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Sharks Feed During Sunset Photography

The Shot That Started It

The Technical: I captured this photograph in Cozumel, Mexico while I was scouting sites for my very first exotic photography workshop location back in 2004.  The idea was a photography workshop location that provided a tropical setting outside of the United States mainland and though we went back and conducted a great workshop there later that year, we never returned since and shifted our focus to the U.S. Virgin Islands.  While Cozumel is an excellent location, the U.S. Virgin Islands became my choice as there are no currency or customs issues, not to mention the workshop coordinator in Mexico just created too many overcharges to keep track of in my budget, though I’d go back to Cozumel in a heartbeat to shoot again.

Sunset Photography, Cozumel, California Sunbounce, Reflector, Digital Photo

One of the last photographs I took from a two-day, exotic photography workshop scouting trip.

I don’t suggest attempting such a photograph unless you are a professional and take great precautions—it’s more dangerous than it looks.  If you decide to try it, you must have a photography assistant holding the light at all times.  This assistant needs to wear protective gloves due to the electrical hazard—water and electricity are notorious enemies. I highly recommend a battery-powered flash and stay inside the reef, as sharks feed at night and are attracted to electrical impulses.

For this image, the idea was to show the land in the background.  The sun was setting fast, so we worked quickly.  The key to shooting a photo with the sun setting is to control the saturation of color in the sky by changing your shutter speed up or down (dragging your shutter speed) without changing your aperture.

Photographer’s Toolbox

Camera: Olympus E-1
Lens: Olympus Zuiko 50-200mm zoom lens set at 50mm
Effective Focal Length: 100mm
Shutter Speed: 1/60
Aperture: F/6.3
ISO: 100
White Balance: 6000K

The Story Behind The Image: In early 2004, I was asked by an individual to visit Cozumel for a possible photography workshop location, so I agreed and placed an advertisement in a photography forum for two assistants.  I had many applicants, but ultimately the two assistants I chose, Luis Z. and Henry W., seemed the best qualified.  Luis was a school teacher fluent in Spanish and showed great enthusiasm, as did Henry, a Fire Marshall, so off we went to Mexico for two solid days of scouting and shooting a few local models. Obviously we allowed two other days for travel.

D-Pixx Photography magazine cover, photograph Cozumel

One of the photographs from that two-day trip to Cozumel became a magazine cover in Europe.

We did a lot of scouting and a bit of shooting on the first day after arrival.  On the second day we took a 45-minute boat ride to a remote island off the coast, more like an oversized sandbar with beach and brush.  The small boat’s engine smoked the whole ride, making me think, would we get stranded out in the open sea?  Somehow we made it to the location though, Luis, Henry, the boat owner, two models, our host, a make-up artist and myself—no wonder the small boat smoked the entire way.

Once there, we fought off what appeared as gigantic horse flies and if one landed on you, they would bite and it was painful, so we did our best to avoid whatever those creatures were. It was also very hot, as any mid-summer day in June, so to say it was challenging, is an understatement, though we took equipment to compensate for the harshness of the bright open skies, like an 8- by 8-foot California Sunbounce scrim.  We even took the special California Sunbounce sandbags—the kind you fill-up on location, that would secure the heavy-duty light stands that would support the scrim.  Though soon after putting the scrim together and filling the sand bags, Luis and Henry realized, they had forgotten one thing—the stands.

Well my U.S. Army active-duty training kicked in, I took command of the situation and told Luis and Henry, “Guess what fellas, you’re going to have to handhold that scrim above the model when I shoot.”  As I had one model pose the other model would hold the California Sunbounce Pro reflector to illuminate the subject, something a photographer’s assistant would have normally done.  Our guide was preoccupied taking some behind the scene shots while trying to figure out what we’d do for lunch and the make-up artist would constantly touch up the model’s face from the sweat of the hot day. The boat operator was busy fiddling with the boat’s engine and I prayed he knew what he was doing.

Forgot Photography Light Stands, Cozumel photo

Henry and Luis hold up a California Sunbounce scrim.

As the day went on I shot and shot, but I just never felt it.  As a photographer you know when you’ve got it in the can, and you know when you’re just spinning your wheels.  I felt I was spinning my wheels.  Perhaps it was my concern that we had forgotten the stands. Perhaps it was avoiding crazy biting flies. Perhaps it was the heat. Perhaps it was trying not to squint from the highly reflective white sand.  Perhaps it was my concern that we’d depart late into the darkness on a boat that they’d impound in California due to it’s pollution producing engine.  Regardless, I just didn’t feel it until it was time to leave.

As the sun began to set, I told everyone, “Let’s get into the boat.”  Henry, Luis and everyone were looking at me like I was crazy and a few of them said, “Aren’t you going to capture the sunset?”  I said, “Yep, but I’ve got an idea.”  While I’m not a great swimmer, I knew the water was shallow enough for me to stand in, so I told everyone that I wanted something different. I didn’t want the typical girl in a bikini on the beach with the sun setting in the background, instead, I wanted the land in the background with enough sky so the viewer would realize we were in the ocean away from land.  So we loaded up, headed out, and spent a few minutes looking for the right spot—albeit, we did it fast, as the sun doesn’t wait.

Henry held the California Sunbouce, Luis volunteered for the dangerous part, holding a light while standing in water—salt water.  I will add, this is very dangerous, but we were careful and I do not recommend anyone doing this without taking strict safety precautions. As I began shooting, the boat began drifting, so I worked fast and realized I was too far away from the boat about the time I was giving up on my photos as I still wasn’t feeling it, then it dawned on me, I wanted to take a set-up shot—how it was done and this is how this feature photo came to life.

Model, Cozumel Mexico Photography, California Sunbounce

Noelia poses during my two-day, exotic photography workshop scouting mission.

Unfortunately my wide-angle lens was drifting inside the boat, it was getting dark and there was no time to mess around.  So very carefully I walked away from everyone as the ocean was not white capping but it was moving and the guide yelled to watch out for drop-offs.  I took careful but rapid steps and almost fell once, though I managed to gain my balance.  I would stop, turn, look through my lens and then determine if I had the right framing as I wanted to use the lens wide but also somewhat magnified, as when you shoot with a longer focal length the background will enlarge and I wanted to compress the background. Eventually I gave up, but with the camera I had, the effective focal length was in the medium telephoto range of 100mm’s.  That worked, I shot a few images, then said to everyone, “Time to go, get in the boat.”

As we putted our way back to Cozumel, I had fun chimping the LCD screen and showing off the results. I was proud of the image I had captured, at least the one, the one of everyone working with the sunset in the background.  The others, oh, they were OK, but not necessarily my best and by far, this image is one of my all time favorites and the proof of it’s power is the fact I’ve had it published quite a few times.  Often I’m still asked about it and I enjoy telling the story of forgetting the stands for the California Sunbounce scrims, though I’m sure Henry and Luis tell the story in their own way on how I told them they’d be holding that scrim—let’s just say, since then they’ve both have helped me out and they never forget the stands.

The funny thing about the entire trip, this is the one photo that made the trip, as I’ve received a lot of notoriety from it, even secured one photographic sponsor from it.  Though I’ve received a lot of flack from it too, because of the danger involved in having someone hold an electronic flash of this caliber while standing in the ocean, not to mention a few divers have hit me with you’re lucky a shark didn’t attack you. I will say that Henry and Luis actually loved this part of the trip, as after holding that large scrim up high all day, standing in the cool ocean waters made them feel more relaxed.  It’s been over six years since this photo and Henry, Luis and I, still friends, often laugh and reminisce about this trip to Cozumel, though I’ve never back but look forward to it someday.

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  1. I love this sunset backdrop. I think you captured this one perfectly and the fact no one got electrocuted was a plus too. You are an amazing photographer because you do what you do and you do it well. I have shot some amazing sunsets myself but not to this complexity. Great job for sure.

    • Galen,

      Thanks for the nice comments. Sunsets are always interesting and my favorite scene to shoot when out on location shooting all day. Again, thanks for the nice words, rg.

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