How to Take Underwater Photos of Sharks!

On a recent trip to New Zealand I was able to knock off a few of my bucketlist items. One of which is a long time both photography bucketlist item as well as just life bucketlist item... Swimming and photographing sharks.  

Sony a6500, Sigma 19mm | f/4.5, 1/160th, ISO 1250

Sony a6500, Sigma 19mm | f/4.5, 1/160th, ISO 1250

 

Now there are a lot of ways to photograph sharks.  You could go to an aquarium, or go to the Bahamas and photograph harmless Nurse Sharks.  But I wanted to go all out.  I wanted to photograph Great White Sharks...  Why?  Because men live shorter than women for a reason and it seemed like a great idea at the time.  

I ended up going with a company called Shark Experiences out of Bluff, New Zealand.  These guys do daily trips between Bluff and Stewart Island where you get in the water with some seriously monstrous Great Whites.  

How to Get There

I flew into Queenstown and then made my way south to Invergcargill via rental car.  You could fly straight there if you wanted.  I ended up staying at the Lodges at Transport World.  I mention this because it was one of the best places I stayed during my two week trip down there and it's highly recommended. From Invercargill it's about a 25 min drive south to Bluff where the company is located. 

Once at Bluff you board the company boat which was big enough to fit around 10 of us plus the crew.  It was then a solid hour boat ride to Stewart Island is some pretty choppy seas.  About half the boat was sick but I promise you it was worth it. 

Along the way we also saw some pretty incredible sea-life to include some huge Albatros.

Sony A7RIII, 100-400mm GM | f/5.4, 1/5000, ISO 400

Sony A7RIII, 100-400mm GM | f/5.4, 1/5000, ISO 400

The Gear

For the underwater stuff I ordered a Meikon Underwater Housing Unit.  It had some reputable reviews and was within my budget... Which wasn't very high considering I was already spending quite a bit to get down to the shark diving area and for the shark diving itself.  I will do a full blown review of this item later but for now I will say... it was good enough, kinda.  The whole set up was good, not great and I had a lot of issues. 

For my lens I used a Sigma 19mm which in all honesty... sucked.  Although I couldn't expect much more for a lens in that price range.  I had focusing issues all day and I kept having to turn my camera on and off to get it to work properly.  This caused me to miss quite a few shots.  

The the camera I used was a Sony a6500.  This is my travel camera and the underwater unit for it was a lot cheaper and was readily available.  

I also brought along my A7RIII in the event there were some shots that I could take from the boat like the one above of the Albatross. 

The Shoot

So I originally went online and tried to find the best settings and I started with this:

Aperture- 2.8

Shutter speed- 1/160th

ISO- Automatic

Flash- On

Focus- Continuous Automatic

Focus point- Wide

White Balance- Sony's underwater setting 

On my first trip down there was a huge Great White and I started snapping away.  I quickly started having issues.  The flash started to pick up the particles in the water as you can see in the first shot.  I also had a ton of autofocus issues with the camera.  Every time I would try to focus the camera was focusing on the wrong subject and almost all of the shots, minus the first photo in this blog, were blurry.  I also found out that the flash can sometimes scare the sharks which was good to know.  

The second time around I decided to change the settings a bit.  I ended up slowing the shutter speed to 1/90 since the sharks were fairly slow moving and I decided to up the aperture so I could get a little more in focus in the event the autofocus wasn't working properly.  

Sony a6500, Sigma 16mm | f/4, 1/60

Sony a6500, Sigma 16mm | f/4, 1/60

The second trip down was a lot more successful.  As soon as I got down I saw a few Great Whites and they were moving close enough for me to get some decent shots.  The picture above is of the shark about 6' away.  It's fairly crisp and I was lucky enough to get him with his mouth open. 

After about 3-4 minutes I again started having issues with my autofocus and every shot after that ended up being a loss because the Sigma lens wouldn't function with the camera.  I kept having to turn it on and off and eventually it just stopped. The problem is that the Meikon Housing did not work with the manual focus of the Sigma lens.  So I couldn't manually focus the lens using the housing unit.  So I was fully dependent on the autofocus.  

I decided to get out of the water and go for one more option.  I kept the shutter speed and aperture and then decided to manually focus the lens on the boat to an object that was about as far away as most of the sharks were swimming.  I then put the camera back in the housing with the autofocus off and got back into the water. 

I also put my drive mode to high.  My thought was that as the sharks were swimming towards me I could start snapping and the camera could run until the sharks went out of the focus range.... It worked!! 

The next trip down most of the shots were in focus.  The only issue is that I only had a brief shark sighting.  

New Zealand-40.jpg
New Zealand-39.jpg

What I learned:

All in all this was a huge learning experience but there are a few key takeaways...

1) Buy good quality equipment- I tried to go cheap this time and in the end it bit me hard.  I could have three times as many usable photos had I opted for a lens that wasn't going to malfunction or a better housing unit.  I tried to keep the budget low and while it helped my wallet, it almost kept me from getting anything at all.  

2) Don't be afraid of a high ISO- Most of my shots were well over 1000 ISO.  I had the camera decide the ISO by putting the ISO on manual mode.  ISO typically makes photos grainy the higher it gets but for this I needed the depth of field and shutter speed to be on point.  I am glad I allowed the camera to get some high ISO shots as it really helped get a few great shots. 

3) Flash underwater sucks- Of the three opportunities I had to photograph the sharks, the flash ruined one of them.  I also couldn't figure out how to turn it off underwater.  So I guess I should add, "know your equipment", to this list... 

4) Use manual focus underwater- Had my housing unit been able to manually focus the sigma lens I would be looking a lot better right now.  Again, I wish I would have splurged for more better quality equipment that could actually capture the shot.  

Conclusion

All in all, this was probably one of the toughest photography experiences I've ever had.  I wish I could go and do it again but given the cost of the entire experience I don't think it's something I will do again anytime soon.  I am happy that I was able to figure out how to find a solution in the end and I am elated that I was able to get a few usable shots.  All in all this was an awesome experience and one that I won't forget.  

New Zealand-43.jpg

 

 

 

 

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