Creating Photographs Alongside The Largest Sharks In The Sea

What happens when you dream of a surreal image that beckons you to recreate it as a photograph? For Canon Explorer of Light, Tyler Stableford, it meant heading to Mexico in search of whale sharks, with an underwater model, ready to face the challenges that laid ahead of them them in an effort to create an image that was as compelling as it was personally rewarding.

According to Tyler, this project is the culmination of a long held dream, to create fine art imagery of a beautiful woman swimming with enormous whale sharks. An important facet of this creation was to keep the images true to how they were captured, and not composite them in any way.

Some photographers might approach the creation of an image like this by getting SCUBA rigs, light placements, and additional divers with oxygen for the model. It might even have been possible to work with one of the few whale sharks that are in captivity. Tyler deliberately chose to work in the sea, and the consequences of his location choice meant that no SCUBA gear would be allowed.

While this made capturing the image a challenge, it seemed to provide an authenticity and more dramatic impact. The struggle to place the model, a 40-foot long shark, and then Tyler in just the right positions for a compelling composition was no doubt difficult. In an excerpt from Tyler's blog post about this shoot:

I had only snorkel gear, as scuba gear is not allowed with the whale sharks in Mexico; so I too was quite limited in my time underwater. I kicked hard to align myself alongside the shark’s tail fin — it was here that the shark often looked most dramatic through the Canon 14mm lens. I fought to swim through the backwash created by the shark’s powerful tail fin. Other times I dove deep below Ashley and the shark, to try to capture them silhouetted against the sun rays.

After our test day, I felt like we had less than a 50 percent chance of success for the shoot day — the notion of aligning Ashley, the shark and myself in just the right position, and in a pose of grace, seemed almost beyond our capabilities. 

This project was too personal to compromise on our creative process. That is, I didn’t want to composite the images or reposition Ashley within the frame. I wanted our photographs to reflect the true dance between Ashley and the shark. It would have been easy for me to shoot images of the sharks, and then to shoot Ashley separately in various poses underwater; and then composite the two frames in Photoshop. All the images here are one frame, the real moment.

The work of the model really helped these images come together, and luckily she was not only a skilled underwater model, but she was Ashley Mosher, a former Olympic swimming competitor. Diving down without any gear, in front of a huge shark, and trying to be graceful when you're running out of oxygen... well... that's just intense and I start to sweat even thinking about it.

For us to have any chance of success, Ashley had to first swim over to, and in front of, the moving shark; and then, despite being winded from the swim, she had to draw a big breath and plunge deep underwater, swimming hard to position herself perfectly below the shark — all without mask, snorkel or fins. And then, only then, could she begin the graceful dance; she arced and twirled alongside the shark until her searing lungs forced her, gasping, to the surface.

With only brief instants to capture the moments, Tyler had to be on point and focused to come away with the images he was after. And he had to do it while holding his own breath as well.

To read more about this project, check out the full article at Stableford Studios.

Tyler is also having a gallery opening and reception this coming Thursday, with the prints created from this project. If you're in the Carbondale, Colorado area, Tyler asks that you stop by and say hello.

Mike Wilkinson's picture

Mike Wilkinson is an award-winning video director with his company Wilkinson Visual, currently based out of Lexington, Kentucky. Mike has been working in production for over 10 years as a shooter, editor, and producer. His passion lies in outdoor adventures, documentary filmmaking, photography, and locally-sourced food and beer.

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Wonderful photography.