Recently, while visiting a photo exhibit, I overheard those familiar magic words, “Wow! Lucky shot!” coming from a couple standing next to me. This immediately caused me to fade away, drifting into my dream state, while contemplating that statement.
Luck and chance encounters play heavily into our underwater encounters especially as new divers. As we continue to dive, we also continue to gain experience and knowledge of our new oceanic surroundings, becoming more comfortable and curious. Soon thereafter, a thirst for knowledge suddenly develops, becoming very hard to quench. This wonderful lifelong journey of discovery upon which we embark is furthered when we acquire a camera and from that moment on, some of us never look back.
The importance of preparation cannot be stressed enough for photography, whether it is on land or at sea. Reliance upon luck is a poor strategy to depend on and preparing yourself for that special animal encounter is paramount if you absolutely, positively have to get the shot. The more we rely on the preparation portion of the margins, the more luck margin begins to dwindle, and when that chance encounter does happen, you will be at the ready.
“Luck” is defined as “success or failure brought on by chance”. Perhaps this is true, but I like to think of luck as the uncontrollable element that bonds the actions of research, preparation and determination for that special encounter. The more we rely upon preparation, the less we need to relay upon luck.
Shooting animal behavior is the combination of all of the actions listed above, and action is what this entire article is about. Shooting the action is, of course, the end goal, and the culmination of events. Knowing your subject and its behaviors ahead of the shoot will better prepare you for that special moment.
It has been said many times before that if you want to see something special, go to the place where you will find them. This simple golden rule can be applied to locations and habitats alike, depending on how zoomed-in you are on your plight for success.
Being a huge fan of using metaphors, imagine flying over a desert searching for animal life. Where is the first place you would go? A watering hole, of course. Or a place where there is a food source upon which our subjects can feed or hunt—a place that is rich in resources for our targeted subject. This can be as big as an open ocean, or as small as a bryozoan or a sponge, taking into consideration the obvious, that habitats vary for different subjects. Once your subject has been located, try to refrain from eminent elation. You will now need to get the shot and keep it safe to show others—otherwise, it never happened.
Skill set and mastery over your camera system and dive skills both come into play once you are on the right spot and your subject has been located. At this point, many of us slip into world of silence with our eyes never leaving the viewfinder. Let’s take a look at the things I refer to as my pillars of success for shooting behavior.
Pillars of success for shooting behavior
Research. Doing some investigative work will help to clue you in on your targeted subject. Where does it live? How does it feed? How does it reproduce? Is it a mouth-brooder or does it lays eggs? When is it the best time of year to see them? These questions should be asked prior to embarking, and can also be asked in a reverse fashion after planning a trip.
Preparation. Preparing for a shot can begin hours, months or even years prior to setting out. Be sure you have the right gear to accomplish the task. Consider the ramifications and expense of traveling to a location, diving for days and finally finding that special subject—only to realize that you do not have the right lens, strobe or gear. Even physical training might be needed if your next adventure includes current or keeping up with large animals. Preparation should not be overlooked, and you can never be over-prepared.
Settings and lighting. “Lights, camera, action!”—another simple set of words that string together easily and remind us of the shooting aspect, prior to engaging our subject.
- Lights. Be sure your strobes are placed in the right position and set on the correct power settings. Take into consideration strobe position, distance from your subject and water quality.
- Camera. Technical settings must be accurate and are vital, as you might never have a chance to recreate your opportunity. My mentor harped on me about this and would scold me for “missing a chance of a lifetime”. Learning from one’s own mistakes is a human trait, but learning from others’ mistakes can help you immensely.
- Action. “Wait for it, wait for it…”—now that you have finally found your subject, prepare yourself. Test fire on something with the same color values, make any adjustments to your aperture and work it in. Getting close to your subject will give you a better strobe saturation and colorful, sharp images. Keep your eye in the viewfinder and don’t ever look away. Let your subject relax and behave naturally, not out of fear. Remember that everything starts out small in the ocean realm, and carries that survival instinct into its adulthood. Marine animals do not have any regard for their size, and can behave surprisingly timid or aggressive.
Jump settings. Jump settings for shooting behavior, or having a baseline, will help establish a foundation to which return, should things get out of control. If the technical settings are not correct, you have missed the shot anyway. So, re-center yourself and begin again. Re-setting yourself back to your baseline also helps when moving across the sand or from one subject to the next. Oftentimes, something will occur without any warning. Shooting from the hip, at this point, might be the only chance we have to capture an image, so anticipate the unexpected, to close the gap on luck once again.
Jump settings for behavior are always different and dependent on what it is you are after. For instance, trying to capture spawning manderinfish might require a higher ISO setting so that you can use a lower strobe power for faster strobe recycle time. The action can be lightning fast at times and may require rapid shooting. Setting up to shoot super-macro will require different settings, and big animal stuff will again present another choice of settings. There are no perfect settings for any situation, but having that baseline, to which you can return, helps to understand your starting point and builds an intuitive mastery over your tools, the lights, the camera and the action.
Our intended subject, once relaxed, will begin to do its thing. When this happens, you know you are in for something really special. Many times, I have missed the initial attempt but quickly learned what the signals were. This information carried with me, and the next time I saw the signal, I could prepare myself for the show. Set the camera settings, strobe power and angle, approach slowly and relax.
To close the gap on luck, plan and prepare to capture images of animal behavior well before you jump in to shoot. Be sure the right tool is being used and the settings are correct. Observation is an overlooked tool that will serve you well in this arena too, so be ready for that chance encounter and say good-bye to luck.
Remember to always have fun! ■
Mike Bartick is a widely published underwater photographer and dive writer based in Anilao, Philippines. A small animal expert, he leads groups of photographers into Asia’s underwater realm to seek out that special critter. For more information, visit: Saltwaterphoto.com.
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