First find your shark
Then make sure he finds you
Top Red Sea photographer Erik Bjurstrom reveals the secrets of his award-winning techniques for capturing sharks on film
SHARKS sell magazines - in a manner of speaking - and because they appear quite often on the page you might get the idea that they are easy to photograph. In fact they are rarely seen by divers and are very shy, so when they are spotted it is important not to waste the opportunity.
Sharks are most likely to be found at those points on coral reefs where the water is deep and there is a current. But you cannot trust to luck to find them - talk to other divers experienced in the local waters.
To keep sharks close enough to you for a reasonable period of time you need to bait them. I am often asked whether this is dangerous, but during 13 years of diving with them in the Red Sea I have never had or witnessed a serious accident.
Only on rare occasions have I been bothered by solitary, territorial sharks, and these have attacked when there has been no bait in the water. But the risk is always there if you dive where grey reef sharks swim.
Yet this type of shark is ideal to photograph using the techniques I describe here, because they are relatively bold in the presence of divers. Most species are too shy.
The bait does not have to be blood, as many believe. Blood will not attract the common sharks at all. What you need is fish, the more rotten the better. Sharks love the smell.
Seal the fish securely with some water in a double plastic bag. Let it mature in the sun for a while.
The secret is to lure the sharks in without letting them take the bait; if they do, the show is over. Once in position, make a small hole in the bag, squeeze out some fish juice and hide the bag under a rock. To make you feel more secure, select a place where you can withdraw with your back to the reef.
A good current is necessary so that the sharks pick up the scent trail and swim in a predictable direction. To see them pick up the scent is fascinating. Their swimming suddenly becomes excited and they line up one after another, always swimming against the trail.
They will come all the way to the source of the scent, though if they get too close to the bait they will become too excited to allow good photography. If you wish, you can touch them; they are interested only in the fish and will not harm you. With this technique you can almost train sharks to act as models in front of you, and can plan your pictures in detail.
The sharks will keep circling until the scent gets too diluted, when they lose interest and start to withdraw. That is when you squeeze out some more juice.
Use relatively long lenses from 24 up to 50mm to allow a bit of distance. When close to a diver, sharks swim faster and you have less control of the angle. An autofocus camera with focus-tracking is a big advantage because the creatures are constantly moving.
Shutter speeds of 1/125 or faster are necessary to avoid blur. To compensate for these fast times and get a small enough f-stop, use 100 ASA film. With modern films like Fuji-chrome Provia, 100 ASA will give excellent sharpness.
Through-the-lens metering of the flash often fails if the shark is completely surrounded by water in the picture. The reflecting surface will be too small and the TTL will overexpose. Expose for ambient light and use manual fill-in flash.
Remember the big contrast bet-ween a shark's dark grey back and white belly and mouth. Aim to get the mouth properly exposed, which means underexposing the back. A slightly upward angle is good, with the shark contrasting against the sunlight.
Shooting downwards is a waste of time, because there will be no contrast between the shark's back and the water or the bottom.
Ideally you should get so close that the expression in the eyes is clearly visible. A full-frontal view is exciting, but difficult because the shark will always turn side-on to the diver, "listening" with its sensitive sideline. I have yet to get a perfect full-on picture.
Having a diver in the picture makes it more interesting. Because the shark shape is so evocative, plain silhouette shots against the light with divers have a lot of impact.
A surer route to sensational pictures is double exposure. Before you dive, mark the exact starting position on the film. After taking a series of pictures of, for example, a diver in the upper part of the frame in sunlight, with the lower part underexposed, surface and rewind the film to the initial mark. Then take a series of sharks with flashlight in the lower part of the frame.
Appeared in DIVER - August 1998