When it comes to requiem sharks, the process of shooting close quarter, over/under images has a lot more to do with logistics than F-stops. The first hurdle is to find an accommodating aggregation of sharks that are bold enough to approach your camera without getting so agitated that the encounter becomes too dangerous for you or the sharks.
Think back to any image that you have seen recently of a tiger or lemon shark framed perfectly in front of a tropical sunset and I’d put money on it that the image was taken at Tiger Beach.
For those that have not had the pleasure of diving this infamous spot, Tiger Beach is a shallow sand bank (with no land in sight) reachable from West Palm Beach by liveaboard.
Tiger Beach offers virtually guaranteed encounters with large schools of impressively sized lemon sharks and a handful of resident tigers. When the light gets too low to continue shooting underwater, many divers drag themselves back on deck and hang from the swim step in an attempt to capture shots of the sharks breaching.
Enter the Shark Wrangler
Even when surrounded by a score of large, excited sharks it is not easy to get in exactly the right position to nail a perfect split-frame head shot. To optimize the chances of a shark swimming directly at your dome port you need a bait wrangler.
The wrangler takes a fishing pole or hand line and casts a scrap of fish into the sea a short distance from the swim step. He/she then leads the shark towards your location. Once the shark is a foot or two away from your dome port, the wrangler allows it to snap at the bait, whipping it out of the frame a split second before you trip the shutter.
It takes skill and experience to conduct this maneuver without either the shark snatching the morsel and swimming away, or the shark crashing into your camera (or the boat - which is inexcusable).
(Editor’s Note – these bait wranglers are experienced professionals, don’t try this yourself unless you are trained)
The Pros and Cons of Hand Camming
Dangling from a bobbing, freshly gritted swim step while trying to hold a heavy camera housing at the perfect height for split frame images can be a painful and frustrating experience. Consequently, some well prepared shooters bring a pole cam along which allows them to adopt a more comfortable stance and keeps all of their appendages out of harm’s way. Some fancy pole cam rigs even come with goggles that allow the photographer to see what the camera is pointing at.
I prefer to hand cam (which simply means holding your housing in one or both hands and dangling it in the water). There are a number of reasons for this:
Firstly, time is limited during the magic hour when these images are possible and I like the ability to quickly review my pics and to manipulate my camera and strobe controls in order to compensate as the light fades.
Secondly, you can use floats to keep your housing at the right height but they’re cumbersome and unreliable. When dangling from my right hand, my Aquatica housing hangs in a natural vertical position with my finger resting on the trigger. My elbow works as a shock absorber; quickly responding to the up and down movement of the ship. I can’t get that same control with a pole cam.
Thirdly, it puts me close enough to wipe the sticky bubbles off my dome with my free hand. Try figuring that one out from 6ft away.
Lastly, when attempting these shots, there is the inevitable moment when a shark will make contact with your dome port. I have seen dome shades disintegrate on impact, acrylic domes scratched beyond the healing power of Novus #3 Scratch Remover and housings walloped so hard that they sprang open, resulting in an immediate and catastrophic flood. Holding onto the actual housing allows me to haul it out of danger faster than I would if it were dangling from a pole. There is no reason why you can’t react quickly with a pole cam, but I feel that hand camming shaves off a nanosecond or two when I really need it.
A Little About Orientation
Once you’ve got your system set up its time to choose a camera orientation. I like to shoot verticals. Partly its because my housing is easier to dangle vertically but also because I am looking for split frame compositions where there is a submerged subject low in the frame and a sky that is also worthy of attention.
A vertical orientation also helps to keep the waterline in the frame. You may not always get it dead centre but you have more leeway if your frame is taller than longer. You can always crop to a landscape in post if you feel that the composition warrants it.
Speaking of waterlines, if your lens has the amazingly short minimum focal distance of my Tokina 10-17, then you run the risk of it focusing on the actual waterline where it is hitting the dome port. Some lenses won’t focus that close but mine does. To avoid this showstopper, set your spot focus on the bottom third of your frame where (most of the time) it will pick up on the shark and not the waterline.
Assuming that the boat is actually swinging in the right direction to bring the sunset into the equation, expose the sunset first.
Depending on the ambient light that is left, you’ll either have darkish blue/green water or complete blackness below the surface. There isn’t much you can do about this. Obviously, you’re going to light the shark with your strobes but you can’t crank up the ISO to compensate for the dark water because it will blow out the sunset. Enjoy the sharp contrast this ultimately creates and move on.
The sharks at Tiger Beach generally come in slowly but they snap open their jaws at lightning speed when they’re lunging at the bait. Depending on the nature of the shots that you are after, your shutter speed could be anywhere between about 1/250th and 1/600th. You can try shooting even faster but remember that you’re relying on your strobes, which have a maximum sync speed.
Don’t get lazy or lost in the moment. At sunset the light changes every minute. Keep reviewing your histogram and highlights and slowly dial up your ISO or open your aperture as the sun sinks lower below the horizon. It actually gets easier as the sun gets lower and less intense. Night shots can be fun too.
More on Strobes
Working with strobes within a few inches of a shark can be very challenging. Forget about avoiding backscatter. Position your strobes close to your dome and point them inwards. If you don’t do this you’ll miss the shark’s nose as it brushes past your dome port resulting in a very annoying dark patch. Give TTL a try if you like, but be prepared to switch to manual strobe settings if the shark’s bellies and snouts are overexposing.
Time is not on your side, so rather than wasting it on trial and error strobe exposure, use your guide numbers (estimate a strobe distance of 6 inches from your subject) or find a whitish surface on the boat and set your strobe power against that. Chances are that you will end up working on the lowest settings you have and using your strongest strobe diffusers to lessen their output. If they’re still to bright, pull them backwards and outwards but keep your strobes pointed at a spot just in front of your dome.
If possible, try to position one strobe in air and one in water. If both your strobes are in one medium or the other, then you run the risk of the light reflecting off of the surface and only illuminating half of your subject.
Curious Carnivores or Man-eating Monsters?
One last thought. Everybody wants to take home a dramatic looking mouth gape shot - me too. But when composing your images, spend a little time thinking about the message they will convey about sharks to others. Images bristling with teeth may be provocative but my favorite swim step images show sharks in a more inquisitive light. Vary the timing of your shots to capture the shark’s approach, not just it’s bite. You can also try holding you camera just above the water while the shark’s teeth are hidden below the surface. The results can be just as dramatic.
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