There are few underwater images as iconic as the graceful manta ray captured in full flight with a picture-perfect blue background.
Photographing manta rays can be challenging due to low visibility and/or presence of strong currents where mantas usually hang out. Thankfully, taking underwater photos of mantas in difficult conditions is pretty straight forward if you follow a few basic guidelines. Here are some tips to help improve your images:
I. Camera and accessories
The sun is the most important lighting tool when photographing manta rays. The sun serves as a great backlight and can add drama and mystique to any photo. For a perfect blue background, you need to set your f-stop and shutter speed correctly:
- Frist choose your f-stop and then use the cameras’ metre to choose the correct shutter speed.
- F5.6 to f8 is a great place to start as mantas are not likely to get too close to you
Due to their size, a two-strobe setup is a must, as one strobe will not handle the job of lighting such a big subject. The strobes will even out the lighting and fill in the shadows, creating a properly lit image.
Mantas feed on plankton and are therefore seldom found in crystal-clear blue water. To eliminate most particles of backscatter, pull your strobes out as wide as you can and keep them slightly outside of parallel to the lens.
Leave the strobes always on as mantas are capable of quick bursts of speed and can be on top of you within seconds. You will not have time to quickly turn them on when a manta suddenly swoops in close.
Obviously, a wide angle lens is a must; not only to fit the manta into your frame, but also to get as close as possible to the manta. It also helps to provide good clarity and allows the strobes to light the subject properly.
II. What to photograph
- Mantas silhouettes:
Mantas have one of the most visually striking appearances of any large marine fauna and lend themselves very well to silhouette photos. In order to capture the best silhouette, it is important to turn off your strobes, set the shutter speed to 1/250 or higher, and position the manta directly in front of the sun to capture light rays bursting from behind the manta.
- If the rays are not coming in that close, look for a
colourfulforeground subject, like an anemoneor soft coral, and use the manta’s silhouette as a background.
- You can get dramatic images at eye level with a manta.
III. The photographer
In order to optimise your manta photography opportunities, it is not manta behaviour that matters but rather the behaviour of the photographer. Relax and stay still; great photos are the reward for your patience. The less you move, the closer the mantas will come.
Reason 1: It allows manta rays to set the tone for your encounter and allow them to establish their comfort level with you as a diver.
Reason 2: It allows you time to position yourself in relation to the sunlight so you will not lose a great shot because you were too busy swimming towards the mantas, forgetting about the sun’s positioning.
At a cleaning station, situate yourself where the dive guide tells you and stay there. The guides know the flight path of the mantas and will often situate a photographer in the best spot. On such exciting dives, it is easy to forget your photo basics, so keep it simple. First step is to get your background exposure right, secondly; set your strobes out wide to reduce the risk of backscatter, and lastly, sit back and enjoy the view as the mantas come into range. If you encounter a manta while you are swimming, it is best to settle down on the bottom if possible and let the manta come to you.
Swimming with manta rays is an amazing experience in itself. It is important to remember that not every image will be perfect every time. Plan, think and take a chance in setting up for the right shot. And sometimes, that shot winds up to be the perfect shot!
Indonesia, Maldives, Palau and the Similans are some of the best places in the world where you can practice your manta shooting skills! Contact us today to book you next liveaboard dive trip!