|The chumsicle at Walker's Cay draws Caribbean reef sharks for fast-paced feeding action.|
One of the most impressive fish in the sea, and the one most misunderstood and threatened, is the shark. Decimated by indiscriminate longline fishing, misguided sport anglers and the unspeakable devastation of the shark fin industry, sharks worldwide are in big trouble. In fact, some species are on the brink of extinction.
One of the most ecologically sensitive actions an underwater photographer can take is to picture the beauty, grace and majesty of these creatures in order to dispel the myth that sharks are out to get us and to educate people about their plight. In addition to promoting awareness, shark photographs are just cool. Here are some tips for bringing home the perfect shark shot.
Go Where the Sharks Are
In the wild, sharks generally keep their distance from divers. We are big and noisy, and we must look very clumsy to them.
Given that successful underwater photography happens with a primary subject within three feet of the lens, we have to go where the odds favor getting a shark that close. Typically that happens where local dive operations have conditioned the sharks to come close by offering a bit of bait as reward.
The way the bait is presented may be different in various places, but the result is the same. For example, Walker's Cay in the Bahamas uses a "chumsicle," a conglomeration of fish and seawater frozen inside a large garbage can. The chumsicle is tethered in midwater while dozens of ravenous Caribbean reef sharks race in to grab a bite. Off the southwest end of New Providence Island in the Bahamas, operators show up at the site with a bucket of bait and the sharks start swirling. The frenzied activity offers the opportunity for awesome shots with more than a dozen sharks in a single frame. The last time I shot at Shark Wall, the sharks were so eager, we didn't even have to pull bait from the bucket to get the ultra-close shots we wanted.
Both of these are well-established shark feeds at specific reefs where a population of sharks have been safely interacting with divers for more than a decade. Other shark dives are newer, yet no less spectacular.
In Tahiti, the currents on an incoming tide race through the atoll channels, and gray reef sharks by the score are commonly sighted. Silvertips have likewise been conditioned to hand-feeding by local divemasters and come quite close.
But the premier shark photo-op has to be for the apex predator, Carcharodon carcharias. The great white shark is now the target of photo safaris in diverse locales. Now that great white sharks are protected from sport fishing, the shark encounters are getting reliable again off South Australia. South Africa offers a higher density shark population off Dyer Island and excellent above-water viewing, as well as cage dives. Lately, live-aboards have been visiting Guadalupe Island, Mexico (about a 20-hour steam from San Diego), to photograph a resident population of up to 100 great white sharks in very clear water.
Other sharks, like the scalloped hammerheads found around the Galapagos Islands and Costa Rica's Cocos Island, do not respond to food and require a stealthy approach. Operators in these waters have learned where the sharks are and how to get close to them. Professional wildlife photographers know that one of the best ways to find out how to get close to them is to ask locals.
|Because sharks are big and fast, most photographers choose to shoot them with a wide-angle lens.|
Listen to the Shark Wrangler
If you're trying to photograph a species that responds to food, get close to the bait. Hand-feeding methods vary substantially according to shark species and dive operator. The operator will tell you how to participate safely in their particular shark program, and while under water, watch the shark wrangler for direction.
If you want to get close to a species of shark that requires a stealthy approach, pay attention to the strategies the operator says will get you close. If they tell you racing after the shark won't work, believe them. Every week they see divers ruin potentially good encounters by being too aggressive. If they say tuck into a rock crevice and control your breathing so the shark comes near, follow their advice.
Use the Right Tools
Most shark photography is wide-angle. The fish is usually five feet long or bigger and often moves relatively quickly. Getting a tight head shot with a lens used for reef fish is possible, but the extreme depth of field of the wide angle makes life much easier. Also, wide-angle perspective distortion can be used to make a large fish look even more impressive, especially if teeth are involved.
For Nikonos shooters, this probably means a 15mm lens. For those using housed cameras, a wide-angle zoom is often the best choice, usually with at least 20mm (94 degrees) at the wide end of the zoom range. The new digital SLRs are perfect for shark photography, especially because there are so many frames possible beyond the standard 36 film exposures. But beware of any camera that has shutter lag. When photographing sharks, you want to capture peak action, and the shutter delay from some consumer digitals is frustrating.
A wide-angle strobe, with diffuser, is necessary as well, but make sure it recycles quickly. Five seconds is an eternity when a shark is in your face and you're waiting for your strobe to power up.
Use the Right Technique
|Unlike some other sharks, hammerheads require a stealthy approach to get close enough for a good portrait.|
A wide-angle lens preset to about three feet will handle the focus for most shark photography, but exposure and creative lighting can make all the difference between the magnificent and the mundane in photographs of sharks.
I like to hand-hold my strobe so that as the shark gets closer, closer, closer, I can move my strobe back farther, farther, farther. When the shark is in the shoot zone, I don't have time to play with apertures or to re-aim a strobe arm, so my instinctive adjustments in strobe-to-subject distance fine tunes both the angle and amount of light striking the shark. As the shark turns its white belly more toward the camera, exposure likewise changes. I find simply being nimble with the strobe position can accomplish a significant range of exposure adjustment.
Another problem photographers must contend with during shark feeds is the inevitable detritus, either from divers stirring up the bottom or from sharks shredding the bait. If the strobe is too close to the lens, backscatter can be a problem. Creative lighting is fundamental to successful shark photography.
Bottom time or the number of available exposures may limit you, so timing is important. During most feeding dives, the sharks will be tentative at the outset. It often takes one brazen shark to hit the bait before the activity ratchets up and the best photo-ops occur. Don't waste your shots on the sharks in the distant blue when they'll be up-close-and-personal later in the dive.
With schooling hammerheads, getting close-ups may be more difficult because you do not control the pace; they do. All you can do is position yourself where they are likely to be, and be ready. You'll see the bottom time clock ticking, and you may never get the shot. But when it does happen, give yourself extra points for degree of difficulty.
Some shark feeds can get rowdy. Sharks may be shy, but when there is lots of food in the water, they can get aggressive and make mistakes. In turbid water, a white arm might look like the flash of a fish, and while the shark wouldn't necessarily eat that arm, a sample bite will change your life. I dress in black wetsuit, hood, booties and even gloves when in the midst of a shark feed. The shark wranglers may opt for chain mail protection, but that's because they're holding bait or immersed in scent. For the shooter, choosing wardrobe that lets the shark know you're not the bait is a good idea.
Finally, if the feed gets uncontrolled or dangerous at any time, simply move away from the bait. Photographing sharks is fun and tremendously exciting, but that hot shot on your light table isn't worth sacrificing your safety.