When I was little, I was fascinated with sharks, and at one point I dreamed of being a marine biologist. The closest I came to seeing a shark up-close was through the glass of an aquarium. Yet the great white, to me, was the most impressive and it’s not something that you typically find in captivity, especially when you’re a land-locked child living in Nebraska.
Then, just over a year ago I discovered that there are cage-diving trips in North America that allow you to get up-close to these magnificent beasts. Within a few weeks of this discovery I had booked my first underwater trip to Guadalupe Islands aboard the Nautilus Belle Amie. This one act is what sparked my journey into SCUBA diving and underwater photography. And, now that I’m in the midwest, I’m not sure how much “traditional” diving I will do, but will absolutely continue to make the trip out to Guadalupe every few years to share the waters with these magnificent creatures.
My Underwater Photography Gear
I get a lot of questions about the gear I use for my underwater photography. You can view some of it by going over to my gear page here on this site. For this trip I used my Canon 5D Mark III, a 15mm fisheye lens, and Nauticam NA-5DSR underwater housing. I didn’t use any strobe lights and found that at 30-feet there was plenty of natural light to illuminate the sharks. It also allowed me to play with the light beams coming in from the water overhead, which added some gorgeous ambient background light.
I did bring along my Fujifilm X-T2 camera for some above-water images, but I don’t yet have an underwater housing for it to use it in lieu of the Canon setup. In the future, however, I do hope to switch over to the Fujifilm X Series gear for my underwater photography and would love to use it for a future trip to the Guadalupe Islands.
Camera Settings & Technique
Here are some of the things I learned worked best for me while photographing great white sharks from a cage:
- Lens choice: For lenses, I kept it simple and only used the wide-angle fisheye lens. This allowed me to capture the entire body of the shark, even when up close. A medium or longer lens would give you different photo opportunities, such as the cool/creepy photo of the shark coming straight at you. For my next trip I might consider a wide-zoom lens for a little more flexibility.
- Exposure settings: Because I wanted to photograph the sharks with no motion blur, I chose to use shutter-priority. For almost all of my images the shutter speed was set to 1/500 sec, which turned out to be a good setting to freeze the action of the sharks as they swim by. I also set the ISO to 800, which was a nice balance of allowing enough light into the lens without adding too much digital noise. From there, the camera automatically determined aperture settings for each shot.
- Focus settings: With a wide fisheye lens, the depth of field is so deep that I was able to pre-focus the lens and keep it at that focusing distance for the entire day. The trick I used is to focus on something approximately three feet away, and then use that setting. That gave me in-focus shots nearly every time without the camera messing up and focusing on a weird spot off in the distance.
- A second camera: With one camera encased in a housing (which I only removed about once per day), I wanted to also be able to get some shots of the sharks going after the tuna bait on the surface. When not underwater, this was really fun to watch, and even better when the sharks would jump out of the water! I used my Fujifilm X-T2 and 18–55mm lens to get these shots above-water.
- Composition: The best photos I have are the ones where I could see the shark’s side or belly. It’s best to avoid looking down on the shark. There are exceptions to this, and I have some shark photos to prove it, but you lose a lot of their magnificence when you don’t get the white belly in the frame.
Advice for This Trip
If you are considering embarking on this amazing adventure (and I highly recommend that you do!) then here are a few things to consider before you go:
- Get SCUBA certified! It is not required to be open-water certified to enjoy cage diving, but without certification you are limited to the top cages that float at the surface. To get the best view (and the most comfortable experience) you will want to be in the deeper cages. (See my last bullet point for more info on this.)
- Wear a good wetsuit. I am one of those people who doesn’t get as cold as others, so I was just fine with a 5mm wetsuit (no gloves or hood). Sure, I had a few chilly moments, but I never felt the need for a thicker suit. If you do get chilly, then I would recommend at least a 7mm suit, plus a hood and gloves.
- Pair up with a non-photographer. I was lucky and was paired up with an awesome diver who was happy to move around to allow me to get into some really great positioning for photos. Of course, everyone has a camera, but not all of us have the giant setup like I did. I was one of a handful of serious photographers on the boat, so it was easy for them to spread us out. However, two (or three!) photographers in one cage at the same time means you would have to stay in one spot and can’t move much to get shots out of all sides of the cage. That limits your opportunities, so it’s best to try and pair up with someone who is cool with letting you move into the prime spots as the sharks move around.
- Stay alert! The sharks come from every direction … several times I had a shark go right past me and I didn’t even see it! It’s actually quite fun to spot the sharks … there are usually more than one of them surrounding the boat at any given time, but the best shots are when they get close to your cage. So stay alert and look behind you so you don’t miss them as they swim past.
- Positioning in the cage: The best spot to photograph is on bottom-half of the cage. It’s cool to stand up top with the dive master (and not for the faint of heart!) but there are way too many fish floating around that get in the way of your shots. The dive master in each cage will spread chum in the water to attract the sharks, and that stuff really fogs up the view. I stood on top for about half of one of the divest but stayed below the rest of the time for the better photo ops.
- Go in the lower cages for the best experience. The Nautilus Belle Amie has four cages: one that stays up top at all times (floating on the surface of the water) and three that go to about 30 feet. In order to go in the lower cages you must be SCUBA certified, and if you go on this trip I highly recommend that you get that certification. The floating cage will allow you to see the sharks, but you don’t get to see them up close as often as you do down below, and it’s also a very rocky/bumpy cage (because it sits on the surface of the water). The waters in that area are very calm (thank goodness) but the floating cage can get rough at times.
Great white shark photos from this trip
Please enjoy this gallery of a handful of my favorite images from my trip to the Guadalupe Islands: