Underwater photography guru Mario Vitalini turns his attentions to one of the perennial diver favourites – the turtle
Photographs by Mario Vitalini
Turtles have undeniable charisma. These reptiles are among the most-fascinating animals you can encounter during a dive. From the seven species of marine turtles, you are more likely to see three of them – hawksbill, green, and loggerhead turtles. And with their passive attitude, they make for great subjects, but how to make your turtle shots stand out? These are my tips and tricks to getting a tip-top turtle shot.
There are two main shots you can take of a turtle. One is a swimming shot, probably the more difficult to take, and the other one is the turtle on a reef.
Reef shots can be easier to take, but require a lot of attention, particularly to the background. When they are on either resting or feeding, turtles are relatively easy to approach and the main challenge is to get a good composition. Distracting or busy backgrounds and poor eye contact is the main reason some turtle pictures do not live to the expectations.
In the case of a swimming turtle, the greatest challenge is to get close enough without scaring the poor thing. I have seen hundreds of photos of turtles and on many occasions, they are swimming away or there is not good eye contact. You also need to pay attention to the sun position as it can produce overexposed images.
Tips for success
If you are diving a site where the chances to encounter turtles are high, try to visualize the shots before you get in the water. It always helps if you are familiar with the area, but if not a quick chat with your dive guide will give you plenty of information about kind of situations you will be likely to find and what pictures you can take.
In order to get a great turtle shot, there are three main things to remember. First of all, never, never chase a turtle. They may look slow but if you have ever tried to swim after one you know they can be incredibly fast. If you chase them, they will get spooked and immediately swim away. Instead, let it swim to you, most of the time curiosity will drive them close enough for you to take a few shots.
When you see a turtle on the reef, it normally is resting or feeding, do not rush towards it, you will only scare them away. Try to move in front of the turtle and fill the frame. Sometimes their own reflection on your housing dome port will intrigue them and will come for a very close look or even a tentative nibble.
Whenever possible try to get the turtle from a slightly lower angle. This will reduce the amount of reef in your shot and potentially give a view of the surface adding to the sense of depth. However, be wary of the incredibly reflective underbelly as your strobes are likely to overexpose it. Reduce your flashguns power or move them further back.
In order not to waste time setting your camera, try to anticipate the encounter and have your settings ready. When I'm swimming along a reef, I tend to take some test shots into the blue so I'm ready if something shows up.
When you see a turtle, take a few minutes to see what it is doing, If it is swimming fast along the reef, chances are it won't stop. In that case, I wouldn't bother trying to get close, it’s clearly going somewhere and not interested in hanging around. If on the other hand, it seems relaxed, try to position yourself in a way that the turtle will move where you want it to be. Remember they are likely to go the opposite way you do. So if you want it on a blue background, try to get close to the reef. Wait for the turtle to get in the position you want it before you take your shot.
Some technical tips
Whenever possible try to go for a wide-angle lens to ensure you can fill the frame with your subject. Macro and normal lenses work very well for portraits and details of the face and eyes. Regardless if you are shooting with strobes or ambient light make sure you control the background brightness, particularly if you are shooting into the blue. When shooting ambient light make sure the sun is behind you to have good lighting in your subject. You can also try to shoot silhouettes; ensure you expose perfectly for the background and position yourself right under the turtle. It is also essential you pay attention to the position of the flippers as they can make or break your picture.
When using strobes, I found that slightly crossing flashguns maximize the amount of light on your subject and minimize lighting the surrounding reef helping the turtle to stand out. And as I mentioned early be very careful not to burn the bright turtle belly with your strobes, be prepared to reduce the power output of your strobes.
Behaviours to look for
Feeding: Some sites are excellent to photograph turtles feeding. Hawksbill turtles feed on soft coral and usually ignore what is going on around them giving you great opportunities for close up shots. Green turtles can be seen feeding on seagrass. These areas tend to be very sandy so be aware of particles in the water column as this will cause backscatter. Marsa Shona, in the Southern Red Sea, is a dive site I love for the reliable opportunities to shoot this behaviour.
Breathing: As with all reptiles, turtles need to come to the surface to breathe. This will give you great opportunities to shoot silhouettes.
Resting: Often turtles can be seen sleeping or resting on the reef, approach them carefully not to scare them.
Word of advice
Remember that turtles are endangered and as a photographer it is our responsibility not to stress them or do anything that may harm them. Always give enough space to the animal to swim away, never trap it. When using strobes, avoid multiple shots that may harm the eyes of the turtle. If possible, take some test shots on a near part of the reef before moving on the turtle.
With the travel restrictions in place to fight COVID-19, most dive hotspots around the world have been closed to tourists. Coral reefs and many marine creatures, including turtles, had a unique opportunity to recover from years of constant human presence. Some destinations are starting to welcome divers once again and the lucky ones able to visits these areas have been treated to incredible encounters. So, if you are willing to travel, there is no better time to pack your camera kit and head out to bag some amazing turtle pictures.
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