For many divers photographing the Great White Shark is a “must do” experience and a way of capturing this unique animal’s presence in its own environment – of which they are truly master of and why they are indeed the apex predator.
Great White Sharks inhabit all the temperate marine waters of the world but given their relatively small & declining global population, and the sheer size of the ocean, the chances of actually seeing one is extremely small. Add to that the fact that if you did see one in the open, you would probably be more concerned with survival than photography, the probability of obtaining a great image diminishes to almost zero…
Therefore photographing the Great White Shark means you have to go them and there are currently three main locations where it is possible (albeit from the safety of a cage) to see them in the open water.
These are the Neptune Islands to the south of Port Lincoln in South Australia, Dyer Island to the southeast of Capetown in South Africa and the Mexican island of Guadalupe off from Baja California.
All three locations support a large resident colony of seals, the high fat food of choice for Great Whites, along with a number of companies who offer expeditions to cage dive with the sharks that gather there – a methodology first developed by the Australian husband & wife team of Ron & Valerie Taylor back in the late 1960’s.
My experience is limited to South Australia, but I have done several trips over the last 17 years and enjoyed every one – even the ones where we saw no sharks, because the whole deal is such a unique experience!
Photographing the Great White Shark – The Sharks
It’s a commonly held perception that blood in the water will send any sharks present in to a feeding frenzy, but when you see actually the Great White Shark in the presence of blood – together with burley and large chunks of “free” tuna the truth is that they are very cautious in their approach and will cruise past the baits multiple times before they will actually go for it.
White sharks are believed to go for days, possibly weeks, without feeding – mainly because when they do feed, it’s on high fat creatures such as seals that provide a tremendous source of sustaining energy.
Therefore, while their innate predatory senses bring them towards the source of the tuna oil slick, whether they actually take the tuna baits seems to be a function of when they last fed and if that was long enough ago that the shark’s hunger overcomes its caution, it will take the bait.
If not, the shark’s appear to cruise the area till they have assessed the situation and then continue their journey – where to, nobody really knows…
The younger sharks are definitely more aggressive & willing to take a risk and are also the ones that can provide the biggest surprise as they often approach the cage from below, where you are least expecting them to come from!
Photographing the Great White Shark – Getting the Images
Technically, photographing the Great White Sharks is a combination of dealing with a fairly fast moving subject in changing ambient light as the shark maneuvers around the cage. Even when the Great Whites are moving slowly, their pace through the water is still quite rapid and so a high shutter speed is required to freeze that motion and get sharp results.
It’s difficult to use a strobe in the cage because you need to be able to poke the housing through the viewing area when the moment is right, but quickly & easily retract it should one of the sharks get too close… Plus with all the blood & burley in the water the strobe would really need to be extended well away from the housing to avoid a lot of backscatter, which would prove to be very cumbersome and difficult to maneuver.
What I found worked the best was to set my camera to matrix metering and shutter priority metering mode, with a shutter speed of at least 1/250 of a second, and allow the camera to set the aperture automatically. At the time I was using a third generation DSLR technology Nikon D300, with a 6 FPS frame rate so was limited to around 400 ISO and all the images on this site were either taken with that, a D100 or were film with a F100 – so pretty old tech!
The lenses I have used most were the Nikon 10.5mm fish-eye on a DSLR and the Sigma 15mm fish-eye on the F100, because when the sharks come in they come close and they are big – so you need a really wide lens to get all of their body in the frame. The average great white you will see in South Australia is 3-4m in length, and the biggest I have personally seen was a 5m monster – so the fish-eye really is needed!
If I was using my current D800 I would use matrix metering, AF-C auto-focus probably set to three-dimensional tracking, shutter priority at 1/500 and auto ISO. For lenses I would still use the 15mm Sigma plus the Nikon 16-35mm rectilinear zoom.
Photographing the Great White Shark – Composition
I was really disappointed with the film images from my very first trip to South Australia as I had repeatedly cut-off half the shark’s body out of the overall image. But it was not until I did a trip with a DSLR, and was able to review my images while in the cage, that I realized what I was doing wrong.
Underwater, the eyes of a Great White appear to be a black & featureless void which draws you to it automatically, and I realized that I was aiming the camera straight at it and cutting off the body of the shark every time. It’s almost as if the shark is hypnotizing you, so magnetic is the pull of the eye that I had to force myself to concentrate on getting the complete shark in the frame whenever possible.
Physically the challenge is to somehow wedge yourself in position so that you can hold your camera properly whilst keeping your arms & elbows inside the cage. Easier said than done when the cage is bobbing about in the chop, but it’s extremely difficult to compose and get a good shot unless you can master this, however I found the most “comfortable” position was in the corner of the cage with my elbow wedged down inside the grab rails on the inside of the cage.
The most dramatic shots of the Great White is probably when it’s going for the bait and has switched into it’s “full attack mode”, with it’s snout up, lower jaw depressed & upper jaw extended to expose it’s teeth & gums in a hideous fashion – all to achieve the maximum opening of it’s mouth, so it can seize it’s prey.
This sequence of events has actually been timed at between 0.75 and 1.78 seconds, which combined with the fact that the shark is moving like a speeding train will explain why a camera with 5 FPS frame rate and fast auto-focus is needed.
The key to getting good images is a combination of the technique described above, being in the right position in the cage and a good shark wrangler on the back of the boat! A good wrangler will know exactly how to give photographers the show they are looking for, with the tricky part getting a Great White to cooperate! What happens is that the tuna bait hangs on a float, which attached to a rope, and when the shark makes a move towards the bait the wrangler on the boat pulls it towards the cage and the waiting photographers.
Sometimes the shark will lazily pursue the bait with mouth half open, looking like it’s considering a quick snack, but if you are lucky a hungry shark will decide that it’s mealtime and really go for it. Often the shark will get the bait before it reaches the cage, which means the bait is in the image – OK, but not as good as the image without the bait…
If you are really lucky, the shark will go in full attack as the bait is pulled in to your corner of the cage so that you can capture the shark really close but without the bait in the image because the wrangler has just pulled it out of the water over the top of the cage.
This is basically as close as you could possibly get to a Great White in full attack mode and live to tell the tale – a truly adrenaline intensive experience! But there is even more to come, as the shark will often vent its frustration on the cage by biting it and shaking it from side to side. When that happens you truly understand the sheer force these incredible creatures posses and why they truly are the apex predator!
Photographing the Great White Shark – When & What to Take?
The big question…. There are no guarantees when it comes to seeing the Great White Shark – they grace you with their presence. However while the optimum time is from June through to September, they have also been seen regularly in March & April and as late as September & October.
The June through to September optimum period is when the seal pups start to feed themselves, which means that they leave the shelter of the shore and venture out to hunt, making them prime targets for the Great Whites…
Obviously camera equipment will be at the top of your list if you are interested in photographing the Great White and wide-angle is the the way to go, with a fish-eye being a very high priority. A wide-angle zoom, such as the 12-24 for Nikon DX or 16-35 for Nikon FX (or the Canon equivalents..) would also very useful. A longer zoom lens is great for surface action when the sharks are around the boat.
I personally do not bother with trying to use a strobe(s) in the cage for the reasons stated above, but if you are planning to do the ocean floor diving offered by Rodney & Andrew Fox offer then you will need to bring one, or two…
The waters of the Spencer Gulf are cold and temperatures of 18-20 deg C (64-68 deg F) are common in summer with winter going down to around 14 (57) degrees, so a dry suit is highly recommended.