In this common
eagle ray image the sand is unusually dark which makes it much easier to
expose the subject correctly.
can be a frustrating element in underwater photography especially in shark
and ray photography. It is usually Brighter and more reflective than the
subject so it over exposes easily (for this reason it also throws off TTL
settings), it is easily stirred up by divers or wave action and resettles
painfully slowly. It also presents a bland background to the viewer that
renders the majority of stingray images unappealing except for their
So what can you do about the
exposure problems? ...not much. Any time you're faced with a lighter
background than your subject you face difficulties. You want to draw the
eye towards the subject but it naturally concentrates on the brightest
area. When your background is bright because you are shooting up towards
the sun you have a couple of choices; you can resign yourself to
shooting an attractive silhouette of a shark with a sun splash behind
it, or you can use a really bright flash to expose the animal correctly.
The background will not over expose because although it is bright your
flash has no effect on it. If shooting a ray laying on the sand like the
one above its not so simple. In trying to expose the detail on the ray
correctly you are likely to end up with a blown out background. The
reason this eagle ray
looks ok is that it is also light colored so the problems were minimized.
Below is an example of a much darker round stingray that is partly lost in
shadow because the sand was so bright that I couldn't use any more flash
without overexposing it.
The best defense against this is to get as low as
possible and shoot almost horizontally while angling your strobes slightly
upward so that they light up the ray fairly well But cast
minimal light on the sand. This also tends to create a more dramatic image
than if you shoot the ray from above. Unfortunately this brings us to the
Siltation. There isn't
much you can do about the surge kicking up sand but there are ways to
minimize your own impact on the visibility. For starters, you need
impeccable buoyancy skills. Bouncing across a sand flat in pursuit of a
petrified stingray is not going to help you get that winning shot. Yes,
its obvious but there's more to it than meets the eye. Here are some of
the specific skills you should possess when shooting above sand or silt
(or in any underwater environment). It will potentially improve your
results if you can:
Remain completely horizontal in the water column
without holding on to anything (with or without your camera and with your
camera in different positions)
Make vertical adjustments just using the air in
your lungs (you can even do this when diving with a rebreather if you try
hard - even though they say you cant).
Swim using a frog kick rather than a scissor kick.
Swim backwards without using you hands (this one is
The only way to get good at these skills is to
practice them. When you first try to frog kick it isn't that hard (a bit
like doing breast stroke when swimming on the surface) but its tiring and
frustrating to have to swim along like that for long distances until you
get used to it. After a while however, you'll wonder why you ever finned
any other way. It is physically impossible to swim along scissor
kicking 12 inches above the sand without creating a sandstorm. Repeat the
same route while carefully frog kicking and you wont move a single
grain. That's why cave divers use this kick - because if they silt up the
cave they wont just ruin the picture, they may never find their way out. The same goes for the other
skills; practice them and they will serve you well when that shot of a
lifetime comes along.
Become a human tripod.
Settling next to a ray in the sand can ruin the shot you're trying to get
but its tough to hover on the spot long enough to compose images
without drifting out of position. It makes total sense to let your fins
touch lightly on the sand 6ft back where they wont silt things up. Now if
you breathe out and sink to the seabed whoosh. A fine blanket of sand
puffs into the water column creating that irritating snowstorm look. Some photographers avoid this by bringing along a poker to rest
on that has such a small surface area that it doesn't disturb anything.
It can be as elaborate as a custom machined stainless steel underwater
photographers resting pointer or as simple as an old screwdriver as long
as it does the job.
Composition. In my
experience, many stingrays tend to hang out quite close to the reef. This
makes sense as a lot of them eat reef
creatures that don't venture too far from home. So if you have the option try to put the reef
behind the ray. Breaking up the
background with a bit of coral will make all the difference to the mood of
Spooking the subject.
Stingrays are not happy when approached from above and there is a good
reason for this. They are a staple food of a variety of sharks including
hammerheads which swim over them and pin them to the sand. Therefore they
often bolt if you hover menacingly over them. The best way to approach a
resting ray is to creep up as low as possible. Do not head straight at the
ray and avoid eye contact (remember that your camera and strobes look like
huge eyes too). If it starts to twitch its pectoral fins either stop and
drop to the sand or veer off a little as if you didn't see it. Now while
the ray is deciding whether you are a threat or not you can play with your
camera (still not looking at the ray) and set up your exposure. Maybe fire
a test shot at the sand near the ray to get it used to the flash and to
see if your strobe settings are blowing out the sand. Now you can close in
a little and casually aim more towards the stingray. I've played this game
many times and it doesn't always work but with a lot of patience you can
sometimes convince a ray that you either don't see it or that you are not
a threat. If it works you can turn a 10 second chase and shoot session
into a 10 minute composition opportunity.
In a Nut Shell:
Shoot horizontally if you can and point your strobes slightly upward.
Do whatever you can to improve your buoyancy.
Get a poker to prop yourself up on to avoid stirring up the sand.
Try to put something interesting in the background.
Approach stingrays slowly from the side.
Avoid eye contact and threatening motions.
Andy Murch works as a Photographer for Shark Diver