There are few underwater images as iconic as the graceful Manta Ray captured in full flight with a picture perfect blue background.
Although there are many locations throughout the world that offer the opportunity to dive with Mantas, each present their own unique challenges such as strong currents or low visibility.
Thankfully, taking underwater photos of mantas in difficult conditions is pretty straight forward if you follow a few basic guidelines.
Metre the light
The key to shooting a wide angle photograph is capturing the perfect blue. In order to do this you need to set your f-stop and shutter speed correctly.
When shooting a manta ray, f5.6 to f8 is a great place to start as mantas are not likely to get too close to the photographer. The key to capturing a stunning blue background is to choose your f-stop first and then use the cameras’ metre to choose the correct shutter speed. With a Nikon camera, I prefer to set it to -1 on the metre.
As mantas often move quickly, it’s important to know your camera controls.
The ability to adjust your shutter speed quickly while looking through the viewfinder (as opposed to looking at the back of the camera desperately trying to find the shutter control) is vital when trying to capture a manta swimming over your head.
Pull those strobes out far
Unfortunately for us, manta encounters often happen in less than clear conditions. However, this does not mean we can’t illuminate them properly. By pulling your strobes out as wide as you can and keeping them slightly outside of parallel to the lens, you can eliminate most particles of backscatter.
Even when a manta seems too far for the strobes to be effective, it’s a good idea to leave them on as mantas are capable of quick bursts of speed and can be on top of you within seconds.
If you turn your strobes off, you will never be able to turn them on fast enough when a manta suddenly swoops in close!
Manta Ray Silhouettes
Mantas have one of the most visually striking appearances of any large marine fauna and lend themselves very well to silhouette photos.
The combination of rich blue, streaks of frozen sunlight, and the unmistakable visage of a manta ray in flight always creates a stunning photograph.
In order to capture the best silhouette, it’s important to turn off your strobes, set the shutter speed to 1/250 or higher, and position the manta directly in front of the sun to capture light rays bursting from behind the manta.
Learn the Behaviour for the Perfect Picture
In order to optimize your manta photography opportunities, it’s not manta behaviour that matters but rather the behaviour of the photographer!
The only way to get close enough to a manta is to be relaxed and stay still. If you encounter a manta at a cleaning station, it’s best to situate yourself where the dive guide tells you and stay there.
The guides know the flight path of the mantas and will often situate a photographer in the best spot.
If you encounter a manta while swimming, it’s best to settle toward the bottom and let the manta come to you.
Swimming aggressively toward a manta will always end with the manta swimming away.
Do’s and Don’ts
Do - stay close to the bottom and allow the manta to initiate a close pass
Don’t - chase a manta in order to get a photograph, you will only chase it away and ruin the encounter for your fellow divers
Do - watch the path of the manta at a cleaning station, they often navigate the same course while maneuvering into position. If you are settled on the bottom along their path, they will cruise right over top of you.
Don’t - get too close to a cleaning station, you will frighten the cleaner fish and the mantas won’t stay for long
Do - Take as many photos or video of a manta as you can
Don’t - touch or attempt to ride a manta, this will spook the animal and it won’t come back