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Feature Image by: Krystle Wright

Underwater Photography Tips with Krystle Wright – Photographing Sperm Whales in the Azores

The beautiful thing is that water is never the same way twice. I'm always excited to be in the water shooting!

Krystle Wright is an Adventure Photographer from Queensland, Australia. These days, however, she lives a semi-nomadic lifestyle as she traverses the globe in pursuit of adrenalin and the perfect shot. 

Krystle’s travels recently took her to the volcanic Azores Islands off the coast of Portugal, where, with the help of vet and photographer Dr Chris Brown, she set out to capture the magic of sperm whales as they passed through the islands on their annual migration.

Underwater Photography by Krystle Wright 

“Out of the blue” : 1/640sec @ f/4.0 14mm ISO 250 5DS R

It was really challenging to actually find one of these notoriously elusive whales out in the open ocean.

But after three days without a single sighting, Krystle and Dr Chris received a tip off from a local whale spotter and zipped out across the water to join them. Without knowing how long the whales would hang around, the pair seized the moment and dived into the water with their cameras.

The whales cruised serenely through the water, communicating with each other in their otherworldly clicks and clacks. It’s hard to believe that these gentle giants could have ever been portrayed as “monsters of the deep”.

The photos speak for themselves and show just how graceful these beautiful creatures really are. Krystle and Dr Chris were deeply moved by the experience and filled with joy to have captured their once-in-a-lifetime experience on film.

Interview with Adventure Photographer Krystle Wright

We caught up with Krystle after her close encounter to find out more. Here she shares stories and insights from the experience, as well as her professional underwater photography tips on what gear and camera settings to use when shooting below the surface.

What is underwater photography for you?
Underwater photography encapsulates the world that exists beneath the surface, whether it’s an ocean, lagoon, lake or river. It’s the ability to take photos while underwater and can be achieved while scuba diving, freediving, snorkeling or using an automated setup to trigger a submerged camera.

Why did you go to the Azores, and what makes this region so special?
I am attracted to places that are far from the beaten path and carry a special uniqueness about them. I had heard of the Azores but never knew all that much about them, which made it exciting for me to research. I soon discovered what a beautiful and pristine underwater environment exists there. It’s one of the best locations in the world to go diving and offers the chance to swim with an array of sea animals, including dolphins, turtles and manta rays. But specifically, it’s the elusive sperm whale that is the major drawcard. The islands’ combination of European village charm and one of the world’s most incredible ocean environments makes the Azores an incredible place to visit!

What do you need to consider when taking photos underwater?
There are many things to consider when taking photographs underwater. First of all you need the right gear, whether it’s scuba diving or freediving gear. Things such as a snorkel, fins, goggles and wetsuit are some of the crucial items. The ocean is an active environment that is continually changing, so it’s imperative to keep an eye on the situation around you and keep yourself safe. Finally, having the right gear to protect your camera underwater is crucial. Then you’re ready to go!

What makes underwater photography so unique?
Shooting in the water has always been one of my favourite things to do ever since I got into photography! In fact, I remember when I was 18, I spent my childhood savings on an AquaTech water housing and I’ve never looked back. I grew up in the ocean and it’s familiar territory for me. I would encourage others who want to get into underwater photography to develop strong swimming skills. It’s also important to know your strengths and weaknesses so that you don’t find yourself in a dangerous situation. The beautiful thing is that water is never the same way twice. It will always be different every time. I am always excited to be in the water shooting!

Underwater Photography by Krystle Wright

Family time” : 1/640sec @ f/4.0 14mm ISO 250 5DS R

What challenges did you face during the Azores underwater photo shoot?

Shooting in the ocean is always going to be a challenge. But the main challenge we faced in the Azores was trying to locate the sperm whales. They eluded us for the entire first part of the trip and we were starting to doubt we would ever spot one. Having patience is absolutely key when photographing wildlife, especially when you’re photographing underwater wildlife.

Why didn’t you dive with full scuba gear during the shoot?

The issue with scuba gear is that it’s so cumbersome and time consuming to put on. When you’re diving with whales and trying to photograph them you need to be able to move fast. You’re constantly getting in and out of zodiacs and if you’re wearing scuba gear you’re going to miss the moment every time. As we often found when we jumped in the water. it doesn’t take long for the whales to disappear. It’s far easier to move in the water with a snorkel and simply freedive with the whales.

Did you need to do any freediving training before the trip?

It certainly helps to train if you want to free dive with whales. But even without training, if you decide to stay nearer the surface, you can still enjoy an incredible experience. Like any activity, I would recommend taking a training course and learning how to keep yourself safe in the open ocean. For me personally, as an adventure photographer, my lifestyle is very active and I transition into many sports. Before the trip I had been rock climbing and hiking long distances, which improved my overall fitness and allowed me to keep a lower heart rate in the water. This is instrumental in holding your breath for long periods of time.

How did you get to know the crew, and how did you work with them during filming?

Our local crew in the Azores were amazing! This is such a key element in making sure you have a successful trip. All of them were incredibly knowledgeable and taught us so much about sperm whales and the Azores Islands. They also helped us time our dives just right so that we would have the best possible chance of interacting with the whales. We were lucky that the whole team got along really well. It’s always such a bonus on trips to have a great team with a good sense of humour. The filming aspect can always add a new layer which can either compliment the situation or create a burden. I always believe in working with friends and finding the right balance between shooting and knowing when to put the camera down.

How did you and Dr Chris position yourselves in the water to get the best shots?

Chris and I bounced ideas around and had a loose plan. I say loose because we were interacting with wildlife, so it’s impossible to always plan for the unexpected.

Our first big interaction with the whales was spectacular and we were both incredibly overwhelmed. I’ve put myself in a lot of extreme environments where my heart has been racing and I’ve been under pressure to get the shot. But nothing I’ve done before could compare with this moment. The whole crew was lost for words for over an hour and it wasn’t until our second interaction with the whales that we knew what to expect and weren’t overcome by so much emotion.

It was tough because the whales were a little farther away. And even though they weren’t swimming fast, I was kicking as hard as I could to keep up with them! I knew Chris was behind me since I needed to place myself between him and the whales in order for me to be in frame. I went for the dive knowing that the moment would be all too brief before they would swim down for a dive.

How did you manage to get close enough to the whales so that Dr Chris could get you in frame?

To be honest, it was simply sheer luck. We formulated the best plan possible, such as working with an amazing crew who all brought a set of unique skills, and through that we created as much luck as possible. Then it was just a case of hoping Chris would be ready with the shutter when I was in place.

Underwater Photography by Krystle Wright

Up close and personal“ : 1/640sec @ f/4.0 14mm ISO 250 5DS R

There was one moment where the whales came so close to me that I backed away in the water. I could have touched them but I chose not to as I don’t believe that I was entitled to do so. I was floored that the whale came so close to me and the gesture itself was more than I could have ever wished for. I wanted to respect its space. I do my best to read the wildlife and the golden rule is that one must always let the wildlife interact with you and not the other way around.

What gear do you use for shoots like this? Do you recommend any specific cameras for underwater photography?

I absolutely love using the Canon EOS 5D SR for underwater photography. The smaller body means you have less weight to swim with in the water and the files from the camera give me incredible flexibility in what I can do with the image. Some may argue that having a camera with a higher shutter burst and faster focusing, such as the Canon EOS 1DX Mark II, would be better, but I find the 5DS R gives me everything I need. I believe the 5D series is a great size to swim with for anyone wanting to get into underwater photography.

What type of lenses do you recommend for underwater photography?

Most of the time my go-to underwater lens is the 14mm f/2.8. I love to shoot wide and allow a lot of space in my images. And if the wildlife encounter is a close one, like it was in the Azores, then the 14mm still allows me to shoot up close.

What camera water housings do you recommend?

I work with AquaTech water housings. The system is simple and easy and it’s always been my choice of housing. I am particularly interested in surface water sports and the AquaTech is designed to shoot on the surface as well as to a depth of roughly 12m. To be honest, there is so much that can be achieved within 12m of the surface. To go deeper, specifically if you’re interested in scuba photography, then a different camera setup needs to be considered. 

Do you have any advice in regards to underwater photography settings in general?

Technology in cameras has improved so much over the years that the majority of the time I leave my white balance on AWB or Daylight. I want to be able to focus on getting the image and if certain functions are already taken care of then it eliminates distractions for me and I can focus on taking a great image. The one automatic function I trust on my camera 90% of the time is AWB. There are situations where I like to take more control and experiment by trying something creative like shooting on Shade function to allow the tones to be warmer in the image. But when shooting in the water I would mostly select AWB or Daylight mode.

I always try to keep my ISO as low as possible, around ISO 100, but of course this depends on the light that’s available. On sunny days I find myself at about ISO 100-200 and on cloudy days I will shoot more around ISO 400-640.

If you want to capture freeze frame action underwater then I highly recommend shooting with a shutter speed of 1/1000th second. Saying that, water droplets can move fast when photographing surfers so I’d also suggest shooting even faster at 1/2000th second. In underwater photography and when photographing wildlife, you can get away with 1/500th of a second for most scenarios. However, if you want to get creative and play with panning motions to create a blur effect, then slowing down to 1/15th second is great to experiment.

My aperture settings depend on the subject and the light that is available, but for underwater photography I will use an aperture of roughly f/4.0. I shoot at f/2.8 a lot as well but I like to choose f/4.0 as it gives me a little breathing room and to hopefully have the sea creature nice and sharp. 

Do you shoot RAW or JPEG when photographing underwater?

Personally, I will always choose to shoot RAW. The only time I would shoot JPEG would be if I were working with newspapers or agencies that required immediate turnaround on the spot. I highly recommend and always encourage others to shoot in RAW as it allows you great flexibility in post-production in Lightroom or Photoshop. Plus, if you want to print the photo, RAW will give you the best chance of printing a high quality image. 

All images and footage taken under a special permit granted by the Regiao Autonoma Dos Acores, Secretaria Regional Do Ambiente E Do Mar, Dreccao Regional do Ambiente.