One of the greatest perks of spending most of my time in the past few years on the Caribbean side of Mexico, is being a short boat ride away from the largest whale shark feeding event in the world.
Every year, from mid-June to mid-September, hundreds of whale sharks arrive to the area, north of Cancun, close to the small island of Holbox, to feed on a soup of delicious plankton. Quite often they are accompanied by dozens of manta rays that come to check out the action and join the fun. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a wandering sailfish or the occasional dolphin that comes to visit.
This spectacular event has become famous worldwide and is considered one of the most popular activities in the Riviera Maya.
The local authorities are doing a pretty good job protecting these giant fish, by enforcing strict rules and limiting the amount of people, boats, and snorkelers in the water with the sharks. Park rangers constantly patrol the area to make sure rules are enforced.
Underwater photographers from around the world flock to Mexico in these months to witness this event and capture it on their camera. But this is not an easy task! Whale sharks may appear to swim slowly, but each flick of their tail fin goes a long way and it’s quite hard to keep up with them. Lighting conditions in the shallow water may vary according to weather and clouds. Visibility might not be that great due to the amount of plankton in the water. Other snorkelers might get in your frame…
Plenty of challenges! But don’t let that scare you off. Here are my top tips of getting better photos of whale sharks in shallow water:
1. Use a Wide Angle Lens
Whale sharks grow up to 10m / 33ft long. They are massive. Quite often in this activity, they pass very close to you, which is also the best opportunity to snap a great photo! But if you don’t have a wide angle lens, you’ll probably only get part of the whale shark. If you’re lucky it’s the face, if not… well… that won’t be such a great photo.
In addition, because visibility is so-so, you want to shoot as close as possible to get the best contrast and colors. Which again, requires a wide angle lens.
If you’re using a GoPro – great! You already have a wide angle lens.
If you’re using a compact camera – you need a wet wide angle lens.
If you’re using a mirrorless or DSLR, invest in a proper ultra wide or fisheye lens and dome port.
You’ll thank me later…
IMPORTANT TIP – when using a wide angle wet lens on a compact or mirrorless, you will have a hard time dealing with the water line between the lens and port. “Burping” the lens (releasing the bubbles) is usually required to insert water in the gap, which is rather difficult in this fast paced activity.
You have several options:
- Attach the lens with a lanyard to your camera, then burp the lens as usual as fast as you can once you’re in the water. The lanyard will make sure you don’t lose your precious lens to the abyss.
This is the preferred method but may cause you to miss the first couple of shots if you jump really close to the shark.
- When preparing to jump, keep your hand in a bucket of water with the camera ready to go, after burping the lens. By doing this you keep water in the gap and when you jump it will usually stay there. The boat crew can help you with that, just make sure there’s a bucket available.
- Put some insulating tape around the lens connection, either with water or without, to avoid water movement in and out. This method is somewhat questionable and depends if you manage to seal it or not, and whether the tape holds up well.
2. Don’t Use Strobes or Lights
This might be a given, since it’s also not allowed in this case. But even if it was, using a strobe in this scenario is less than ideal.
A strobe might scare off the whale sharks and make them dive down, which will make you very unpopular among your boat buddies.
Using strobes in mediocre visibility requires very long arms, or otherwise will cause a lot of backscatter. This is very difficult to accomplish in shallow water and high speed action photography such as this case.
There is plenty of available light, since all the action takes place on the surface, so really you don’t need any type of lighting, you simply have to work with available light and get the best results with it.
3. Choose the Right Angle
Whale sharks are amazing from any angle, but there are angles in which they look better.
Shooting directly from the front is very powerful, but can also look a bit boring if it’s too far away, or the mouth is closed. If you’re lucky enough to be head-on with one of them, wait for the right moment and swim backwards while shooting so it won’t bump into you. Remember to swim out of their way so you don’t disturb their path
Shooting at a 45 degree angle from the front is the most popular angle. You can get a great shot of their eye, a beautiful glimpse of their body and tail and perhaps even a little vortex of water right in front of their open mouth. Now that’s a great shot!
If you’re stuck behind them, eating their dust, try to get a good shot of their tail fin, by waiting for it to be rather close to you and filling up one side of the photo. Careful they don’t hit you! That could hurt.
Another option from behind is to capture them swimming away, directly at a 180 degree angle from you. If you wait for the right moment when their body has a nice curvy wave shape, you’ll get a great shot.
Some more interesting angles:
4. Try to Get Two (or more!) In One Shot
Most divers would dream of an encounter with one whale shark. If you manage to snap a photo of two or more, they will explode with envy.
In this feeding event, it’s very much possible. When you jump in, stay vigilant, look around you and try to see if another shark passes by. Remember to lift your head once in a while since the boat crew has a better view than you and they will likely let you know if another one is coming.
Sometimes you simply get lucky and two of them simply swim up right in front of you and hand you the shot of a lifetime on a silver platter. You just have to make sure your camera is set up properly!
5. Get Your Camera Settings Right
If you’re using a GoPro, just shoot. It’s mostly automatic so not much to do there.
For those of you using a compact, mirrorless or DSLR, try the following settings:
- Aperture priority mode (AV / A)
- Higher ISO – about 500 or more depending on how bright the day is and how cloudy the sky is. This will help you get a fast shutter speed to capture the action.
- Aperture fairly open (large). If you are using a wet wide angle lens then do close down the aperture a bit to get better corner sharpness.
- Adjust your exposure compensation according to the results. If you’re getting photos that are too bright (usually the case), lower to (-1) or less. If it’s too dark (more rare but could happen with certain cameras), go to the positive side.
- Shoot RAW to make sure you can adjust white balance in post processing and save over / under exposed shots.
* If you’re using the Olympus Tough cameras, then the Underwater Snapshot mode works pretty well.
BONUS TIP – Attempt Split Shots
Shooting split shots (over/ under) can be quite challenging. Choppy sea and fast moving subjects make it even harder! However, I’m sure you love challenges 🙂
The secret here is using burst shooting (continuous), to get plenty of shots to choose from. When you have a good opportunity, place the camera at the water surface as best you can and fire away.
When you think of it, this is one of the best opportunities for split shots since you have amazing subjects very close to the surface. That’s crucial when shooting splits.
A few tips that’ll help you get better split shots:
- Try to keep the focus on the bottom part, either by moving your focus point down or by half-pressing when the camera is pointed down and then lifting slightly up to shoot towards the water line.
- Shoot on continuous burst for rapid photo taking.
- Shoot a bit darker, either with exposure compensation or by adjusting your exposure to be darker on manual mode. This will make sure the sky is not completely washed out and you can save it in Lightroom, as well as brighten up the bottom part of your photo.
- Shoot RAW, for heaven’s sake, if you’re not already doing that.
- Bonus points if you get the boat and a whale shark in the frame!
- Try vertical, it’s sometimes easier since you have more range to capture the split.
- The larger the dome, the easier this type of shot will be.
To Sum it Up…
Swimming with and taking photos of the largest fish in the ocean can be an amazing experience. Always be respectful and remember that you are a guest in their territory, not the other way around.
We are incredibly fortunate to be able to witness such an amazing natural event, taking place right in our backyard.
Hopefully with the tips above, you’ll be able to return home with better photos to show off to your family and friends!
Share with us your own tips on how you managed to take awesome whale shark photos in the comments below!