To Snap a Predator: The Patented Tech That Helps Photographers Go Nose-to-Nose With Sharks

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"No cage, no metal suit, just a camera between me and their teeth."

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A Great White shark captured at close range (Michael Muller)

Michael Muller is fascinated with sharks. Ever since he was a kid, surfing in Northern California, he's loved the creatures -- Great Whites, in particular. And Michael Muller, fortunately for us, is also a professional photographer. He has snapped pictures of sharks from all around the world, including the seas of the Galapagos, South Africa, Fiji, and Guadalupe Island.

But how do you actually capture the kind of amazing -- and tantalizingly, terrifyingly close-up -- images that Muller has? In a Q&A with the blog Feature Shoot, Muller described the self-developed technology that allows him to conduct photo shoots with some of the most frightening, and beautiful, subjects on the planet. To get pictures like his, you may not need a bigger boat. But you will need a better camera. 

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To capture sharks in their inky habitats, Muller created what he calls "the most powerful waterproof strobes in the world": 1,200-watt lights that effectively illuminate even the darkest of waters. His ad hoc technology -- "Hollywood lighting," Muller calls it -- allows him to bring "a full blown studio to the animals in their environment." Which makes his underwater expeditions resemble more traditional photo shoots: He's got equipment; he's got assistants; he's got subjects who might, at any moment, snap at him. The strobes he uses below the surface are pretty much the same as the ones Muller uses above it -- to do commercial work like shooting a campaign for The Avengers -- "only we are 70 feet down with dozens of hungry sharks around us."

Yeah, only that

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Actually, though, Muller says, the equipment turns out to be more dangerous than the creatures it's meant to photograph: electricity, water, all that. Plus, the standard "they're more scared of us than we are of them" rules apply. "I have a deep respect for these animals and know they are wild so I try and not put myself in situations where risk is too high," he notes. And after spending so much time with sharks, "I've realized that we are not on their menu." So while, when he's shooting Great Whites, Muller uses a cage at the surface, he shuns that protective device at lower depths. The toothy beasts, down there, "are very passive and inquisitive about us." 

At those depths, specialized lights become even more crucial. And the ones Muller has developed work so well, both in and outside of the water, that he has obtained four patents for them. He plans to market them to fellow photographers on a for-rental basis so they, too, can put them to use -- saw-toothed subjects optional. "I can't wait," Muller says, "to see what other photographers do with these lights." 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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