Shark Diving: Tips on Photographing Sharks
On one of my recent dive trips, a post-dive dinner conversation turned to the topic of capturing epic shark photographs. A magazine photo editor was in our group, and I wanted to know how photographers got those perfectly lit, very close shots of sharks, which are typically quite shy around divers. He told me shark feeds, or using bait to lure the sharks, is one of the only ways to get sharks close enough for those types of photos. There are limitations of light in underwater photography, and strobes and video lights only go so far, so getting them to come close is necessary.
Tags & Taxonomy
There are a few places in the world where one can see sharks quite close naturally (without divers changing the natural environment with food), such as the sardine run in South Africa where huge bait balls attract sharks. Being in the right time and place for large migration events like the hammerheads that pass through the Galapagos is another opportunity, and then there is the super lucky dive where a curious shark comes close. But mostly, sharks do not like us. We are big and loud (all those noisy bubbles), and when they see or hear us, they swim away. Sharks have a sensory organ called a lateral line system that allows them to sense movement and vibration in water. We must sound like a freight train to sharks, and they know we are there long before we ever see them, so we often do not see them.
Enter the shark dive, where bait is used to lure sharks to a specific spot and divers can enjoy the spectacle.* Sometimes, the sharks are actually fed by a trained dive guide, sometimes a bucket of bait is opened at the end of the dive, or sometimes the sharks are not fed at all but a container of bait is used to keep curious sharks nearby. For photographers and videographers, these dives are amazing opportunities to get close to sharks, and here are some tips to get the best photos.
Before the dive
When you take part in a shark dive, chances are you are doing something that has been done many other times by lots of other people. Get as much information as possible about the dive before you go. What depth is the dive at? How long is it? How are divers arranged (is there a better spot for taking photos?) Consult with the dive operator, tell them what you hope to capture on the dive (sometimes they will place you in the best spot for photos if you let them know your intentions.)
Usually, you will want to use the widest angle lens you have, as the action usually takes place over a large area. A quick Google search will usually bring up hundreds of images from popular shark dives, if you want to see other photographers’ images. Powerful strobes are recommended—but be ready to turn them off if there is a lot of backscatter or if the sharks are too far away for them to be useful. Coming to the dive prepared is the first step.
Once at the dive shop or dive site, listen to your dive guide (they have done this before). Pay attention to the rules and follow them, as they are meant to keep you safe, and more importantly, keep the sharks safe.
The rules include where dives should be conducted during the dive trip, which hopefully will keep other divers from being directly in front of you so you do not end up with mostly shots of other divers. Following the guidelines for that particular dive also leads to the sharks coming as close as possible without being scared away. Sometimes, all it takes is one diver to swim out into the middle of a shark feed for all the sharks to disappear. Don’t be that guy, or let your buddy be that guy. Finally, do not be afraid to ask questions. The dive guides want to help you have the best shark dive they can give you so you can get the photographs you hope for.
Following the rules is also important for your own safety. Certain types of sharks exhibit different reactions to divers. When I dived with tiger sharks (without a cage) in South Africa, an extensive pre-dive briefing was given that directed divers not to wear anything colorful or shiny (no jewelry) nor black gloves, not to flail around and to have good buoyancy control.
Sharks are curious, so colors, shiny objects, and looking like an injured seal make them want to check you out. Ungloved hands that are flapping around can also appear like little fish in distress, which are a favorite shark snack.
During the dive
Follow the above rules. (Trust me, the dive guide wants you and everyone else on the dive to get amazing photos and have a great dive.) Often, shark feeds are set up so that all divers will have a good view of the show. There may be a coral or rock amphitheater at your back, and divers line up so no one is in front of each other. Not swimming around the feeding area (unless permitted) keeps both the sharks from being scared away and other divers from getting in the way.
Chum. Do not touch the chum. Your dive guide may be hand-feeding the sharks, and yes, they are probably getting closer to the sharks than you. But they have been trained to do this and have years and hundreds of dives practicing this. Most dive guides for shark dives recognize individual sharks based on their looks and behaviors—they know which sharks they can get close to and which ones not to. They also know behaviors to watch for (you don’t have that experience).
Scouting the scene. After the initial rush of “Oh my goodness, there are sharks everywhere!”, try to take in the whole scene. Where are the other divers? Where are their bubbles? Hopefully, not right in front of you, getting in your photos. In which areas are the sharks most concentrated? Think about what you want to portray in your photos. Most of the time, the shark action lasts the entire dive, so you have the time to plan and execute the shots you want.
Distractions. Be on the lookout for distractions. There is nothing worse than only seeing what you want to see on a dive, such as the sharks right in front of your lens, but then after the dive, noticing that there was a diver slightly lower and on your right and their head and bubbles are in every shot.
Test shots. Snap a few test shots and look at your camera screen to make sure you like what you are getting (I know, it’s hard to take your eyes off the action in front of you, but do try to check the screen during the dive). Also be aware that small bubbles on the lens of your camera need to be gently brushed away or they will appear as dots (similar to backscatter) in your photos.
Angles. Try different angles—which sometimes can be hard because usually you are directed to stay in one place, but you can move your camera to shoot at different angles. In some shots, you will want divers with the sharks, in order to show perspective, such as how close the sharks get to the divers. This can help your viewers to get a feel for the whole set-up of the dive (lots of sharks, lots of divers).
Bait bucket. Get some shots of the bait bucket, or of the dive guide controlling the bait and the opening of the bucket. Usually, you can also get some shots of individual sharks. Look up and see if any are going overhead, which can lead to dark shark shadows in sunbursts if it is a sunny day. If you are sitting at the edge of the group, you might be able to get some single sharks to your side as well or sharks that pass directly in front of you.
Backscatter. Backscatter can be a problem on any dive, and strobe positions can be a key factor to prevent this. Make sure the strobes are as far away from the camera port as possible and angled to help reduce backscatter. If the shark action is taking place farther than your strobe light can reach, the strobes are not adding any benefit other than creating backscatter. In this case, you may want to turn them off and take some natural light shots. Try some shots with them on and some with them off.
Negative space. Don’t forget about negative space. Negative space can help balance a photo, especially in the chaotic mess of sharks, divers and fish that occur during shark dives. If you can get the surface in a shot, it can help viewers to feel as if they are underwater with you on the dive. Having water in front of a shark can imply motion or show that the shark is moving somewhere in an image.
If a bait bucket is opened at the end of a dive, there is usually quite a rush of activity that happens very quickly. Usually, the dive guide will signal that this is about to happen, so you can have your camera ready.
Shallow dives. You do not always have a choice, but shark dives that take place in shallower waters are better in terms of lighting and color. You can also stay underwater longer on shallow dives, as you go through air more slowly and have more no-decompression time.
Repeat dives. Another way to get great photos is to do the dive twice, if you have the opportunity. There’s nothing like having done a dive to really understand it. And nothing beats having seen photos you took on one dive, noting what you liked and what you did not like, and then being able to do it again, to improve your shots.
After the dive—Post processing
Now that you are home, the post-shark dive adrenalin is still rushing, and you can’t wait to look at your photos. You download, and wow, you took 1,200 photos…in one dive. Well done! Going through them takes longer than the dive itself did, but after initially deleting the obviously bad shots, you still have plenty to choose from.
Ideally, we always want to shoot a perfect image in camera, but you will be hard-pressed to find many underwater photographers these days that don’t do even a little touch-up. Shooting underwater can be hard, especially in the chaos of a shark dive where there are sharks everywhere, people and bubbles everywhere, backscatter, lighting issues, etc. A little editing can help you achieve the same ideas already discussed that weren’t precisely executed.
Backscatter. An obvious edit is removing backscatter, as even when shooting without strobes, you are likely to have some spots from sun-lit particles, bubbles on your lens or dust on your sensor. Sometimes, the clone tool may be used to remove a distracting remora, divers’ bubbles, or a part of a shark that did not make it entirely into the frame.
Cropping. Cropping is also a great tool that can be used to create different effects. The Rule of Thirds suggests that images are more aesthetically pleasing when the subject is not in the center of the photo. This is achieved by drawing three imaginary lines top and bottom, dividing the image into thirds vertically and horizontally, and placing the subject at the intersection of those lines. Usually, it is easier for us to focus and take a shot when the shark is directly in the center of the viewfinder, but that does not always make for very interesting images. Cropping and moving the photo to follow the rule of thirds is an easy way to add balance and interest to a photo.
Negative space can also be adjusted through cropping to help add balance. By putting negative space in front of a shark or other large or fast moving subject can imply motion or show that the shark is going somewhere, and this can easily be done by moving the shark to one side of the photo so that there is blue water in front of it.
White balance. Post-production white balancing can be a savior in bringing some color back into those photos where everything looks blue. Even with strobes, sometimes the sharks are farther away than the strobe light will reach. Manually white balancing underwater can help, but can be time consuming, so if you didn’t get around to doing it on the dive, you may be surprised how much color contrast you can get back by using the white balance function in an editing program after the dive.
Black and white. Sharks and shark dives are great for converting to black and white. People are drawn to monotone images for many reasons, including how it makes images look like they have more contrast and texture, and possibly more implied drama in an image. Going black and white can also be a great way to save a photo that appears extensively blue and post-processing white balancing doesn’t help. By converting to black and white, and increasing the contrast, darks and lights can add much needed contrast to an otherwise blue-on-blue photo.
Sometimes, we find that the 1,200 photos we took on a shark dive all appear very similar, so a little bit of editing can create different effects and add variety to your photos. What you edit and how much you edit is at your discretion, as you are the artist behind the image. Extensive editing—especially the removal or addition of people, animals and large objects—is sometimes frowned upon, as it changes the truthfulness of an image.
But it all comes down to what you are trying to portray to your viewers. If you want to document a shark or a dive, then extensive editing may show what wasn’t actually there. But if the object of a photo is for artistic purposes only, then edit away. Be prepared to describe your edits, especially when entering photos in contests, as many have very specific rules on what can and cannot be done during the post-production process.
Where to go
There are many popular places to shark dive and many different species of sharks that are possible to see. Some are seasonal, so it is always good to check when the best time and place is to see a certain shark species, so you don’t get skunked. Below are a few examples.
Great white sharks: South Africa; Baja, Mexico and Australia
Bull sharks: Bahamas; Mexico and South Africa
Ragged tooth sharks: South Africa and North Carolina, United States
Blacktip reef sharks: Yap and French Polynesia
Oceanic whitetip sharks: Bahamas
Tiger sharks: South Africa and Bahamas
Blue and mako sharks: South Africa; Atlantic Coast and California, United States
Grey reef sharks: Turks and Caicos Islands; Roatan, Honduras and the Great Barrier Reef, Australia
As a final tip, I want to stress that when you are photographing shark dives, remember to try different things on your dive. These dives are one of the rare occasions where you are likely to have lots of time to photograph the same subject. It is easy to get over-excited and just snap, snap, snap the same shot over and over. I like to take the first 15 minutes of the dive to “snap, snap, snap” and be awed at the amazing experience. After that, I stop for a second and think about what I could do differently. Change your settings, change your strobe angle (or turn it off for a few shots), try video—whatever, really, just do something else. That way when you get home, your photos won’t all be the same. You’ll thank me later, I promise. ■
You may have noticed in this article that there was no mention of the heated debate over using bait to entice sharks for these types of dives. It was hard to write about photographing shark dives without discussing the controversy involved in altering a natural habitat, and possibly shark behavior, with bait and the presence of many divers. Clearly, there are two sides to this story and, as always, a right way and a wrong way to do things. The best solution I came up with is to separate the topics and discuss the heated debate on shark dives in a subsequent article. So, be sure to check out the next issue to read: “To Shark Dive or Not to Shark Dive.”
Brandi Mueller is a PADI IDC Staff Instructor and boat captain living in the Marshall Islands. When she’s not teaching scuba or driving boats, she’s most happy traveling and being underwater with a camera. For more information, visit: Brandiunderwater.com.
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