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Birds of the sea: Fergus Kennedy on filming reef manta rays

Fergus Kennedy swam close to "alien-like" reef manta rays when filming 4K footage of them with his Canon EOS 5D Mark IV in an underwater housing. Taken on a Canon EOS 7D Mark II with a Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens. © Saeed Rashid

The underwater world has mesmerised photographer and videographer Fergus Kennedy since he was a small child. So when the chance arose to film reef manta rays – a sociable species of coastline-loving rays, whose wing-like pectoral fins earn them the nickname 'birds of the sea' – off the coast of Komodo National Park in Indonesia, he jumped at it.

"Since I was about four, I've wanted to be underwater all the time," says Fergus, a marine biologist by profession who now devotes much of his time to photographing and filming the natural world. "I was really fascinated by [the underwater world] and particularly by weird things such as manta rays. It seemed like a big adventure to go diving. The first time I started shooting video seriously, came out of a desire to record some of the movement you get underwater."

On this filming trip for Outdoor Photography Magazine, Fergus and his crew mates from production company Verri Media had five days to shoot 4K video footage of the reef manta rays, which are smaller than oceanic manta rays but endlessly fascinating to Fergus. "The creature that always stood out for me was the manta ray," he says. "There's something amazing about the way they move and the way they look – it's like nothing else on Earth... I wanted to capture that alien nature."

First the team had to find manta rays, which took their guide some time to track down – just as it had taken Fergus time to find Komodo dragons on the nearby island of Rinca. Here, battling strong currents, they needed to cram four dives into each day to make the most of their time.

Christian Ziegler’s

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"Each day we'd wake up, grab a cup of coffee, jump in the water for an hour-long dive, then come up and have breakfast," says Fergus. "You've got to leave a pause between dives to decompress, to let nitrogen come out of your blood (to avoid dangerous decompression sickness, also known as the bends). Then we'd go in for another dive. During our breaks, particularly if I was really excited about what I'd seen on the dive, I'd get the memory card out, back it up and have a look at the images and footage."

Fergus formerly used separate cameras for shooting underwater video and stills, but a two-camera setup can prove difficult to manage below the surface. "The Canon EOS 5D Mark IV was the first camera that, for me, shot top-quality video and really good stills, which is fantastic when you're travelling," he explains, adding that having just one DSLR, rather than a heavy cinema camera, "makes a real difference to how much excess baggage you end up paying for."

Two divers stand on a seabed, pointing their cameras up at a huge reef manta ray swimming above them.
A reef manta ray swoops close to the seabed, while Fergus and his crewmates from Verri Media capture it on camera. Reef manta rays often live close to coastlines, mainly near coral and rocky reefs, where they feed on drifting organisms known as zooplankton. Taken on a Canon EOS 7D Mark II with a Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens. © Saeed Rashid

As for lenses, Fergus says: "When underwater I tend to either shoot really wide on a fisheye lens (such as the Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM or the Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM, which are both really good underwater lenses), or I shoot macro with the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM. I have an underwater housing with a 9-inch (23cm) glass dome port on the front. On the dives where I was shooting video I had two 10,000 lumen LED video lights."

For his macro setup he switched to using a flat port (which enables more accurate focusing than a dome port) on the front of the lens. For some of the video shooting, Fergus also deployed a small underwater HDMI monitor to allow him to get a better view of what he was capturing.

Overcoming underwater filming challenges

Underwater, the main challenge was the changing light conditions at different depths. "White balance was a big issue because the colour of the light changes so drastically. As you go deeper, the light gets bluer and all the other colours get filtered out by the seawater. So I put a little bit of orange filter gel, called a magic filter, into the filter holder on the back of the lens. That gave some colour correction and effectively filtered out that really strong blue."

A coral reef has small orange fish, some striped fish and purple fish swimming around it.
While looking for reef manta rays, Fergus and his crewmates also enjoyed filming and photographing marine life around the coral reef in Komodo National Park. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens. © Fergus Kennedy

Fergus also recommends setting a custom white balance every time you change depth on underwater shoots, and resetting colour balance when necessary, to overcome colour casts.

On one of the last days of the shoot, the team got up close to reef manta rays in fairly shallow waters. Fergus notes: "We shot everything in Canon Log mode, which was good in an underwater environment because you do often – particularly in reasonably shallow water – have quite bright sunlight coming through the surface in the top quarter or third of the frame. The seabed is often quite a bit darker, so there's a big dynamic range, and C-Log [with its maximum dynamic range of 12 stops] definitely helps with that."

A large hawksbill turtle is seen swimming past some coral, with divers carrying lights and cameras in the background.
A hawksbill turtle enjoys the tropical waters near the reef manta rays. To light subjects up at this depth, Fergus used two 10,000 lumen LED video lights, seen in the background here. Taken on a Canon EOS 7D Mark II with a Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens. © Saeed Rashid

Fergus says another advantage of using the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV for shooting 4K video underwater was the crop factor. "The Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens is super wide in the first place. Once you're shooting 4K video, the 1.7x crop turns it into a useful zoom for underwater – it's kind of 17mm at the wide end, making it effectively more like a 17-40mm [lens].

"It's really versatile – you can shoot wide, scenic shots of coral reefs or the manta rays, which are big and come quite close to you, but then you can zoom in to get detailed shots of fish or corals at the tighter end of the zoom."

A fisheye lens shot shows an aerial view of a boat’s deck, taken from above.
The boat that Fergus and the crew lived on for four days. The team looked at their shots and did initial edits onboard the boat, then Fergus' Verri Media colleagues did most of the heavy editing back home. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens. © Fergus Kennedy
A colourful banded cleaner shrimp is shown close-up, in among pink coral.
As well as wide shots of larger marine creatures, Fergus captured macro photos of the smaller reef life-forms. This banded cleaner shrimp, also known as a banded coral shrimp, removes dead tissue, algae and parasites from larger sea creatures. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens. © Fergus Kennedy

Fergus and the crew were living and sleeping on a boat throughout the reef manta rays shoot, so they managed to grab some editing time at the end of each shooting day. "We had mains power so we ran the laptops and did some editing," he remembers. "It was great to just be able to load the card onto the computer, grade things straightaway and check things were looking the way we hoped they would.

"There wasn't much downtime – we were either diving or editing – and you spend so much more time fiddling around with gear when you're doing underwater stuff because even something [that's relatively simple on dry land], such as changing lenses, involves more effort than normal. You have to change the port and gears in order to operate the zoom and the focus through the housing."

Despite having fulfilled a life-long ambition to film manta rays, Fergus still wants to return to shoot even more footage of one of the ocean's most graceful creatures. "I always want slightly better light or slightly calmer conditions," he says. "It's part of the photography addiction – I always want to come back and do it again."

Автор Steve Fairclough


Fergus Kennedy's kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

Fergus Kennedy is underwater in goggles and diving gear, though he has removed his breathing mask to smile for the camera. Behind him is a manta ray and two other divers.

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