Responsible shark tourism is a win-win for the animals and their photographers
Sharks are some of the most amazing and successful predators in the animal kingdom, and despite years of rampant overfishing that has decimated populations globally, it is still possible to dive with them in a number of different locations around the world.
Experienced operators in countries such as Fiji, the Bahamas and Mexico have been introducing people to sharks without incident for many years, and as the public perception of sharks finally begins to change for the better, the number of people wanting to swim with them continues to rise. This is good news for sharks, because participating in sustainable shark tourism provides countries with an economic incentive to protect them and their habitats. It is also the best way for underwater photographers to get close to sharks and capture images of a variety of iconic species.
Sharks are among the most exciting subjects you’ll encounter as an underwater photographer
Before joining a shark diving trip, it is important to consider your diving ability and experience level, and choose a location and tour provider carefully. Do some research and dive with a responsible company that knows what they are doing. You can find out more about who you should be diving with at www.globalsharkdiving.org.
Unfortunately, a small number of individuals in the industry continue to take unnecessary risks and purposefully harass or manipulate animals for attention. Recent trends such as riding sharks and aggressive nose rubbing show a complete lack of respect for the animals—and only encourage other people to do the same thing.
If you happen to find yourself on a shark dive where the operator goes too far in an effort to put on a show, refrain from taking or posting images of the incident and by all means voice your concerns after the dive. Avoid giving these people your hard-earned money, and dive with companies who genuinely care about the welfare of sharks instead. Photographers are also often guilty of pushing the limits in an effort to get a better shot, but no image is worth risking your safety for, so do not do anything stupid and abide by the rules.
Operators and photographers alike should always treat sharks with the utmost respect
Some general guidelines that should be followed by anyone participating in a shark dive include:
- Never reach out to touch or grab the sharks
- Never touch the food or the bait box
- Always wear appropriate safety equipment
- Never chase or harass the sharks
- Do not spend unnecessary time on the surface
- Always pay close attention to the safety briefing and any rules specific to that particular dive
- Always pay close attention to your surroundings and the sharks close to you
Most importantly, always remember that sharks are wild and potentially dangerous animals that should always be treated with caution and respect.
Always have one eye on the sharks around you, particularly when you’re outnumbered...
Getting Great Images
Before discussing techniques specific to different types of shark dive, it is first important to prepare your equipment and camera settings.
All shark photography will require some kind of wide-angle lens and ideally two strobes. Always shoot in RAW for non-destructive post-processing and use a shutter speed of no slower than 1/125s—unless you are purposefully shooting motion blur images. Start with an aperture around f/8 and make adjustments to experiment with different shades of blue water. Finally, increase the ISO if you are deep or if light is an issue. Most modern cameras still produce great results at a high ISO setting, and on certain dives you will need it.
Now that the camera is ready to go, you can start to think about what type of sharks you will be shooting and how you can make the most of each situation and come away with some awesome images.
Satisfying compositions will only come together when you take your time to adjust settings carefully and try to anticipate the sharks’ movements
Baited Shark Dives
Contrary to popular belief, most sharks do not normally approach humans, and will avoid groups of divers at all costs. For this reason, it is often necessary to attract them with food. There are a number of ways of doing this which all serve the same basic purpose—to get as close as possible to otherwise elusive species. This type of diving is great for photographing large predatory sharks such as tiger sharks and great hammerheads in the Bahamas, bull sharks in Fiji and Mexico, and blues and makos in the Azores and California.
My lens of choice for these dives is a Tokina 10–17mm, but if you don’t like the fisheye effect, a rectilinear lens in the 12–24mm range would also be a good choice. Having the ability to zoom in and out is a huge plus, and I tend to make constant adjustments to my focal range throughout each dive. I also manually adjust the power output of my strobes. It can be easy to blow out the white belly of a shark if the light is too bright, so start low and adjust as necessary.
Baited shark dives shouldn’t be controversial—provided operators are experienced and safety is paramount
Because divers are normally kept together for safety reasons, it can often be crowded, and there may be many other photographers jostling for the best position. Most people want to be close to the bait box or the feeder, but I normally try to position myself at either end of the line, where you can aim away from the group and into the water column. This allows you to get nice clean images of the sharks without the bait and other divers ruining the shot.
If the sharks are coming very close, remember to adjust your strobe positions to properly illuminate the subject. Try to avoid keeping your finger on the trigger and taking multiple shots at every single pass. Most strobes cannot recycle in time to keep up with the camera, and you will only end up with a bunch of badly lit images. Instead, use your viewfinder and frame the shot properly, only shooting at the peak of the action when you are happy with what you see. This may not always be possible if there are lots of shark around, and safety should always come first, but trying to compose your shots rather than firing randomly in the sharks’ general direction will result in more keepers.
Bimini in the Bahamas is a great place to get up close and personal with the elusive great hammerhead
Great whites sharks require special treatment and the use of a protective cage. This can make photography and video a bit more challenging. The metal bars of the cage can easily damage expensive camera equipment, so making your setup as compact as possible can really help on these trips. A mini-dome makes things a lot easier and if you plan on using strobes, choose small ones that will not get in the way.
Surprisingly, the sharks often stay further away from the cages and the bait than many people expect, and so taking a midrange lens with a bit more reach is also a good idea.
You’ll need a scuba certification for the deep cage, but it’s the best way to get a natural shot of this apex predator
Most other reliable shark encounters happen at cleaning stations or feeding sites where sharks are known to aggregate.
When snorkeling with whale sharks or basking sharks, a wide-angle lens without strobes is all you’ll need. Most locations do not allow the use of lights, and close to the surface, they are unnecessary anyway. Not having to drag around strobes makes it much easier to get into position. Try to get in front of the sharks, let them approach you, and be ready to nail the shot when they come close. Due to their size, having a fisheye lens is the best choice and often the only way to get the entire animal in the frame.
When photographing the planet’s biggest fish, you’ll likely need a fisheye lens to get the whole animal in the frame
Photographing schools of hammerheads off the Galápagos and Cocos Island requires divers to remain patient and keep sudden movements to a minimum. These sharks are extremely skittish and will not approach divers often. They will certainly not put up with being chased and anyone attempting to do this will come away with useless images—and also upset the rest of the group. Instead, hide among the crevices and rocks on the reef and be ready. If a shark comes towards you, try to hold your breath for a few seconds or exhale slowly, and you may get close enough to get some good portraits. If the visibility is good, you may even have the chance to get the shot that everybody who visits these special places wants: a silhouette of hundreds of hammerheads passing overhead.
Perhaps the most challenging of all sharks to photograph is the thresher shark. Malapascua in the Philippines is the only place where they can be reliably seen, but the dive sites are deep and strobes are not allowed. These sharks are also very shy and getting close is difficult, so getting decent images requires good conditions and plenty of luck.
What’s the best way to improve your chances of getting great shark images? Dive and shoot as much as possible
Whatever sharks you are lucky enough to encounter and capture, try to use the resulting images to help educate people, and when publishing them, share important and fascinating information about that particular species. Sharks are magnificent creatures, and we should all strive to take photographs of them without putting ourselves or the animals at risk. By behaving responsibly, we can all become ambassadors for sharks and contribute to their conservation.
Find out about Daniel’s forthcoming shark diving operation and its conservation goals at www.sharkbusiness.org.
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