James Ferrara tells us how he started shooting sharks!
Who is James Ferrara?
I’m a 35 year old resident of South Florida. Living on the east coast has given me access to a
life centered around the ocean. I grew up fishing, diving, and playing sports during my free
time. I graduated college with a Business Degree from Florida Atlantic University, and have
been working as a Firefighter Paramedic for the past 11 years in my hometown. I consider myself very fortunate to have a job I love that also allows me to travel and pursue my passions.
I like to believe I inherited an appetite for art and an eye for composition from my mother, who
is a very accomplished artist. I began diving as a teenager, but have only recently become
obsessed with apnea freediving.
How did you start photography?
Two and a half years ago, I only used a head-mounted action video camera and knew nothing
about photography. I wanted to share my underwater adventures the way I saw it through my
own eyes, but found it hard to capture those moments through a video screenshot. A photographer friend of mine watched me struggle to edit these screen shots and said, “you’ve
got a good eye for photography, you just need some better gear to produce a quality image
that you can perfect in post production.” The next week I bought my first Sony camera &
underwater housing and have been hooked ever since!
Who were some of your biggest influencers while starting out?
My good friend and fellow photographer Billy Jones was the first person to really open my eyes
to the world of photography. Whenever I had a question about settings or editing, Billy was
always there to help me out. I always knew when I asked too many questions, because he would tell me to go Youtube it. I’m sure I bugged the crap out of him at times—but what are friends for?
Another influencer through my intro to underwater photography was Michael Dornellas. He
took me on my first shark dive and taught me about interacting with these amazing creatures. I
was impressed with his shots—the way he moved through the water and interacted with sea life was a thing of beauty.
Who are some of your biggest influencers now?
Billy is still a major influencer, we shoot together often—our favorites are surf photos, sunrises,
and sunsets. My most recent inspirations have been collaborating with John Garza and Zach
Levitetz. We have been to the Bahamas on photo trips more times than I can count this past
year, but we all still find the time to shoot the beauty found in our own backyard. Each one of
these photographers has their own style and we learn from one another all the time. Having a
group of talented friends that push each other has made me a better photographer. Another
major influencer is my girlfriend, Lisa Stengel. She is super adventurous and is always down to
go shoot, dive, or travel. She is an amazing videographer and photographer in her own right.
When I’m working on a new batch of photos, I always value her opinion, because she will be
100% honest. Having someone who supports you, shares the same passion, and has a great
outlook on life is invaluable.
What do you do when you don’t have a camera in your hand?
Even when I’m not shooting photos, you’ll still find me freediving—whether it’s for training,
teaching, or to spear fish for the night’s dinner. I’ve taken a liking to cooking as of late. I’m by
no means a chef, but whipping up a home caught-and-cooked meal is a perfect way to end the
day. I’ve always had a green thumb, so I use landscaping as another form of art. Watching
wildlife documentaries gives me new ideas and inspirations for my photo projects as well. I
enjoy traveling as much as possible, to discover new scenery and learn the cultures of others.
What is your go to Camera and Lens combo?
Right now I’m shooting with the Sony A7rii, with the Batis Zeiss 18mm 2.8 lens and Nauticam
underwater housing. I enjoy the challenges of shooting with natural light, especially because
it’s more conducive for freedive photography.
I know you shoot a lot of pano underwater photography. Can you walk us through how you
plan and prep for such a day?
All of my photography is shot while freediving, with one breath of air (no scuba tanks involved.)
Because this is so physically demanding, I need to prepare the day before with proper
hydration, rest, and nutrition. The weather forecast is an important part of planning any
underwater shoot, as the wind, tides, and sunlight will drastically affect clarity conditions.
Before entering the water, I do a complete check on the housing to remove dust and prevent
When shooting sea life, I don’t plan any shots; I prefer to just wait and see what happens.
Being dynamic is important because you don’t always know what a wild animal is going to do.
Their movements are unpredictable at times, so framing can be a challenge. The more time I
spend in the water, the more I can maximize my opportunities. An underwater freedive shoot
can last eight hours of the day with up to 80 dives to get the best shots.
What type of training does someone go through to prepare themselves to swim with sharks?
Sharks are not the monsters that media and television make them out to be; but make no
mistake, they are still wild animals that need to be respected and approached with proper
understanding, knowledge and demeanor. Stay calm and make your movements purposeful,
while always keeping your head on a swivel.
However, before you can even dream about swimming with sharks, the most important step is
to become certified in the underwater discipline you enjoy. Whether it’s scuba diving,
snorkeling, or freediving, please get certified by a reputable agency. Safety is of utmost
importance, and there are core concepts of diving that cannot be learned solely on the internet.
Diving is significantly more challenging when coupled with photography, so you need to be
comfortable in the water before you can prepare to dive with apex predators. The more
experienced you become at diving, the better your wildlife interactions can be. I hold an
instructor level freedive certification and it has positively impacted my interactions with sharks.
When you feel you are experienced enough to swim with sharks, choose a licensed shark dive
operation with years of experience.
Best advice for new and upcoming photographers?
Number one advice is to decide what kind of photography you want to focus on, and then
research the equipment that will help you achieve the shots you desire. The internet gives us
endless information at the tip of our fingers, use it! Secondly, I realize we all have budgets and
limitations, but it will pay off in the long run to invest in quality gear because you’ll notice a
difference in the outcome of your photos. Third, get out there, practice constantly, try new
techniques, and push your gear to its limits. I’ve had days when I’ve shot over 2000 photos
and maybe only 3 were keepers. It’s all about learning what works and what doesn’t.
What is your dream project?
I would love to shoot the unique ecosystem of the isolated Galapagos Islands. This incredible
archipelago is one of the most biologically diverse habitats on Earth, both above and below the
water line. Conservation efforts have kept this geological wonderland pristine; wildlife viewing
would be like looking back in time, before complete habitat destruction by humans. There are
species on these islands that are not found anywhere else on the planet. The endless amount
of photo opportunities in this region has this location close on my radar!
Whats next for you in photography?
I always strive to broaden my horizons with new destinations, experiences, and sea life. Lately
I’ve been loving long exposure photography. I was able to shoot waterfalls and the milky way
on my last few photography trips and had a blast trying new things. I have some new locations
planned later this year to hopefully capture the arctic aurora. I’m also exploring more surf and
wave photography. Growing up near the coast, I’ve always appreciated the beauty and power
of the ocean which will always be the foundation of my work.