When photographing pelagics such as sharks the use of strobes is sometimes not possible. This may be because the animals stay to far away or becauselocal rules do not allowe it. Today I will talk about shooting sharks with ambient light.

Scubatravel, Shark Quest, Thresher shark, Shooting sharks with ambient light
A Thresher shark swims over a cleaning station at Monad Shoal in the Philippines. At this site strobes are not allowed and shooting with ambient light is the only option

In today’s blog, I will talk about how to achieve the best possible results out of such situations.

The challenge of shooting sharks with ambient light

I have found there are two main problems when shooting sharks using only ambient light. The first one is the depth. Often the encounters happen in relatively deep water. At depths, the amount of light available is minimal and controlling the exposure is critical to get good results.

Scubatravel, Shark Quest, Hammerhead shark
A school of hammerheads of Daedalus Reef. These sharks are normally encountered at depths of 30mt.

The second problem is the colour of your subject. Sharks are predators and the colouration of their body is meant to hide them. Managing a good separation from the background can be very tricky.

Scubatravel, Shark Quest, Hammerhead
The lack of light at depth meant I had to use a slow shutter speed. the end result was a blurry shot. The colour of the shark also makes it blend into the background.

Hammerheads can be very reflective depending on the direction of the light, and you can use that to your advantage. Try to get the sunlight reflected on the back of the shark to make them stand out from the background.

Techniques of shooting sharks with ambient light

Occasionally we look at pictures of sharks and they look out of focus. This is not always the case. The problem is often caused by motion blur. If the subject is moving fast, you need a shutter speed quick enough to freeze the movement. When using strobes we rely on the light from the flashguns to stop the movement but this is not the case when using ambient light. For this reason, I often use my camera in Shutter Priority mode. This allows me to select the shutter speed and let the camera deal with the aperture.

Because of the reduced ambient light at depth and the fast shutter speed, the aperture may not be wide enough to correctly expose your shot. In this case, your only option is to increase your ISO. This will increase the noise in your picture but I always prefer a slightly grainy image than a blurry or dark one.

Scubatravel, Shark Quest, Hammerhead shark, Shooting sharks with ambient light
By using slightly higher ISO I was able to use a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the movement of this Hammerhead.

Divers behaviour when shooting sharks with ambient light

Your behavior underwater will also make a big difference in the encounter. On trips such as the Shark Quest Photography, we go out an look for hammerhead sharks in the Red Sea. The behavior of the group is very important. Divers need to be as quiet as possible. Nothing we can do regarding our bubbles but any noisemaker device is banned. The last thing you want is to scare the sharks away and ruin the dive for everyone. For the same reason you should never chase the sharks, let them come to you. If you chase them they will certainly swim away.

On previous blogs, I mentioned the importance of keeping the sun on your back when shutting ambient light.  This will get the greatest amount of light on your subject. Always keep this in mind and try to position yourself accordingly.

Positioning yourself

If the hammerheads or any other shark decide to come close, you can in a way persuade them to swim into the right place by slowly position your body in the water column, remember the sharks, generally speaking, will swim in the opposite direction. if you go up, the shark is likely to go down, move to the left and the shark will go right and so on.

When diving the offshore reefs of the Red Sea is not uncommon to see oceanic whitetip sharks in the shallows. These sharks behave completely different than hammerheads, they are not shy at all and will approach divers to investigate giving you some great photo opportunities.

Because the encounters are generally happening in the shallows, The light levels will be much better, to a point when it can be too much, particularly if you are shutting upwards. In this case, it is important to expose for the background to avoid completely overexpose your shot.

These conditions are optimal to try taking silhouettes. Expose for the bright sun on the surface and try to position the shark so the brightest part of the background is behind it.

Scubatravel, Shark Quest, Oceanic Whitetip, Shooting sharks with ambient light
A fast shutter speed and a small aperture will result in an almost black subject on a bright background.

Framing your shot

Every shark calls for a slightly different approach, with hammerheads you want to get a nice view of their characteristic head, Oceanic whitetips look great face on or in silhouettes and Threshers sharks have a very cute little face and fantastic tails.

In any case, I try to get a view from a slightly low angle so I can see the mouth and gills. This results in very dramatic images.

I always recommend avoiding shutting from above, with sharks this can result in some good pictures if you manage to capture the sinuous movent of the shark body. One thing I will try to avoid is to shut from behind. A sharks bottom is rarely attractive.

When framing your picture try to fill the frame with your subject but be very careful not to clip a fin or a tail, this can ruin a photo.

Give your photos some punch

I know some people are not very keen on postproduction, however, when it comes to photos of sharks with ambient light spending some time with your editing software can make a massive difference. a little tweak on the contrast and white balance will dramatically improve your pictures.

Scubatravel, Shark Quest, Thresher shark, Shooting sharks with ambient light
A thresher shark picture straight out of the camera.
Scubatravel, Shark Quest, Thresher shark
After a bit of work on Lightroom, the image looks completely different

Because of the lack of colours in depth do not expect your images to be vibrant and colourful therefore is worth looking at how they will look in black and white. I personally love the way sharks look in monotones and is something I always explore.

Scubatravel, Shark Quest, Thresher shark
The black and white conversion works great on this image of a thresher shark taken in Malapascua Philippines

Join me on the Shark Quest Photography trip on the 30th of may to the southern Red Sea onboard Hurricane to have the opportunity to photograph hammerheads and other sharks.