Photographing Underwater Pelagic Life
By Rodrigo Friscione
If you’re an animal lover, pelagics are the ultimate goal: Nothing compares to facing a wall of silky sharks, being checked out by a grey whale or swimming side by side with a Great White. Chasing after pelagic wildlife life is extremely exciting and also very demanding physically. Subjects are usually big animals, which makes them fast and elusive. The pursuit being as thrilling as getting the shot.
Pelagic photography is key to conservation because it offers a vision about a fragile ecosystem not exposed to public very often. Every single image you bring back helps to create awareness, and therefore encourage others to appreciate and protect the wonders of the open ocean.
Pelagic Underwater Photography Subjects
Most popular subjects are always migrating and/or feeding. The best tip is to stay close to the food source, whether that’s chum, a giant bait ball or infinitesimal krill. Baitballs are a guarantee for pelagic shoots and my personal favourites. Sailfish and stripped marlin for example, chase sardine baitballs, hearding them from the bottom to the surface then taking turns to hit on the ball with their bills. They are neither curious nor scared about divers, always focused on the baitball. They move extremely fast and so should you! Keep and eye for tuna, sharks and birds hitting the baitball, they always spice up your frames.
Sharks are usually curious about divers; you can get some good passes if you wait patiently in one spot. Whale sharks, in the Mexican Caribbean, are the ideal first encounter. These gentle giants gather by dozens (sometimes hundreds) to slowly feed on the surface.
Water is usually Caribbean-blue and the sharks are forgiving when it comes to missing the shot; you will most probably get another ten chances at the exact same framing. You have plenty of room to play with different settings, split shots and counter light shots.
Whales are shy and skittish, especially if they have calves around. Try jumping way ahead of their path and diving down immediately, don’t move, let them come to you. I´ve found this to be the hardest subjects to capture. Other than Dominican Republic or Tonga, whales avoid both boats and floating divers. Still, with patience it can be done.Many other surprises can pop in the blue, great examples are mola mola´s. Some times they take off immediately and other they play for ours.
Remember always to approach any animal in a subtle way, slowly and calm, don’t get in their way and try not to touch them/bump into them… you don’t want to hurt them or scare them off for the rest of the group.
Equipment for Pelagic Photography
SLRs make life easy for proper pelagic photography because action usually happens so quickly that you can’t allow shutter lag common in compacts. If you shoot a compact, try to foresee the animal´s position or action, and shoot before it happens. You´ll be surprised at how many times you can nail a good shot. Consider also wider framing in case the subject makes a sudden turn, so it will still be in your photo.
Another great advantage of SLR cameras is burst shooting. Every model now offers some kind of burst mode, which is greatly appreciated when you only have one good pass. Strobes are not the rule; rather they’re the exception. Most probably you´ll have a pelagic encounter while snorkeling, so the power of the sun is on your side. Strobes and arms also generate noticeable drag, which will slow you down.
Since pelagic fauna is usually big or schooling, wide to fisheye wide lenses are standard. The choice of fixed or short zoom comes hand in hand with the subject you are after: If you expect easy, close encounters (whale shark) then fixed, super wide angle/fisheye are best. If, on the other hand, you are chasing fast, erratic animals (sailfish or marlin) you might have better results with a mid-range zoom.
My regular lenses are the Nikon 10.5mm fisheye, Sigma 15mm fisheye and Nikon 10-24mm. Other popular lenses include the Tokina 10-17 (DX), Nikon 14-24mm (FX), Canon 14mm (FX) and Canon 16-35mm (FX). These wide-angle lenses are also powerful tools as they have a large depth of field, useful for an on-the-move subject.
Techniques for Photographing Pelagic Life
Technique for this kind of photography is the most basic one: Get as close as possible and shoot as many frames as possible because you don’t know if you´ll get another chance. Remember to take advantage of burst shooting!
More than once you will be shooting with your arms extended in front of you to gain that extra foot towards your subject. Be careful about your dome´s position, housings tend to float dome-first and your photos might be pointing way up. Keep in mind the best images always show the eyes of the animal in perfect focus.
Avoid Auto and Aperture priority modes. If you are not shooting completely in manual, then go for Shutter Priority. Consider “fast” shutter speeds (1/200+), so you wont get blurry hunting behaviors. Compensate with higher ISO if your max aperture is not enough. I always work on a -1 or -2/3 on my metering to avoid over exposing and also to get deeper blues whenever I’m shooting vertically. If you insist on using strobes, hold them with very short arms to reduce drag. Point them out-ward or up, never towards your subject, big animals are very sensitive to light and you might hurt or scare them away.
Additionally, some subjects - especially bill fish - have highly reflective scales that might burn your image with a direct strobe discharge.I always shoot RAW to take advantage of fixing white balance during post processing.
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