By Mark Gray
I am one lucky Divemaster to be able to dive almost daily at one of the Australia’s Top 10 dive sites, Julian Rocks, Byron Bay.
Julian Rocks is located 3km (2mi) offshore from the popular tourist town of Byron Bay- the most Easterly point of the Australian mainland. The East Australian Current (remember the “EAC” from Crush the Turtle in Finding Nemo?) runs down along the coast, passing right through Julian Rocks. Its effect is more prominent during the late summer and early autumn months, when it brings clear water and tropical species like Manta rays and Leopard Sharks into the bay.
During the winter and spring months, the waters of Byron Bay are more effected from the cold waters of the Tasman Sea. These cooler waters bring in a completely different set of species such as Humpback whales, Grey Nurse Sharks (aka Sandtiger, Raggytooth) and Bull Rays. For someone who loves wide-angle photography, Julian Rocks is a unique location with a broad range of large subjects that allow you to shoot all year round. But the true beauty of Julian Rocks takes place in late spring, when the bay becomes home to a mix of both tropical and temperate species, quite often at the same time.
Successfully shooting large animals in Byron Bay –as well as underwater in general– has a lot to do with the photographer’s ability to move through the water calmly and to hover motionless for prolonged periods of time. From my experience shooting Byron Bay’s largest inhabitants, leaving the water with successful shots comes down to three main skills: good positioning to capture the shot, preparing the correct settings for the situation, and having the ability to change those settings on the fly if need be.
Often, potential wide-angle subjects are first spotted moving off the sea floor through the water column, so the ability for the photographer to position him/herself on the fly is paramount. Once within shooting range, it’s the ability of the photographer to move with the subject fluidly, without making the animal uncomfortable or frightened, which is the difference between capturing one or two limited shots and capturing a whole series of shots. With more “friendly” big animal subjects, you can also try positioning yourself in a single location and waiting for the curious subject to approach you- as in the case with shark feeds or other similar environments.
However, this same technique is unlikely to produce high-quality results when you’re shooting wild subjects. You will need to move with the subject and/or anticipate the proper positioning for the next set of shots in order to have the best opportunities possible. Don’t expect the wild subjects to come to you.
For shooting large subjects, the photographer’s buoyancy and streamlining skills are equally important as other underwater shooting skills- the best way to acquire these skills is experience. Check out the series of shots below to see how important moving with the subject can be!
The ability of the photographer to keep pace with a moving subject will allow for a series of good shots to be taken as opposed to being stuck in a fixed position, getting limited chances. In some situations, you will need to not only keep pace with the subject, but also position yourself for subsequent shots. One way to do this is to situate yourself around areas like cleaning stations, gutters and eddies, where big animals congregate in groups and you can build a rapport with your subjects. With this strategy and a little luck, anyone can capture fantastic results!
Once in the water, there are several standard “preparation checks” that can make all the difference before shooting any of the big animals in Bryon Bay. First, clear away any tiny bubbles that may have formed on the dome from entry during the decent (while also keeping an eye out for any leaking bubbles!). Next, position your strobes in anticipation of what you will be shooting and sample shots to fine-tune your strobe and ambient light (you never know when the next subject may come along). Lastly, double-check these sample shots in play back and histogram to confirm your strobe positioning and exposure. These checks will take only a little amount of time, but will save you plenty of time from bad shots once you get to shooting.
Once at depth and on location, you can double check your first shots of the subject to make sure that everything is falling into place. It is during these initial stages of the dive that it is most important to shoot, review, and adjust as needed. It’s better to take the time to sort everything out first than to find out after the dive that the settings or strobe position wasn’t correct. I’ve learned this the hard way.
You can also check your shots in playback during the quieter times of the dive to ensure that everything is going to plan. I have sometimes realized halfway through the dive that my strobes weren’t in the proper position, but have been to distracted by the subject to notice at first. Similar self-checks are critical when the conditions change during a dive: a change in depth, visibility or sun position often warrant the need to double check camera settings and strobe position and power.
Once you are happy with your camera settings and strobe position, you then can concentrate on the task at hand, which is getting close to the subject and getting the shot you’re after.
Meeting the Locals
Once the effect of the East Australian Current is in full swing, Julian Rocks becomes home to one of my favorite sharks- the Leopard Shark (aka Zebra Shark). These are some of most friendly and playful sharks, which seem to act like a puppy dog at some times. Leopard sharks have crushing plates like Sting Rays and are completely harmless- their almost amorous attitude towards divers gives photographers excellent opportunities to capture their personality in the image.
In the early morning, it is common to find Leopard Sharks congregating in small groups, with the sharks swimming in a circuit-style pattern. Each Leopard might have a different pattern, but they will often intersect at a similar point along their paths. This repeatable pattern is a fantastic opportunity for photographers, as you can stay roughly in one spot, while having repeatable shooting opportunities as the sharks come into view from different angles.
Later on in the day (or when resting), the Leopard sharks will sometimes lie restless on the sandy bottom. In this situation, the Leopard Shark will cautiously allow a photographer to approach them slowly; and if the Shark is comfortable enough, they will allow a large series of shots to be taken. This action provides you the opportunity to shoot, review, and adjust your settings without any stress, which might otherwise cause the subject to take flight. Once you are pleased with your camera’s settings (we will come to this later) you will be able to shoot the Leopard Shark again and again- almost like a well-paid, puppy dog model.
After shooting thousands of Manta Rays, I have come to recognize three general types of these subjects:
1. The Manta Rays that take off as soon as they see the diver
2. The Manta Ray, who sees a diver, does a pass or two….and then takes off
3. The Manta Ray that spends the whole dive playing with the diver and even follows the diver to the surface (My favorite!)
As photographers, Manta number three is the most desired, as it allows you plenty of time to shoot, review, and adjust; all the while keeping in mid your body position without having to rush. Of coursre, it always pays to know where the local Manta Ray cleaning stations are. While mantas tend to move around from different cleaning stations from one to another, they will often spend the majority of their time at their favorite station. Having a local guide and being willing to move around different dive sites increases the chance of spotting and shooting these graceful creatures.
I have noticed that when a Manta’s Cephalic Lobes are rolled out, they are more relaxed and more likely to stay around. When the Cephalic Lobes are rolled up, they are in “flight mode” and are often just passing by. Mantas like to hover above a cleaning station by facing into the current, which allows the photographer to position him/herself in possible spot to capture the “money” shot.
Grey Nurse Sharks (aka Raggies, aka Sand Tigers):
To get great shots of Sand Tigers you have to learn how to dive with them in a way that you are always in good positioning for a shot. Try approaching them slowly at the same level or below, as moving in quickly from above will often scare the shark away. Diving in groups or flopping your arms around, are other sure ways of scaring them off. On the other hand, there are days when the shark will not be in the mood to be photographed no matter how smooth you are underwater. For example, observing a Sand Tiger Shark drop down and hug the bottom is often a sign that a larger predator is harassing them.
In many ways, Sand Tigers follow a similar pattern of movement as previously discussed with the Leopard Sharks- they will often swim laps around a certain territory once they are comfortable with your presence. I have found success lying motionless on the sea floor, waiting for shark subjects to come in closely as part of their lap- this is the best! If you find a nice comfortable spot to settle down, you will find repeatable subjects approaching you as well as time to review your shots and adjust as you wait for the next subject to circle around. Most of the time, once the sharks are comfortable with you, they will come in really close.
In other situations, you might come across a group of Sand Tigers with a few sharks that aren’t bothered at all by your presence, and you will be able to approach to take a whole series of shots without scaring them at all. In rare occasions, some of these sharks will actually follow you around for most of the dive, resulting in some truly stunning shots. These intimate interactions provide you with an experience far more unique than just a simple dive with a camera, which is often reflected in the shots you take.
The lens of choice for shooting big animals in Byron Bay is the ever-popular, versatile Tokina 10-17mm Fisheye. Setting the lens to 10mm provides 180-degree coverage on the Nikon Dx format cameras and excellent coverage on full frame DSLRs as well.
In addition, the 10mm focal length allows you to completely fill the frame with the subject, while also letting you get close to the animal for effective strobe lighting. The photographer must be fully aware that shooting at 10mm requires one to be positioned very close to the subject. The saying “get close and then closer” works well in this regard.
Proper strobe position is critical when shooting with wide-angle lenses like the Tokina 10-17mm fisheye. Incorrect strobe positioning can cause flash back on the dome port, backscatter, and it can make or break the ability to capture a good shot.
Using powerful strobes, with a wide beam, is important when deciding what strobes to use with these larger subjects. This wide coverage will allow you to get closer to the subject, while also evenly lighting the subjects as much as possible. Diffusers can also help, as they will soften and spread the beam angle when shooting in tight (Note: the use of a diffuser also comes at a cost of reduction of light from the strobe of up to 1 f-stop).
I currently prefer Ikelite DS161 strobes, which provide warm light and a fast recycle speed- two critical elements for lighting wide angle subjects. Unfortunately, they do come at the cost of being large and heavy. Another option is the Inon Z240’s, which are more compact and light weight strobes that perfect for the nomadic underwater photographer. Mounting the heavier strobes to buoyant arms (or using floats) is effective in reducing the weight of the whole setup underwater and reducing the muscle fatigue of repeated shooting: a nice bonus when shooting “friendly” wide-angle subjects.
Strobe positioning is one aspect of underwater photography that helps distinguish each underwater photographer’s style, and really depends on how close you are able to get to the subject. For example, when shooting Leopard sharks as well as most other larger animals, if you are able to position yourself very close to the subject (almost touching the dome port), try positioning your strobes closer to your housing and slightly behind to port as to limit shadows in the middle of the frame. Of course, the further away from the subject you move, the more you can move your strobes out as to light the scene evenly. Judging which technique to use takes practice, but will prove valuably when you can get close to the Leopard sharks.
If you find it hard to position yourself close to the subject -or your subject is very big like large Manta- having the strobes out wide provide good coverage and even lighting. Another option is placing your strobe arms extended halfway and angled slightly away from the dome, which works especially well when shooting Grey Nurse Sharks. Lighting these subjects is rarely black and white- trial and error will be your best friend.
I prefer to shoot my strobes with manual settings for wide-angle shots, allowing me to adapt to the specific environment. Shooting in TTL can provide the incorrect strobe power, especially when shooting sunburst shots. Selection of strobe power depends on situational factors: visibility, depth, the sun’s position, cloudy or sunny day. If you’re at a significant depth, with low visibility on a cloudy day, then the required power setting would likely be full power. In contrast, shooting in shallow, clear water on a bright sunny day, might only require 1/2 power.
In the end, choosing the proper strobe power comes down to your position and proximity to the subject, as well as the strength of your artificial lighting.
Generally, I shoot with ISO100 and the highest flash sync speed, which on my Nikon D90 is 1/200th and 1/320th for my D7000. These settings usually provide nice sunballs when shooting subjects in the shallow, usually clear water of Byron Bay. You can also get a dark blue background by shooting away from the sun, in deeper water, or on a cloudy day, when having having the highest flash sync speed isn’t as important.
Selecting the proper aperture is dependent on the ambient light available and subject’s position. As a general rule, when shooting into the sun, I meter first based on keeping the shutter at the maximum sync speed, and setting the aperture with a slight underexposure (similar to a Shutter Speed priority mode). For Leopard sharks, I will often shoot at a narrower aperture like f10 –f13, because of the ability to shoot them as close as possible and desire to keep the sunball from blowing out. For this, I normally set strobe power is between 1/4 and 1/2 power, which also provides faster recycle times, allowing you to shoot as much as possible. The general idea is to use ambient light to properly expose the blue background –taking into the sun’s positioning– and the strobes to highlight the subject.
For example, when shooting with the sun in the back, you can probably open up the aperture to f8-f9 and use strobe power of between 3/4 and full power. Again shoot, review, and adjust accordingly and depending on the available ambient light.
This article is based on my experience with large subjects in Byron. I hope you may someday find it useful when diving in this amazing place, but would ask you to remember that every camera and photographer is different. It is meant only to provide a little insight into the world of shooting big animals up close and personal- a world I love.
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