My Photographic Journey through the Air Jaws Documentaries

I certainly have been lucky, and whilst I do believe you make your own luck, I am the first to admit the chips have fallen my way more often than not when it comes to getting unique images.

There are two strokes of good fortune in my career that stand out in particular.

The first was in 1996 when a friend and I discovered the now world famous breaching great white sharks at Seal Island. I took a chance, towed a small decoy behind my 11ft long inflatable boat based around a hunch. It paid off hugely as we stumbled onto a one of a kind phenomena and location that the world was fascinated by.

The second stroke of good fortune was getting to meet Jeff Kurr. Jeff had caught wind of what we had discovered and was commissioned to film the first Air Jaws show for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week way back in 2000. This was the beginning of a hugely successful working relationship (and friendship) that would see a total of 11 Air Jaws shows being filmed up to 2020.

Chris and Jeff

As a Fine Art wildlife photographer, this second stroke of good fortune allowed me to be the host of a dozen hour-long documentaries that saw me explore the great white shark’s world in a way nobody had ever done so before.

With camera in hand, I walked on the sea floor getting fantastic images of great whites swimming through beautiful multi coloured kelp seascapes. I was fortunate to capture the first ever images of breaching great whites not only in South Africa, but also Australia and New Zealand. To this cause I was even towed on a 6ft long sled with a decoy behind me to get wide angle water level breaches that took the images to a whole new level.

Chris photographing a breaching white shark from The Sled

For the shows I helped design all manner of craft that allowed me to get incredible angles of huge great whites hunting and breaching. Above all I was able to see and photograph the great whites all around the world off privately chartered vessels which gave me my own personalised opportunities to create works of art in a way that I hope have done this incredible animal justice.

Over all these years what my involvement with photographing sharks did was to essentially give me a laboratory to experiment with new techniques and styles that I would then apply to many of the terrestrial predators that we work with in Africa and around the world.

From shooting breaches at water level, lying inches above the sea surface, I saw the tremendously higher impact that these photographs had over just pointing down at the same subject from a sitting or standing position. By using wide angle lenses on my pole camera to get split shots of dorsal fins or sharks gaping on the surface, I quickly learnt how wide angle was a far more creative way to tell a story rather than just a portrait shot through a big lens.

Rather than going bigger over my career I found myself going smaller, wider and more intimate in terms of the lenses I choose and the style I shoot.

In the early days of shooting breaching great white sharks pretty much any image I took got attention in the form of newspaper and magazine covers, but as time wore on I found I needed to use more novel angles, work more on my backgrounds and aim for exceptional rather than settling for good.

With this came taking risks. The upside was that by this stage I had been working with the sharks and other predators for over 20 years so I had a good idea of what my subject was likely to do and whether I was crossing any thresholds that they were not comfortable with.

Had I not been lucky enough to discover the breaching behaviour for myself, and create something of a monopoly on it at least for a while, I would never have had the time nor the luxury of getting to know my subject before I took the risks. Had it not been this way around, it would have substantially elevated the risk element.

Now, 30 years since I started working with great whites and spending huge amounts of time either at sea or in the African bush, I can honestly say I love it more than ever. Yes, getting a truly great or unique image becomes harder as you set your own bar higher BUT when you do get such an image it is the product of a lot of work, experience and creativity that you feel deservedly proud of.

Just this past June I was lucky enough to be hosting Shark Week’s Air Jaws: Ultimate Breach Off, which saw me trying to capture a great white shark hunting from an angle that required huge risk to my gear and a whole series of technical pitfalls that could easily trip me up.

I had built a small sled that could take my camera 15cm off the water which was unprotected inside a 3 sided box. I chose to not to put it in a waterproof housing as I knew that water spray quickly covered a housing’s dome and that another piece of glass could degrade the sharpness of an image. By having the sled in the water near the decoy I also knew that the sharks would be keen to investigate the sled and may well be hit or be distracted by or even put off by it. I knew my chances were slim of getting the shot and after a week of towing with nothing, I thought it was a hurdle to high.

On a moody cloud filled morning, in an area around Seal Island that framed up perfectly, it unbelievably happened … a great white breached less than 9 feet from my lens!

Copyrighted by Chris Fallows @2020