Underwater Photography: Shooting Big Animals

By guest blogger Fiona Ayerst

When it comes to underwater photography, shooting big animals can be one of the most challenging skills to master, but perhaps not for the reasons you may imagine. I’ve spent many hours sneaking up on sharks, and here I’ll share my top tips on how to get those “killer” shots.

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Get comfortable underwater

It’s impossible to get a perfect shot unless you are totally comfortable in the water. In some instances, you must be in good physical health to keep up with your subject. One of the advantages of shooting while scuba diving rather than snorkeling is that you can spend long periods in deeper water, closer to marine life, or even in 20 feet during a shark encounter. To successfully shoot on scuba, you must master your buoyancy and maintain control of your position in the water column at all times.

Learn to free dive

Alternately, if you’re shooting near the surface, you should learn to free dive. One of the advantages of shooting this way is that your bubbles and the noise your regulator makes as you exhale don’t scare off the animals. Here, where the light is abundant and where most of the big guys, such as whales and sharks, can be found, you don’t really need scuba gear if you can free dive.

Stay calm, be patient, and get as close as is safe and reasonable

Get close — and then get closer — if it’s safe both for you and the animal. Stay calm and, above all, be patient. Learn how animals behave and start to read their movements. Learn what they will most likely do next. Don’t allow the animal to bump into you, as you may harm it and your shot will most likely be out of focus.

Choose the right time of day

It’s best to shoot between noon and about 2 p.m., but you can stretch this out from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. This is because you need the sun’s rays overhead for bright, clear shots with lots of detail. Late afternoon shots also often provide great light effects, such as striated sunrays. Be aware that many shark species hunt in the early morning and late afternoon.

Use your buddy

A good and experienced diver can really help you with “herding,” by which I do not mean your buddy should ever chase an animal, but if you position him or her (your buddy) correctly, it can definitely turn the animal back toward you. Furthermore, it creates a great sense of forced perspective to have a person in the background, and makes your chosen subject seem even larger.

Blue-water backgrounds

Expose for the blue water for a pleasing photo and use fill-in flash if you can. Check your images regularly by using a histogram, as it’s often too light near the surface to see the images properly. If they are overexposed then compensate or check your strobe exposure table for the appropriate f-stop, according to how close you are getting to the animal. Whenever possible, however, I recommend that you apply tip No. 7 below.

Shoot using ambient light

One of the advantages of shooting near the surface, where the light is abundant, is that there is usually enough color left for your shots without using strobes. This is advantageous since heavy strobes can limit your ability to move fast and maneuver. Furthermore, many strobes have limited sync speeds. I like to shoot using shutter priority, and, if I’m shooting fast-moving animals like dolphins, for example, I get some stock stuff on very high shutter speeds without strobes. Once I have those in the bag, I like to try some arty moves, like panning with slower shutter speeds. Remember to check your photos occasionally to ensure that your aperture isn’t too wide open, which can lead to soft images. This works really well with a fish-eye lens, and that leads me to tip No. 8.

Shoot super-wide

Shoot larger animals with a fish-eye lens if you can get close enough. This lens is very forgiving and also takes amazing photographs in the ocean, as no natural straight lines exist here.

Shoot off the reef

Look after the substrate and care for the reef. In any event, things look better when you shoot up, not down.

Keep yourself and your subjects safe

Shoot larger animals safely and maintain a respectful distance. If you are taking part in baited dives, ensure that you’re working with an operator who is doing everything within their power to safeguard and conserve the animals. Your safety and the longevity of the animals are paramount considerations. Never, ever touch or harass animals for a shot.

Fiona Ayerst has been a professional underwater photographer for seven years and is one of South Africa’s best-known underwater specialists in natural history. She teaches underwater photography classes in Durban, SA and Mozambique annually between May and October, as well as hosting underwater photography internships. fionaayerst.com; africa-media.org

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