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How Photographer Cristina Mittermeier Kept Her Cool When Surrounded by Sharks

Cristina Mittermeier
 

Mexico City-born, Vancouver Island-based photographer Cristina Mittermeier didn’t set out to be an award-winning wildlife photographer. She’s a marine biologist by trade. But when an exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural History included some photos she had taken on her ex-husband’s camera—and credited him—she saw an opportunity.

“I saw the reaction that people had to the photographs, and I thought, ‘Wow, people are more likely to engage in a difficult conversation about our environment thanks to an image than to a scientific paper,'” she says. “If you just engage through science, people that don’t have a scientific understanding or a biology background feel really intimidated entering a conversation where they might not be experts. But we’re all carrying a device in our hands that takes pictures, and that really lowers the price of entry into the conversation.”

It was then that her effort to combine photography and science began, and she has spent the past two decades focusing on images of marine life and coastal regions most affected by climate change. Today, Mittermeier has 1.1 million fans who follow her photography on Instagram, as she documents her travels in Greenland, French Polynesia, Rwanda, and more, and her work with SeaLegacy, a non-profit she founded with partner and photographer Paul Nicklen.

On a recent trip to the Galapagos with Nicklen, Mittermeier was wowed by the amount of wildlife to photograph. “Because the Galapagos have been protected as a marine reserve since 1998, everything that should be there is there. It’s always shocking to me to get in the water. Everywhere else, we have to work so hard to find the fish or to find the sea turtles,” she says. One thing she found? A school of hammerhead sharks, who circled her after she got separated from her dive companions. Amid her fear—of the sharks and being lost at sea—she snapped a few photos, one of which you can see here. We asked her what it took to get the shot.

How did you end up in the right place, at the right time, for this photo?

The purpose of my recent expedition to the Galapagos was to dive around some of the most remote islands in the archipelago, Wolf and Darwin, which are way to the north. They’re pretty dangerous places to dive—they’ve got big currents and they’re just two specks in the middle of the ocean.

Around the two islands, there’s a deep upwelling. Currents carry nutrients from the bottom of the ocean up to the surface, and that’s why the animals are there. It was pretty windy that day and the waves were crashing against the rocks, so the water had all of these minuscule bubbles of air in it. It was almost like swimming through milk there was so much air in the water.

I was swimming with Paul [Nicklen] and another guy and all of a sudden I looked behind me and saw a large school of jacks coming at us with their mouths open. I thought, “Boy, that would make a beautiful picture.” So I went towards the fish and got lost in the middle of this big school and, when I came out, I couldn’t find Paul. I could hear the dive master with his little bell. He was trying to call me, but I couldn’t see where they were.

I still had half a tank of air, so I decided to just keep diving. As I floated, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of something. I couldn’t tell if they were fish and then all of the shapes began to get a little clearer. I realized it was a large school of hammerhead sharks.

What was going through your head when you saw them all?

I was a little scared to be quite honest. I like to think that when I’m a little scared, I’m probably in the right place—that something amazing is about to happen. But I was worried about how much air I had, how long my safety line was. And then, you remember that you’re a photographer and you can’t publish excuses. So very quickly I had to get a correct exposure and snap a couple of pictures before the scene disappeared.

What equipment were you using when you got this shot?

The magic of the Sony cameras that I shoot with is that they’re so good in low light. I was using a Sony a7R3 because it creates such a large 42-megapixel file [Editor’s note: High-megapixel cameras allow you crop down the images you shoot while maintaining high resolution and image clarity.]. I really imagine these images becoming fine art.

Light behaves in such a different way underwater. I often dive with strobes, which are intended to illuminate the scene, but in the environment I was diving in that day, if I had fired my strobes, the light would have bounced back off of the plankton and bubbles. All I would have gotten was light scatter. You have to imagine that you’re shooting into a very white scene backlit by a lot of sunlight, so you have to underexpose the image, too, to compensate for the abundance of light.

What would be your best piece of advice for a budding travel or wildlife photographer?

The number one skill needed for what I do is being very comfortable in the water, because your job is to not drown or get lost at sea. Once you put the camera’s viewfinder to your face, like I did with those fish, you lose the sense of where you are and what you’re doing. In my case, a minute later I looked up and I was lost.

You’re loaded with tasks: you have to be thinking about exposure and ambient light and strobes and, at the same time, you have to be thinking about not sinking. So become a very, very good water person before you take a camera underwater.

Then, keep it simple. You don’t need to have a fancy piece of equipment to make a piece of art. You just need to know how to use the camera you have. Learn your camera inside and out. Lock yourself in a dark room and know where all the settings are so that when you’re underwater and you’re surrounded by sharks, you don’t have to wonder where the ISO is.

One final thought: If you really want to enjoy your photography—whether it’s travel or underwater or whatever—give it a sense of purpose. Make sure that it can be used for a message and you will enjoy a lot more. Maybe it can change the world.

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