Turtles have undeniable charisma. These reptiles are amongst the most fascinating animals you can encounter during a dive. From the 7 species of marine turtles, you are more likely to see Hawksbill, green, and loggerhead turtles. And with their passive attitude, they make for great subjects but how to make your turtle shots stand out? Here are Mario’s tips and tricks to getting a tip-top turtle shot.

Scuba Travel, Turtle, Mario Vitalini, fishinfocus
A hawksbill turtle rest on the reef in Komodo National Park

The challenge:

There are two main shots you can take of a turtle. One is a swimming shot, probably the more difficult to take, and the other one is the turtle on a reef.

Reef shots can be easier to take, but require a lot of attention to the background. When they are on either resting or feeding, turtles are relatively easy to approach and the main challenge is to get a good composition. Distracting or busy backgrounds and poor eye contact is the main reason turtle pictures do not live to the expectations.

Scuba Travel, Turtle, Mario Vitalini, fishinfocus
The reef around this turtle is too distracting.

In the case of a swimming turtle, the greatest challenge is to get close enough without scaring the poor thing. I have seen hundreds of photos of turtles and on many occasions, they are swimming away or there is not good eye contact.

Scuba Travel, Turtle, Mario Vitalini, fishinfocus
A green turtle swimming. The blue background helps the turtle to pop.

Tips for success:

If you are diving a site where the chances to encounter turtles are high, try to visualize the shots before you get in the water, it always helps if you are familiar with the area but if not a quick chat with your dive guide will give you plenty of information about kind of picture you may be able to take. There’s a resident turtle by the jetty on Big Brother (visited as part of the Shark Quest Photography itinerary) that loves to come up to divers!

In order to get a great turtle shot, there are 3 main things to remember. First of all, never, never chase a turtle. They may look slow but if you have ever tried to swim after one you know they can be incredibly quick. If you chase them, they will get spooked and immediately swim away. Instead, let it swim to you, most of the time curiosity will drive them close for you to take a few shots.

When you see a turtle on the reef, it normally is resting or feeding, do not rush towards it, you will only spook it and will swim away. Move to the front of the turtle and try to fill the frame. Sometimes their own reflection on your housing port will intrigue them and will come for a very close look.

Scuba Travel, Turtle, Mario Vitalini, fishinfocus
A turtle staring curiously at its reflection on my camera dome port.

Whenever possible try to get the turtle from a slightly lower angle. This will reduce the amount of reef in your shot and potentially give a view of the surface adding to the sense of depth.

Scuba Travel, Turtle, Mario Vitalini, fishinfocus
A slightly, lower angle and good eye contact will provide a much better composition

In order not to waste time setting your camera, try to anticipate the encounter and have your settings ready. When I’m swimming along a reef, I tend to take some test shots into the blue so I’m ready if something shows up.

When you see a turtle, take a few minutes to see what it is doing, If it is swimming fast along the reef, chances are it won’t stop. In that case, I wouldn’t bother trying to get close, it clearly going somewhere and not interested. If on the other hand, it seems relaxed, try to position yourself in a way that the turtle will move where you want it to be. Remember they are likely to go the opposite way to you do. So if you want it on a blue background try to get close to the reef. Wait for the turtle to get in the position you want it before you take your shot.

Scuba Travel, Turtle, Mario Vitalini, fishinfocus
It helps to visualize your shot and anticipate the action. I followed this turtle watching the remora swimming around and waited until the right moment to press the shooter.

Some technical tips:

Whenever possible try to go for a wide-angle lens to ensure you can fill the frame with your subject. Macro and normal lenses work very well for portraits and details of the face and eyes. Regardless if you are shooting with strobes or ambient light make sure you control the background brightness, particularly if you are shooting into the blue. When shooting ambient light make sure the sun is behind you to have good lighting in your subject.

Scuba Travel, Turtle, Mario Vitalini, fishinfocus
An ambient light shot of a hawksbill turtle taken with a compact camera. The position of the sun behind me ensured proper lighting of the turtle.

When using strobes, I found that slightly crossing flashguns maximize the amount of light on your subject and minimize lighting the surrounding reef helping the turtle to stand out.

Behaviours to look for:

Feeding: Some sites are excellent to photograph turtles feeding. Hawksbill turtles feed on soft coral and usually ignore what is going on around them giving you great opportunities for close up shots.

Scuba Travel, Turtle, Mario Vitalini, fishinfocus
When photographing turtles feeding be careful with floating particles.

Green Turtles can be seen feeding on seagrass. These areas tend to be very sandy so be aware of the amount of particles in the water column because this may cause backscatter. Marsa Shona, in the Southern Red Sea, is a dive site I love for the reliable opportunities to shoot this behavior, You can visit this site as part of the Shark Quest Photography trip.

Breathing: as all reptiles, turtles need to come to the surface to breathe. This will give you great opportunities to shoot silhouettes.

Resting: Often turtles can be seen sleeping or resting on the reef, approach them carefully not to scare them.

Scuba Travel, Turtles, Mario Vitalini, fishinfocus
Always leave room for a turtle to swim away in case it feels stressed

Word of advice:

Remember that turtles are endangered and as a photographer is our responsibility not to stress them or do anything that may harm them. Always give enough space to the animal to swim away, never trap it. When using strobes avoid multiple shots that may harm the eyes of the turtle

When using strobes avoid multiple shots that may harm the eyes of the turtle. If possible take some test shots on a near part of the reef before moving on the turtle.

Dive with Mario

Mario hosts a number of photography workshops throughout the year with Scuba Travel. From the Red Sea, Indonesia, Caribbean and more.
For UK 1:1 courses you can see more about Mario here