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How to Photograph Ocean Giants

How to photograph ocean giants

It’s safe to assume that the vast majority of us first brought our cameras underwater with dreams of capturing something truly massive! For me, the allure of photographing large sharks and ocean mammals was simply too much to ignore, as I would (and still do) find myself obsessing over such encounters on an hourly basis.

There’s something about coming face-to-face with an animal much larger than yourself, in an environment that basically forces you to fully commit to that moment, that’s simply euphoric. Being able to photograph these kinds of moments is incredibly special and extremely addictive.

Although big animal photography is rewarding, it comes with many challenges, even for the most experienced underwater shooters.

Photographing mako sharks
A short fin mako approaches closely. 1/2000, F8, ISO 1250

These subjects are often difficult to track down and even harder to approach. Once you finally find a willing participant, the open ocean can be unforgiving, with strong currents and large swells making the technical side of photography quite testing.

Whether you’re a beginner to underwater photography or a seasoned shark-shooter, keep on reading for my guide to photographing the ocean’s giants!

All about wide-angle

There is quite a lot to consider when it comes to capturing large marine species, however, nothing is more important than understanding that this particular task is best suited to wide-angle photography.

How to photograph a whale shark
A Tokina 10-17mm wide-angle lens allows me to get within inches of this whale shark for a clean, sharp image. 1/400, f/6.3, ISO 200.

The term wide-angle refers to any image that has been captured with a lens with a short focal length. Common examples of wide-angle lenses include 16-35mm, 10-20mm, 10-17mm, and 8-15mm. Each of these focal lengths will produce a wider field of view, allowing you to fit more subject matter into the frame.

Now, if you’re fairly new to underwater photography, you may be wondering why on earth you would choose to use such a wide lens, as it would obviously be much more difficult to fill the frame?

One of the primary rules in underwater photography is to get as close as you possibly can to your subject – then get closer again. The idea behind this rule is to minimise the amount of water between your lens and subject as much as possible.

How to photograph ocean giants
The closer you can get to your subject, the better, when it comes to bringing out details and textures. 1/400, f/8, ISO 200.

This is because the further your subject is from your lens, the less colour, detail, and light will be captured, resulting in a poor quality image. By using a wide-angle lens, you will be able to get nice and close to your subject, ensuring a tack-sharp image with crisp details and vibrant colours, while keeping the entire animal in the frame.

Make no mistake, it isn’t always easy, but that’s what makes it so rewarding!

Read more: Underwater Photography Ethics and Code of Conduct

Let’s talk equipment!

Before venturing off on your next adventure in search of ocean giants, you will need to make sure you have the right tools for the job.

1. Choosing a lens

Your choice of lens is perhaps one of the most important pieces of equipment to consider when it comes to capturing something special. The lens you choose will of course depend a lot on the style of image you are aiming to create. However, there are two key points worth considering.

Photographing ocean giants
A tiger shark eyeballs my dome port as it passes by. Captured with a Tokina 10-17mm, allowing the entire shark to be included in the frame. 1/125, f/8, ISO 125.

Firstly, think about the size of the animal you will be shooting, as well as the expected conditions in which you will be diving with them. For example, tiger sharks in the Bahamas are known to come within inches of your camera; for this reason a super wide-angle lens, such as an 8-15mm, would be ideal.

Conversely, humpback whales on the east coast of Australia tend to keep their distance. Therefore, a lens with a bit more reach, such as a 16-35mm, can be more appropriate.

How to photograph ocean megafauna
A lens with the ability to focus closely is important for subjects like this blue shark. 1/1250, f/5.6, ISO 800.

Secondly, you want to ensure your lens is capable of achieving sharp focus, regardless of how closely your subject approaches. Many species will approach incredibly closely, sometimes even making contact with your camera housing.

The last thing you want is an out of focus image because your subject was too curious! Both Nikon and Canon’s 8-15mm, as well as Tokina’s 10-17mm, are excellent options with close focus distances of 5-6 inches.

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

2. Choosing a camera body

Most modern cameras capture images of at least 16mp, which is of course plenty for most functions, whether it be for online use or prints. However, there are benefits to having greater resolution, particularly when it comes to photographing large marine species.

Dwarf minke whale photograph
This dwarf minke whale was a little shy, but was captured with a 45mp camera, allowing it to be cropped while retaining quality. 1/250, f/5.6, ISO 400.

Besides being able to capture more detail, one advantage of having greater resolution is the ability to crop images to enhance your composition, without losing noticeable quality.

Your subjects won’t always want to interact closely, and will sometimes remain a few metres away; an image captured with a 45mp camera will have significantly more potential, and will allow a larger crop than one captured with 16mp.

Fast autofocus is another area that will help your big animal photography. Many large species in the ocean move incredibly quickly, sometimes only allowing a fraction of a second to lock focus and capture a frame. A camera capable of quick, reliable autofocus is a big help.

How to photograph dolphins underwater
A couple of bottlenose dolphins captured with continuous shooting mode during a close pass. 1/200, f/9, ISO 100.

Lastly, consider the speed at which a camera is able to shoot continuous frames. The ability to shoot at 7 frames per second or faster can be a useful function, particularly for quick encounters, such as bottlenose dolphins making a close pass.

Read more: How to Choose Your Best Images After a Shoot

3. Strobes vs natural light

Strobes can greatly assist your images by enhancing colour, details, and sharpness. However, deciding whether or not you will use them when it comes to photographing large species depends on a few factors.

Photographing large animals underwater
A curious blue shark captured with natural light. 1/1000, f6.3, ISO 640.

The majority of big animal encounters will take place from a boat, and you will be required to enter and exit the water multiple times throughout the day. Strobes are generally large and heavy, making them more hassle than they are worth in these types of fast-paced situations.

Leaving the strobes behind will allow you to be much quicker in and out of the water, improving your chances of a good encounter. 

Other situations, however, are well suited to strobe lighting, such as the shark diving that takes place in the Bahamas. Here, you remain stationary on the seafloor while many different species of shark cruise by.

How to photograph sharks
A Caribbean reef shark captured with strobe lighting. 1/200, f/9, ISO 100.

At the end of the day, the decision of shooting with strobes or natural light will largely be determined by personal preference. Always research your target species, as well as the dive conditions, and weigh up the pros and cons.

Read more: A Guide to Using Flash with Wildlife

Recommended camera settings

Camera settings are of course going to vary a lot depending on the speed of the animal and the light available, as well as your personal preference as a photographer. Before entering the water, however, it’s helpful to have a rough idea regarding your focus settings, as well as your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

How to photograph large animals underwater
Utilising multiple focus points assisted in capturing this image of a large fever of mobula rays. 1/160, f/5, ISO 160.

1. Focus modes

Check your focus mode is set to continuous autofocus, as well as enabling as many focus points as your camera allows. Almost all big species will be in a constant state of motion during an encounter. Therefore, it’s important to be able to lock focus as quickly as possible.

2. Shutter speed, aperture, and ISO

Your settings will vary quite a lot, depending on whether you are using strobes or relying on natural light. This is primarily because strobes usually have a maximum sync speed, which limits your shutter speed to about 1/250.

Photographing sharks underwater
A lemon shark turns on a dime on the Great Barrier Reef. 1/250, f/9, ISO 320.

Shooting with strobes

A shutter speed of 1/250, coupled with an aperture of f/8, is a great place to start. ISO can then be adjusted as required to help balance exposure. However, remember to keep it within the parameters of your camera. Increasing ISO too high will introduce excessive noise into your image.

Keep strobe power set low to moderate, to ensure a quick recycle time. Many big animal encounters will last only a few seconds. You want your strobes to be able to fire in quick succession, to capture multiple frames of the interaction. A short burst of light from a close distance is often all that’s required.

Photographing animals underwater
Keeping strobe power low helps with recycle time, improving your chance of capturing a quick subject like this eagle ray. 1/250, f/9, ISO 320.

Enter the water with your strobes positioned just a few inches either side of your dome port. As a general rule, the closer your subject approaches, the closer the strobes should be to your dome port, and vice versa.

Take a few test shots of your dive buddy at the same distance you are hoping to photograph your target species, and review. Make sure the exposure is optimal and the backscatter (particle) is minimal.

Shooting with natural light

Without the assistance of external lighting, you will need to rely on a faster shutter speed in order to freeze the action. A shutter speed of at least 1/500 is a good starting point.

You will likely have to open up the aperture nice and large (low f number) to compensate for exposure. Similarly to above, ISO can be adjusted as required. However, remember to avoid any excessive noise in your image.

Photographing sharks underwater
A faster shutter speed is important for quick subjects, such as this mako shark. 1/100, f/6.3, ISO 800.

When shooting with natural light it can be helpful to switch your camera to continuous shooting mode. Many big animal encounters are fast and fleeting, and the ability to shoot multiple frames per second can be the difference between achieving the shot and missing it.

However, remember to always remain deliberate in your composition. It can be tempting to utilise the ‘spray-and-pray’ technique, however this rarely pays off, and often results in poorly composed, out of focus images.

Read more: Composition in Wildlife Photography – Getting Creative

Different tips for different animals  

Once you start interacting with a variety of different species, you will quickly learn how differently many of them behave. For example, sea lions often respond well to lots of movement, noise, and splashing, whereas grey nurse sharks require a calm, still approach.

Grey nurse shark photograph
A slow and steady approach was required to capture this grey nurse shark. 1/200, f/8, ISO 500.

Read on for some specific tips on capturing exciting images of sharks, sea lions, and whales.

1. Sharks

While sharks are not everyone’s cup of tea, there is no denying that a close-up image of a mako or bull shark will wow just about anybody!

How to photograph mako sharks
Mako sharks are many things; shy isn’t one of them! 1/1000, f/6.3, ISO 800.

Safety

The vast majority of sharks pose no threat to you as a diver, and are definitely not the mindless killers they have been portrayed to be over the years.

They are, however, still wild animals, and must always be approached with respect and caution. Only dive with reputable operators that have extensive experience with the particular species, and follow their directions at all times.

Behaviour

Typical behaviours vary quite a lot between species. For example, blue sharks are known to be quite inquisitive towards divers, whereas blacktip reef sharks will tend to swim away as you approach.

One behaviour that is shared amongst most shark species is particularly useful to be aware of as a photographer: sharks are highly sensitive to eye contact. Making use of your peripheral vision, and avoiding looking directly at the shark as it approaches, can significantly improve your chance of having a close interaction.

Shooting tips

Sharks have a number of interesting anatomical features, including their sharp teeth, iconic dorsal fins, and eyes. Keep these key features in mind when composing your images.

Focus on the details! Sharks often have interesting mating scars, as well as many fine details around their snouts and eyes, such as their ampullae of Lorenzini (electroreceptors). Emphasis on these details can greatly enhance an image.

Always prioritise a fast shutter speed when photographing sharks. Many species move very quickly through the water and will turn even quicker at the last second, often resulting in motion blur around their snouts. A fast shutter speed and deliberate focusing through the viewfinder will help.

Using strobes to photograph animals underwater
Keep strobe power low to prevent overexposure of their reflective skin. 1/125, f/7.1, ISO 250.

Many species of shark have reflective skin, making them easy to overexpose. Keeping strobe power low, as well as being mindful of your ISO, is useful for preventing this.

2. Sea lions

Sea lions are a lot of fun, and very cooperative when it comes to photography!

Safety

Sea lions are well known to be very safe for humans to swim with. However, as is the case with all wild animals, it’s important to always approach with respect and caution.

How to photograph seals underwater
Be prepared for very close interactions and lots of laughs! 1/320, f/8, ISO 320.

While the smaller pups just want to play, the much larger bulls can be territorial and are usually best avoided.

Behaviour

Divers can expect to be playfully nibbled, nudged, and, in some cases, even sat on! Sea lions are an absolute joy to shoot, and will happily provide you with endless compositions while approaching literally 1 to 2 inches from your dome port.

Shooting tips

Sea lions move insanely quickly and like to show off their impressive agility. A fast shutter speed is vital, even if you have to enhance the ISO a little more than you would usually like to balance the exposure.

Don’t be afraid to shoot your strobes at a slightly faster shutter speed than typically allowed. Many strobes have a maximum sync speed of 1/250, but can be fired at 1/320, or even 1/400.

However, you will start to see black banding on the tops and bottoms of the images, where the strobes have been too slow. Keep this in mind when composing your images, knowing that you will have to apply a crop in post-production.

How to photograph animals underwater
If you’re willing to crop the image in post-production, exceeding your strobes’ max sync speed is a great way to freeze those extra-fast moments. 1/500, f/8, ISO 320.

A super wide-angle lens, such as 8-15mm, is most appropriate due to the closeness with which the sea lions will consistently approach.

Have fun with them! Diving with sea lions is unique in that noise, movement, and splashing actually tend to improve interactions. Brightly coloured fins can also turn into a sea lion’s favourite toy – anything to get their attention!

3. Whales

Many divers consider interactions with various species of whale as the holy grail when it comes to photography.

How to photograph whales underwater
Close encounters aren’t always common but, when they happen, they are amazing! 1/1250, f/5, ISO 800.

Although they’re not always easy to photograph, it is an extremely rewarding experience to simply occupy the same space as these ocean giants!

Safety

Whales are not inherently dangerous towards humans. However, they are very large wild animals, and should be treated as such. Always go with a reputable operator and listen to the skipper’s directions.

Behaviour

Behaviour varies quite a lot between specific species, as well as where in the world you are diving with them. Some whales, such as dwarf minkes or humpbacks, have specific migrations that they take part in each year, allowing for great photographic opportunities for divers.

How to photograph ocean giants
Many say you can feel a whale’s intelligence through its eyes. Where possible, aim to include them in your composition. 1/250, f/5.6, ISO 400.

While super close passes are not to be expected, they can occur, so it pays to be ready!

Shooting tips

Leave the strobes behind. Most encounters with whales will take place on the water’s surface where there is plenty of light, and will also involve a lot of getting in and out of the boat. Shooting continuous frames is a great way to improve your chances of getting that one perfect image during a close pass.

Similarly to sharks, whales often have a number of iconic features, such as the tail fluke, eyes, and of course their immense size. Aim to make these features central points in your images.

In conclusion

Photographing the ocean’s megafauna is not an easy task, but I promise you that the chase alone is rewarding within itself.

The above tips and tricks will give you a great starting point but, ultimately, it’s up to you to grab your camera and get shooting!

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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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