ARTICLE

Chris Fallows on the rewards – and risks – of shark photography

When he first started photographing sharks, the Canon Ambassador made a groundbreaking discovery about their behaviour. Here, he explains how it helped to shape his remarkable career.
A black and white image of a huge great white shark breaching the ocean surface.

Canon Ambassador Chris Fallows has been fascinated by sharks since moving at the age of 13 to Cape Town, South Africa, with his parents, and has published 10 scientific reports on their behaviour. This image, titled Storm Lord, was taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM) at 95mm, 1/1600, f/4.5 and ISO400. © Chris Fallows

Few photographers push their kit to the limit more than Canon Ambassador Chris Fallows. "Kicked by elephants, bitten by great white sharks and covered by salt spray on an almost daily basis, from -50°C in the Arctic to 50°C in the Zambezi Valley, from blizzards and snowstorms in South Georgia to dust storms in Etosha in Namibia – if it can survive what I put it through, it will be good for almost anybody," he says.

It's clear that Chris photographs a range of wildlife in diverse demanding settings, but it's his images of great white sharks for which he's best known. Working between art and science, the South African shark expert creates visually stunning monochrome wildlife photos while unearthing new information about predatory behaviour – and all on Canon kit.
Here, Chris talks about the breakthrough discovery that helped launch his photography career, his iconic Air Jaws image, and why the Canon EOS R5 is his camera of choice today.

Hear more of the conversation in this episode of Canon's Shutter Stories podcast:
A black and white image of a shark leaping several metres out of the water against a stormy sky.

"I almost always try to take photographs of wildlife at their eye level," says Chris. "At sea, I shoot from a custom boat which is like a giant surfboard. I see these animals as being at least our equal as humans, and as such I'd rather look up at them than down on them – both with my lens and in life." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM lens at 35mm, 1/250 sec, f/3.5 and ISO400. © Chris Fallows

How did you discover in 1996 that sharks 'breach' – leaping high into the air to catch their prey?

"While working on Great White Shark, a BBC Wildlife series with David Attenborough, I'd seen a shark jump on a surfboard being pulled to shore by a researcher, which gave me the idea to try this with a seal-shaped decoy. We know now that the sharks will go for it. We've observed since that sharks naturally breach to catch seals.

"The response was incredible, with coverage ranging from The New York Times to The Sydney Morning Herald. No species attracts more media attention than the great white shark, and flying great white sharks was an altogether new kind of cool. I hoped kids would see this as another reason to fall in love with sharks and grow up to protect them. I love how each of the 500-plus shark species has a niche. Each is a master at what it does, and they have incredible personalities."
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A black and white image, shot from below, of a large shark swimming just below the ocean surface

Chris and his wife Monique have developed the largest database in the world of shark predatory behaviour. With so much at stake when he's on a shoot, Chris depends on his Canon gear to be reliable, leaving him to focus on the unique personalities of sharks. "Underwater, I use a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens in a housing with two strobes," says Chris. Taken at 15mm, 1/200 sec, f/10 and ISO500. © Chris Fallows

You must have found yourself in some extraordinary situations while photographing sharks. What's been the most difficult?

"One of the most challenging has been trying to get a wide-angle, extreme close-up shot of a great white shark breaching from the low angle of the ocean surface. I needed to have a specially designed towing craft built, which I put my camera on less than 30cm above the water's surface, with the front of the lens completely exposed to the elements. The camera was then towed less than three metres away from where we hoped a shark would jump.

"Each day was terrifying, as having very expensive gear next to the water and a one-tonne shark jumping so close, possibly sending hundreds of litres of water over the camera, was high risk. I needed to send a signal from a handheld remote to another receiver, which would be relayed to the camera trigger to open and close the shutter, so I needed very fast reflexes, as a breach lasts less than a second. For two weeks I held that tiny trigger, my heart in my throat, waiting for that split second of action. We tried to pick days with clouds to add drama to the scene and light winds, so that meant having to sit on shore a lot until we had these conditions, as I wasn't going to risk all my gear for anything less than an exceptional chance.

"With just one day to go, everything came together, and suddenly a three-metre shark launched itself into the air with an unbelievably high breach, all while turning in perfect profile at the apex of the jump. It was the ultimate shot I could have hoped for, one which does the athleticism of these amazing predators justice. High risk, high reward."
A black and white, front-on image of a great white shark breaching the ocean surface with its mouth open and several rows of sharp teeth visible.

Since he took his first photograph of a breaching shark in 1996, Chris's work has featured in more than 500 publications. This image, aptly titled Air Jaws, is among his most famous. Taken on a Canon EOS-1V (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM lens at 160mm, 1/1250 sec and f/5.6. © Chris Fallows

Your 2001 photograph of a breaching shark, Air Jaws, has become iconic. What was its impact on your career?

"That image appeared on newspaper front pages and magazine covers around the world. Suddenly National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, the BBC and many others all wanted me to show them the sharks. It opened up a career for me as a photographer and documentary host which continues to this day.

"Back when I took that image, it was all about getting a tack-sharp power photograph that had massive action and impact. As my work progressed, my outlook shifted to beautiful fine-art works that capture the essence of iconic species. I shoot more close-up imagery, and try to bring the environment into my work. Having learnt about the plight of wildlife, I'm more interested now in telling a story with meaning, rather than just capturing a moment."
A rare pangolin walking along the ground with its tail outstretched.

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A black and white image taken from below of a shark swimming close to the ocean surface, with rays of light shining down.

Most people don't know that sharks have very strong individual personalities," says Chris. "Just like us, each species may have different cultures and ways of doing things in different locations." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens at 15mm, 1/125 sec, f/8 and ISO200. © Chris Fallows

You shot Air Jaws on the Canon EOS-1V. What camera do you use today?

"I love the Canon EOS R5. With the new full-screen focus point selection, I can compose my image more effectively and creatively. Coupled with the great autofocus and crazy frame rate, this makes it perfect for high-speed action such as flying sharks. As a fine-art photographer creating large, limited-edition prints, I like the large file sizes, which allow me to reproduce my work at two metres or more across.

"When I use my camera in a housing on land, I shoot with a remote, so the ability to detect an animal, or even better an animal's eye, helps me achieve a far greater degree of success.

"Another big plus with the Canon EOS R5 is that it's so quiet. When I'm close to lions or elephants, outside of a vehicle with no protection other than my experience, having a quiet shutter is a significant milestone to achieving an environment where you do not surprise or frighten an animal."
A black and white wide-angle image taken from ground level of an elephant walking towards the camera.

Chris's black and white images reflect his artistic approach to photographing creatures in the wild. "Black and white is classic and refined," he says. "I want my artwork to be something people purchase firstly because they love it and it resonates with them, and secondly because it has meaning." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens at 19mm, 1/800 sec, f/8 and ISO500. © Chris Fallows

Your black and white images are acclaimed for the atmosphere, drama and emotion they convey. How do you compose these epic scenes?

"I choose my subjects, weather and backgrounds very carefully. It is not by chance that the male lions I photograph have black manes or are magnificent specimens, or that the elephants have huge tusks. I am after the finest example of each species.

"It is not by coincidence there are clouds in many of my works, or that the backgrounds are clean, with no trees or clutter. I try to combine aesthetics that complement my primary subject, rather than detract from it. I seek out clean, open terrestrial landscapes with harsh elements like cracked earth or dust, and then have the umbrella of a moody sky to add atmosphere.

"I purposefully stay away from creating photographs in which animals are charging, growling or running. I like my subjects to look natural, as if I'm not there."
 A low-key close-up profile of a lioness sitting.

Photography goes hand-in-hand with conservation for Chris. Ten percent of the proceeds from his limited-edition, fine-art photographs – such as this pictured lioness – goes to conservation groups WildAid, Bushlife Conservancy, Zambezi Elephant Fund and the shark research projects of Dr Neil Hammerschlag at the University of Miami. The remaining 90% goes towards the purchase of land in southern Africa for rehabilitation and rewilding. "When people see a powerful, beautiful or emotive image, it touches them – and hopefully fosters an appreciation of the subjects," says Chris. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS USM lens at 1/160 sec, f/4 and ISO500. © Chris Fallows

What advice would you give to young wildlife photographers who want to evoke a similar 'epic' feeling?

"Get to know your subjects, spend time with them, find out how to make them comfortable with you – respect them. By observing an animal, you understand what makes it tick, and under what conditions it's likely to do certain things. For example, when I want to photograph a predator hunt, I watch the prey, and position myself where I think the predator may run or swim to catch it. If you don't do this, you're always chasing the action rather than being at the finish line – and often you're also disturbing the possible outcome.

"Then look at their environment. Do you want saturated images? If so, then shoot in the green season at first light when everything is vibrant. This is how I started out, and you get lots of beautiful images. I now want the harshest conditions possible to create a mood that sums up the reality of how tough it is surviving in these places. Get to know your seasons and what you hope to achieve, and plan trips to coincide with these weather conditions.

"My wife and I choose to go to places with few people. This involves living in rough conditions, camping and surviving with basics. The upside is that we can spend a lot of time with our subjects, letting them get comfortable with me, often at close quarters. Animals like a constant – when you introduce change, you reset the boundaries and you need to start over again – so the fewer variables, the better. Take time to watch; don't just look through a viewfinder."

Írta: Rachel Segal Hamilton


Chris Fallows' kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

Chris Fallows' kitbag containing Canon cameras, lenses and accessories.

Cameras

Canon EOS R5

Whatever you shoot, however you shoot it, the EOS R5 will let you be creative in ways you simply couldn't before. Chris says: "This is a recent addition to my kitbag and it's incredible. The thing I love the most is the fact that you can move the focus point wherever you like, which is a big thing for a wildlife photographer, as it allows more creative composition. I love the quiet shutter; when you're very close to your subjects, this is far safer and far less invasive."

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

Designed to perform in every situation, the EOS 5D Mark IV is beautifully engineered and a thoroughly accomplished all-rounder. "I like the versatility," says Chris. "This camera gives you a fantastic file size for fine art prints, and it is also good enough to be used as an action camera. The autofocus is great and the camera is lightweight. Underwater, it fits into the same aquatic housing as its predecessor, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III. A new housing is more expensive than the camera, so that was a big bonus!"

Lenses

Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM

Capture more, even in low light, with this fast f/2.8 ultra-wide-angle 15-35mm RF mount zoom with 5-stops of image stabilisation – ideal for when innovative angles can make all the difference. Chris says: "I love the image sharpness, at the wide end and the tight end."

Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM

The RF mount counterpart of Chris's favourite lens takes performance to the next level, with dual Nano USM motors for incredibly rapid and silent continuous focusing, 5-stop Image Stabilizer, advanced optical elements for exceptional sharpness, and a lens control ring for extra control over ISO, aperture and shutter.

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM

This high-performance f/2.8 telephoto zoom offers exceptional image quality in a compact body. "This has been my staple lens, it's my favourite of all time. I like to get close to my subjects, to create a sense of intimacy, and this is perfect for that. You can't use big lenses on a boat, so this has always been my go-to lens on the ocean. I've used it for 90% of the decent photographs I've taken," says Chris.

Lenses

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS II USM

A compact, high-performance 100-400mm zoom lens that's ideal for shooting sports, action and wildlife. "Of the long lenses, I use this the most because of its versatility," says Chris. "I'm often photographing predators on the ground coming towards me and this allows me to capture the transition as they come closer. The range of the lens is amazing."

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM

The successor to the lens Chris favours is a super lightweight 600mm f/4 lens, perfect for professional wildlife, sports and news photographers. Chris says: "When I was younger, I used to love putting this big lens out the car window, but nowadays everyone has a big lens! What I love is the bokeh effect – it's just beautiful. It isolates my subject from the background and creates that lovely blur."

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