Lemon shark at night caught in a photographers strobes
Photographing sharks at night presents a number of unique
challenges which are compounded by the the apprehension that many divers
feel when entering pitch black water with hungry sharks. This is not an
irrational fear because lots of shark species hunt after dark which may
lead to them acting more aggressively around the bait, but the fact that
it is dark does not automatically mean that they will become rabid eating
machines. Unless there is enough stimulus to bring about a feeding frenzy
the sharks will still exercise caution and do their best to avoid divers.
Having said that a safety diver watching your back while you focus your
entire attention through the lens is not a bad idea.
The first challenge to the
shark photographer is how to track the sharks movements with no ambient
light source. This is done by using either an independent modeling light
or one built into the cameras external strobe units. Not only does this
help the photographer locate the sharks in the darkness but if trained in
the same direction as the lens, it creates enough light for the camera to
focus. Without sufficient light the lens will hunt continuously for a
surface with enough illumination to register distance. When using strobes
with built in modeling lights it is tempting to angle the strobes so that
the light beams cross somewhere in front of the camera but if visibility
is questionable it is wise to angle the strobes slightly away from the
middle to avoid backscatter.
The next hurdle is creating enough light behind the
camera to allow the photographer to see what controls he/she is adjusting.
This is best accomplished by a small mask strap light or helmet light.
Another benefit of having this secondary light source is that it gives the
diver the chance to glance around quickly (without dragging the camera) in
order to check for sharks approaching from all directions.
Correctly exposing the sharks white belly against
the deeply contrasting background takes a bit of practice unless you're
shooting TTL. Even then unless the shark is filling the frame the camera
is liable to overcompensate for the surrounding darkness and overexpose
If everything comes together as it did while diving
with these Lemon Sharks, the resulting images will have a much more
dramatic contrast than the same images taken during the day.
In a Nut Shell:
Stay calm but have someone watch your back.
Use strobes with modeling lights to focus correctly on the moving
Use a secondary light on your mask or helmet
Be aware that TTL may overexpose the sharks
Andy Murch is a Photojournalist specializing in
sharks and rays.