Oceanic whitetip sharks (Carcharhinus longimanus) are without a doubt one of the most magnificent sharks you can encounter. Their curious nature makes them some of the easier sharks to encounter. Do not underestimate this great fish, not in vain they are at the top of the food chain.
In the next article, I’ll try to give some tips to ensure you come back with pictures you will be proud of.
These sharks are a common sight on the offshore reefs of the Egyptian Red Sea where they use to hang around the boats. From the months of October to March you are almost guaranteed to encounter them.
Oceanic whitetips can be found at depth but they are more likely to be seen in the first 6 meters, a usual encounter during safety stops.
Photographing these sharks is not complicated and you normally will have the chance to take more than a couple of shots. The most recurrent problems I see is overexposed backgrounds. Backscatter and blown-out shark bellies are also frequent issues.
Balance the light
Keep your strobes far apart and use low power. This will help you to deal with backscatter and reduced the risk of overexposing their underside.
Try to take a few test shots before the sharks show up so you have your camera set for a pleasant blue. The shooter speed will have no effect on your foreground, lit by your flashguns but will dramatically reduce the background exposure. This gives you a much more pleasant background and will freeze the movement of your subjects.
Sequential shooting with strobes will be limited by the recycling time of the flashguns. Setting them to low power will reduce the time needed to recharge. Try to anticipate the sharks’ movement and do not shoot until you have the shot framed. I found this will give you more consistent results.
With ambient light
If the sharks are not coming close and stay at a distance greater than 2 meters turn your strobes off. You will end up lighting the water column and not your subject, this will only increase the risk of backscatter.
Shooting with ambient light is trickier. You will have to expose for the shark increasing the risk of blowing the surface and lose contrast.
To avoid this make sure you always keep the sun behind you. This way it will light the subject and not the water column. If this is not possible think about silhouettes and expose for the background.
You may have to increase the ISO more than what you normally do.
When shooting sharks my preferred lens is a wide-angle, a fisheye is normally too wide and you will end up with subjects that are too small in the frame. Longimanus are a bit different as their curiosity will bring them close to divers. I would recommend having a chat with your dive guides, they generally dive the area regularly and can let you know how “friendly” the sharks are, you can make your lens choice based on the current behaviour.
Do not despair if you have the wrong lens, normally you will have the opportunity to do more than one dive and can always change it for the next one.
Pictures that impress
The composition is essential to have an impressive picture. The rules that apply for other subjects are equally valid for these sharks. Make sure you shoot the shark from the front and if possible try to get good eye contact. Avoid shooting the shark when is swimming away, this rarely yields interesting photos.
Oceanics normally stay around divers and will swim close to you repeatedly. Try to anticipate where the shark is going and put yourself in the best possible position. When the shark is coming to you get a bit lower if you want it to swim above you or higher if you want it to pass below. They will almost certainly take the route opposite to yours.
Aim for the eye
Good eye contact will increase the punch of your picture. A slightly lower angle will show the mouth adding a lot of dynamism.
Is a good practice to look at the corners of your shot and not focus entirely on your subjects, distracting elements such as parts of divers or bubbles can ruin what otherwise would be a great photo.
Shooting from above can sometimes give you great images, do not discard this point of view. Make sure you are positioned right above the shark and try to capture the sinuous movement.
If the colours of your shot are not the best or even if you are very happy with your picture why don’t try some black and white treatment in post-production? it will add a lot of atmosphere and dramatism to your pics.
Word of advice
Oceanic whitetips are top predators and should never be underestimated. Never snorkel with the sharks, underwater you are at an equal level and have freedom of movement but on the surface you are vulnerable.
Always keep an eye on the sharks and do not let yourself fooled into following them away from the reef. Stay with your dive buddy or with your group, isolated divers are more vulnerable.
For the opportunity of photographing oceanic whitetip and other sharks join Mario on the Shark Quest photography trip next December.
Mario is well known for his patient, calm approach to teaching underwater photography – he will help you develop new skills and build your confidence in a relaxed and fun environment.