Love sharks? Here's how to help save them using your camera

Shark photography at the surface
Shark photography at the surface

It doesn’t take long to wander into the world of underwater photography once you’ve got your Open Water certificate safely tucked under your belt. Laura King, who makes up one-half of H&L photography, knows this better than anyone. Armed with her camera, the American-based wildlife photographer is changing people’s perception of sharks one well-composed image at a time.

Since starting diving as a teenager, Laura has lived a life that’s not for the faint-hearted and has traveled the world coming face to face (or camera dome to nose) with some of the most reputedly fearsome creatures in the sea. Shortly after scoring a marine conservation job in a bucket-list liveaboard destination, Belize, Laura bought her first Canon G11 and housing and jumped headfirst (pun intended) into professional underwater photography.

Today, her weapon of choice is a little more sophisticated than her first camera housing. Laura uses her digital SLR set-up to shoot awe-inspiring marine life stills (including the odd selfie with a manatee!) Laura has filmed hammerhead sharks with diving legend Jean-Michel Cousteau for his ‘Ocean 3D’ special and comes within inches of more shark species than we can count daily.

Underwater selfie with a manatee
Manatee Selfie!

Laura knows firsthand that the fear many humans foster for sharks is irrational and that these apex predators are essential for healthy ocean ecosystems. We quizzed her on all things diving, particularly what we can do to help the plight of sharks through photography.

To help sharks, you need to understand them…

We fear what we don’t understand.

Laura admits feeling scared when she first saw a shark underwater 15 years ago. This fear drove her to learn more about these animals, and as her knowledge grew, her anxiety ceased.

You’re more likely to win an Oscar than get bitten by a shark, and you’re more likely to be killed by a drink vending machine than the ocean apex predator (something to think about next time you crave a Coke!) Know the truth about these animals; you can nip irrational fear in the bud.

And then get up close and personal with sharks yourself.

For Laura, learning about sharks and spending more time with them came hand in hand. The more time Laura spent in the shark’s world, the more she realized they are nothing like how we are taught to view them by the media.

Laura describes sharks as “beautiful, peaceful animals,” and she would know. Laura’s favorite diving experience (yep, we made her choose just one) was with one of the supposedly most aggressive sharks in the world, the Tiger Shark while diving in Florida. Rather than living up to the hype, though, the shark did the exact opposite.

“The skipper of the vessel started pulling up the bait, and I saw there was a beautiful female Tiger Shark following the bait up. She was about 7 foot long and she was just gorgeous. On her way up, she spotted me on the surface and she turned away from the bait and swam up directly towards me. Tiger Sharks don't move very fast in situations like these, so I had a long time to watch her. She swam right up to me and "bumped" my camera. This is an exploratory move as she was trying to figure out what I was. Soon after, the skipper jumped out the water to attend to his guests, and I spent about an hour in the water with this amazing shark. “

Laura still remembers the feeling of having the shark curiously looking at her, trying to figure out what this strange-looking fish was as they circled one another underwater for more than an hour. Laura said she didn’t once feel threatened in the presence of the enormous shark.

Photo of shark with quote
Looking at you, JAWS

If you’re already a diver who actively seeks out shark encounters, you’ll understand the humbling effect of being surrounded by these sleek and powerful predators. If you’re not, I can assure you as soon as you’ve boarded your first liveaboard trip dedicated to shark diving, you will be singing a different tune.

Laura is a big fan of diving in the Bahamas, as it is home to a wide variety of marine life, fantastic year-round visibility, deliciously warm water, and, of course, no shortage of shark encounters.

Capture their beauty.

Never underestimate the power of an image, even if your career isn’t listed as ‘Professional Shark Photographer’ on LinkedIn. Laura is passionate about protecting the animal kingdom and uses photography to show people how beautiful sharks can be in the hopes of changing their perceptions. Laura describes it as a form of ‘passive activism.’

We’ve all got that one colleague or relative who pulls a face of disgust when you regale them with tales of your liveaboard trip where you dived with a school of 200 hammerheads. It’s satisfying to show them images of your experiences and see their horror transform into amazement.

We asked Laura for her best tips for budding underwater photographers. Laura stresses that ensuring your buoyancy is perfect is important not only so you can get that amazing shot but also so you don’t injure yourself and surrounding marine life. Diver safety and preserving coral reefs should always come before photography.

“Be respectful of the reef and NEVER move or break anything to get a better shot. As ambassadors of the sea we should always leave it the same or better as when we found it (by removing trash).”
Manta ray in shallow waters
Stingray in shallow waters

Like your dive equipment, you need to make sure you know your camera before you can jump in and take stellar photos. Laura explained that in her early days of underwater photography, she would spend hours using her camera on land while it was in the housing to ensure she knew how to control it. Before you decide to bring all your camera equipment on that liveaboard dive trip in the Bahamas you’ve been looking forward to, spend some time making sure you know what all the buttons do.

Thanks to the Internet, you can learn all the basics online. Watch some tutorials and practice on land. Finally, always shoot in RAW to manipulate and improve less-than-perfect images at the end of a dive.

Use social media for good and spread the word about sharks.

In Australia, animal rights issues are currently the most talked about thing on social media. Using your Facebook and Instagram is good for more than just showing your friends what you ate for lunch. Once you’ve learned more about sharks and seen them firsthand, share your experiences with others.

One of Laura’s many Instagram followers commented on one of her stunning images with the word ‘monster’ and then continued to leave a whirlwind of comments about how terrifying they are. Rather than retaliating to these ignorant words, Laura talked about sharks with the user.

A few days later, Laura posted another image of a shark, and she was surprised to read the word ‘beautiful’ in the comments from the same user. A few weeks later, they commented again, saying that she had changed their mind about sharks and that they now loved them.

This is the power of Laura’s photography. Not everyone loves to dive, and if you can’t show people firsthand just how phenomenal sharks are, then the next best thing is images and footage of these misunderstood creatures. Laura described this interaction on social media as a ‘proud moment’ and an example of the exact response she wanted from her photographs.

While we may not all be professional photographers, we all, as scuba divers, have the power to be ‘passive activists’ like Laura King. When your passion revolves around the underwater world and being in it as much as possible, use your camera and voice to spread your love for sharks. Our oceans will give you the best thank you possible, a place where sharks can be respected and appreciated.

Laura looks forward to heading on a liveaboard dive trip in the Philippines next year to photograph the completely harmless yet enormous whale shark. You can check out more of her stunning photography by searching for H.&L. Photography on Instagram and Facebook.

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