Ocean Shark Diver

Shooting for sharks by Franco Banfi

Canon Explorer and award-winning wildlife photographer Franco Banfi explains his love for underwater photography, and what it’s like trying to get the perfect shot when you’re surrounded by blue sharks.

Franco Banfi is a Swiss-based, award-winning wildlife photographer and tour expedition leader who travels in search of wild nature.

About 15 years ago Franco chose to work as a full-time freelance and vagabond photographer. He has travelled the world documenting wildlife and the relationship between people and nature, in environments from the Equator to the Poles, in all the oceans of Earth and in many fresh water lakes and rivers.

As he has done so, he has improved his skills as a photographer and become passionate about the conservation of the planet’s flora and fauna.

Canon EOS-5D Mark II with an EF15mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens; the exposure was 1/160sec at f/11, ISO 320. Inside a Seacam underwater housing with 2 strobes full power.

We spoke to him about his shot of a blue shark (Prionace glauca) taken in the Azores Archipelago and how his knowledge of the behaviour of the animal, together with his technical skills, combined to create so memorable an image.

In search of blue sharks

"I like big animals, the vitality of majestic creatures and the self-awareness of their position in the ocean and in the food-chain."

"I’ve been always interested in sharks in wider terms, and specifically by the elegance of the blue sharks. Their bodies and their behaviours are alluring. They are a deep indigo blue on the back, bright blue on the sides and bright white on the belly. The snout is long and pointed; the eyes are dark, large and round…. inquisitive. These features play a good role making it one of most commonly published species in cartoons and television series."

"Many years ago, I was able to see and photograph blue sharks in San Diego, off the California coast. More recently, I was invited, with some friends and professional photographers, to join a trip to the Azores – an archipelago of nine islands in the hearth of the North Atlantic Ocean and the perfect place to encounter pelagic fauna."

Into the deep

"In open water, far from the coast and hundreds of meters deep, the sun’s rays fall down and disappear into the dark depths. We jumped into the blue water feeling like we were in the middle of nowhere but in the hope that some sharks would approach… (but please don’t tell my mother though, who is still scared after seeing Jaws…)."

"This type of diving in open water is not for the faint of heart or for inexperienced divers who feel uncomfortable in deep water. Without reference points on the bottom or an adjacent wall, it is easy to become disoriented. Self-awareness and a good buoyancy control is essential. But when we add a couple of sharks swimming around curious, the situation can become really interesting."

Getting up close

"I was in the water with one other photographer; the fewer the better: this is the best condition to let the animals come close. This is especially important for underwater photography. Less water between the subject and the camera means better visibility, fewer suspended particles, fewer micro-bubbles reflecting the light and better sharpness."

"In the right situation, marine creatures are often curious rather than elusive. They will choose the direction, the speed, the angle… and most of the time they will be in the backlight and they will take advantage of the natural light to hide their body, which of course has evolved to blend in with the water."

"I feel a deep emotion when wild animals accept me, allowing me to approach near at hand, as close as possible. All these kinds of different interactions happened in a very short time; really just a few minutes per dive."

Capturing the critical moment

"During these situations, your mind must be ready and the fingers of our hands must act as if they are playing a symphony: metering the background water, getting the right exposure with f-stop corrections, finding the best composition… everything should be almost automatic."

"If we are lucky there will be several sharks and they will stay around for a while, giving us some chances. Usually, after the first approach, the animals decide that we are of no interest to them, so they turn their backs and swim away. So, when I have found the best setting, I concentrate more on the composition and I try some perspectives to get a wider choice and find out my preferred picture."

Crafting the image

"Composition and perspective are effective tools in the hands of the photographer, once you have learned how to apply their rules. Both are related to the way in which the lines and the shapes are ordered in a photograph and have the purpose to create images having a visual meaning in and of their-selves, giving an effect of spatial depth for the observers."

"In a composition, the lines coming in from the edges create an immediate illusion of depth. Converging rays create an illusion: objects of the same dimensions appear to be different sizes, which vary depending on the distance existing between them and the eye."

"The picture of the shark with the diver on the background shows a certain depth. There are two different planes: the shark, very close, seems bigger than it is in reality, while the diver in the background seems smaller. Because the shark is closer to the camera and the fisheye lens enhances this difference."