Blue sharks are an inquisitive pelagic species making for excellent photo opportunities
The latest installment of our “how to shoot sharks series” focuses on the blue shark (Prionace glauca), a pelagic species that is a much sought after subject for dedicated shark divers and underwater photographers all over the world. The shark is named after its distinctive indigo blue skin color on the top of its body that gradually becomes lighter towards the edges and bright white underneath. This contrast in colors is known as countershading, and provides the ideal camouflage for hunting in the pelagic zone.
Shaped like a torpedo, with large pectoral fins and a long slender body perfectly suited to long-distance travel, blue sharks can be found in both temperate and tropical waters around the world, where it roams the vast expanse of the open ocean in a constant search for prey. In temperate seas, it may approach the surface, where it can be observed by divers and fishermen but, in tropical waters, it tends to seek deeper water with cooler temperatures in its preferred range of 54 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
It feeds mostly on small bony fish, such as herring and mackerel, and invertebrates such as squid, cuttlefish and crabs and shrimps, but this is an opportunistic predator that will also target fishing nets and scavenge on dead whales and other animals.
Due to its long migrations and pelagic habitat, it is one of the most vulnerable of all shark species, and in recent years commercial fishing has decimated populations worldwide. Although numbers are in decline, hotspots remain where it is still possible to reliably encounter this species. Some of the best places to photograph blue sharks are in South Africa, Baja California (Mexico), Rhode Island and California in the US and Portugal’s Azores Islands.
Two blue sharks swim in formation in Pico Island, Azores
Diving with the Blues
Unlike other sharks, which can sometimes be seen on a normal reef dive, photographers are highly unlikely to stumble across this predator by chance, and will need to join a dedicated expedition and possibly endure long days at sea to enjoy an open water encounter.
Operators will head far offshore into deep water and then use bait to create a chum slick that will hopefully attract any passing sharks from the depths below. This can often be a slow process, and it is not uncommon to wait for hours before something finally appears. Those with little patience or who suffer from motion sickness may struggle to spend so long at sea with nothing to do except stare at the ocean and wait, but when the sharks do eventually arrive, they tend to stay close to the boat for a long time and are often bold and curious around divers, making them excellent photography subjects.
Face to face with a blue shark and its reflection in the Azores
The deep blue water offshore provides the perfect backdrop for this shark profile shot
The pelagic zone is effectively the desert of the ocean, and floating in water hundreds of feet deep can be a bit intimidating and disorientating at first, although most people soon forget about that when the first shark approaches from the depths below.
Some companies choose to run these pelagic shark trips using only snorkelling equipment and swimming at the surface, while others prefer to use scuba gear and drift underwater, but in both instances, you will be sure to get close to the sharks and should have no problem capturing excellent images or video.
As the sharks have no issue invading your personal space and will investigate all of the divers in the water, it is important to keep a close eye on the animals, especially when there are numerous individuals around the boat at the same time. It is very easy to focus on one shark and then realize too late that another has snuck up on you from behind and has gotten a little too close for comfort. Don’t get caught with your head stuck in the viewfinder, and always pay attention to what is going on all around you.
It also goes without saying that you should never touch or harass the sharks. Remember that although this species is generally very relaxed around divers, you are still interacting with a wild animal, often far away from land and medical attention, so act responsibly and follow the rules put in place for your own safety at all times.
Using high shutter speeds and some post-processing produces an awesome black and white image
Photography Tips and Techniques
For most big animal photography, the fisheye lens is the photographer’s best friend, and this is definitely the case when shooting blue sharks. For all of the images in this feature, I used a Tokina 10–17mm lens, which is capable of capturing extreme close-ups at its widest angle, but also provides some versatility when the sharks keep their distance. As the blue shark swims slowly, any shutter speed above 1/125s should be adequate to produce sharp images, but in brighter conditions or when shooting into the sun, you may need to increase this to get the correct exposure. Start with an aperture setting of f/8 or f/9 and adjust accordingly depending on how dark you want your blue water background to be.
Having encountered these animals in the UK, Rhode Island and the Azores in a variety of conditions, I would highly recommend joining an expedition where you can scuba dive to maximize your possibility of capturing the best blue shark images. In the Azores, they hang weighted lines below the boat that you hold on to as you drift in open water, and this is my preferred method. It is much easier to focus on photography when you can relax underwater and not have to worry about swimming close to the boat with bulky camera equipment. Most of my favorite shots were taken just a few feet below the surface and technically could have been done while freediving, but it is just much more productive and enjoyable to photograph these sharks using scuba gear.
Divers look on as a blue shark and its entourage pass by at the surface
An underwater photographer captures a big blue shark in perfect conditions in the Azores
As mentioned already, once the sharks show an interest in the boat, they tend to stick around for a long time and are not scared of divers, so use this to your advantage and experiment as much as possible with different angles, settings and techniques to capture a diverse collection of images.
The benefit of shooting in very deep water is that it is normally super clear and a beautiful deep blue color. Shoot into the sun to capture sunbursts and silhouettes and with the sun to your back to get well-lit portraits and profile shots. When at the surface, use reflections to add another interesting element to the image, and in good conditions it may be possible to capture some awesome split shots, too. Strobes are not essential, as you should have plenty of available light to play with, but a little kiss of artificial light will help illuminate the sharks’ finer details and help elevate your images to the next level.
Most importantly, remember that the best things come to those who wait. My most productive blue shark trip came after waiting more than five hours for any sharks to show up, but when they eventually did, it was in perfect conditions and I came home with hundreds of awesome images of this rarely encountered shark species.
Shooting up towards the surface creates reflections that enhance wide-angle images
Shaped like an airplane, the blue shark has evolved perfectly for long-distance travel
The long pectoral fins and snout of the blue shark are clear when shot head on
Sunbeams add a nice element to this profile shot captured close to the surface
Plan Your Adventure >