Want to learn how to capture the unique personality and characteristics of your favourite marine animals? This is something I do daily here on the Ningaloo reef and I hope I can share some of my photographic experience with you.
Me photographing a Whale Shark on the Ningaloo Reef. Photo by Oliver Clarke
FIRST OF ALL, WHAT IS A PORTRAIT?
The classical definition of a portrait goes something like this "A portrait is a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person, in which the face and its expressions are predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person." - Wikipedia
With wildlife portrait photography we aim to achieve the same outcomes. But unlike with humans, wild animals won't just sit for you in front of your lens patiently while you adjust your settings and lighting. You need to be prepared to get your photo as soon as the moment presents itself. Capturing a good photograph of an animal takes mostly time but also a lot of patience. You want to not only capture a nice photo of your subject, but also capture it in a way that shows something that is unique about that particular animal. You want to aim to have it facing or looking and moving toward the lens, by doing this you will likely capture its personality and characteristics.
Bottlenose Dolphin, Ningaloo Reef Settings use: ISO 200 f8 1/400s
CHOOSING YOUR GEAR
For most cases when shooting marine life portraits you will need a wide-angle or fisheye lens. As most animals are quite large, you want to be able to get close while also fitting as much of the animal in frame as you can (unless you are shooting macro critters, choose a macro lens). I shoot with a Canon 8-15mm Fisheye lens which is amazing for these kinds of shots. Another important thing about shooting with a wide lens is that it will limit the amount of water particles between your lens and subject. Thus your photos will look sharper and clearer even with lower visibility. You want to aim to get as close as you can to your subject to get the clearest and sharpest photo, but this is where it gets tricky. Generally most animals don't want their photo taken, so keep reading to find out my tricks on dealing with this. In terms of choosing a camera, this greatly depends on your budget. But something with full manual control is a must as well as interchangeable lenses. Small point and shoot cameras can be very limiting.
Sea Lion, Jurien Bay Settings use: ISO 400 f6.3 1/1000s
CHOOSING YOUR SETTINGS
One thing that really daunts people shooting manual for the first time is how to choose your camera settings. Advice will vary depending on who you ask but let me share my techniques with you.
First of all with shooting moving subjects, shutter speed is super important to achieve a sharp image. As a minimum I always have my camera set to 1/200sec or faster if I can depending on available light. Most shots I have my shutter speed on 1/400-1/500sec. But if it's a cloudy day, or there is limited light at depth I will lower it. The faster the animal moves, the faster your shutter speed needs to be. See the photo in this blog of a sea lion, I had to set my shutter at 1/1000s to get a sharp photo as it was moving very quickly. Important to note all my photos are taken with ambient lighting. If using strobes, most cameras cannot shoot over 1/200s.
Choosing your aperture is also important as this will determine your depth of field and whether your lens will focus easily on something close to the lens while blurring out the background creating a soft focus, or focusing on an entire animal that is a bit further away. Choosing your aperture depends on what kind of effect you're after, are you wanting the whole animal in focus? If so choose an aperture with a higher number (this makes the lens aperture smaller). Maybe you're shooting a subject that is very close to your lens and you want just the face of the animal in focus. Then choose an aperture with a lower number (this makes the aperture wider). Most of my photos of marine life my aperture will be somewhere between f/4 and f/9. But keep in mind that when you change your aperture this also effects the amount of light in your photo. When ever the ISO, shutter or aperture changes, so must one or more of the other settings (Shutter, Aperture and ISO are the 3 sides of the triangle that determine the exposure of an image).
In really simple terms, ISO is a setting which will lighten or darken your image. Changing the ISO means you change your camera's sensitivity to light. And this relates to either film or a digital camera sensor. The lower the ISO number the less sensitive it is to light, the higher the ISO the more sensitive it is. But some people ask "then why not just use a high ISO always and then you have more freedom with having a fast shutter speed?" Having a high ISO creates some problems of it's own. When you ISO is high for example 800 or more you will start to see what's called 'noise'. This is the grainy and horrible effect you can sometimes see on photos. For example have you ever tried using your phone camera in really low light and noticed how it looks really grainy? This is what you want to avoid. Always try to have your ISO on the lowest you can to avoid this. I usually have mine somewhere between 100 to 320. On a really dark cloudy day I sometimes bump it to 500 but only when I have to and not doing so would compromise my shutter speed.
White Balance & RAW Files
When shooting with ambient and artificial light, I always have my white balance set to automatic. Also I only shoot in RAW format (if you don't know what this means do some googling, but always always shoot in RAW not jpeg). Shooting in RAW means that the white balance can be manually manipulated in post production with Adobe Lightroom better than what your camera can do on it's own. Colour grading is a skill that can take a while to master but learning to do so will mean you get the most out of your photos. I process all my RAW files using Adobe Lightroom Classic.
Reef Manta Ray, Ningaloo Reef Settings use: ISO 500 f8 1/400s
FRAMING YOUR SHOTS
My biggest tips on how to frame and compose your shots are: Get level with your subjects and shoot across. Shoot either front on to your subject or at a slightly front/side on with the face and eyes in focus. If the subject is angled away from the camera, it makes it look like it's avoiding you and the photo won't be as engaging. Many animals have some kind of feature that distinguishes them from others. Aim to capture and show the beauty of what's unique about it as well as its character or any special behaviour. For example look at the photo above of this manta ray. One of the most noticeable features on a manta are their huge mouths and long cephalic lobes. With this photo I wanted to capture the manta ray feeding front on so you could see not only the eyes and face but also the huge gaping mouth and elegant wings. All these features are what make them so unique and different to other rays. If I had photographed the manta top down, the image would not be as interesting nor show off the most eye catching parts of it.
GETTING THE SHOT
As I mentioned before, the most tricky part of wildlife photography is getting close to an animal and catching the desired photo without it spooking. All my photography on the Ningaloo is done by freediving, as our reefs are very shallow. But also I find that without the noise and bubbles of a scuba regulator, I am able to approach closer to marine life while remaining relatively silent. Also it's easier to move fast without the added weight of all the gear so I can quickly get myself in position. Getting in the right position involves a lot of prediction about where an animal will move next and waiting in it's path quietly so that it will approach the camera and not turn away too soon. Doing this really depends on what animal you're photographing. For example I would't position myself in the way of a humpback whale or whale shark as they may actually bump into you. But for animals like mantas who are very agile, as long as you remain still and low they will simply glide over you or move around you without being bothered by your presence. Learning the way animals interact and how to predict their next move takes experience and time in the water with them. Also remember that while photographing them, don't stress them or block their exit. Always allow them room to move away from you if they want to avoid you. Approach slowly, stay calm and get them to trust you.
Leopard Shark, Ningaloo Reef Settings use: ISO 320 f8 1/800s
FORMING YOUR IDEAS AND MAKING THEM A REALITY
Finding the animals you want to photograph can be hard, and i's a lot about luck but also knowledge of habit use and seasonal populations. The more time you spend in the ocean the more encounters you will have and also deepen your understanding of where to find particular species. But when you do finally find the critter you're looking for, you may not have a lot of time to think of the photo you aim to create. So I often have preconceived ideas of shots in my mind that I want to get. So when I eventually find the animal I want for that image, I can focus on capturing that idea, getting myself in the correct position for it and adjusting my camera settings as needed. For example for the photo above of the leopard shark, this is a shot i was wanting to get for ages. The image I had in mind was the sun beams shining from above the shark, white sand below and the reef making the background. On a snorkel by chance this leopard swam into the reef and it was the perfect conditions to get the shot I wanted. I swam along side the shark as it cruised through the coral making sure the sun was on the other side of it. Once it swam pasta nice section of coral I dived down so I was level with it and shooting across with a slight upwards angle I got this photo. This image was made using only ambient light, no strobes. One of the great things of shooting over white sand is some light bounce up onto the subjects so they aren't in complete shadow, illuminating them from below.
Hawksbill Turtle, Ningaloo Reef Settings use: ISO 320 f6.3 1/400s
KNOW YOUR CAMERA
Things often happen quickly when interacting with wildlife, so you don't want to be wasting time trying to figure out your camera settings. practise with it on land and in the water and know how to change your shutter, ISO and aperture almost without looking. A huge part of a successful photo is making sure it is correctly exposed, sharp and with the subject in focus. Always be ready and have your camera settings set for the light and depth you're going to be shooting at. So if suddenly you get an opportunity for a good photo you don't have to change too many things. I have base settings that my camera is always set on which I can quickly do minor adjustments to easily without taking too much time. Take advantage of the custom modes on your camera if they have them. This means you can save up to 3 options that you often use. For example I have a custom modes set for shallow water on a sunny day, and another for cloudy days with low light. If the sun suddenly goes behind a cloud while I'm photographing customers with a whale shark, I don't have to change all the settings I can just flip the dial over from Custom mode 1 to Custom mode 2. It's worth having an in depth look at your camera's manual to familiarise yourself with all the options your camera has.
PRACTISE MAKES PERFECT
To get good at anything, it really comes down to time and dedication. With any profession it's also about investing in quality equipment. If you want to get professional photos, there aren't many short cuts around it. Buy a good full frame camera set up with quality lenses. Get a camera you can grow with as you gain experience. Being capable to shoot in full manual mode will take you a long way, Shooting in automatic underwater mode is a good start, but you wont progress or be able to control the results of your photos.
Take the time to learn the art of photography, what makes a good photo good? I can easily take nice photos of a whale shark, but what is it that make certain shots stand out over others? Explore it, try as may techniques as you can, read online tutorials, take photography classes or work shops. Immerse yourself in the underwater world and spend as much time out in the field as you can. To this day I have self taught, I have no formal training. Having the internet is a great resource for learning and it's a great place to start. Real hands on experience in the field is where you will learn to bring everything together to get the shots you imagine. Also don't be afraid to reach out to other photographers and ask advice. We have all been on this journey at some point and have asked the same questions of one another.
Thanks for reading! I hope I have shared some valuable information with you about marine life portraits.