Story Behind the Shot: "Manta Madness"

Tobias Friedrich
The story of how I got the shot that won the 2011 Ocean Art Contest

Story Behind the Shot: "Manta Madness"

The story of how I got the underwater shot that won the 2011 Ocean Art Contest

by Tobias Friedrich





"Manta Madness," Tobias Friedrich's photograph that won "Best in Show" in our 2011 Ocean Art Contest.


I was planning a week-long liveaboard trip to the famous Hanifaru Bay, in the Maldives, when I was dismayed to hear that the site would be permanently closed for divers after an upcoming date! I knew that this trip would be my last shot to dive with the manta rays. Going to Hanifaru Bay was a risk, since nobody knows when the mantas are coming to this small bay to feed, but I decided to chance it in the hopes that I would experience some luck.  

The liveaboard trip started at Male. From there we enjoyed a five-hour boat ride northwest to the Baa Atoll. Hanifaru itself is a small, sandy bay in the southern part of the Atoll and is not a regular dive site. It's only the mantas make the place an attraction. The Atoll doesn't offer the best dive sites of the Maldives, so if there were no mantas at Hanifaru it could have been a bit of a bust. In the end, our group was very lucky and had an amazing day with 40-50 manta rays swimming in the bay. Of course I wanted to capture the moment from different perspectives, from above, from same level as the manta rays, and from underneath. I was preparing for a silhouette shot of a manta with the sun at its back, waiting in a depth of around 5-8 meters and looking up to the surface. As I prepared, there was a moment when not a single manta but a group of several rays passed by and I seized the chance to take my wonderful shot.

The best images of the series, of only three to four pictures including the winning shot from Ocean Art Contest, have not been cropped at all. Just some bubbles and backscatter were removed as well as saturation adapted in a reasonable manner. The shot was taken with a Canon 5D Mark II in a UK-GERMANY housing. Lens was a Canon 8-15mm fisheye lens @15mm and the dome port without sunshades. Time setting was 1/320s with f/9 at ISO 50. Two Ikelite DS-125 strobes were set on manual. In total I took about 200 to 300 pictures of the manta rays and would only consider ten of them good ones. It's not easy to get in the right position and capture the right shot at the perfect moment, but this is what motivates us underwater photographers, to always get a better shot than last time.


About the Author

Tobias Friedrich is an avid diver and underwater photographer, winner of our 2011 Ocean Art Contest, and the mind behind


Further Reading


Support the Underwater Photography Guide

Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo and Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!


Story Behind the Shot: Bettina Balnis

Bettina Balnis
Bettina explains how she achieved this winning shot of two skeleton shrimp for the 2010 Ocean Art Photo Competition.

Story Behind the Shot: Bettina Balnis

Underwater photographer Bettina Balnis shares how she captured 1st Place Supermacro in the UWPG 2010 Ocean Art Photo Competition

By Bettina Balnis


Bettina Balnis

" First Lesson in Life"


My Set-Up

This photograph was taken using a Nikon D80 in a Sealux housing, a Sigma 50 mm macro lens, a +2 wet diopter,  and a +2 dry lens.  For lighting I used 2 Inon z240 strobes, and a Fantasea focus light.  Setting were F10, 1/80 sec, ISO 100.



My picture was taken in Oosterschelde, Netherlands (aka Eastern Scheldt, which is an estuary in the province of Zeeland, Netherlands).  This estuary is about three hours away from my home, and I frequently go there for weekend trips.

I took the picture in late September so the water temperature (14C / 57F) was already decreasing and the upcoming autumn winds made the conditions a little bit rough. 


The Subject

The picture shows two Skeleton shrimp (Caprello mutica), a female adult and a baby.  In Netherlands they are also called Macho Kreftjes.

The females have a big red-dotted belly.  At first I thought that the red dots were the eggs, but then I discovered that the hatchings crawl out of the belly.  This was very surprising for me.  They can carry up to almost 200 babies in their brood pouch.  After birth, the babies stay in the surrounding for a while, on the edge of a sponge for example. The baby in my photo is a little youngster who is starting his independent life.  He interacts with his mother to get his "First Lesson in Life."  I discovered this behaviour after several dives. The lesson I learned from this was to go frequently to the same spot, to open your eyes, to change the perspective, and to carefully watch what you see.  From that time on I kept watching these little creatures frequently on many dives. Each time I would see more and different activity and behavior.  I witnessed how they fight each other like little thai boxers, how they ate, and how they gave birth.  Very fascinating creatures.


The Shot

The chilly 14C shallow water with waves making movement made very difficult to autofocus. Not to mention the Skeleton shrimp rarely stop moving!  I had to concentrate and stay quiet at the spot for a long time. Getting colder and colder, I began to shiver and because of the waves in shallow water I almost became seasick.  Several times I had to move to deeper water to calm down.  Finally, everything came together, and at the precise!


Publisher's note:

I really liked this photo when I first saw it, but now that I read the story of the shot from Bettina's perspective, I appreciate it even more. Thanks for sharing with us Bettina! Bettina won an 11-day trip on the SMY Ondina, anywhere the boat goes. We look forward to hearing how her trip goes! - Scott

Further Reading

Guide to Underwater Supermacro Photography

Best dive destinations for underwater photography

Winning photos from the Ocean Art 2010 photo competition

Story Behind the Shot: "Manta Madness"

Learning Super Macro Photography in the PNG


Support the UWPG

Looking to add supermacro tools to your setup? Check out the supermacro tools offered by Bluewater Photo & Video, and contact them via phone/email for expert advice.


Story of the Shot: Douglas Hoffman

Michael Zeigler
Award-winning underwater photographer Douglas Hoffman shares his approach to capturing shark images.

The Story Behind the Shots: Douglas Hoffman

Award-winning underwater photographer Douglas Hoffman shares his approach to capturing shark images


Interview by Michael Zeigler



I had the pleasure of exchanging a few emails with Douglas after reading his story in the Maui News.  He was interviewed as a result of donating shark photographs to the Humane Society International for use in a campaign to end shark finning.  I asked him a few questions about how he achieves success in his underwater photography.



Oceanic Shark

Oceanic White Tip shark in Kona using a Nikon D100 in a Nexus housing, 16 mm fish eye lens, F7, 1/200th.  No flash. Photo by Douglas Hoffman.



MZ: Is there a particular mindset that you have when you enter the water with the sharks? 

DH:  I feel a sense of excitement.  I know that each dive is different and that I will see different sharks.  Before getting into the water I double check that I have turned both strobes on, and that the camera is on and set up the way I want. This means the ISO is at 320 or 640, the metering is on spot, and the drive is on single servo. For sharks I tend to use Shutter Priority mode and set the speed to 1/250th.  In this mindset I am hoping to freeze the sharks but also the sun's rays.  Other times speed is not as important and I use Aperture Priority mode and set the camera at F8 and let it determine the shutter speed. In this way, I can get good depth of field.  This is good when I am doing an environmental style portrait and want to show sharks in the foreground and background.


Requiem Shark

Requiem shark in Tonga.  Nikon D300 set at -3 exposure compensation, Nexus housing 12-24 Nikon lens F4.5, 1/200.  No flash. Photo by Douglas Hoffman.


MZ:  Do you have an idea of what shot(s) you're hoping to capture, or do you seize each moment as it happens?

DH:  While I have images I would like to capture, the dives are not scripted and anything can happen. It would be great to have a 15 foot tiger come by and give the camera a good look but I have learned that you get what you get, so don't get upset. 

There are many variables that come into play and all of them effect the success of the dive.  Some include current, turbidity, visibility, tidal exchange, time of year, water temp, as well as the number and variety of species of shark in the area.

When photographing sharks my goal is not to get the Jaws-style in-your-face-and-make-you-scared photograph, rather it is to show an apex predator in its environment.  I want to show the beauty of sharks and help raise awareness that sharks are the barometer of a healthy ocean and should be protected. 


White-tip Reef Shark

White Tip Reef shark in Fiji. Nikon D300 set at -.3 exposure compensation, Nexus housing 12-24 Nikon lens F9, 1/200. l. Strobes are Ikelite DS160 model set on -2 power. Photo by Douglas Hoffman.



MZ:  Any "preset" settings you use before you jump in, just in case an opportunity presents itself (e.g. 1/125, F8)?

DH:  I usually go in the water with the camera set on Shutter Priority.  Once I see the actual behavior I might switch to Aperture Priority and set the camera on F8.


Nurse Shark

Nurse shark created in Fiji.  Nikon D300 at -.3 exposure compensation and Tokina 10-17 lens. F5.6, 1/100th. Two Ikelite DS160 flashes set on -3 power. Photo by Douglas Hoffman.


MZ:  Any particular equipment you use a majority of the time (e.g. scuba vs snorkel, etc)?

DH:  I use scuba.  It feels good to have a tank on my back.  The bubbles and metal give me a sense of security.

I use a Nexus housing and Nikon D300 body.  Either a 12-24mm Nikon lens or a Tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens.  I use 2 Ikelite DS160 strobes with custom diffusers.  The power is set at minus 3.


Grey Reef Shark

Grey Reef shark in Fiji.   Nikon D300 body set at -.3 exposure compensation and Tokina 10-17 lens. F9, 1/250th. Two Ikelite DS160 flashes set on -3 power. Photo by Douglas Hoffman.



Lemon Shark

Lemon shark in Fiji.  Nikon D300 body set at -.3 exposure compensation and Tokina 10-17 lens. F7, 1/100th. Two Ikelite DS160 flashes -3 power. Photo by Douglas Hoffman.


More of Douglas Hoffman's photography can be seen at



Further Reading


Story Behind the Shot: Diving the Shallow Waters of Guam

Tony Cherbas
First place winner in the "Novice" category of our Ocean Art Contest, Tony Cherbas describes how he got his winning shot "Narcissus"

Story Behind the Shot: The Shallow Waters of Guam

First place winner in the "Novice dSLR" category of our Ocean Art Contest, Tony Cherbas describes how he got his winning shot

by Tony Cherbas







"Narcissus," Tony's winning shot in the "Novice dSLR" catoegry of our Ocean Art Contest


My first place "Novice dSLR" photo, entitled “Narcissus," was taken at Piti Channel, my favorite local night-dive in Guam. It’s a very shallow dive, about 15 feet at it's deepest point, which I find convenient for long, solo photo sessions. Other than being used for an occasional open-water dive training class, Piti Channel sees very little dive traffic on a regular basis. At night there is usually noone around, and this easy-entry shore dive is probably the best muck dive in Guam. I see things in the channel that I don’t see anywhere else here, including but not limited to; leaf fish, frogfish, conger eels, mantis shrimp, flatheads, large pipefish, juvenile snapper and sweetlips, oscillated lionfish, an assortment of shrimps, crabs and even a small eagle ray that shows up quite regularly on high tides.  

My winning photo was taken a year ago, shortly after I bought my first dSLR, on my very first dive with two strobes instead of one. Prior to this I had been shooting with a single strobe positioned directly over the housing. The addition of the second strobe (both Inon z240s) really allowed this shot to happen.

Both strobes were positioned on either side of the housing, one directly under the squid as the camera was positioned vertically, to compose in the traditional portrait style. Recognizing the potential for a unique shot, I followed the subject for a long while in about three feet of water, firing away and recomposing, until I decided that the squid had probably taken enough flash abuse. The greenish swirl of the water was due to the reflection of the dead coral substrate covered with algae that was directly below me. 

The strobes were set to S-TTL via fiber optics, which is my preferred way of shooting macro due to ease, cost, and versatility. The use of dual strobes allowed for even lighting over the subject so that the reflection was represented clearly and stood out nicely. I have since been back to Piti Channel to take similar reflection photos with only one strobe and found it much harder to achieve full, even light coverage for this particular composition. 

The camera settings were: F 18, 1/160th sec, ISO 100. I will note that due to the amount of particulate matter floating in the water, some backscatter was removed via Adobe Lightroom to clean up the presentation (the RAW file was submitted to the judges to show this). The photo was taken with my former Canon T2I in a Sea & Sea housing. I have since sold the T2I due to the inability to manually adjust the flash output, which greatly impedes the flash recycle time when using S-TTL. This was really the only fault I found with the camera, but a large enough one for my style of shooting that it was necessary for an upgrade. I now shoot with a Nikon D7000 in a Nauticam housing.  

I’d like to thank Scott, Michael and everyone at the Underwater Photography Guide for an excellent website that offers a wealth of information for those starting out in the hobby. And of course I’d like to thank the judges for selecting my photo for first place in the "Novice" category and awarding me with an unbelievable prize package to Papua New Guinea


Other Photos from the Shoot



Canon 60mm, F/20, 1/200, ISO 200. Piti Channel, Guam


Nikkor 40mm, F10, 1/200, ISO 250. Lit with fiber optic snoot, Piti Channel, Guam


Canon 60mm, F/18, 1/200, ISO 200. Piti Channel, Guam


Canon 60mm, F18, 1/200, ISO 200. Lit with Seahorn Snoot Piti Channel, Guam


Further Reading


Support the Underwater Photography Guide

Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo and Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!


Story of the Shot: Keri Wilk

Keri Wilk
Keri shares his experience capturing this amazing image.

The Story Behind the Shot: Keri Wilk

The Crocodile Smile

By Keri Wilk



"My buddy, Lucas Price, and I were diving on board the Bilikiki in the
Solomon islands. We dropped anchor near a small village, intending on
doing some dives on some historical WWII wrecks, but our interests
were piqued by a local fisherman who gave us information of a
saltwater crocodile living along a stretch of mangroves adjacent to
their village. We searched for it in the tenders to no avail, then
warily got in the water and waded through the mangroves for nearly 150
yards. We gave up looking, so called for the tender to pick us up, and
while it made its way over, I made one final sprint along the
coastline – and found it just yards from where we stopped.



After calling Lucas over, I approached it cautiously, using my camera
system as a shield. As I began to take photos it made a break for open
water, leaving its mangrove home behind, probably hoping that we
wouldn’t pursue it onto the reef. It was wrong. We followed it down to
60 feet where it remained eerily motionless for a few minutes, and
then rocketed to the surface in another attempt to lose us. Throwing
caution to the wind, we made a drastically unsafe ascent to stay with
the animal, and broke the surface several meters away from it.

By then, I had the distinct impression that this crocodile was timid,
scared, docile, and generally unthreatening, which gave me the
confidence required to take the next series of photos – head-on shots
as the crocodile made its way back to its mangrove home. I positioned
myself in its path and waited for it to approach, expecting that it
would veer out of my way in another attempt to avoid contact. I
couldn’t have been more wrong. The croc opened its mouth in an
aggressive manner, turned its head, locked its jaws onto the camera
that was in its face and shook itself spastically for a moment. No
words came out of its mouth, but I clearly heard it say “GET OUT OF MY
WAY AND STOP BOTHERING ME!!”, so I did exactly that!




This photo won best of show in the 2010 Ocean Art Underwater Photography Competition.

Editor's note:

Some of the judges of the Ocean Art competition were quite impressed that Keri could remain composed and get such a rare and beautiful shot of a dangerous marine animal in open water, which was clearly not without risk.

Story of the Shot: Todd Winner

Todd Winner
Todd describes how he captured this octopus and sunburst

Story of the Shot: Todd Winner

Octopus in Sunburst

By Todd Winner


One of the reasons I believe so many of us enjoy underwater photography and continually douse our expensive cameras in salt water are those rare occasions when we have an incredible encounter with some marine animal.



My story takes place while diving in La Paz, Mexico where UWPhotography Guide owner Scott Gietler and myself were recently running an underwater photography workshop.

It was our first day of diving and we had just finished two spectacular dives at a site called La Reina where we played with sea lions and saw the largest school of fish any of us had ever seen. We were headed back in when we decided to do our third dive at a site called Lobos Rock or the Light House which sits just outside the protected harbor where we were staying at Club Cantamar.

I was being lazy and jumped in with my wide angle Tokina 10-17mm fisheye instead of switching out to a macro lens like the dive master suggested.  A few minutes into the dive it was apparent that a macro lens would have been a better choice.  I decided to just enjoy the dive for what is was and maybe I could help find a nice subject for someone who had the right lens. 

Fifty minutes or so into the dive with little to show for all my efforts to find a subject, I noticed a small disturbance on the reef. When I went over to investigate I found two octopi quarreling over the same crack in the rock. It was interesting to observe but still not a subject I could photograph because they were just too far back in the crevasse.

All of a sudden one octopus came gliding out into the open. I was expecting it to just dart off into another hole but it stopped at the base of a rock and started climbing up it.  That was when I started getting excited.  I went into that frenzy mode when you rush to get your camera and strobe settings dialed in before you lose the shot.  You know what I'm talking about. 

I was hoping I might get to snap off an image if the octopus went over the top of the rock with the sun in the background. To my amazement it stopped right on the top of the peak and just sat there apparently unafraid of me and my large camera.  There was no spectacular interaction between us but I was just so amazed that he seemed so unthreatened.  He even looked as if he was enjoying having his photograph taken. 

We shared a few moments together where I was able to fire off a handful of images and then the octopus had more important matters to attend to and took his leave.  I thanked him for being such a cooperative model as we parted ways and I swam back to the boat thinking about what an incredible dive I just had.

We underwater photographers are a strange lot. If you talked to most divers that just spent an hour long dive seeing only one subject for a brief moment they would never want to do that site again. But for us, that same dive might be considered one of the best we ever had. You know what I'm talking about.

octopus suburst rock


Underwater Camera Settings:

Canon 7D, ISO 100, 1/125th sec at F8,10-17mm@10mm, Ikelite 200's @ 1/4 power

 Editor's note on underwater photo tips: shoot in portrait, get wide (10mm), get close, position the sun behind the subject, exposure the background properly by adjusting the shutter speed. Read the shooter's toolbox, volume three to learn how to take a shot like this one. - Scott


Further Reading:

Diving La Paz

UWPG La Paz Photo workshop 2011

Photographing marine life underwater


Story of the Shot: Guadalupe Island

Todd Winner

Story of the Shot: Todd Winner

Baitball & Sea Lion at Guadalupe island

By Todd Winner


baitball and sea lion at Guadalupe island


I took this image about a year ago at Guadalupe Island, Mexico. This is a good example of why it is important to have your camera and strobes turned on and set up to shoot as soon as you hit the water. 

I was the last one in the cage and we just started to descend when this massive school of baitfish came swimming thru as it was chased by a sealion. I was able to fire off three shots before the school swam off into the blue. This is one of those great moments captured in a still image. If I had the chance to do it again, I would like to try and make it even better, but I am still very happy with the mood it creates.


Nikon D2X, 1/125, f/6.3, 10mm fisheye lens, dual Ikelite D200 strobes, Nexus underwater housing


Q&A with Todd Winner

Todd,  how is it that you have your aperture, ISO, shutter speed, and strobe power set correctly..  did you take a guess on the boat based on the previous dive?

"I probably just guessed before I got in the water of did a quick light meter check when I got in. I typically set up to what I think will be the right setting especially for high action dives like sharks where it's easy to forget about camera settings. I usually don't check my LCD after every shot and rely more on my light meter."


Editor's note on Todd's underwater photography advice

No less than 24 hours after receiving this article from Todd, I was diving the Oil Rigs in Southern California, thinking about his advice. Before entering the water on each dive, I checked my settings and turned on my camera and strobes. On the 2nd dive, just after descending, a large sea lion swam very quickly right below me. I didn't even have time to raise the camera, I just had to pan and shoot blind from the hip - just one shot. I was extremely lucky to get him in the frame and I kind of like the shot, what do you think? Thanks for the advice Todd!

sea lion underwater photography

Fast moving sea lion. F6.3, 1/100th, ISO 200, Tokina 10-17mm@16mm, strobes on manual power setting


Further Reading

Learning wide-angle underwater photography

Photographing Schooling Fish



How to Get the Shot: Oil Rigs

Scott Gietler and Todd Winner

Story of the Shot: Oil Rigs

How to approach oil rigs when shooting wide-angle

By Todd Winner and Scott Gietler



underwater photography tutorial, wide angle photo

Photo by Todd Winner. Looking "up" at Oil rigs Eureka in Orange county, California. Schooling rockfish surround the columns.


I'm always looking for ways to photograph ordinary subjects from a different perspective. This can be achieved through the use of angles, lighting, lens choice, etcetera. Just something to make it stand out amongst similar images. Much of the time my inspiration comes from viewing other underwater images but just as often it comes from topside images.


For this image I was thinking about the many photographs I have seen of giant redwood trees shot looking straight up. I think this shot has a similar feel and the green water with the bait fish only adds to it.


Underwater Camera settings:

I'd like to say I had the perfect camera setting for this shot but bumping up the iso and stopping down the f stop probably would have improved it. I was borrowing a Canon 7D and a Nauticam housing for this dive and I was still fumbling with the controls a bit. In the end the shot was made using a Canon 7D, Tokina 10-17 at 10mm, ISO 160, 1/13 sec at f/4.5 Two Inon Z-240 strobes on low settings with defusers.


- Todd Winner, Techniques Editor



underwater wide angle photography of california oil rigs

Photo by Scott Gietler, Oil rig Eureka. Here I'm at a different section of the rig than Todd was at, and I'm a little deeper. You can still see all the fish in the background.


I wish I could say I was inspired by redwood trees like Todd was, but I just sort of looked up and liked this composition. Looking straight up is not natural for me, and sometimes I have to force myself to do it. This shot was taken a little deeper than I normally was on the dive, so I guess you should always swim underneath structures and look up to see if there is a good shot. Being in the deep clear water helped prevent backscatter.


It was pretty dark on this dive, which means I can shoot up towards the surface and get a good dynamic range. The green color comes from slowing down by shutter speed (at ISO 200 it would have been at 1/13th of a second equivalent) and getting the sunlight coming through the green water. A wide fisheye lens and 2 strobes are essential for this type of shot.


Underwater Camera Settings:

Nikon D300 + Tokina 10-17mm@10mm, dual Inon Z240 strobes out wide to the sides on high power, 1 stop below full. F7, 1/50th, ISO 800. Contrast and levels adjustments were made afterwards in Lightroom to make it look less dull.


Further Reading:



- Scott Gietler

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