How To Photograph Manta Rays

Have you ever wondered how to photograph manta rays? This is a question many people ask us on our boats, and we can fully understand why. There are few underwater images as iconic as the graceful manta ray captured in full flight with a picture-perfect blue background.

Getting good images of mantas can often be challenging. This can be due to low visibility and/or presence of strong currents. Inconveniently, manta rays often hang out in such areas to feed. Thankfully, getting shots of mantas in difficult conditions can pretty straight forward. You just need to follow a few basic guidelines. Here are some tips on how to photograph manta rays.

1. Camera and accessories

Camera gear at the ready
Make sure everything is charged and ready to go. Photo: Marc Stickler

Light

The sun is the most important lighting tool when photographing manta rays. This is because it serves as a great backlight and can add drama and mystique to any photo. For a perfect blue background, you need to set your f-stop and shutter speed correctly:

  • First, choose your f-stop and then use the cameras’ metre to choose the correct shutter speed.
  • F5.6 to f8 is a great place to start as mantas are not likely to get too close to you

Strobes

Due to their size, a two-strobe setup is a must, as one strobe will not handle the job of lighting such a big subject. The strobes will even out the lighting and fill in the shadows, creating a properly lit image.

Mantas feed on plankton and are therefore seldom found in crystal-clear blue water. This means that will need to eliminate the backscatter created by the plankton. To do this, pull your strobes out as wide as you can and keep them slightly outside of parallel to the lens.

Photographer with strobes
Strobes lit and ready to go. Photo: Dan Norwood.

Also, leave the strobes on for the whole dive. Mantas are capable of quick bursts of speed and can be on top of you within seconds. You may not have time to quickly turn them on if a manta suddenly swoops in close.

Lens

It almost goes without saying that a wide angle lens is a must. This is not only to fit the manta into your frame, but also to get as close as possible to the manta. It also helps to provide good clarity and allows the strobes to light the subject properly.

2. Framing the subject

When you’re learning how to photograph manta rays it’s good to know how to set your subject in the frame. While they are seemingly slow graceful creatures, their size, agility, and speed can make getting images tough. Having ideas of what you want in your head in advance can help. There are a view

Silhouettes

Mantas have one of the most visually striking appearances of any large marine fauna. Because of this they lend themselves very well to silhouette photos. In order to capture the best silhouette turn off your strobes, set the shutter speed to 1/250 or higher, and position the manta directly in front of the sun. In this way you can capture light rays bursting from behind the manta.

Photograph of a manta ray from below
The alternate manta belly shot. Photo: Elisabeth Lauwerys

You can also go for a variation on the silhouette, manta belly. Follow the same rules as above but make sure your strobes are turned on. Using this alternate method gets you striking shots of the unique underbelly markings on your subject.

Reef and ray

Sometimes manta rays don’t come to you as a photographer. In this case, look for a colourful foreground subject to fill in the blue. Anemones, soft corals, and bommies all work for this. This can create more interesting photographs for viewers as the manta is not the only thing in the scene.

Manta cruising by
Even a relatively bare reef can be used to frame a manta well. Photo: Tod Thimios.

Get on their level

You can get dramatic images at eye level with a manta. Whether this is close to a sandy bottom or in the blue is not important. Horizontally, from front, back, and side they are super impressive. But divers sometimes find that mantas do not do what they want them to do. Which brings us to…

3. The photographer

In order to optimise your manta photography opportunities, it is not manta behaviour that matters but rather yours. It sounds simple, but just relax and stay still; great photos are the reward for your patience. The less you move, the closer the mantas will come. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Manta rays will be the ones to set the tone for your encounter. They will always establish their own comfort level with you as a diver. Being calm and steady helps them relax around you.
  • It allows you time to position yourself in relation to the sunlight. Any time you are swimming towards mantas you’re not thinking about the sun’s positioning. And you should remember how important that can be.
Photographers waiting on manta rays
Photographers waiting for mantas to come to them. Photo Brandi Mueller

At cleaning stations, situate yourself where the dive guide tells you and stay there. The guides know the flight path of the mantas and will try to put you in a good spot. Once you’re in your spot, get your basics right first…

  • Get your background exposure right
  • Set your strobes out wide to reduce the risk of backscatter
  • Sit back and enjoy the view when the mantas come into range
  • If you encounter a manta while you are swimming, try to relax and let the manta come to you.

Swimming with manta rays is an amazing experience in itself. Don’t forget to enjoy that. Not every image will be perfect every time. Plan, think, and take a chance in setting up for the right shot. And live the experience through your eyes, not only through your view finder.

Where to photograph manta rays

Indonesia, Palau and the Similans are some of the best places in the world where you can practice your manta shooting skills! Contact us today to book your next liveaboard dive trip!

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