Tyler Stableford
Tyler Stableford

Aspen photographer Tyler Stableford has earned a worldwide clientele for his commercial and editorial photography.

Underwater Photography: Capturing elusive moments with whale sharks

September 26, 2014

This month, I undertook a longstanding personal project: an attempt to create underwater fine art images of a beautiful swimmer arcing alongside enormous whale sharks. After a busy year of shooting, I’ve had a welling desire to create imagery that speaks to my deepest soul; and to forge a large-format print for my house.

The project is a co-creation with the swimmer model Ashley Mosher. I chose Ashley for the project as she is a former competitive swimmer (she competed in the U.S. Olympic trials) and has a beautiful grace that is only enhanced when she enters the water. However, my vision for the compositions made for a challenging setup for Ashley and I — essentially, I wanted Ashley to be rising up from the deep blue, below the shark, and arcing gracefully below it. The images could not look like Ashley was simply swimming down from the surface to try to get close to the shark — that would look too pedestrian, in my opinion. For the images to succeed emotionally, she needed to be a part of the fathomless deep, meeting the shark from below. We chose a white skirt and top for her so she would reflect the natural light at those depths.

I hired a boat charter with Cancun Whale Shark Tours in Cancun, Mexico. Every August, the whale sharks gather from all around the Atlantic Ocean, coming to the Caribbean waters off the coast of Cancun, to feed on plankton.

Ashley and I began a series of test setups and were also suddenly intimidated by our photo ambitions. The sharks moved more quickly and erratically than we had anticipated (for some serenely optimistic reason, I thought it would be “easy” for Ashley and I to position ourselves perfectly with the sharks…). All of us were taken aback by our first encounters with the whale sharks. They are lithe, huge creatures; quiet and solemn.

For us to have any chance of success, Ashley had to first swim over to and in front of the moving shark; and then, despite being winded from the swim, she had to draw a big breath and plunge deep underwater, swimming hard to position herself perfectly below the shark — all without mask, snorkel or fins. And only then could she begin the graceful dance; she arced and twirled alongside the shark until her searing lungs forced her, gasping, to the surface.

Meanwhile, I had only snorkel gear, as scuba gear is not allowed with the whale sharks in Mexico, so I too was quite limited in my time underwater. I kicked hard to align myself alongside the shark’s tail fin — it was here that the shark often looked most dramatic through the EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM lens. I fought to swim through the backwash created by the shark’s powerful tail fin. Other times, I dove deep below Ashley and the shark to try to capture them silhouetted against the sunrays.

After our test day, I felt like we had less than a 50 percent chance of success for the shoot day — the notion of aligning Ashley, the shark and myself in just the right position, and in a pose of grace, seemed almost beyond our capabilities.

Yet, this project was too personal to compromise on our creative process. That is, I didn’t want to composite the images or reposition Ashley within the frame. I wanted our photographs to reflect the true dance between Ashley and the shark. It would have been easy for me to shoot images of the sharks and then to shoot Ashley separately in various poses underwater, to then composite the two frames in Adobe Photoshop. All the images here are one frame and of the real moment.

On our shoot day, we departed before dawn and I asked our boat captain for permission to stay out as long as we needed to accomplish the shoot. After an hour’s journey and another 30 minutes of searching, we found a group of around 40 whale sharks(!) feeding together in the cerulean Caribbean water. Ashley donned her white skirt; I snapped the clamps on the Aquatech underwater housing around my Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera and we jumped in the sea.

Ashley and I spent over four hours in the water, with numerous false starts and missed moments, all while drifting amongst the most stunning creatures I have ever encountered. And, yes! We were blessed with six or eight magical setups.

For equipment, I used the EOS 5D Mark III camera and the EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM lens. The main reason for using this lens is that the water was relatively thick with plankton, so I wanted to be as close as possible to my subjects to reduce the amount of particulate between them and the camera — a wide angle lens allowed me to capture all of the whale shark while being very close.

In general, wide-angle lenses work best for all-around underwater shooting, such as the EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM, the EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM, the EF 17–40mm f/4L USM, and the EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5–4.5 USM lenses.

For the underwater housing, I used the Aquatech Elite 5D3 Sport Housing with the PD-65 Dome Port and Aquatech’s small extension tube. Essentially, the dome port creates an image of the underwater scene on the port that the camera captures. In other words, I was autofocusing the EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM lens extremely close, on the dome port itself just inches from the lens, rather than on the whale shark. I shot most of the images at f/5.6, which I considered the minimum aperture possible to have edge-to-edge sharpness, while keeping my ISO to a minimum for quality. I used an ISO of 400.

One of the benefits of the Aquatech housing is its relative small size. Because I was snorkeling and had to hold my breath each time I dove underwater and tried to keep up with the swimming sharks, I wanted a small housing that would have minimal drag underwater.

Underwater housings with lens ports usually cost upwards of $2,000 for a package. Unless you’re using the housing a lot (which I don’t), it may be more cost effective to rent a housing for a week versus buying one — because the housings change with each successive camera body iteration!

With the camera in the housing, I didn’t have access to all the buttons and controls that I might usually have so I had to set some things in advance. I set the ISO and shutter speed in advance at ISO 400 and 1/250th of a second (approximately the minimum shutter speed to keep the images of the moving shark and swimmer crisp), and could adjust the aperture underwater as needed.

More expensive underwater housings have more controls available, yet some of these models are also bigger and bulkier. It’s a trade-off either way!

My coworker Kate Rolston shot behind-the-scenes footage using a Canon EOS-1D C camera and EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II lens, using an EWA Marine housing. This housing is essentially a glorified plastic bag with an optical quality lens port. It cannot work with an EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM lens, yet unlike rigid underwater housings, it can work with various-size cameras, including different models that arise.

For white balance, I did multiple tests in the pool and the ocean prior to our shoot day and I found that using Auto White Balance worked perfectly. I never use Auto White Balance on dry land, as I prefer to set my own white balance for each scene. But with the camera in the underwater housing and without access to the controls, it was easier to let the camera settle the white balance. Sometimes I pointed the camera up toward the surface and the sun; other times I pointed it straight down into the deep blue. Amazingly, the EOS 5D Mark III camera did a perfect job of white balancing with every shot and, either way, I could tailor the white balance while processing the RAW images.

Speaking of RAW images, my coworker Draper White and I processed the images using Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. For some, we processed them in straight color, as captured by the camera, and for others we desaturated the blue tones, adding a touch of steel gray for a more modern aura. I can’t claim one look is better than another – we just had fun playing with the colors and the tones, and settling on something that felt strong and alive!

For focusing, I used autofocus and it worked very well. To ensure I had my focus correct, I would often pre-set the autofocus with Ashley by focusing on her about 15 feet away from the camera. That way, when we both dove down with the whale shark, I didn’t have to focus nor risk have the camera grab focus on, say, a part of the whale shark that wasn’t important to the image. Also, because the whale shark’s body was smooth and dark, the AF system sometimes had trouble locking onto the sharks if I tried to use it while a shark was quickly swimming past me.

I didn’t use any flash for these images. For underwater photography, strobes almost always create an artificial look and I wanted to keep these images as natural-looking as possible. That said, if you’re diving deep, flashes are essential. Fortunately for us, the sharks were feeding by the surface, so I was able to capture them and Ashley simply by having my ISO at 400.

For those who are looking to try underwater photography, I say… Do it! It’s a really fun way to experience a new medium of creative imagery. While the gear can muddle your workflow a bit, the best way to ensure success is to start by shooting test images in a pool. Practice with your camera standing in a pool and become familiar with how to manipulate your camera in the housing. It’s different! You won’t have access to all the controls you normally have, so the practice runs serve a great purpose of helping you know which essential items to set in-camera before putting the camera in the housing. I had to do multiple test runs in the pool, removing the camera and changing settings and reviewing images on my laptop, before feeling comfortable with taking the camera into the ocean on the shoot day.

Which photo will I print for my wall? I’m still deciding. Each one has a certain spirit to it and I am enjoying the process of listening to each image’s voice. I’ll start by printing a few of my favorites on 3-by-5-foot canvases — I am always amazed at how the energy of a photograph transforms in the journey from a computer screen to a large-format print. As a print, it becomes alive and a moment in time you can enter and explore. I am printing the images on Canon’s imagePROGRAF iPF 8400 printer on the Artistic Matte Canvas paper in preparation for gallery-wrap prints, using Breathing Color’s Easy Wrappe Pro Kits — and it’s amazing to see the images come alive!

With much of my imagery, it simply goes from the camera to the computer, and is transferred over the web to a client. It rarely makes it onto a print. This project is different – one of the big inspirations for the whole shoot was to create personal art for my wall. I find that there is something truly special about a large-format print – the way that the moment in time not only lives on, but carries, in its own way, more meaning than the actual moment itself. Or, perhaps, every moment in time is just as meaningful, and it is only through photography that we realize this lesson.

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