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Playing with sharks - specialist photography guide

Playing with sharks - specialist photography guide - Playing with the sharp end - an insight into a shoot with bull sharks. Gavin Parsons goes underwater and photographs dangerous sharks with a 15mm fisheye!

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Animals / Wildlife

Words and Pictures Gavin Parsons

Sharks don't scare me. I have dived and photographed them all over the world and rarely feel threatened. Most of my subjects though, have not killed 20 and wounded 68 people*. (*Source: International Shark Attack Files) So when asked if I would like to photograph bull sharks even I thought I was slightly insane to say yes.

Before I could really take into account what I was doing, I was staring out over a calm channel leading from the Atlantic into a lagoon on Cuba's north coast. My underwater camera was ready and a divemaster handed me my fins. The scene looked idyllic and strangely serene, yet 27m below the sparking light dappled surface, the atmosphere was slightly more sinister. Now, I'm playing the fear factor that sharks evoke up for dramatic effect really. Playing with sharks - specialist photography guide
Taking bait from feeder. Exposure f/8 at 1/4sec.
Bull sharks, also known as Zambezi's are dangerous, that's a fact, but the St Lucia Shark's Friends Dive Centre has gone to the site for 12 years and has never lost a customer or even had one slightly damaged.

Not the best but ...

Ordinarily, for a shoot carrying such importance, I would have liked at least three dives to make sure I got the results. Because of the special trip I was on, I only had one. So instead of contingency plans I had prayers.
Good visibility, decent and co-operative subjects and, most importantly, a working camera were in the hands of fate and I had no way out if one or all three went wrong. Yet I could control something. When you are at 27m, the limited amount of time means that fiddling with a malfunctioning camera is not an option, so instead of just relying on the automated camera controls, which are often fooled underwater, I selected manual. Manual on the camera and manual on the twin flashes. Playing with sharks - specialist photography guide
It's coming right at me! Exposure f/5.6 1/8sec
From experience I know what my flashguns are capable of and work within those parameters. I like to use slow sync flash to give my subjects movement. It's a effective way to give the picture life and is often the difference between a lively picture and a dull one. To work out my desired exposure I metered for the ambient light in the water and exposed for that minus a stop to prevent the white undersides of the sharks flaring, which is a constant problem with such creatures. Playing with sharks - specialist photography guide
Another one a little too interested for comfort, but what a shot. Exposure f/8 at 1/2 sec.

Bloody big sharks
I was lucky in one respect though. I was the only punter and so had the feeder and prodder (you need a diver with a stick to fend off over inquisitive animals) to myself. I made the most of the situation and positioned myself right next to the feeder. In the Bahamas, where shark dives are very popular, such a thing would be almost impossible, especially without a full chain-mail suit and they only feed Caribbean reef sharks. An apt comparison between the two species might be a Jack Russell and a Rottweiler - slightly dangerous, but hardly likely to bite you in half! So I settled calmly on the sand as the very large and powerful sharks cruised around. I was excited at being in such a privileged position and waited eagerly for the feed to start.

As the fish was cut up (doing it underwater sends the shark equivalent of a Bisto-like aroma into the water) the sharks moved closer, and then closer and at one point so close I was literally bowled over. The feeder held out the slice of fish and the female bull was a little low when she took the food. She had nowhere to go except though me and I found myself nursing a sore head and staring up at the surface. I chuckled, which most people find rather odd when I tell them. I can't think why. Playing with sharks - specialist photography guide
A shark a little closer than I normally feel comfortable with. Exposure f/8 1/8sec.
With the feed in full swing the prodder was kept swimming around as some of the six sharks we had decided it would be fun to get around behind us. It caused my heart to race every so often, as some got a little closer than I would have liked, but the results I think speak for themselves.
I used a 15mm fisheye lens and managed to just fill the frame with a three metre long shark. Now that's close. If you'd read my previous article though you'll know that is the desired effect with underwater photography. Get as close as possible to minimise the amount of light-sapping and colour-sapping water between your lens and subject. I'm not sure that rule was written with sharks in mind, but it worked well. I hope you agree. Playing with sharks - specialist photography guide
That's what a three metre long shark looks like. 1/16sec at f/5.6.

Playing with sharks - specialist photography guide
Swimming is mid-water looking menacing like a proper shark should! Exposure was f/5.6 at 1/8sec.

If you would like to see more of Gavin's work or even buy a print see his website at www.h2o-images.co.uk


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It is possible to snorkel with these animals (or at least it used to be?) at Walkers Cay in the bahamas. I was lucky enough to do it on an trip organised annually through the shark trust, although I believe that at other times the just run the usual reef shark feeds from this resort.
Obviously, being only a couple of meters deep, you get a lot of natural light so no worries about strobes. There are a few sandy patches, so you can get a bit of sediment (depending on who else is in the water with you) but it's pretty heavy so settlesd quickly. In any case, there is no problem getting close enough to the sharks to minimise backscatter, and it's not uncommon for the sharks to 'nudge' you out of their way - I even had one squeeze itself between my legs as I was trying to get my fins on!
As well as the Bull sharks, Octopus are quite common at this site, and i have read one review where an octopus actually climbed up a diver to get a better vantage point to grab a few of the scraps that are inevitably wasted by the feeding sharks! We also had a large lemon shark turn up to share in the easy pickings.
apart from the extra light, the other major advantage here is that being on snorkel, there are no time constraints - take as many shots as you like, you even have time to play with your camera settings - or even change the batteries if need be! Just remember to pack your wide-angle lense.
I have a couple of photos uploaded in my gallery from this trip, check them out if you have the time.

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