THE DEEP END
Andrew Spooner learns how to take photographs while swimming with sharks in Thailand
THE instructor’s words are ringing in my ears: ‘‘ To get a decent underwater photograph you need to get close. Really, really close.’’ The dark shape nestling on the seabed beneath me is beginning to take on a menacing air. I can see big, sharp teeth and a pointy dorsal fin. How much closer should I get? It is a leopard shark; I am now about 4m away, and know for a fact I’m not close enough. And while the 3m-long shark may look sedate, even a little bit cuddly, I also know I’m not going to get any closer.
‘‘ There’s an enormous variety of fish where we’ll be diving,’’ says Thomas Peter, my instructor from Ao Nang Divers, a fivestar Professional Association of Dive Instructors dive centre located on the southern Thai coastline near Krabi. I’m here to take the PADI digital underwater photography course, and the pre-dive briefing is whetting my appetite.
‘‘ We’ve got fantastic coral beds, snappers, barracudas, mantas, stingrays, scorpion fish, morays and sea horses,’’ Peter explains. ‘‘ If we’re really lucky we might see a whale shark, but our biggest draw has to be the leopard shark.’’ Gulp.
With the advent of cheap, mass-produced digital cameras and a growing number of qualified divers (before attempting the digital underwater photography course it is recommended that you have completed the entrylevel PADI open-water course), taking pictures underwater is enjoying something of a boom. What was once a highly specialised activity, requiring a substantial outlay, is becoming much more affordable. Companies such as Sony and Canon are creating basic compact cameras that include sub-aqua settings, and even the notoriously pricey airtight housings (to keep your camera safe at extreme depths) don’t need to break the bank any more.
Much like the terra firma attractions of African wildlife safaris, sub-aqua tourists are eager to see the big predators. Sharks, without a doubt, are a big draw but, as any sub-aqua photographer will tell you, it’s the little critters that are the most photogenic.
‘‘ Small animals such as seahorses don’t move around that much,’’ says Peter. ‘‘ The best way to shoot the smaller stuff is with a macro, which is a kind of magnifying lens that lets you get great close-ups. But there are plenty of tricks I can teach you and which you’ll learn as part of the PADI course.’’
When I arrived the previous evening, Peter handed me the PADI digital underwater photography manual as bedtime reading. ‘‘ It’s very similar to other PADI course books,’’ he said. ‘‘ There’s explanations and instruction followed by a series of knowledge reviews which you’ll need to complete as part of the course. Don’t worry, they’re simple.’’
I ploughed my way through the course book, trying to learn everything there is to know about how sub-aqua conditions affect photography. The biggest issue is light. Deep underwater, light is diffused, resulting in a loss of colour. The deeper you go, the more colour you lose. To compensate for this, subaqua snappers do two things: those who can afford it use giant strobe flashes to drench their image in light; those on a budget (such as myself) have to reset the camera’s white balance.
Basically, what this involves is re-adjusting and balancing the inner workings of the camera to suit the specific light conditions. Most digital cameras allow you to do this manually by pointing the lens at a pure, white image and pushing a button. In fact, whitebalancing is so important to sub-aqua photography that my PADI manual comes complete with its own white-balance slate.
The next morning brings my first chance to test what I’ve learned from the manual. ‘‘ We’ll check the seals on the housing first,’’ says Peter as we set sail for a series of dive sites just off the stunning islands of Koh Phi Phi. ‘‘ There can’t be even a single hair or grain of dirt on the seals, or the housing could flood.’’
With the camera safely ensconced, Peter begins the dive briefing. ‘‘ Our first dive is at Bida Nai,’’ he explains. ‘‘ There’s a nice reef, plenty of fish and some great soft and hard corals. It’s a really colourful dive.’’ We plunge into the water, reaching a depth of about 14m. I immediately begin fiddling with the white balance on my camera and start snapping photos of sea fans, cuttlefish, stingrays and even a tiny seahorse.
Just 40 minutes later, stoked by my first Jacques Cousteau moment, I clamber back on the boat, strip off my dive rig and start examining my photographs on Peter’s laptop. ‘‘ Seems like you didn’t set the white balance correctly,’’ he says as we look at endless green-tinged monochrome images.
After an hour spent learning how to white- balance by rote — ‘‘ Press that button, not that one,’’ says Peter repeatedly — we prepare to get back in the water.
‘‘ This dive site is called Hin Bida,’’ says Peter, ‘‘ and there’s a big population of leopard sharks here.’’
At the reef, Peter taps my shoulder and points. About 3m away a leopard shark glides by. I reach for my camera but miss the shot. Damn. We carry on, and I manage to get shots of a grotesque scorpion fish, some astonishingly bright coral and a few decent close-ups of a gorgeous plumed lion fish.
Then suddenly I spy another leopard shark. It is on the sea bed, static and unmoving. I turn and look at Peter and can see him willing me forward. I set my white balance, edge towards the shark and begin to snap. Suddenly, it rises from its slumber, gives me the evil eye, turns tail and swims off. Phew.
‘‘ Why didn’t you get closer?’’ asks Peter when we are back on the boat, looking at the grainy, distant shark captured by my camera. ‘‘ Leopard sharks never attack.’’ How was I meant to know that?
As we make our way back to shore we look through the rest of the photos, tweaking them with Photoshop, adjusting the colour and the brightness. It quickly becomes apparent that my best efforts are close-ups of small sea creatures.
‘‘ It’s like I told you,’’ says Peter. ‘‘ You must get as close as you can.’’ At least next time I’m eyeballing a shark, I’ll know exactly what to do. The Independent
Ao Nang Divers runs a variety of PADI courses from about $180. More: www.aonang-divers.com. www.padi.com www.thailand.net.au
Sea of plenty: Southern Thailand offers divers some of the world’s best sub-aqua photo opportunities, with everything from vivid coral reefs to schools of tropical fish and leopard sharks