Even though the summer is beginning to draw to a close, there is still plenty of time to get some great underwater photography done. While many photographers — especially those who are new to underwater photography — will stick with photographing coral reefs, downed ships, fish, and dolphins, those who are bit more experienced may want to try their hand at a bit of shark photography. If you are an experienced underwater photographer with plenty of SCUBA experience under your belt, then you may find these tips helpful in getting a start in photographing one of the ocean’s most dangerous but fascinating creatures.
Please note: Sharks are dangerous creatures. Even the smallest sharks can easily inflict serious or fatal injuries. Do not attempt this line of photography until you have mastered safer types of underwater photography and until you are very experienced with SCUBA diving. Unlike other wildlife photography where you can be at a safe distance from predators and where humans are somewhat matched against the predators on land, sharks are completely in their element in the water and humans are not. There is no climbing up a tree, throwing a rock, getting into a car or house, or other protective measure you can take to get away from a shark while in the water. So, do not attempt even a caged dive until you have prepared yourself and understand the risks you are undertaking.
1) Safety first — Getting into the water where you know sharks are is dangerous. So, take plenty of time to research the area you’ll be diving in and learning about the specific types of sharks you might encounter there. Talk with local divers and marine biologists to learn about their particular warning signs and how to interact with them. Then, take a local and experienced dive buddy with you to act as your spotter while you do your photography. If possible, have a paramedic unit standing by on the boat or on the shore in case someone is bitten.
Never, under any circumstances, dive alone. Always have a dive buddy.
2) Stay near coral or rocks (if available) and stay away from other divers — If you’re diving with a group, especially for a deep sea dive, then make certain the group knows what you are planning and that you do your photography away from them as many may not be prepared to handle close encounters with the shark kind and instinctive panic can easily turn a photography encounter into a nightmare.
3) Coordinate with the feeder — If you’re going to attract sharks to a specific spot with a feeder, make certain you coordinate the exact drop locations with him and position yourself so that the sharks will be moving away from you after the feeding. You’ll also want to position yourself in a spot that will not give you a bunch of chum-filled images.
4) Sharks are easy to overexpose — With their white underbellies, it’s easy to overexpose your shark shots. So, be careful with your strobes and flashes and aim them higher than you normally would to avoid this.
5) Photography gear to take with you — Sharks are skittish so you’ll want to use a lens that isn’t too wide. A 2-24mm or 17-35mm is a good choice with a 10-17mm fisheye lens can be used with sharks that are accustomed to people or have been domesticated in a preserve and will allow you to get closer (but remember: domesticated is not tamed! They are still wild animals). The fisheye can also be great for shots of schools of sharks. You’ll want to make certain that whatever lenses you’re using are fairly fast and have a maximum aperture of F2.8 to F4.
6) You can’t out-swim a shark even if you’re Michael Phelps — Don’t chase after the sharks to try to photograph them and don’t swim around them to try to get a better angle. Instead, position yourself in the best spot you can and let the sharks come to you.
7) Let sleeping sharks lie — If you’re moving toward a group or sharks or an individual shark who is napping, take it slowly and make no sudden movements. Better to let the shark stay asleep and you get some great shots than to make a lot of sudden movements and noise that might wake the shark up and (at best) result in him moving away or (at worst) you being invited to dinner…as the main course.
8) Be careful with movement — Quick, jerky, sudden movements can startle any wild animal. Make smooth, slow, careful movements. Again, don’t try to swim up to a shark (he might take this as a possible threat and attack) but if a shark swims up to you, depending on the species, you can sometimes gently nudge them away. Speak with someone experienced with the kinds of sharks you’ll be photographing and make certain your dive buddy knows what to do if a shark gets a little too “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. De Mille” with you.
Sharks are one of nature’s most beautiful predators. In the water, they are the very incarnation of fatal beauty. Fascination with these creatures permeates our culture. And, with proper preparation and respect for just how deadly they can be, photographing them in their natural environment can be a very fun and very rewarding experience. Just take care not to become shark bait yourself!
– da Bird