we attempt to show our guests as many shark species as we can find in a particular region.
DPG: What is your favorite shark to dive with?
I’m a sucker for unusual species. Wobbegongs, angel sharks, horn sharks, and catsharks all make great photo subjects. I think catsharks are my absolute favorites because they are surprisingly nonchalant in the presence of divers. You can follow them along the reef while they forage for food or interact with one another. Of course, I love diving with bigger sharks too, but they tend to be baited encounters or distant flybys so you don’t get to see them just being sharks.
Banded houndsharks on a baited dive in Japan
A blue shark and its surface reflection in Baja
DPG: As someone who has probably dived with more sharks than anyone on the planet, what is your view on baited shark dives?
If done responsibly by experienced operators, I’m all for them. In fact, I’m kind of shocked by the amount of anti-baiting sentiment that I see on social media. One common objection is that baiting makes sharks dependent on humans, ultimately impacting their ability to fend for themselves. There is zero evidence to support this claim. It is true that sharks are opportunistic predators that will return to a spot where they have been fed before, but numerous studies have demonstrated that when a shark feed is over, the sharks immediately return to their normal behavior and have no trouble hunting on their own.
People also presume that once a shark associates scuba divers with food, they’ll start attacking other divers or beachgoers because they are expecting to get fed. Again, there is no evidence whatsoever to support this. A fed shark may occasionally swim up to other divers to see if they have any fish with them, but if they don’t have anything, the sharks don’t transform into killing machines that want to eat the divers instead—that’s a completely irrational idea driven by fear and ignorance.
Some people also point out that sharks gather in unnaturally high numbers where they are fed, and this upsets the balance of the reef. That is a fair point, but sharks don’t usually attack healthy fishes. If there are not enough sick fish for all of them to feed on, they simply hunt further afield. Then there’s the argument, “Its just common sense not to feed animals.” That sounds kind of wise but I’m still waiting for someone to explain why! Bears that have been fed become a nuisance, but sharks don’t. That’s why we can safely swim with them in the first place, but you can’t walk along with a wild bear.
Finally, some folks say they prefer to see sharks just doing what sharks do rather than seeing them in a contrived setting. Fair enough, but that isn’t a reason to ban baiting. Just pick the trips that appeal to you.
A great white shark split shot from the top of the cage on a baited shark dive in Guadalupe, Mexico
DPG: What special skills are needed to photograph big fish?
Big fish photography is essentially no different from other forms of nature photography, but when you’re shooting large animals that are close to the camera, your images will look better if you have beautiful blue water or a well-lit reef in the background, so the ability to balance ambient light and strobe light is especially important. Beyond that, you need a good understanding of the subject’s potential speed and its direction of approach, so that you can correctly set your shutter speed and consider the composition options that are available. All other variables (like depth of field) are secondary.
DPG: You normally spend a lot of time on the road. What are your future plans and projects once we are able to travel freely and go diving again?
I’m planning to spend a lot more time in Australia in the next few years. Other than the far north where visibility is problematic, the entire coastline is a shark diver’s dream. I’d really like to run a drive-and-dive expedition but the country has so many shark species, it is hard to decide what to include. PNG, Brazil, and West Africa are also high on my list.
A sunset over-under shot of a nurse shark at Tiger Beach, Bahamas
Puffadder shyshark swimming over a colorful reef packed with invertebrate life in False Bay, South Africa
DPG: You also shoot terrestrial animals such as polar bears and gorillas. What was your favorite land-based trip or animal encounter?
They’re all fun but Madagascar is amazing! A hundred-plus species of lemurs, most of the planet’s chameleons, leaf-tailed geckos, the world’s greatest frog diversity, weird leaf-nosed snakes (but no venomous ones), cat-like predators evolved from mongooses, and so on. The “Eighth Continent” is as exotic as it gets, and the diving isn’t bad either. Closer to home, I really enjoy our Canadian polar bear trips. We take really small groups, so we are able to observe them at very close quarters, and set up compelling eye-level compositions that you can’t achieve from a high-sided tundra vehicle. Watching a mother polar bear playing with her cubs will melt your heart.
A mother polar bear guarding her cubs near Churchill, Canada
DPG: I know that shark conservation is an important subject for you. How do you think underwater photography can help contribute to the ongoing efforts to protect sharks?
I genuinely believe that shark photography has helped a great deal already. The protection of any species requires two things: scientific evidence that proves a species is in trouble, and a willingness by lawmakers to implement changes. Shark images that are accompanied by positive messages help to shift our collective perception of sharks from “monsters that we are better off without” to “majestic predators that we treasure and want to protect.” The more popular sharks become through social media, magazines, and documentaries, the more public pressure there is on lawmakers to protect them. So, I encourage every photographer to share their favorite shark images whenever they can.
Even provocative, toothy shark pics are okay as long as the message accompanying the image is a good one. Sharks aren’t puppy dogs. If you tell people they are just misunderstood fishes that need a hug, no one will take you seriously, so be realistic. And if you get negative comments like “You’re crazy. Sharks eat people,” you have a free pass to get on your soapbox and explain why that isn’t true, how much fun shark diving is, and why we need to protect the sharks we have left. Although disturbing, I also post images of dead sharks to get people thinking about how sad it is to reduce iconic predators to cuts of meat.
Predators in peril: Blacktip sharks lined up for sale at a fish market in the United Arab Emirates
DPG: Do you have any advice for aspiring photographers or trip leaders who want to follow in your footsteps?
Most scuba magazines are looking for contributors that can write as well as shoot, so you might want to consider taking a writing course, or attending a few workshops. If you really want to make a splash in the underwater photography world, find a way to stand out. That could mean concentrating on unusual subjects like freshwater snakes or marine spiders, or you could try photographing marine life in new ways, such as over-unders or Snell’s window shots of unusual sharks or whales. The important thing is to keep shooting because you’ll need a large body of work before commercial agencies will consider representing you. It’s a competitive industry, but there is always room for new talent, and what could be better than making a living photographing big animals!
A shortfin mako flyby in Baja, Mexico
This lesser electric ray photographed with a painfully slow 3MP Sony Cybershot camera was Andy’s first magazine cover
Andy shooting blackmouth catsharks in a Norwegian fjord
Visit Andy’s website to see more epic images of all kinds of wildlife above and below the surface, and plan your next Big Fish Expedition!
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