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How To Get To Know Your Underwater Subject

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This issue, Phil Metcalf of Alphamarine Photo takes centre stage, offering hints and advice on how to get to know your subject

While underwater photography includes wrecks, reefscapes and divers, the most-popular subject is almost certainly marine life. Understanding the behaviour and ecology of marine creatures makes it much easier to find your intended subject – and gives you a greater chance of getting the image you want.

The first step in getting underwater images of marine life is to decide what you want to photograph. You may have seen an image that you want to replicate, or perhaps you’ve never seen a good image of a creature and want to make your mark by getting one. Maybe you have a passion for a particular species, or group of marine animals.

Once you’ve set yourself a goal, you need to start planning how you are going to encounter the creature in question.

Photographs by Phil Metcalf
Photographs by Phil Metcalf

This starts with going to the right part of the world. For example, if you are keen on photographing as many different nudibranchs as possible, then a trip to an Indo-Pacific diving destination will be more productive than going to the Caribbean. While some photographers are happy to decide what they will photograph once they get to their destination and will look at dive destinations based on diversity, others will pay large sums and travel great distances to photograph one particular prestigious marine animal. The great hammerheads of Bimini in the Bahamas draw underwater photographers from around the world.

One should bear in mind that just because a location has the animals you want to photograph doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get the pictures you would like. Visibility, sea conditions and in the case of cage diving with great white sharks, large quantities of other fish drawn by bait can conspire to make photography difficult.

Choosing the right time of year can be important as some marine life is seasonal in its distribution. For example, manta ray populations in the Maldives move with the changing direction of the monsoons to follow the plankton that they feed on. If you are planning a resort-based trip to the Maldives, choosing when you go to match the appropriate direction monsoon will prevent you missing out on seeing mantas.

The mobility of a liveaboard of course gives you greater opportunity to photograph these amazing creatures by not tying you down to one a toll.

Weather and in particular water temperature can be a factor, a period of unusually cold water temperatures in somewhere like the Northern Red Sea may lead to an influx of unusual creatures normally found in cooler or deeper water.

Photographs by Phil Metcalf
Photographs by Phil Metcalf

Once you have decided on a general destination and the time of year to go, what dive sites you go to can have a great impact on your chances of successfully getting the shots you would like.

As an individual, choosing a liveaboard itinerary or what resort to stay at is often the most control of where you dive on a trip you have. But shore diving independently or chartering a boat can let you exercise more control. A good photographic itinerary will likely include recurrent dives at sites with good biodiversity and a range of habitat.

Most Northern Red Sea photo workshops will include time at dive sites such as the Barge at Gubal Island, Shark and Yolanda Reefs, and Jackson Reef. These sites all have varied habitat accessible in one dive, allowing you to go from outer reef slope or wall, to inner sandy lagoons.

Once you are in the water then locating your intended subject and achieving the shot depends on observing and understanding the environment and creatures around you. Marine creatures have reasons for being where they are, such as shelter, food, mating or guarding their eggs.

Knowing these will greatly increase your likelihood of finding your chosen subject. Some animals will only be present at particular depths, while others will range throughout the recreational diving limits. Certain areas with proximity to deep water are known for giving sightings of unusual creatures, such as rare sharks and rays. The small Rasdhoo Atoll in the Maldives, for example, is one of the few places in the world where recreational divers have seen the deep-sea-dwelling small eyed stingray.

What food a creature relies on is one of the most-useful things to know. Green turtles and dugongs, for example, are often found in seagrass beds because that is their main food supply. The eye-catching harlequin filefish feeds on specific coral types and its presence is an indicator that a coral reef is in good health. Knowing what the coral it feeds on looks like will give you a chance of finding one of these rarely seen little fish.

Photographs by Phil Metcalf
Photographs by Phil Metcalf

Creatures will co-exist with other animals for shelter, such as anemones, corals, crinoids and sea urchins. These creatures are often adapted to be camouflaged among their host and may have colours to match. Keen macro photographers often see these animals as a challenge to photograph and will spend a lot of time achieving an image.

Be wary of images of marine creatures where colouration doesn’t duly match its host or habitat. A red crab on a bright blue starfish has likely been moved to create a more-visually pleasing image. This is a common practice among competitive underwater photographers and has created a false impression of the behaviour of many marine creatures. For example, the harlequin boxer crab lives on the sandy bottom in parts of Indonesia and yet has been regularly photographed against strikingly bright backgrounds.

Coral guard crabs can make a good macro subject but hide deep in their coral home until after dark, when they come to the outside of coral heads to feed. Other creatures live in the same way, tiny squat lobster can be found on fire coral at night in the Red Sea.

The beautiful and quite large leopard blenny can be found during the day among plate fire corals. These skittish fish can be glimpsed on the tops of the corals but will retreat between the plates with the slightest disturbance. You can get a shot but it needs care, patience and good buoyancy control to safely get it.

Once you locate your subject, understanding their behaviour will help you get the best shot.

Photographs by Phil Metcalf
Photographs by Phil Metcalf

Take care to approach your subject slowly with gentle, smooth movements. Be aware that some marine life will retreat from shadows or bright lights. Focusing lights with red LEDs or filters can be useful, as some creatures don’t see them, but this is not true in all cases.

Remember to breathe gently, especially when exhaling – using a rebreather gives a real advantage when photographing nervous marine life. Take the time to allow your subject to get used to your presence and decide that you aren’t a threat. Partner shrimps and gobies will quickly disappear into their shared hole if you approach too quickly. Christmas tree worms will disappear at a slight disturbance in the water.

Hawkfish have a number of preferred perches in their territory and when disturbed will move from one to another. If you allow them to get used to your presence they will eventually return to where they were. This allows you to position yourself optimally to get the shot. Camouflaged ambush predators such as frogfish, scorpionfish and stonefish can be difficult to spot, but will rarely change position, making them in a way a good subject.

Photographs by Phil Metcalf
Photographs by Phil Metcalf

The flip side of this that their camouflage makes them a difficult subject to make stand out as an image. Placing yourself such that you have a contrasting background behind them such as blue water is a good technique to make them stand out.

Some fish will choose to get very close to you, even using you as a shield to either hide from predators, or get close to prey without being noticed. Cleaner shrimps and wrasse will sometimes start to clean divers.

Creatures often live or hunt in co-existence with different species. Trumpetfish in the Caribbean will hunt in groups with other fish and remarkably will change their colouration to match the other fish they are with. Single spadefish will often be found with green turtles in the Maldives, so if you see a spadefish on its own near the reef top look around it and you may find a turtle nearby.

Cleaning stations are ideal places to get images of larger marine creatures. Fish like mantas, sharks, moray eels and barracuda will stay still while wrasse clean parasites from even inside their mouths and gills.

Cleaner fish often use coral outcrops as sign posts to their ‘customers’ and will stay in the same territory. If you see an animal being cleaned, it’s likely others will come for the same service.

One thing to take care to do is not get between the fish and the cleaners’ outcrop residence. If this happens the subject will start to move away and once the cleaner fish get uncomfortable with their distance to shelter, they will stop cleaning and swim back. This often results in the subject moving away.

Territorial behaviour often works in the underwater photographer’s favour. Many marine creatures will stick to the same area and guard this aggressively. Sohal surgeonfish in the Red Sea will approach photographers very closely when their space is entered. This gives great opportunity for images, but be mindful that you are annoying the fish by being there so try to take a few images and move on to another rather than harass one and distract it from its normal activity.

Varying the time of day or night that you dive will increase your chances of getting a shot of something unusual. Dawn and dusk dives not only increase your opportunity to see interesting behaviour as the night and day creatures interact, but also light at these times can be more interesting to photograph than in the middle of the day.

A significant proportion of understanding behaviour is gained from spending time in the water watching the marine life. Most marine life ID guides contain only limited information about the behaviour of creatures as they are mainly aimed at just helping you put a name to what you have seen.

Repeatedly diving the same site will give you the chance to observe creatures closely and learn their habits. It also takes away the time pressure from doing a single dive on a site, which will often cause you to rush a shot and go for an adequate snap shot rather than that carefully thought-out competition entry.

In essence, do your homework and learn about your subject. If you can, plan ahead as to what you want to photograph, what shots you want and how you are going to get close enough to get the image. Once in the water have patience, observe and move slowly. The more care and time you spend on getting your images, the better they will become.

Biography: Phil Metcalf

Phil learnt to dive in 1991 while studying at the University of Sunderland and began taking pictures underwater a few years later with a budget 35mm camera and housing. He moved to digital photography in 2006 and began to get serious about shooting underwater images soon after this. He and his wife Anne have been regulars on photography workshops run by Paul ‘Duxy’ Duxfield since his first trip in 2010. Over the years, they’ve developed from keen amateurs to semi-professional photographers who run Alphamarine Photo.
Throughout his life, Phil has had a passion for the sea and marine life, and he tries to show this in his photography, talks that he does for dive clubs, and his blogging.

Alphamarine Photo

Alphamarine Photo run workshops and courses in underwater photography, photo-editing and videography hosted by dive centres and clubs, as well as organised by themselves. Beside training they are a retailer selling a range of underwater photography equipment based on a strong principle of giving the best advice and providing the customer with the equipment that meets their needs and budget.

Photographs by Phil Metcalf

Scuba Diver Magazine
Scuba Diver Magazine
Scuba Diver Magazine is a global publication serving all the major English speaking markets in print and digital format.
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