fishinfocus, Mario Vitalini< scalloped Hammerhead,

Sharks are always a highlight on a dive trip. And if that shark is a hammerhead, you can guarantee smiles on everyone’s face. However, they tend not to be the best sharks for photographers, especially if you encountered them in the blue.

Personally, I have had mixed success when trying to photograph hammerheads. We all learn through our failures.  After many disappointing attempts, I want to share some of my hard earned tips on getting that great hammer shot.

scalloped hammerhead, fishinfocus, Scuba Travel, Caroline Vitalini
A curious hammerhead swims close by

The challenge:

Sharks are generally shy fish, avoiding divers and being scared of the noise from our bubbles, Hammerheads tend to be among the most timid of the family. Simply getting close enough to fill the frame can be hard work without spooking the hammers.

Edwar Herreño, Undersea Hunter, hammerhead
Hammerheads schooling around Cocos Island in Costarrica

You can see these graceful sharks at almost any depth, but they usually hang in the low 30s or even deeper, this makes the ambient light completely monochromatic and very low.  For this reason ,most of the shots I’ve seen of hammerheads are very dark. Add to this diving in the blue on deep drop offs, and the conditions make it very difficult for photographers, I have been lucky enough to dive most of these destinations, haven’t been able to come back with any great pictures. Loads of fantastic memories but nothing on my computer. The strong currents and depth are among the main contributing factors to the lack of good results.

Tips and tricks for success

On top of all the possible tips to get a great hammerhead shot I would say “Pick the right location at the right time of the year”. In my opinion, Daedalus reef in Egypt is one of the best places to shoot this bizarre fish. There you tend to be drifting in the blue. Currents are not a major problem. Hammerheads year around but late April to early June is the best time to see them. The water temperature is not too hot and the sharks tend to be a bit shallower than later in the year. The shallower the better!

Check out the Shark Quest itinerary – designed to give you great opportunities, timing the right reef with the right season, to photograph hammerheads and many other sharks.

The golden triangle of hammerheads between Galapagos, Cocos and Malpelo islands is the most reliable place area for vast schools.  Here, the hammerheads gather in great numbers but more importantly for photographers will come close to you in the cleaning stations. This proximity is your friend with a camera.

Hammerheads in the blue

Try to breathe in a relaxed way and do not exhale abruptly as this will scare the sharks. Once they get spooked they won’tt show again for the rest of the dive.

scalloped hammerhead, fishinfocus, Scuba Travel, Mario Vitalini
A group of divers observe a hammerhead in the blue, short after a group of about 8 sharks swam by.

Once you spot the shark, be patient, do not swim towards the it. They are curious creatures and will come relatively close to check you out. The first one you will see is normally a male coming to check out those strange and noisy creatures that blow bubbles. If they are happy with you, they will swim away and then drive the group close so they can also “see” the divers. At this point, they will be more relaxed and you will be able to approach them a bit easier.

Because getting close to the hammerheads is not very easy, fish-eye and very wide angle lenses are not a good choice. A normal wide angle zoom lens or even the kit lens is, in my opinion, the best choice. On my last trip to Egypt, I was diving with a fish-eye lens while my wife had the wide angle zoom. Her shots were much better than mine.

scalloped hammerhead, fishinfocus, Scuba Travel, Mario Vitalini, Caroline Vitalini
A fish eye lens -left image- is too wide for your subject to fill the frame. A basic wide angle such as a 28mm is a better option

Using strobes can spook the sharks and in most cases, the animal will be so far away that the light from your flashguns won’t reach the subject. Instead they will light all the particles in front of the camera creating back scatter. If the hammer comes close enough for you to use the strobes, remove the diffusers to ensure maximum reach.

Encounters happen normally at below 25 meters, at this depth the light is monochromatic (all the colours except for blue have disappeared) and therefore trying to use white balance is not normally advisable. You will end up with pink or even purple images.

hammerhead shark
Silhuetted hammerhead

In the Pacific islands (Galapagos, Cocos, Malpelo and Socorro) you can see huge numbers of hammerheads schooling, This offer great silhouette opportunities. Often the sharks will swim above you and if this happens, be prepared. Point the camera to the surface, turn off your strobes and select a very fast shutter speed – the closer you are to the sharks the better the resolution will be.

Hammerheads on the reef

In places such as Cocos or Galapagos, the school of sharks often come very close to the reef where individuals come to cleaning stations.  This offers great opportunities to shoot hammers at a close range. Tray to hide within the reef and if possible hold your breath when you see the shark approaching ,so your bubbles do not scare it. Keep your strobes far behind and a relatively low power so you don’t overexpose the bright underside.

Hammerhead coming close to the reef to be clean.

Try to stay as close as possible to the reef so you can shoot the shark from underneath. having a clear view of the mouth will make your picture much more dramatic and interesting.

When framing your shot make sure you do not clip the shark tail or any of it’s fins.

Your shots came out blue, what to do?

Often hammerhead pictures come out blue and monochromatic, this is because the lack of colours at depth and strobe to subject distance. Do not despair! There is always a good solution for this problem –  the good old “Black and White edit”.

fishinfocus, Mario Vitalini< scalloped Hammerhead,
A black and white treatment can bring great amount of detail and contrast to your hammerhead shots

You can turn your images to black and white in many ways in your editing software. If you can control the saturation of the picture, turn it to “0” and this will make the image black and white. Some photo editors have their own converters or plug-ins that will give you a lot of flexibility controlling the different tones of grey as well as the contrast.

Dive with Mario Vitalini on escorted photo workshops

Mario hosts a number of photography workshops throughout the year with Scuba Travel. From the Red Sea, Indonesia, Maldives and more… you can read more about Marios escorted trips here
For UK 1:1 courses you can see more about Mario here