I was recently asked on our Mexico trip how best to shoot whale sharks from the surface, whilst snorkelling.
I must confess this was the very first time that I had snorkelled with whale sharks myself.
I had seen and shot them whilst diving, but this was a whole different scenario. So what would be my advice to shoot these majestic creatures whilst surface bound?
Well, just because I had never shot them before didn’t mean that I couldn’t predict the likely circumstances.
Having seen folk snorkel with whale sharks before in the Maldives, I had witnessed quite a chaotic scene there, with many people all splashing about and jostling for position.
So I knew that even though it’s better managed at Islas de Mujeres, with only two people per boat allowed in the water, I still envisaged that the surface maybe choppy, and whilst whale sharks may seem relatively majestic and slow, in reality they actually move quite quickly, as you’ll no doubt know if you’ve ever tried to out fin one!
So you may be moving quickly and the shark may be moving quickly. What do you do?
Oh, and another thing, you won’t have a huge amount of time to adjust your camera fully manually, with everything else going on.
So if using the camera completely manually is out, what other options are available to us to allow us to prevent camera shake and subject movement?
Shutter priority which is something available on lots of cameras often marked with an (S) or (Tv) is the most suitable mode. Why?
Well, it allows the camera to still work out the exposure, and adjust things on the fly, but you are able to pick the shutter speed most suitable for the task in hand, with the camera taking over the job of opening or closing the aperture, depending on how much light there is available.
By the way, to give you all the information, I should have said that we weren’t allowed to shoot with our strobes, at this location. This shouldn’t present too much aggro though as we were lucky enough to be blessed with lovely sunshine on the day, but………
Then the light changed and storm clouds bruised the previously azure sky.
What to do?
Well, my answer to our workshoppers was to use Shutter priority as I’ve said, and to guarantee minimal chances of camera shake and subject movement, to pick a shutter speed of 1/500 sec. Some photographers will think that this is quite fast, and that I may be able to get away with 1/250 sec, but research has shown that tiny amounts of camera shake can actually be introduced in speeds as fast as 1/1000 sec. So 1/500 shouldn’t be too fast for the amount of light available, and I had also warned folk that if they hadn’t ever encountered a whale shark before, then their sheer excitement and exuberance, would likely induce shake, and any carefully considered instructions from me would likely go out of the window when clicking away excitedly. So 1/500 it was then.
How though was I to counter the capricious lighting, going from gloomy to sunlit every five minutes?
To hedge their ( and my ) bets I suggested that they also place their cameras into Auto ISO.
ISO is the sensitivity of the sensor, and you pick a higher number as the light is getting lower, so that you are able to choose the shutter speeds and apertures that you wish, regardless (within reason) of the ambient light.
This meant that now their cameras would pick the correct aperture, and if it got too dark and the camera couldn’t pick a wide enough aperture to let the maximum of light in, then when this happened it would pick the next higher or faster ISO automatically.
All of this meant that they could concentrate on getting their shots framed accurately happy in the knowledge that the exposure should hopefully be taken care of, and using a fast shutter speed should iron out any camera shake and subject movement.
After dishing out this advice to all and checking over their cameras, one person presented me with another potential problem. They didn’t have Shutter Priority on their compact camera, was all lost?
No, even those cameras that don’t have specific aperture or shutter priority modes, and tend to pick both those factors for you, nearly always have some sort of sports or action specific program mode. And on selecting this mode, which is usually denoted with a symbol of a runner, or marked as a kids and pets setting, it’s doing pretty much the same thing.
And even though you can’t pin down the specific shutter speed, the cameras exposure algorithm will bias heavily towards the choice of faster shutter speeds, at the expense of the aperture and ISO, so pretty much the same thing to a degree.
So on we sped towards the whale sharks feeding grounds, and when we arrived, we realised that the previous days tally of over fifty creatures, weren’t going to show today.
And in the end we only had two, so everyone got a couple of bites of the cherry, and we ended up in the water twice with these lovely creatures, for a sum total of about a minute.
So every shot was going to have to count.
I also suggested that folk put their cameras onto burst or high speed shooting mode, so that the camera will take a sequence of pictures in rapid succession, again raising their chances of getting an acceptable shot.
This is where from camera to camera things can differ, with some cameras being able to take 3, 5 or even as high as 10 shots a second, sometimes for as few as 10 shots or as many as their memory card will hold, so knowing your own cameras abilities in this instance is useful, as some cameras need to take a bit of a breather after a fast burst, sometimes as long as 10 or 15 secs or so, so this setting needs to be used with a bit of forethought.
All of this advice I did exactly with my own camera, and I had a sum total of about 30 secs with the creature.
And even though we only had a short time, I think that our shooters enjoyed themselves, evident by the broad beams lighting up their faces, after we had finished. Short but definitely very sweet.