Underwater photographer Todd Bretl continues to explore the ocean, capturing stunning images of diverse marine life. We’ve seen his glowing portraits of bobtail squid as well as a wide range of other sea creatures, but we’re really drawn to his incredible, close-up shots of sharks. Despite their reputation, Bretl manages to get in close, document their image, and safely return to land.
The sharp-toothed, open-mouthed, aquatic animals that roam down below have been the subject of several horror stories, rarely being depicted as anything other than the villain. However, Bretl tells us, “It’s really a misconception that sharks are all that dangerous to scuba divers. I’ve never had a shark act aggressively towards me.” Of course, that’s not to say that the photographer doesn’t take precautions.
We were lucky enough to get in touch with Todd and ask him a few questions about how he manages to venture into such close quarters with sharks and the preparation that goes into a typical shoot. That interview can be read, below.
Can you please explain your process and how much prep goes into a typical underwater shoot with sharks?
Most of the prep work is the same for shooting clownfish. A LOT of preparation goes into making sure I have all the camera equipment and backup I could possibly need because these shoots are typically remote. And also a lot of prep goes into thinking about the kind of shots I want before the actual shoot. Being face-to-face with sharks is pretty exhilarating and it’s not always easy to sit around in the heat of the moment and think about how I want to frame a shot. So, I like to go in knowing what sort of shot I’m looking for.
How does photographing a shark compare to other shoots?
The primary difference with shooting sharks is that you don’t want to have your face glued to the viewfinder. It’s important to have your head up and be alert so that a shark doesn’t get too friendly or curious (you don’t want a tiger shark sneaking up behind you trying to figure out what you are). So a lot of the shooting is “hip shooting” Where you just hold the camera out and guesstimate the framing. That’s not the most natural thing and requires some practice beforehand to be comfortable with.
What sort of safety precautions do you take?
I wouldn’t go free diving with Great Whites or Makos without a safety spotter (those are on my wish list), but with other species I’m not concerned with special safety precautions or being alone in the water with them. Most photogs I know swim towards the sharks not away from them. It’s more of a common sense don’t-do-anything-stupid kind of thing. Along those lines, since the sharks aren’t swimming around trying to hunt divers, most of my shots required some bait/chum to get the sharks in close to the boat.
You have some remarkably intimate perspectives. How do you get in so close?
Most of my shark shots were taken in the Bahamas where the best place to see these sharks is actually in about 15′ of water. At that depth I’m able to stay underwater essentially from 9am to 9pm and only have to come up for air refills. With that amount of time on your hands, and by staying calm and relaxed, eventually the sharks come to you. It’s the same with most other shark shots too, just sitting around still and patient, trying not to blow too many bubbles… eventually they come in. Chasing after a shark is about the worst way to get a close perspective. They’re more skittish than people think.
Do you have a memorable story from a shoot you can share?
One night I was shooting lemon and tiger sharks at night off a boat in the Bahamas and I was the only diver in the water. I was right under the boat, and was fairly on edge to begin with – alone in the dark with dozens of sharks is something memorable enough. But then, the sharks started acting crazy and coming in much closer and faster. I was thinking “Oh sh*t, they’ve had enough of me and my camera.” Turns out an egg-crate full of bait fell off the back of the boat and landed right behind my feet. Once I moved away everything was fine, but for a few seconds there I thought something was going seriously wrong.