How to Photograph Sea Turtles
Sea turtles are always a favourite creature of mine to encounter. They are ancient, beautiful reptiles who must overcome many difficult obstacles in life, starting from when the eggs are first nested. This makes us marvel at their existence all the more.
Unfortunately, sea turtle populations have declined so significantly that all sea turtle species are either threatened or endangered, mostly due to human impact. Luckily, there are many laws and regulations enforced today that have helped their populations grow.
There are also many dedicated and passionate scientists and volunteers who tirelessly work not only to help the turtle populations recover, but to continue growing as well. Even though all sea turtle species are threatened or endangered, it is not too late to make changes in our daily lives to help them (and other species as well)!
Learning more about sea turtles, including why their populations have diminished, is very important. Finding ways in which to help, and spreading awareness to others through images, information, and experiences, will significantly help the turtles now and in the future.
Please note: wildlife and conservation photographers obtain permits to take images of endangered species; my sea turtle hatchling images were taken under permit.
Read more: How to Photograph a Wildlife Story
Spend time in the water without your camera
Before focusing on your camera and getting images of sea turtles, it is very important to focus on becoming a good diver. Whether you’re scuba diving or free diving, you have to be comfortable with your surroundings, your gear, and how your gear works while underwater.
Photography can be very distracting from the environment and can cause tunnel vision; you can even forget to enjoy the dive if you are too focused on getting that ‘perfect’ shot. It’s important to be aware of your surroundings: make sure you aren’t going to disturb the reef, other animals, or other divers.
It is also crucial to understand the meaning of different settings, and how to change them while in the water. This should all be worked out before you dip a toe in the water. I highly recommend practicing on land so you can understand the main components of shooting manually, and how each component influences the others.
The next step is to work out where to find these controls in an underwater housing, as each housing is different. You will need to know how to quickly adjust your controls while you are in the water.
After taking a couple of photographs, take a quick peek in the water to make sure your exposure seems correct. Otherwise, you can wind up with unusable images at the end of the day without even realising!
Where to see and swim with sea turtles
Sea turtles can be found all around the world; there is no single place that is best to see them!
They can be found in virtually every ocean, and it would be difficult to list all of the locations here. However, here are some locations where there is a higher probability of seeing or swimming with sea turtles: Costa Rica, Australia, Florida, the Bahamas, South Pacific islands, Hawaii, Mexico, Indonesia, and Egypt.
It is a good idea to do some research and find out the timings of the mating/nesting seasons if you have plans to try to see them in a specific country or area. I also recommend contacting local sea turtle organisations which might be able to give you more detailed information about the local populations in a specific area.
If you are a scuba diver, you can also contact dive charters and let them know you are interested in seeing turtles. You can ask about the most appropriate season to visit, and find out if they run trips to dive sites where the turtles frequent.
Read more: Photographing a Species In-depth
Free diving versus scuba diving
You can see turtles while either snorkelling/free diving or scuba diving, and your ability to have a close, calm interaction with them will depend on how comfortable and relaxed they are with you.
Some turtles are very curious, and will swim right up to people regardless of whether they have bubbles coming out of them or not. Other turtles can be timid and easily frightened by humans who are blowing loud clusters of bubbles, as well as people who are just casually swimming along without using scuba equipment.
It is possible to encounter turtles either way, but the quality and length of your encounter will depend on whether or not the turtle is comfortable in your presence.
The most important consideration while interacting or swimming with any wild animal is to be respectful, and this is particularly vital for sea turtles. The ocean is their home, we are just visitors. Sea turtles are protected under law, so it is illegal to touch or harass one.
If you are lucky enough to find a turtle on the beach or in the water and want to approach to photograph it, make sure you give it plenty of space. If you see an adult sea turtle on the beach at night, she is most likely coming up to lay her eggs.
Please do not use flashes or lights of any kind, and do not interrupt, approach, or touch her. If startled, a turtle trying to nest will sometimes return to sea prematurely without laying her eggs.
While observing a turtle, be sure to give it plenty of space and do not interfere with any natural behaviours, especially nesting turtles (as stated above), or little baby hatchlings going towards the ocean to start their journey. It is important that you do not obstruct their path or move quickly around them, especially the babies. There could be many more around and you might accidentally step on one.
If you are in the water and see a turtle, I suggest starting out by creating a distance of at least 5 metres between you and them. Observe their behaviour and let them observe you. After watching them for some time, you can slowly float closer (about 3-4m away), but only if they appear to be relaxed. Do not make sudden movements or directly swim at them at a fast speed.
If you want to dive down to a turtle that is at the seabed looking for food or eating, it is good practice to do a few test dives at least 5 metres away, so they can get comfortable with your diving. If after a few dives down the turtle still seems unbothered by your presence, you can attempt to dive a little closer to the turtle.
As long as your behaviour is not influencing their behaviour, and the interaction seems to be amicable, you should be able to continue swimming with the turtle. If you notice that it makes sudden movements away from you, consistently turns its shell towards you, or takes off and swims away, you should create more distance again.
You can slowly try to establish trust once more if you inadvertently spooked them, or you may need to completely leave the turtle alone, depending on what behaviour was demonstrated. Chasing any animal is unacceptable; there is a difference between swimming with an animal and swimming after it. Of course, don’t touch, hold on to, or ride the turtles.
I’d also like to point out the importance of keeping nature wild! Especially in the era of social media, these special places are becoming oversaturated with humans. Tagging certain locations, or even posting images with background buildings or landmarks in them, can create a saturated location where the animals don’t have enough space to be wild anymore.
If too many people are in one area it creates too much pressure on the animals, and there is a high probability that their natural behaviour and habitat will be negatively influenced. It’s important to remember that we are just visitors, and we have a responsibility to keep nature wild.
I get asked on a regular basis to provide specific locations, and each time I politely explain that, out of respect for wildlife, I do not share locations with people. This can be uncomfortable at times, but it is also a great conversation to have, and gives me the chance to explain the importance of respecting wildlife and nature.
After I explain my reasoning people are generally accepting, and also learn more about how social media can negatively impact wildlife. They can then help educate others if something similar comes up in the future.
Camera equipment for underwater photography
There are so many different kinds of cameras and the prices can vary significantly. I think it’s important to set a realistic budget for yourself, and to purchase something that you can afford and will be suitable for you.
GoPros are fantastic cameras and you can’t beat the size, price, and quality, all in one little hand-held camera! They have come a long way and are simple and easy to use, especially for videos. Just keep the GoPro closer to you than the animal itself.
Mid-range compact point and shoot cameras are also small in size and fairly easy to take underwater. An example of one of these is the Olympus TG-6: the quality of the images is great, especially considering the smaller size and more affordable price tag.
DSLR and mirrorless cameras are at the other end of the spectrum, and can be a very expensive investment. There are a lot of moving pieces for this style of camera, and they are often large and unwieldy in the water. However, the quality is undoubtedly incredible, and the ability to print large is an added benefit.
The magic happens behind the lens
It is incredibly important to be aware that, just because you purchase an underwater camera, you won’t necessarily be able to shoot your dream images right away. Slow down, do your research, practice on land, and try to enjoy the experience.
Having a ‘good’ camera can benefit a photographer in many ways, but great images are captured by the person behind the lens, not just the camera. People often tell me that my pictures are beautiful, and ask what kind of camera I use to take them.
This would be the equivalent of saying to a chef that the food they cooked tastes amazing, so it must be down to the pans that they used. I try to remind new photographers of this when that question is asked, because it is important to remember that the more experience you have, the more flavour will be in your work!
Tips for creating underwater images
For all underwater photography, you need to think about strobes and lighting. Strobes are a beneficial addition to shooting underwater, but they can be difficult to get the hang of. They can help a lot with freezing action, showing the true colour of the subject, helping reduce shadows, and increasing sharpness of images.
However, strobes can also increase the amount of backscatter in images, so be careful with how you position them. The ability to use natural light will of course depend on your location. I have barely used my strobes in the last few years, as I usually prefer photographing with natural light.
It’s also important to point out that strobes can negatively influence an animal’s behaviour. They can startle the animal or scare them off, or negatively impact them if the animal was in the process of hunting, eating, or sleeping.
If you are diving and see a sleeping turtle (or any sleeping animal for that matter), observe them from a distance and refrain from approaching, just in case you interrupt or startle them.
A photography rule is that lighting is always better if you keep the sun to your back. You get the largest amount of detail with the sun behind you, as shooting towards the sun will create shadows and diminish details. However, shooting underwater towards the sun produces light rays, which can be a fun added element to your images.
A downside to shooting towards the sun underwater is that you will occasionally get reflections of your lens in your images, particularly if you are shooting with an acrylic dome. At a point in my career an acrylic dome was what I could afford, and I love light rays in my images, so I had to settle with lens reflections – and that’s okay!
One of the most important technical considerations while photographing sea turtles, or any subject, is composing your image well. You should try to keep more space in front of a sea turtle than behind it. It is much more appealing for our brains to comprehend something moving into an open space, rather than moving into a space that isn’t there.
Firstly try to get a few images from side-on. Then take some from above so you can capture the colouration and detail of the shell. Lastly, if it is possible without bothering the turtle, take some from head on.
It is fun to play around with different looks. Sometimes you can focus in on the detail of the turtle, and other times you can focus on the turtle within its environment, e.g., swimming through a pretty reef. These kinds of shots can create a sense of scale for how small a sea turtle is compared to the ocean. Or you could even try to get a split shot!
3. Camera settings
Even though turtles might not move very quickly when they are relaxed, you need to have a fast shutter speed to make sure there won’t be any movement in your images.
I typically start at f/8 and change my ISO to help with exposure, alongside a fast shutter speed of at least 1/250th of a second when shooting with available light (some strobes cannot sync past certain shutter speeds).
I usually vary my focus points from single point to dynamic area, and move the focus point to where the turtle is in the frame. They usually aren’t moving very quickly, so moving the focus point around works well when photographing these creatures.
Please also remember that conditions might not be favourable every time you go out; this is nature, and the weather and animals are not easy to predict.
Try to go out and enjoy nature for what it is, whether you see a sea turtle or not. It makes those moments that much more special when you finally have a successful encounter, or capture an image you have been envisioning for some time.
Know your subject – how to help sea turtles
It is estimated that 1 out of 1,000 hatchlings survive to adulthood, so the odds of a baby turtle making it to reproductive age (25-30 years) is very slim.
The main reasons for such a significant population decline of sea turtles are mostly due to humans, such as poaching, loss of habitat, global warming, by-catch, illegal trade, and other factors. Predation from wildlife is also expected as a contributing factor.
There are many different kinds of programs that help sea turtles. These include protecting and monitoring habitats where turtles nest and forage, reducing chances of entanglement and by-catch, designated roped-off areas to help eliminate boat strikes, and satellite tagging programs that help keep track of migration patterns and lifecycles.
There are also ways that each of us can help. If you are at the beach, you can maintain distance from nesting areas, make sure all outside lights are off at your house at night, and close your blinds during nesting season.
Please pick up any discarded rubbish on the beach (no matter if it is yours or not), and fill in holes or knock over sand creations after playing on the beach, as these could prevent a hatchling from entering the ocean, or could form an obstacle for a nesting turtle. Please do not release balloons for any reason.
I always want to remind people that making a connection with our planet by learning more about the environment and the animals living on land and in the ocean, and establishing a relationship with these beings, will inevitably create a desire to protect our planet and its inhabitants.
As we gain more knowledge and experience, our passion for protecting our natural world and all those who inhabit it will continue to grow as well.
I urge you to get out in nature and enjoy each experience for what it is. Be mindful of how you interact with sea turtles, other wildlife, and other humans. Spread information on better practices, keep learning new things, and encourage others to learn and care about our planet and its beautiful inhabitants.
We can all help make this world a better place.