My Approach to Photographing the Ocean's Most Famous Predator

By Matthew Sullivan

I recently returned from Guadalupe Island off Mexico, considered one of the best places on earth for photographing the ocean's most famous predator. South Africa and South Australia may boast larger popluations, but nowhere are the conditions as conducive to photography as this rock in the Eastern Pacific.

Evolution achieved perfection when it created the Great White Shark. These animals are magnificent. And huge. Even the 'small' ones have a presence. I was asked frequently on the trip how I was going about photographing the animals and have been asked numerous times since I got back so I decided to do a quick write up explaining my approach.



An issue I quickly discovered on the first day was that my strobes seemed to be dying on me. They weren't putting out power like they should've been. Knowing that limitation, I switched up my approach and decided to aim to make natural light images while keeping my strobes on just in case I got a ridiculously close pass. I also am a fan of black and white big animal imagery. I think it brings a dramatic simplicity to the image. The best cases on my trip for such pictures were during high contrast situations.


When shooting natural light, shooting WITH the sun will give you color and detail (above), while shooting against the sun will give you a more silhouetted look, less detail, muted color, but crazy sun beams. In all honestly, the shot below was meant to be strobe lit and would look more dramatic if it had been, but again, dying strobes...




Time of day was definitely the most important factor in determining my approach in the water. During the morning, the water was quite blue but when the sun was low, the detail and contrast was muted. Late morning through early afternoon, the suns beams seem to radiate up from the deep (above), while during the golden hour of the late evening, the beams stream down from the surface (below). Those are the two times I would recommend being in the water. *Again, the image below would've been far more impressive had my strobes been functioning, but it gives an idea of what is possible and something to strive for when I go back.



The sharks seemed to be most active and make the most close passes during the last few hours of daylight. The Great White in the image below, whose name is Scarface, was the star of the show this trip. During the evening hours he became quite inquisitive and constantly cruised slowly past the cage time after time. Locking eyes with such an incredible predator is a feeling that is not easily replicated. 


I am eagerly (impatiently) awaiting my return to Guadalupe next month/year when I'll be leading photo workshops. Hopefully the sharks are obliging and I can improve my own images while helping my guests achieve their photographic goals of these magnificent animals. Please join me! 


Matthew Sullivan is an underwater and conservation photographer based out of Los Angeles, CA. For more of his pictures follow him on Instagram or on his website


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