PHOTOGRAPHING LEMON SNAPS,
SPLITS OR OVER/UNDERS
Call them what you want, this
is the ultimate guide to shooting better split frame shark
WHERE TO TAKE AMAZING
SPLIT FRAME SHARK IMAGES
When it comes to sharks, the process of shooting close
quarter, over/under images has a lot more to do with
logistics than F-stops. The first hurdle is to find an
accommodating aggregation of sharks that are bold enough to
approach your camera without getting so agitated that the
encounter becomes too dangerous for you or the sharks.
Think back to any image that you have seen recently of a
tiger or lemon shark framed perfectly in front of a tropical
sunset and I’d put money on it that the image was taken at
For those that have not had the pleasure of diving this
infamous spot, Tiger Beach is a shallow sand bank (with no
land in sight) reachable from West Palm Beach by liveaboard.
TB offers virtually guaranteed encounters with large schools
of impressively sized lemon sharks and a handful of resident
tigers. When the light gets too low to continue shooting
underwater, many divers drag themselves back on deck and
hang from the swim step in an attempt to capture shots of
the sharks breaching on their cameras.
Another great spot for
shooting shark splits is Guadalupe Island off the Pacific coast of
Mexico. This white shark hot-spot offers world class
white cage diving encounters but by
sitting on top of the cages between dives, it is possible to
get incredible white shark splits. Remember to hold on tight
with your free hand because the sharks often bump the cages.
Guadaulpe is not a good place to fall in the water
ENTER THE SHARK WRANGLER
Even when surrounded by a score of large, excited sharks, it
is not easy to get in exactly the right position to nail a
perfect split-frame head shot. To optimize the chances of a
shark swimming directly at your dome port you need a bait
The wrangler takes a fishing pole, hand line or simply holds
a scrap of fish a short distance from the swim step. He/she
then leads the shark towards your location. Once the shark
is a foot or two away from your dome port, the wrangler
allows it to snap at the bait, whipping it out of the frame
a split second before you trip the shutter.
It takes skill and experience to conduct this maneuver
without either the shark snatching the morsel and swimming
away, or the shark crashing into your camera (or the boat -
which is inexcusable).
THE PROS AND CONS OF HAND CAMMING
from a bobbing, freshly gritted swim step, while trying to
hold a heavy camera housing at the perfect height for split
frame images, can be a painful and frustrating experience.
Consequently, some well prepared shooters bring a pole cam
along which allows them to adopt a more comfortable stance
and keeps all of their appendages out of harm’s way. Some
fancy pole cam rigs even come with goggles that allow the
photographer to see what the camera in pointing at.
I prefer to hand cam (which
simply means holding your housing in one or both hands and
dangling it in the water). There are a number of reasons for
Firstly, time is limited during the magic hour when these
images are possible and I like the ability to quickly review
my pics and to manipulate my camera and strobe controls in
order to compensate as the light fades.
Secondly, you can use floats to keep your housing at the
right height but they’re cumbersome and unreliable. When
dangling from your right hand, your camera housing should
hang in a natural vertical orientation with your finger
resting on the trigger. In this position, your elbow works
as a shock absorber; quickly responding to the up and down
movement of the ship. It is difficult to get that same
control with a pole cam.
Thirdly, it puts you close enough to wipe the sticky bubbles
off of your dome with your free hand. Try doing that from
6ft away at the other end of a pole.
Lastly, when attempting these shots, there is the inevitable
moment when a shark will make contact with your dome port. I
have seen dome shades disintegrate on impact, acrylic domes
scratched beyond the healing power of Novus #3 Scratch
Remover and housings walloped so hard that they sprang open,
resulting in an immediate and catastrophic flood. Holding
onto the actual housing allows you to haul it out of danger
faster than you would if it were dangling from a pole. There
is no reason why you can’t react quickly with a pole cam too
but I feel that hand camming shaves off a nanosecond or two
when you really need it.
MORE ON CAMERA ORIENTATION
Once you’ve got your system set up its time to choose a
camera orientation. I like to shoot verticals. Partly its
because my housing is easier to dangle vertically but also
because I am looking for split frame compositions where the
submerged subject is low in the frame and the skyline or
topside subject is also worthy of attention.
Perhaps most importantly, a vertical orientation helps to
keep the waterline in the frame. You may not always get it
dead centre but you have more leeway if your frame is taller
than longer. You can always crop to a landscape in post if
you feel that the composition warrants it.
WORKING WITH AMBIENT LIGHT
ABOVE AND BELOW THE WATER
Assuming that the boat is
actually swinging in the right direction to bring the sunset
into the equation, expose the sunset first.
Depending on the ambient light that is left, you’ll either
have darkish blue/green water or complete blackness below
the surface. There isn’t much you can do about this.
Obviously, you’re going to light the shark with your strobes
but you can’t crank up the ISO to compensate for the dark
water because it will blow out the sunset. Enjoy the sharp
contrast this ultimately creates and move on.
USE A FAST SHUTTER SPEED
The lemon sharks at Tiger
Beach generally come in slowly but they snap open their jaws
at lightning speed when they’re lunging at the bait.
Depending on the nature of the shots that you are after,
your shutter speed could be anywhere between about 1/250th
and 1/2000th. You can try shooting even faster but remember
that you’re relying on your strobes which have a maximum
sinc speed of 1/250th or sometimes 1/320th of a second. If
you are using housed land strobes you can shoot much faster.
ROLL WITH THE FADING LIGHT
Don’t get lazy or lost in the
moment. At sunset the light changes every minute. Keep
reviewing your histogram and highlights and slowly dial up
your ISO or open your aperture as the sun sinks lower below
the horizon. It actually gets easier as the sun gets lower
and less intense. And, night split shots can be fun too.
MORE ON STROBES
Working with strobes within a few inches of a shark can be
challenging. Forget about avoiding backscatter. Position
your strobes close to your dome and point them inwards. If
you don’t do this you’ll miss the shark’s nose as it brushes
past your dome port resulting in a very annoying dark patch.
Give TTL a try if you like, but be prepared to switch to
manual strobe settings if the shark’s bellies and snouts are
Time is not on your side, so rather than wasting it on trial
and error strobe exposure, use your guide numbers (estimate
a strobe distance of 6 inches from your subject) or find a
whitish surface on the boat and set your strobe power
against that. Chances are that you will end up working on
the lowest settings you have and using your strongest strobe
diffusers to lessen their output. If they’re still too
bright, pull them backwards and outwards but keep your
strobes pointed at a spot just in front of your dome.
If possible, try to position one strobe in air and one in
water. If both your strobes are in one medium or the other,
then you run the risk of the light reflecting off of the
surface and only illuminating half of your subject.
WATCH THAT WATER LINE!
If your lens has the
amazingly short minimum focal distance of some fisheye prime
lenses or the popular Tokina 10-17, then you run the risk of
it focusing on the actual waterline where it is hitting the
dome port. Some lenses won’t focus that close but mine does.
To avoid this showstopper, set your spot focus on the bottom
third of your frame where (most of the time) it will pick up
on the shark and not the waterline.
AUTO OR MANUAL FOCUS?
Both have their merits.
Autofocus is an easy option that can work very well in calm
conditions but if you preset your focus to cover the
range between a few inches and a few feet, then you should -
in theory - get every shot in focus. You will also be
able to shoot extremely quickly without any lag while your
camera hunts for the subject. This is a key issue when you
have a split second to nail a mouth open shot when the
shark's thrashing movements and choppy sea conditions are
producing a lot of bubbles.
To preset your focus simply
take a shot of an object a few inches in front of the camera
while it is underwater and then physically switch your camera body to manual focus.
All DSLRs have this function.
Note that if your subject
gets even closer than expected, your preset focus may not be
sharp where the shark is physically touching your dome port!
BE A GOOD AMBASSADOR FOR
One last thought. Everybody wants to take home a dramatic
looking mouth gape shot - me too. But when composing your
images, spend a little time thinking about the message they
will convey about sharks to others. Images bristling with
teeth may be provocative but my favorite swim step images
show sharks in a more inquisitive light. Vary the timing of
your shots to capture the shark’s approach, not just it’s
bite. You can also try holding you camera just above the
water while the shark’s teeth are hidden below the surface.
The results can be just as dramatic.
WHO SAYS YOU CAN'T
PRACTICE SPLIT FRAME PHOTOGRAPHY AT HOME :)
Andy Murch is a fanatical big
animal photographer. His images and shark stories have
appeared in hundreds of books and magazines around the world
from titles as varied as National Geographic, Scuba Diving,
FHM, Digital Photography Magazine and the Journal of
Andy is the Creator of
the ever expanding
Shark and Ray Field Guide on