Last month I was diving in the Galápagos when a Whale Shark showed up at the stern of our boat. I had never dived with an animal larger than a grouper and I got flustered. By the time I got my act together I was too late to get the pictures I wanted. Any advice for next time?—Bonnie, Nashville, TN
I appreciate Bonnie’s candor, and she can rest assured she isn’t the first photographer to have this experience. Having been there a few times, I think I can offer some advice that will help Bonnie and you take advantage of a photo op with Mr. Big. One of the wonderful things about big, wild animals is no one really knows when or where they will show up. So, be mentally prepared ahead of time. I realize that if you have never had a chance to dive around whales, sharks, dolphins, manatees, Manta Rays and the like, it can be a bit of a catch-22 to suggest that you prepare yourself mentally. However, you can use the photographs that other photographers have created and look at films about big creatures (like the IMAX films produced by Howard and Michele Hall) to develop ideas about the types of images you might like to create. What would those images look like?
Admittedly, things aren’t likely to go according to your plan, but it is much easier to deviate from an existing plan than it is to create one on the fly. And it never ceases to amaze me how various elements of a “photographic plan” jump to the forefront of my mind in the middle of a dive when I have made and reviewed a plan. Scuba.com is a great resource for the type of pictures other divers have taken of "Mr. Big" type shots. Check out the photo contest and look at the "Whales and Sharks" page.
Set up and test your gear. You want your cameras loaded into the housing with the batteries, strobes charged and tested. When possible on dive boats, try to keep an extra charged battery in case Mr. Big shows up. Being familiar with your gear so you can solve problems quickly can make or break you.
Try to get on the sunlit side of the animal, unless you are going for a silhouette. This might sound like an odd piece of advice, but no strobe will light a Whale Shark, Great White Shark or other big animal from head to tail. You can illuminate a face or tail, but a strobe cannot evenly light such big animals. So, if you are able to, take advantage of the sun.
Do what you can to avoid framing a big animal against the dark underside of a boat, a dark reef in the distance or the darkly hued sea floor. Shooting big animals against blue water backgrounds can help your subject stand out in your frame.
Try framing the animals so that you are shooting them coming toward you, but if they get past you, be aware that tails can provide some great subject matter. No doubt about it, we can’t swim as fast as Mr. Big, and you can lose your window of opportunity by trying to do too much. Try to work on a few shots and bracket your exposures for the opportunities you do get. And when composing, try to avoid falling into the trap of putting the leading part of the animal’s head dead center in your frame. Often that means you inadvertently crop the tail out of the picture.
Think silhouettes. Whales, sharks, dolphins, Manta Rays and the like are perfect subjects for creating dramatic silhouettes. You might want to try to frame them in the sunburst to take advantage of the added appeal of shimmering rays of sunlight.
By far, the most important piece of advice I have to offer is don’t let your photography rob you of the experience. No matter what the degree of your photographic success, be sure to enjoy the good fortune of swimming with Mr. Big.
Getting Started: Tips to Help You Photograph Your Diving Buddies
A lot of divers take up underwater photography so they can take pictures of their diving buddies. In some respects, photographing divers is easier than working with marine life because you can always ask for, and usually get, some degree of cooperation from your intended subject. But let’s face it, underwater most of us look a bit awkward. With a lot of bulky equipment, a 2nd stage stuffed in our mouths and color combinations that you aren’t likely to see on the cover of GQ, it’s not easy to make divers look “pretty.”
Equipment: In general terms, point-and-shoot cameras are ideal for creating photographs of divers and diver-sized subjects. Cameras like the Sealife DC 1000 come with 25x zoom and 4 underwater mode settings and are well-suited for photographing subjects two to six feet away from the camera.
Positioning: The most important bit of sage advice that I have to offer is to photograph divers doing something divers naturally do, such as observing or interacting with marine life, taking pictures, bagging a lobster or exploring a shipwreck. Avoid shots that look “posed.”
Eye contact: When you can, try to get a little strobe light into a diver’s mask so that the viewer can see the emotions revealed in facial expressions and eyes. You will need a clear path between your lens and your subject’s face as well as a clear path between their face and your strobe. When you can, you want to avoid the syndrome of a blackened mask. Try to light up your buddies’ faces.
Cropping: Try not to cut out, or “crop,” legs at the ankle or knee, or arms at the wrist or elbow. As a rule, you want to show divers from head to fin tip, from the waist up, bust up or neck up.
Angle: Get down and shoot at a slightly upward angle when possible. An upward angle of orientation often adds dramatic appeal to an image.
Stuff that gets in the way: Keep extraneous hoses, gauges and other pieces of gear out of the immediate foreground. Foreground objects often dominate viewer attention, so unless your buddy’s console is the primary subject of your shot, do what you can to keep it out of the immediate foreground.
Safety in numbers: Shoot a lot of pictures. Use the largest memory card approved by the camera's manufacturer. If you take 10 frames of a single subject doing a specific activity such as a diver feeding a Southern Stingray at Stingray City in Grand Cayman, odds are you will like the composition, exposure and focus better in one or two of the 10 frames than you will in all the rest. No one gets their best possible shot the first time, every time.