Shark Cage Diving Underwater Photography
We all know the statistics: You’re more likely to win the lottery while being struck by lightening than suffering a shark bite. But when you’re dealing with larger sharks in a possibly chummed environment, it’s better to be safe than sorry—enter the shark cage.
Cage diving is a safe and effective way to interact with large sharks like great whites and tiger sharks. And in recent years it’s become more popular in destinations like Isla Guadalupe, South Africa, and even Tiger Beach. While sitting in a cage with sharks all around might seem like an underwater photographer’s dream, there are unique challenges to overcome. Here’s your guide to shark cage diving photography.
What Is Cage Diving?
The origins of using a cage of some sort to provide a barrier between diver and shark come out of a grizzly incident. Today, Rodney Fox is known as one of the leading shark ecotourism figures, operating out of Australia’s Neptune Islands. But in 1963, he was bitten by a large great white and barely lived to tell the tale—with more than 500 stitches, his survival is considered to be one of the most fortunate.
Rather than fearing the animal that attacked him, Rodney was keen to find a safe way to understand this apex predator. And while checking out a lion cage at a local zoo, he was inspired to invert the model and place the onlooker in the cage. Soon, he had a cage built and came away with the first underwater footage of a great white shark.
The design of shark cages has changed little in the last 50 years, although recently some innovations include self-propelled shark cages. While cages differ slightly in terms of construction, most are built using a strong metal and are composed of a series of bars. In rare occurrences, for television shoots, you will see specialty cages made out of clear materials, such as hardened plastic or glass.
A typical cage setup, where a diver is weighted down with a “weight vest” and breathing from surface-supplied air—notice the wider openings in the bars for cameras
Types of Cage Diving
There are two primary types of cage dives. The first is where the cage is floating on the surface of the water. In this case, you are likely to either be using air-supplied hookah through a hose, or using a snorkel to pop under the water.
Typically, this type of cage diving doesn’t require a scuba certification, and can be done by almost any healthy person who meets an age requirement (typically 12 years old). At the surface, tour operators may be using chum or pieces of fish tied to rope—called shark wrangling—to attract subjects closer to the cage.
Surface cages provide ample light for photography and can be experienced by non-scuba certified participants after some basic training
The second type of cage diving is done below the surface—typically at depths from 20 to 50 feet. These dives are mostly done with surface-supplied air; however, if there is sufficient room in the cage, some operators will allow the use of scuba tanks. In either case, an Open Water certification is required. Deep cage dives don’t use chum, so the animals might not come as close. However, it provides a more immersive experience in their authentic environment.
Going down in the deep cage requires a scuba certification, but immerses the photographer fully in the shark’s realm
Underwater Photography Equipment for Cage Diving
The images you see taken from these specialized dives might look like your typical wide-angle shots, but cage dives aren’t your typical underwater environment. There are challenges in terms of space, maneuverability, and access to the subject—all of which can be overcome in part by selecting the right gear.
Lenses: Selecting a lens depends largely on the visibility of the environment and how close the sharks come. For example, if diving in low-viz environments like with blue sharks in Rhode Island or great whites in South Africa, a fisheye or fisheye zoom like the Tokina 10–17mm is the way to go. In higher-viz destinations like Guadalupe, a rectilinear wide-angle lens will better fill the frame with subjects keeping their distance.
Port Selection: One thing you might not think about until it’s too late is the proper port for cage diving. Some cages have certain openings where larger cameras can fit through. But for the most part, the bars are spaced roughly six inches apart. For this reason, avoid using dome ports too large to fit through the bars. A mini dome port (4 inches) is ideal.
Using your smallest port will make it easier to maneuver in a tight cage. It also may fit between the bars for an unobstructed frame of the shark
Strobe Arms: When it comes to cage diving, strobe arms are the big question. If you’re in a surface cage, with a reasonable amount of sunlight, you can save space and have more room to move about by shooting natural light only. If you want to shoot against the sun and use strobes to eliminate shadows, you should use shorter arms—possibly even just a single 6- or 8-inch arm on each side. If diving in the deep cage, make sure to use this setup as natural light isn’t as plentiful.
Diving Gear: Most of the time, operators provide weights and the breathing apparatus needed for the cage. What you will be required to bring (or rent) is exposure protection: wetsuit, gloves, and boots. It’s key that you overestimate the needed thermal protection. So if you would normally wear a 5mm wetsuit on a traditional dive at the same temperature, use a 7mm. The reason for the extra warmth is that in a cage you are sitting still for hours at a time—and it can get cold!
Exposure gear is critical: You will be standing still for long periods at a time, so make sure to wear thicker-than-normal wetsuit, gloves, and hood (optional)
Cage Diving Photography Tips and Techniques
Picking the Right Spot: What’s the best spot in the cage—in the middle or one of the corners? Well, it depends on the configuration of the operation. For the most part, there are three people in a cage at a time. So, being in the middle might provide the most photo opportunities, but you might feel a little cramped, especially when using strobe arms. Alternatively, if you find space in the corner, you might not get the most opportunities, but the ones that are more in your face, as that’s where the baiting/wrangling tends to occur.
A typical two-cage setup off the back of a boat provides a variety of angles. Make sure to rotate positions in the cage so that everyone can take quality images
Cage Diving Etiquette: Cages can be cramped. And one part of the cage may get more action than another. If you find yourself fortunate enough to get a lot of great shots, consider switching with another diver. It’s not only the polite thing to do, but you might get the favor returned. Also, it’s not fun being in a tight cage or a confined dive boat with someone giving you a scorning look because you’re hogging the good spot.
Safety First: There’s a reason you’re in a cage—the animals you are swimming with may not be vicious man-eaters, but they can cause harm if not treated with caution. Sticking limbs outside of the cage, even in an effort to get your camera closer, is not recommended. Also, keep your eyes on the animals at all times. That mean’s no turning your back for selfies.
You might be in a cage, but that’s no reason to act without care. Sharks are large animals and have been known to crash into the cage by accident, so pay attention
Observe the Sun Position: If you’re deciding between using strobes or just natural light, then the first thing you should look at is the sun’s position. If it’s early in the morning and the sun is at your back, maybe just start without strobes to be more streamlined. If the sun then moves overhead or in front, you can then add strobes to eliminate shadows. Or, if strobes aren’t an option, use the harsh light to create silhouettes and sunrays.
Shoot in Continuous Mode: If using natural light only, take advantage of continuous mode to capture as many moments as possible. This isn’t to say you should “spray and pray,” but if not limited to strobe recycle times, you might as well shoot in continuous mode, especially when the action is intense. Use a fast shutter speed (1/500s and above) to freeze the action. You may also consider shooting in shutter speed priority mode.
Shooting in continuous mode with a high shutter priority helps ensure that you capture the perfectly framed shot with the subject frozen crisply
Be Patient: This tip is perhaps the most important, and yet the hardest to follow. In all likelihood, every person on the boat will clamor for the first spot in the water. But by later in the day, or the next day, the rush will be far less extreme. Take advantage of this by spending as much time in the cage as possible—it is this dedication that leads to incredible opportunities and images.
Composition: When it comes to composing your shark images from inside the cage, it's a bit more difficult with bars and other divers so close. Ideally, you can put your small dome port right between the bars, using them to steady the image (especially when using only natural light). If you can’t avoid the cage and other divers, use it to your advantage. Adding humans and the cage to the image gives a great sense of the action and environment experienced when cage diving with sharks.
If you can’t capture the shark without bars, use the cage to your advantage to create drama and a sense of adventure
Cage diving can be the safest, high-success rate way to photograph large sharks like great whites and tiger sharks. However, it isn’t as simple as it may seem: The cage presents unique challenges as you are fairly static and space is limited. By following the guidelines above, you can take home awesome images on your next (or first) cage dive.