Shark Photography

Mountaineer, diver, photographer, lecturer and author, Jack Jackson shares his wealth of experiences in this shark photography guide

| Specialist Photographic Subjects
Shark Photography: Shark PhotographySix Sharks swim directly towards me, fifty others are circling around me, but I force these out of my mind, hoping that the lure of the bait is stronger than any interest they have in me personally. The leading shark is a large female, its senses are on the bait but its eyes are on me. The strong current slows down the shark's approach, giving me time to focus. One metre away it fills the frame of the 14mm lens. I fire the shutter just before it snaps at the bait, immediately there is an eruption of thrashing sharks, cameras and me as the snapping jaws set off a feeding frenzy. I curse the slow recycle of the flash guns, in 30 seconds it is all over and I have only managed two more shots.

The sharks quieten down and resume circling, I regain my balance and check the cameras. Soon I must make a controlled ascent to clear nitrogen safely out of my body. In 26 minutes I manage to expose 20 frames between two cameras and cannot safely dive this deep again for 24 hours. You need patience to photograph sharks.

Good photography underwater requires flash and camera to subject distances of less than 1.5 metres. Equipment must be sturdy, any second camera outfit placed on the sand invariably receives an exploratory bite. The whine of recycling flash guns attracts sharks.

I use Nikonos V underwater cameras and Nikon cameras in waterproof aluminium housings. The Nikonos is a fully waterproof, non-reflex camera with a TTL exposure system. Several waterproof Nikonos lenses are available but only the 15mm, 20mm and 28mm are of any real use underwater. Nikonos lenses give sharper results than housed lenses but the lack of reflex focusing makes composition difficult and it is easy to cut off part of a subject. Nikonos cameras are small and convenient to use in difficult currents, but their slow flash synchronization speeds cause double images of fast moving fish when balancing flash with ambient daylight.

For land cameras, aluminium housings are stronger than plastic housings. The individual colours of white light are refracted at different angles and speeds as they cross the water/lens boundary (chromatic aberration). This is at its worst with wide-angle lenses but you can minimise this by using a Dome port in front of the lens - the convex curve of the Dome port retains the focal length of the lens and improves colour saturation. Flat ports are fine for lenses of longer focal lengths and increase their focal length by a third. Modern cameras with a 1/250-second flash synchronization speed give sharper results with fast moving fish in daylight.

Currently I use Austrian made Subal housings, small enough for me to carry two, they have all controls including a switch for the camera's viewfinder light, essential with my preference for using cameras manually underwater.

Some housings advertise the convenience of no controls being required with auto everything cameras. These systems require film speeds of at least 400 ISO to obtain reasonable shutter speeds and lens apertures in the low ambient light underwater.

Autofocus systems that work on contrast, (not infrared), will work on contrasty subjects underwater but not on sharks or other animals that have large, unbroken areas of one colour.

Facemasks keep your eyes away from the viewfinder. Most photographs are taken from quite close to the subject so the parallax problem with frame-finders is considerable, it is best to use a small volume mask. In housings it is advantageous to use cameras that can be fitted with Sports Action finders. Eyepiece magnifiers are available but give problems with reflections if the sun is behind you.

Underwater cameras and housings have  O -ring seals that must be kept scrupulously clean and lightly greased with silicone grease to prevent flooding. Too much grease will attract grit and hairs. Silicone spray should not be used, as the cooling effect causes  O -rings to crack. The main  O -ring needs regreasing every time that you change a film.

Light passing from water, through a facemask is refracted (bent) unless it strikes the glass at right angles, objects appear to be one third nearer and larger than they actually are. Your eyes and the camera lens both see things in the same way so reflex focusing remains the same as in air. If you are using a non-reflex camera, you can estimate the distance normally. If however, you measure the distance with a ruler you must adjust to apparent distances before setting the lens focusing scale. Nikonos 15mm, 20mm and 28mm underwater lenses have their focusing rings marked in apparent underwater distances while longer Nikonos lenses are marked for use in air.

When the sun is at a low angle, much of the light fails to enter the water. So to take advantage of the maximum light available it is best to photograph two hours either side of the sun s highest point, i.e. true local midday. Seawater contains materials in suspension, which reduce visibility and sharpness, the answer is to remove the water by working close. I often work at less than 30cm from the subject with 14mm, 15mm or macro lenses. Water acts as a weak cyan filter, cutting back the reds, so colour film will give photographs with a blue cast. Flash corrects this but many flash guns are very blue, it helps if the colour temperature of the flash is 4500K.

Photographing larger animals like sharks requires powerful flash guns with good wide-angle performance. Flash guns that use plastic diffusers to widen their coverage lose too much power. A flash gun used close to the camera lights up any particles in the water like white stars in a black sky (back scatter). The nearer these particles are to the camera, the larger they will appear. The solution is to keep the flash as far away as possible from the camera. Two narrow-angle flash guns, one on each side of the camera, often produce a better result than a single wide-angle flash gun.

Another problem is aiming the flash. Although the subject appears nearer to both your eye and the camera lens, the flash must strike the subject directly, to illuminate it. The flash must therefore be aimed behind the apparent subject, to hit the real subject. Some underwater flash guns have built-in modelling lights, which aid this problem and focusing during night photography.

As with all fish, sharks reflect light in different ways that vary with the colour of the fish, light coloured sharks reflect more light than darker ones, so although automatic flash guns exist for underwater photography, it is best to use ones previous experience on manual. One cannot change film underwater so bracketing exposures is less of an option.

For black and white film, 400 ISO is the first choice. For a beginner wishing to use colour, negative material is the best, as it has plenty of exposure latitude. Transparencies are required for publication, but one has to be very accurate over exposures. Kodachrome 25 or Fuji Velvia are best for macro work, but for sharks, the extra speed of 64 or 100 ISO is helpful. Kodachrome produces a blue-green water background, although accurate, this is not so appealing, as most people are conditioned to a blue sea, faster Ektachrome or Fujichrome are preferable.

In general, sharks that do not feed on plankton prefer deeper, colder water during the day, here good pictures are difficult to obtain since you are photographing a dark fish against a dark background. Contrary to popular opinion, few sharks will approach man and even when attracted by bait will still be shy of approaching close to a diver. They need to be conditioned to your presence and enticed into shallower water where there is more light for photography. Begin by taking bait to them and when they have got used to you providing food, moving the feeding position a little each day, towards a point where it is most convenient for you to take your photographs, this is a time consuming process.

Once trained, sharks will get used to the noise of your boat and you will find them circling under your boat whenever you arrive at the dive site. The next problem is how to slow down the action enough, to get your pictures. I get the best results by positioning the bait just above my head and tying it to galvanised metal. Metal gives off an electric field that fools the shark s sensing system and gives me a few extra seconds in which to compose the picture, galvanised metal is best for this. A strong current is useful, the scent of the bait carries down it, so you know that most sharks will approach up it.

The underwater world is fascinating. Anyone snorkelling in shallow water with a waterproof camera should be able to get results but do not try to dive without appropriate training. Shark photography is only for experienced divers with cool nerves and a thorough knowledge of shark behaviour, we only use protective cages for Great White Sharks.

Shark Photography: Shark Photography
Nurse Shark - Sulu Sea, Philippines, Housed Nikon F90x, 55mm Macro lens

Shark Photography: Shark Photography
Grey Reef Shark - Sudan Red Sea, Nikonos V, 15mm lens

Shark Photography: Shark Photography
Grey Reef Sharks - Sudan Red Sea, Housed Nikon F2, 24mm lens

Shark Photography: Shark Photography
Grey Reef Sharks - Sudan Red Sea, Housed Nikon 801s, 24mm lens

Shark Photography: Shark Photography
Grey Reef Shark - Sudan Red Sea, Nikonos V, 28mm lens

Shark Photography: Shark Photography
Grey Reef Shark - Sudan Red Sea, Housed Nikon 801s, 24mm lens

Shark Photography: Shark Photography
Scalloped Hammerhead Shark - South Egypt Red Sea, Nikonos V, 24mm lens

Shark Photography: Shark Photography
Silvertip Shark - Sudan Red Sea, Housed Nikon 801s, 24mm lens

Shark Photography: Shark Photography
Grey Reef Shark - Sudan Red Sea, Housed Nikon F90, 55mm Macro lens

Shark Photography: Shark Photography
Lemon Shark - Cuban Caribbean, Housed Nikon F90x, 55mm Macro lens

(The Nikonos (1/90) and Nikon F2 (1/60) have slow maximum flash synchronisation speeds giving apertures around F4 or F5.6, the F801s and F90s enable me to use 1/250 second with an aperture of F2.8 or F4.

About the author
Shark Photography: Shark PhotographyMountaineer, diver, photographer, lecturer and author, JACK JACKSON has travelled the remoter areas of Asia, Africa, Europe and the Far East since 1967. Regularly photographing in extreme conditions from the heat of the Sahara Desert to the cold of the Arctic and from high mountains in the Himalayas to the depths of the sea where he specializes in shark photography. Nikon Cameras (UK) staged an exhibition of his underwater photography in 1989.

Author of 14 books, Jack has won several photographic awards and two book awards. He is a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, a member of the Alpine Club, the Climbers' Club and the Scientific Exploration Society and is a consultant to the Expedition Advisory Centre.

You can see more of his work on - best viewed with Internet Explorer Version 4 or above.



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