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How to Photograph Manta Rays

how to photograph manta rays

When it comes to the world of underwater photography, few species elicit the same degree of excitement as the majestic manta ray. Their often curious and charismatic demeanour, coupled with their notable size, puts them on the bucket list of just about every photographer to ever don a mask and fins.

Luckily, for the majority of divers around the world, it’s likely that you won’t have to travel too far to experience some manta magic, as there are currently multiple known locations around the globe.

With that being said, diving with manta rays and photographing them are two entirely different things. Photographing manta rays can be an incredibly rewarding experience, however, it can be equally frustrating if you find yourself unprepared for the encounter.

The following guide delves into everything you need to know to ensure you’re well prepared to capture that dream shot the next time you find yourself eye-to-eye with one of these ocean giants.

Some background about manta rays

Manta rays are known to be highly intelligent, and are in fact the largest species of ray in the world. Divers who have experience with manta rays will agree that this high level of intelligence is noticeable within the first few minutes of an interaction.

The unique way in which they often approach, with a healthy degree of self-preservation and a strong sense of curiosity, is unlike many other species of ray.

The term manta ray actually encompasses two different sub-species: reef mantas and oceanic mantas. Reef mantas are found relatively close to shore, usually on specific reefs or dive sites. This type of manta ray generally grows to a maximum width of three to four metres.

On the other hand oceanic mantas are much larger, growing up to seven metres across. These mantas are pelagic in nature, meaning they spend their lives cruising the deep blue.

how to photograph manta rays
Oceanic manta rays at Revillagigedo Archipelago are known to enjoy scuba diving bubbles, which makes them excellent subjects (1/160, f/8, ISO 100).

Regardless of the type of manta ray you are diving with, it’s safe to assume you’re in for a truly unforgettable experience, with the potential for some amazing photographic opportunities!

Where to photograph manta rays

As mentioned already, there are a number of locations around the world where interactions with manta rays are not just possible, but are actually highly likely. Reef mantas typically frequent tropical and sub-tropical waters, whereas the oceanic variety have been sighted in temperate regions as well.

Manta rays can be seen at a number of popular diving destinations, including Australia, the Maldives, Hawaii, Mexico, and Indonesia, just to name a few (there are many more!).

Two particular destinations that, in my opinion, really stand out when it comes to photography are Lady Elliot Island in Australia, and the Revillagigedo Archipelago in Mexico.

Lady Elliot Island, Australia

Shallow depths, excellent visibility, and endless hours with lots of mantas: a recipe for some amazing images!

Lady Elliot Island is a coral cay located approximately 85 kilometres off the east coast of Australia. The surrounding waters make up the southern region of the Great Barrier Reef, and are an amazing spot for manta ray photography.

photographing manta rays underwater
Shooting close to the surface will enhance your images with increased light and interesting ocean textures (1/160, f/8, ISO 250).

While finding an oceanic manta in these waters is highly unlikely, reef mantas are common year-round, and can be found in large numbers between the months of May and August.

Lady Elliot is a great destination for scuba divers, however, it’s the freediving and snorkelling that really deliver the best photographic opportunities. A big reason for this is that mantas are found directly off the shore.

moanta ray photograph underwater
A reef manta glides towards the camera in the sunlight (1/160, f/8, ISO 250).

Being able to swim out to the site by yourself allows for maximum time in the water, as well as being able to focus on the rays without the distraction of having many other people in the area.

Revillagigedo Archipelago, Mexico 

With constant close encounters with oceanic manta rays basically guaranteed, it’s easy to understand why many divers rate the Revillagigedo Archipelago as the best destination in the world to photograph the species.

A 24 hour boat ride via liveaboard is required to reach this destination, but the rewards are well worth the effort!

This location is all about the oceanic variety, which are seen at just about every dive site in the area in large numbers. The primary reason why this site is rated so highly amongst photographers is due to the way in which the mantas behave.

photographing manta rays underwater
Facing up to an oceanic manta ray, San Benedicto Island of the Revillagigedo Archipelago (1/100, f/11, ISO 160).

The mantas of the archipelago seek out human interaction much more deliberately than at other destinations, and appear to enjoy the sensation of scuba diving bubbles on their bellies.

It’s not hard to imagine how having oceanic mantas lining up to hover above your head for extended periods of time would be quite helpful when it comes to composing images!

Scuba diving versus snorkelling

With the exception of photographing the bubble-loving manta rays of the Revillagigedo Archipelago, freediving or snorkelling is generally the preferred choice when it comes to photographing manta rays. Most mantas that you encounter will be a little more hesitant to approach closely in the presence of excessive bubble blowing.

how to photograph manta rays overhead
Minimising scuba diving bubbles and staying very still will go a long way in encouraging a manta to swim directly overhead. (1/200, f/8, ISO 250).

Freediving allows for much greater manoeuvrability, and is also a lot less noisy and disruptive underwater. This often results in a more relaxed manta ray, and therefore a longer encounter allowing for more photographic opportunities.

Read more: Underwater Photography Ethics and Code of Conduct

Manta ray behaviour

Although curious, manta rays are also quite cautious, and won’t hesitate to leave the area within a heartbeat if they feel anything other than calm and relaxed.

A melanistic (or black) manta ray in blue water
A melanistic (or black) manta ray glides down towards the camera in beautiful blue water (1/160, f/13, ISO 200).

For this reason, it’s very important for photographers to remain calm and composed, and always observe the animal for a few minutes before approaching for an image.

How to approach manta rays

Allowing the manta to become comfortable in your presence is extremely important. If scuba diving, minimise your bubbles as much as possible and avoid any sudden movements. If freediving, spend your first few dives giving the manta plenty of space, and monitor how it reacts to your presence.

How to photograph manta rays underwater
Manta rays often glide closely above the sea floor. The sandy bottom can be a nice addition to your composition (1/160, f/9, ISO 320).

Remember, if the manta appears at all disturbed, swim away and hope to find another one. Even if you somehow manage to capture a photograph of an agitated manta ray, I can promise you it won’t be the image you want!

Read more: Photographing a Species In-depth

Anticipation is key

While observing, take note of what the manta ray is doing. Is it being cleaned by cleaner wrasse? Is it feeding? Is it gliding in the water column? The answers to these questions will help you plan how to position yourself for the best possible encounter.

photograph of manta ray in deep blue waters
Shooting into empty blue water is a great way to place a greater emphasis on the manta ray itself (1/200, f/4.5, ISO 160).

It’s not uncommon for manta rays to follow a regular loop while on a specific dive site. Identifying such information will go a long way in helping you anticipate the movements of the manta, which in turn will significantly improve your images.

Hope for feeding manta rays

Images captured during feeding events are the holy grail of manta ray photography. Nothing says ‘wow’ quite like an image of the enormous open mouth of a hungry manta as it engulfs large quantities of plankton.

Manta rays will usually be seen feeding on the surface, making this behaviour much more suitable to photograph while snorkelling or freediving. When feeding, mantas are typically focused on their meal and, as a result, behave much more boldly than usual, which is of course perfect for photography.

photograph of a feeding manta ray
A feeding manta is a photographer’s dream. Stay calm, move slowly, and be ready to capture the moment (1/200, f/9, ISO 320).

If you happen to see mantas swimming on the surface of the water, assume they are feeding and observe them for a minute or two. Approach slowly until you can see the rays underwater, avoiding any sudden movements. With a bit of luck you may have a manta ray turn inches from your camera, in spectacular fashion!

Camera equipment

As with all wildlife photography, your equipment plays an important role when it comes to capturing a successful image. I can’t stress enough that you don’t need an expensive camera to capture something special.

Camera settings for photographing manta rays underwater
Manta rays swim in a constant state of motion. A camera capable of fast, accurate autofocus is extremely helpful in capturing the moment (1/200, f/9, ISO 125).

Some of the best manta ray images I’ve seen have been the product of a small, compact camera. With that being said, having the best equipment for the job will only help in your quest for jaw-dropping imagery.

Read more: What Equipment Do You Need for Underwater Photography?

Camera body

A camera capable of fast autofocus is important when it comes to manta ray photography. The quicker your camera is able to lock onto the subject, the better. The ability to use high speed, continuous shooting can also be very useful, particularly for photographers who prefer to shoot with natural light.

Camera lenses

When photographing manta rays, a wide-angle lens is your best option. Underwater photography is largely about getting as close as you can to your subject, to minimise the loss of light, contrast, and sharpness.

Wide-angle lenses also tend to have very close focusing abilities, which will allow you to get nice and close to capture all the intricate details on the manta ray’s body.

swimming manta ray photograph
Manta rays swimming in midwater make for a range of interesting compositions (1/250, f/8, ISO 250).

For full frame shooters, a fisheye lens, such as the 8-15mm from either Nikon or Canon, is an excellent choice. If using a cropped sensor, the ever popular Tokina 10-17mm is the way to go.

Strobes or natural light?

Natural light and strobe photography each have their place when it comes to capturing manta rays.

External lighting can be extremely beneficial for adding colour and sharpness to an image, as well as offering more potential compositions. However, strobes are typically large, bulky, and heavy, and it can be quite a nuisance to have to swim with all that extra weight.

black and white photograph of manta ray
Black and white images can be a great way to emphasise the manta ray’s details and textures (1/320, f/13, ISO 250).

If scuba diving, strobes are highly recommended in order to avoid blue and green washed images. If freediving the choice becomes more a matter of preference, as you will likely have plenty of available light between the surface and about 10 metres deep.

Regardless of how you dive, if your dream manta image is one of high contrast, detail, and sharpness, strobes will go a long way in helping you achieve your vision.

Read more: How to Choose a Strobe for Underwater Photography

Camera settings

There are obviously no ‘correct’ settings for capturing a particular subject when it comes to photography. Each photographer will always have their own style. However, it’s always helpful to have an idea on where to start for a particular subject.

Focus settings

Before entering the water, make sure your camera’s focus settings are appropriate for the task at hand. Due to manta rays being in a constant state of motion, a continuous autofocus mode is ideal, as well as utilising as many focus points as your camera allows.

When shooting, always keep an eye on the viewfinder as much as possible, to line up your primary focus point on your subject.

Shutter speed, aperture, and ISO

Depending on whether you are shooting with or without external lighting, your settings will vary.

using strobes in underwater photography
Using strobes allows you to shoot into the sunlight while retaining the natural colours of the manta, and avoiding creating a silhouette (1/250, f/7, ISO 100).

This is mostly due to strobes having a maximum sync speed, which usually limits you to a max shutter speed of 1/250.

Read more: 6 Mistakes to Avoid When Taking Underwater Photos

Shooting with strobes

A shutter speed between 1/160 and 1/250, coupled with an aperture of f/8, is a good place to start when entering the water. ISO can then be used to balance exposure, however, remember to keep it within the parameters of your camera to avoid excessive noise.

Keep strobe power low to moderate, to allow for a quick recycle time. This is important, in order to allow for successive captures during a close interaction. Besides, a small burst of light from a close distance is often all that’s required, and will not disturb the manta ray.

photographing manta rays underwater
Manta rays frequently display a high level of curiosity. A wide-angle lens capable of close focusing, such as the Nikon 8-15mm, is perfect for the job (1/200, f/8, ISO 400).

Lastly, be mindful of the position of your strobes, to ensure a nice exposure while minimising backscatter. Start with each strobe positioned just a few inches from either side of your dome port.

Once in the water, take a few test shots of your dive buddy, and move each strobe either closer or further away from the dome to fine tune your lighting.

Read more: 5 Easy Ways to Avoid Backscatter in Underwater Photos

Shooting with natural light

Shooting with natural light means you will typically require a faster shutter speed in order to achieve a sharp image. A shutter speed of 1/500 or quicker is a good starting point to ensure you are able to freeze the motion of the manta ray. Open the aperture up nice and large (low f stop) to help balance for exposure, and adjust ISO slightly to fine tune.

Utilising your camera’s continuous shooting mode can be helpful for capturing multiple frames of a single close pass. However, remember to stay deliberate in your composition.

Shooting a fish-eye lens from a distance can be a great way to compose manta ray images
Shooting a fish-eye lens from a distance can be a great way to compose manta ray images (1/160, f/9, ISO 320).

It can be tempting to shoot freely and hope for the best; this rarely pays off and will likely lead to many out of focus images. Always keep your eye on the view finder and think about the image you are creating.

Read more: 13 Ways to Improve Your Underwater Photos

Tips for composition

Now that you have knowledge on manta behaviour, useful equipment, and suggested camera settings, the next and final step is to have a plan for the kinds of images you are aiming to capture.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when composing manta ray images.

composition tips for photographing manta rays underwater
A reef manta captured with a downwards angle can help emphasise their size (1/200, f/8, ISO 320).

Always approach manta rays slowly, first and foremost respecting the animal. Swimming towards them quickly or making sudden movements will startle the manta, resulting in a poor composition.

A general rule in underwater photography is to try and shoot in an upwards direction, to capture more light and involve more interesting scenery. This rule holds true for manta rays as well. However, rules are made to be broken! Shooting various downwards angles of the manta can provide greater emphasis on their sheer size.

Manta rays have a number of interesting features, including their unique underbellies, cephalic lobes, eyes, and wide-stretching pectoral fins. Aim to make either one or two of these features key points of your images.

Aim to photograph manta rays in as shallow water as possible. More available light means better colour, contrast, and sharpness, as well as offering interesting ocean textures along the surface of the water.

how to photograph manta rays
A reef manta squares up to the camera on the surface at Lady Elliot Island (1/250, f/8, ISO 250).

Be aware of the sun at all times, and use it to your advantage. If using strobes, shooting towards the sun can dramatically enhance your composition, by shooting sun bursts. If shooting with natural light, keeping the sun at your back will enhance colour, contrast, and sharpness.

Read more: Composition in Wildlife Photography: Getting Creative

In conclusion

So, there you have it: my guide to photographing manta rays. There is quite a lot to consider when it comes to photographing these majestic rays. However, my best piece of advice is to simply book a dive trip and get into the water with them!

Of course, keep all the technical stuff in mind but, as with all forms of photography, the most growth comes from getting out there and having a go!

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Visit Josh's website

Josh Blank is an underwater photographer based on the east coast of Australia. Josh’s passion lies in photographing the larger marine species that inhabit our oceans and aims to inspire as many people as possible to take an interest in the underwater world. He believes that underwater imagery is the best way to protect our oceans by showing people the beauty that exists beneath the waves.

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