Sometimes, the largest of animals can be the hardest to photograph well underwater. Sure, a whale shark (if it is near you) is a lot easier to spot than a pygmy seahorse, but to actually capture the essence of the animal in a creative image can be tricky. This month, I would like to share a few techniques I have learned over the years that have helped me capture some of my more memorable big animal photographs.
|Wide-angle zoom lens: Caribbean Reef Sharks, Bahamas|
When shooting larger animals underwater, photographers will typically select a wide-angle lens, unless they are trying to do something highly specific, like capturing the perfect shot of a turtle's eyeball. There is quite a variety of choices in the wide-angle realm, including wide-angle zooms, which offer more flexibility. The downside of wide-angle zooms is that they usually require a diopter to be placed on the end of the lens so that the optics match up properly with the dome port of your housing. Otherwise, you will find that while the centers of your images are nicely in focus, the edges are somewhat blurred.
Before choosing a lens, though, and long before getting in the water, I try to learn as much as possible about my next dive and what animals I might encounter; I then rig up my system accordingly.
Shooting from a Distance: If I don't feel reasonably sure that I will be able to get close to my large animal subject, I will chose a wide-angle zoom like my Nikkor 17-35mm. This lens offers me the flexibility to zoom in and out on my subject, depending on my distance to it and what I am trying to do with the image. The downside to this choice is less depth of field than I normally want.
|Fisheye lens: Manta Ray, Indonesia|
Shooting Up Close: On the other hand, if I have a good idea that I will be able to get extremely close to the animals (within arm's length), my favorite lens to use, by far, is the fisheye. With my full-frame sensor Nikon D3X, I use a Sigma 15mm fisheye. (I used to use Nikon's 10.5 mm fisheye lens with the crop frame cameras that I had in the past. Canon and other manufacturers offer similar fisheye lenses for their equipment.) The really nice thing about the fisheye lens is that it offers incredible depth of field, so that almost everything in your image—from four inches away to infinity—is tack sharp (if focused properly).
One downside to the fisheye, though, is that unless you are very close to your subject or it is extremely large, it may not fill much of the frame, and the resulting image will have a lot of negative space (just empty blue water, if properly exposed). Another negative to the fisheye is that it does distort the image, relative to what our eyes see in reality. After all, the lens has to jam almost 180 degrees of view into one frame. For that reason, I try to avoid using the fisheye when photographing people, as they tend to be pretty unhappy with the resulting images that make them look like they gained 80 lbs!
Speaking of people, I find that including a diver in your big animal image can really help the viewer put the animal's size into perspective. As well, the story you are trying to tell with your photographs isn't necessarily only about the animal, but also our interaction with it. The diver in the following image gives the viewer a very clear idea of how big the animal is.
You can also get creative with this type of shot by varying the perspective of the camera, animal, and diver relative to each other to make one subject appear much larger than the other, as I did in the following image.
Although the subject animal is certainly large, it appears in the image to be even larger because it is much closer to the lens (within 18 inches in both images). Conversely, the diver is farther away from the lens, and appears smaller.
|Feral Pig, Bahamas|
The grouper in the photo above wasn't moving terribly quickly, so I was able to freeze the action by using a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second, which is fairly slow for big animal photography. However, when you are really close to fast-moving animals, you need to use the fastest shutter speed possible to freeze the action, or you will end up with blurring. With many underwater strobes and the manner in which they "sync" with a camera, the fastest speed you may be able to use is 1/160 second. Definitely check your camera and strobe manuals to determine the fastest shutter speed at which they can synchronize.
The photos above and below are two examples of images in which I used the fastest speed available on my system (1/160) to do my best to freeze the movement of the animal and avoid blurring.
|Squadron of Mobula Rays, Papua New Guinea|
Another thing to keep in mind is that your camera works in a vertical position, too! Don't forget to try shooting some images in "portrait" format, rather than the traditional "landscape." I still find that I have to remind myself of this point from time to time, as it requires the repositioning of strobes, strobe arms, etc. It is just plain easier to keep shooting horizontally, but often vertical framing is definitely the way to go, as in the case of this Mobula ray image.
* * * *
While underwater wide-angle photography is certainly more challenging than shooting macro, and big, fast-moving subjects present additional challenges, experimenting with some of the techniques I describe above should help you improve your wide-angle shooting skills dramatically. Don't forget, this is the digital era, and making mistakes is no big deal. Go ahead. Try different angles, super-slow shutter speeds, unusual strobe positions, etc. If you don't like the results, you can delete them and keep on tinkering until you are happy with your shots. Is this a great world, or what?!
Just try to keep in mind the basic things we discussed in previous columns about proper exposure and composition, and remember to get as close as you can to your subject (without touching it or disturbing its environment!). Great things will happen.
Until next time, have fun, dive safe, and be a responsible diver.
To view more of Jeff's work, log on to: www.jeffyonover.com 
Back to Jeff Yonover's Underwater Photo Tips »