I’ve re-posted this from the Picfair blog. See the original here!
Hi Simon Pierce! Tell us about yourself in two sentences – who are you?
I’m a marine biologist working globally on whale shark ecology and conservation. I get to visit some amazing places, so I thought I’d better buy myself a camera…
What’s the weirdest situation you’ve found yourself in while taking a photograph?
A few years ago, when I was living in Mozambique I was out on a boat searching for whale sharks, but instead we came across a great white shark(!) on the surface. It was big – almost 5 m long – and I wasn’t brave enough to jump in, but I did get a couple of friends to hold onto my legs while I hung over the side to shove my camera underwater. That, my friends, is trust.
What do you shoot on? What’s your favourite set up?
I’ve got a Panasonic GX1 (US/UK), basically a DSLR without an optical viewfinder, which means they have good image quality in a small and light package. The GX1 had a great Nauticam housing available, and an excellent lens selection. The Panasonic 8 mm fisheye (US/UK) is wonderful for wide angle shots underwater, and the Panasonic 100-300 (US/UK) is good on safari. About 95% of my photos are taken on one of these two lenses. Recently, I’ve also been travelling with a DJI Phantom Vision+ quadcopter (US/UK). It’s an amazing photographic tool. It does take up a bit more space, but it’s worth it.
What’s your number one tip for an aspiring photographer?
Get close, and wide. Above or below the water, these are always my favourite shots. With wildlife on land, using a monopod to sneak the camera a bit closer can help to accomplish this. Underwater, the main problems I see are people not getting close enough, and not thinking about white balance. Shooting in raw makes the latter much easier to deal with. More generally, if you’re interested in making some money from your photography, you’re on the right site! I’d never tried to sell pictures before, and had no idea where to start. I’m actually using Picfair as the payment solution on my website. Picfair makes it ridiculously easy – and you set your own price, so there’s no downside. Picfair also does a great job of promoting my photos, which I very much appreciate.
My favourite pics tend to come from pre-visualisation – I love it when a plan comes together. Last year, I was in Mexico to lead a whale shark research expedition. Whale sharks are gigantic – up to 20 m long – but they have tiny teeth, and feed solely on plankton and small fish. The sharks off Mexico are feeding on tuna spawn, which are basically little globules of fat. They’re just swimming around, sucking down lard. Good times. I had attempted a couple of silhouette shots over the preceding days but, as you can probably imagine, positioning yourself perfectly underneath a fast-moving fish is not always easy. In this particular case, there were swimmers alongside the shark which blocked me from taking the ‘science’ photos I wanted. In hindsight, the swimmers were a stroke of luck, as I think their presence improves the balance of the picture and emphasises the size of the shark.
Split-level shots are fun to take, but I won’t pretend to find them easy. You’ll need a wide angle lens (this was taken with a fisheye) and – preferably – a big dome port. I wish I had one. To get the shot, set an aperture that gives you a good depth of field, and hold focus on the area of interest underwater. To expose the whole scene correctly, it helps to shoot with the sun behind you, and during the middle of the day when it’s reasonably bright underwater. Flat seas make things a lot simpler, but I still shoot in continuous mode so I have a few options to choose from. Having a gigantic whale shark in the scene helps, but probably isn’t essential.
I often get asked ‘okay, I know they eat plankton… but what would happen if a whale shark accidentally swallowed me?’ It’s true that whale sharks have a huge mouth, but they’re actually very selective about what they eat. I’ve often seen them accidentally hoover up small jellyfish or a piece of seaweed, whereupon a confused expression crosses their face, and they spit it straight back out. Sharks can also ‘evert’ their stomachs; they can cough their gut right out, then suck it back in. Neat party trick. So, basically, they won’t swallow you. But if you did somehow end up in their mouth, you’d quickly be returned to the surface, slightly wiser – and gooier – for the experience.
The closest living relatives of whale sharks are (relatively) small sharks that live on reefs and eat molluscs, or suck in unwary fish as they swim by. Whale sharks have taken that suction ability and perfected it. They can create an impressive vortex of water – the last thing a zooplankton will ever see. Whale sharks do have teeth, but they’re tiny and probably only used to allow the male to grip the female’s fin during mating. For feeding, it’s all about the vacuum.
This is actually the same shark as the one above. It was seriously photogenic! I found it first, but then a bunch of other people swam over to check it out. I would have liked to get more ‘sucky’ shots, but the repeated elbowing put me off. Instead, I swam down to capture the scene from another angle. I really like this one!
Like geeky animal facts and dad jokes?
I write a few articles just for my mailing list. They normally focus on something interesting, and possibly hilarious, that I've learnt about sharks (or other random animals) that week. There may also be groan-inducing jokes.
Real talk: there will be groan-inducing jokes.