7 Tips for Photographing Florida Manatees

7 Tips for Photographing Florida Manatees

Everyone's favorite "sea cow" is a perfect subject for some slow paced wide angle photo ops. Here's our best advice for making your trip to Crystal River worthwhile.

#1 Go Early in the Year

Know that they are only here in the Florida Springs and Crystal River because these waters are a warmer 72ºF compared to the water downstream in the river and Gulf of Mexico.  The colder the weather, the more Manatee will congregate around the Springs. This generally means January and February, but it can be anytime it’s cold in Florida potentially from November to March.

Photographing Manatees Underwater Ikelite Housing

#2 Go Early in the Day

The coldest time of day is also best.  If you are serious about getting manatee images, tell your guide you want to go out as early as they will take you. We left at 6:30AM when it was still slightly dark.

This will also be a time when there are less people around. Sunny afternoons are great for snorkeling with manatee, but you will have to deal with lower visibility. Visibility gets worse as the manatees move out from the mouths of the various springs that feed Crystal River into more open water... and it doesn't help when there are a lot of snorkelers kicking up the bottom.

Photographing Manatees Underwater Ikelite Housing

#3 Bring Your Widest Lens

These animals are big, and if you have your heart set on an environmental scene of an individual coming up to breathe- you may find instead that it has come over to grasp and hold on to you.. -it’s something they often do.  

These images were taken with the Nikon 8-15mm Fisheye lens zoomed to 10-15mm for less fisheye distortion. 

Photographing Manatees Underwater Ikelite Housing

#4 Be Patient

You are not allowed to chase, follow, or even swim over resting Manatee, but don't worry, they come up for air every 5 minutes. If they haven’t already, this is when they will likely come over to "initiate contact."  That is the term for the only time it is legal to touch a Manatee. The manatee will usually begin the interaction with a soft face push (their whiskers tickle), then sometimes reach out to grasp.  When asked, our guide said his theory was that so many of these animals have had so many positive encounters with snorkelers that they consider it part of their routine. 

Photographing Manatees Underwater Ikelite Housing

#5 Take Advantage of Natural Light

You are snorkeling in crystal clear water, and once the sun rises the conditions for natural light photography are excellent.

If you choose to use flash, be aware that any sediment stirred up by the Manatee or other snorkelers will catch that light and exaggerate it. We shot both ways, and prefer the natural light images after some work in Lightroom. Flash is most useful within the first hour after sunrise.

Photographing Manatees Underwater Ikelite Housing

#6 Be Flexible With Your Settings

We actually shot this entire session in Program mode, the latitude and dynamic range of the files were a pleasure to edit, so I consider it a good choice. If you're shooting in a manual exposure mode, keep a keen eye on your available light as it changes quickly as the sun goes up.

Since we entered the water just after sunrise, the first images were shot at ISO 1600 due to darkness. Within an hour that was dropped down as low as ISO 400. 

A fast shutter speed isn’t really needed although if you are fortunate enough to get sun rays a faster speed (1/125th or more) can help capture them. This day our shutter speeds ran from 1/60th second to 1/250th second.

Aperture values were mostly wide open around f/4 due to the low light conditions of early morning.   

Photographing Manatees Underwater Ikelite Housing

#7 Get a Good View

Our favorite piece of gear for this trip is the the 45º Magnified Viewfinder. The view of your frame is big, bright, and beautiful. In a snorkeling position flat on the water, the 45º tilt makes composing much easier and more comfortable. 



Additional Reading

Natural Light Photography

Planning a Trip to Photograph Manatees in Crystal River, Florida

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