Photographing Great White Sharks up close and personal
By Dave Fester - December 2016
The Great White Shark. It’s either on your bucket list or it is something that you fear deep inside. For the second time in 3 years, I had the privilege of going to Guadalupe Island off the coast of Mexico in the Baja Peninsula and photographing these amazing creatures up close and personal.
What equipment I used:
Being a semi-pro photographer, of course I wanted to get the best images and so I turned to Rob @ Backscatter.com. Rob came highly recommended to me from a friend who is a NatGeo photographer and has photographed the Great Whites hundreds of times. The last time I went, I had my Canon 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 16-34 lens with an Aquatica housing and a 9.25 inch dome. While I got some nice photos the first time out, the camera was super large and frankly a bit unwieldy in cage where you have limited space.
GoPro Hero 5 Black with Super Suite Dive
This time out, I wanted something a bit smaller, more manageable yet not compromising on photo quality. I also knew that I wanted to capture both photos and videos at the same time to take advantage of this amazing opportunity. I contacted Rob Duncan who is an underwater camera expert where we talked through all my requirements and tradeoffs. After about 30 minutes of discussion, I settled on the new Sony Alpha a6300 with the 16-50mm lens for photo and a GoPro Hero5 Black.
For the underwater housing, I went with Rob’s recommendation of the Nauticam NA-A6300 Underwater housing with the dome port. For the GoPro Hero5, I bought the Super Suite Dive housing. I wanted to connect the GoPro to the Nauticam handles and so Rob hooked me up a special GoPro connector that worked perfectly
Battery life, battery life - it matters!
One of the things that every underwater photographer is concerned about is battery life and while the Sony A6300 has some incredible features, it is not known for great battery life. I purchased 4 batteries and a double charger so I would always be prepared. Each dive was approximately 40 minutes and I never turned the camera off and took approximately 200 pics per dive. The battery was maybe 40% used after each dive and thus the battery lasted 2 full dives. Amazing.
Backscatter - Personalized Service - oh the difference that it makes!
Backscatter shipped all the equipment to me 2 days before I was leaving so I had time to prepare. There were a few things about the Nauticam housing that I needed to be fully educated on before I was on site in Guadalupe.
One of the super cool things that is unique to Backscatter is their personalized service. Rob and I set up a video chat using Zoom (my favorite way to video chat) where Rob was able to give me virtual hands-on setup help and recommendations for optimizing my camera setup. Think about that for a minute – I got the best underwater equipment shipped directly to my house and then had a live video call with the expert to help me be 100% ready. Is that cool or what? In all my years of buying products, I have never seen a company go to such great lengths to make sure I was taken care of!
Ready to go photography the Great Whites!
So I feel 100% ready to go and we head off to the 22 hour boat ride from Ensenada, Mexico to Guadalupe Island – one of the best places in the world to see the Great White Sharks.
Sony A6300 camera setting:
F-Stop set to F8 to F11
White Balance: Underwater (a new setting for the Sony a6300)
Continuous Autofocus (helps as the sharks are always on the move)
Continuous shooting - either Mid or high (to capture the fast moving sharks)
ISO Minimum Shutter Speed set at 1/125th (this guarantees that the moving sharks will not be blurry from motion)
GoPro Setting - I used the GoPro for many different things including:
timelapse shots (sunrise shots – taking a picture every 6 seconds for an hour)
4K video for underwater amazing video
1080p resolution at 120 FPS to enable cool slow motion of the sharks (eating, biting, mouth open, etc).
Canon 5DSR – with the Canon 70-200 IS II Lens for quick above the water action. I took this extra camera so I didn’t have to always grab my Sony which only had the 16-50 lens and wouldn’t get the surface action up close and person. This turned out to be a brilliant idea for quick and easy surface photos.
F-Stop set to F11
ISO - 640
Viewing the pictures and videos at the end of every day
After the dives and even surface shots, I was beyond excited to see the results. I brought along my Microsoft Surface Pro 4 which is lightweight and fast (Intel i7 with 512GB SSD drive) loaded with Lightroom. This was my portable studio which gave me the tools to quickly see, view and adjust any photos or GoPro video. By the way, the Surface is perfect because it is powerful enough to full play and edit all the 4K video I shot. The reason I did this every night is at dinner or in the evening, the crew and other passengers would all sit around and tell stories and show pics/videos.
Back at Home - getting the most out of my pics
I must admit, I was beyond thrilled at the results of the Sony a6300 and also the 4K video from the GoPro. Rob was spot on in saying this was one of the best setups you can have for underwater photography.
One of the things I really wanted to do was turn some of the shots I took of the Great Whites into black and white. I used the free Silver Efex Pro 2 (download free from Google) which does a fantastic job of adjusting the blacks and greys and also highlighting some of the light rays that shown through the water on the sharks.
It's a wrap!
If you are thinking about doing any underwater photography, I highly recommend that you talk to the experts as Backscatter. They test every camera they sell right in Monterey Bay in California so they know what works the best. Couple that with their beyond-great customer sales/service, you can’t go wrong. Now go photo your bucket-list!
If you want more, information, contact me and I would be happy to help!