With conservation rules and protection being advocated for big animals—those that are the most popular among non-divers—the majority of people don’t understand or hear about the impacts that divers and photographers are having on small critters that are only a centimeter or two in size, many of which non-divers (and some divers too) have never heard of. They don’t know what goes on behind the camera lens to achieve some of the photos that appear on social media.
The fact is that some of the most beautiful shots out there are heavily manipulated by using a muck stick to harass animals into new positions, such as a boxer crab perched inside of a clean open shell or two emperor shrimp perfectly positioned between the rhinophores of a nudibranch. It’s not impossible that these pictures could be achieved with natural behaviors, but the chance is rather small. Of course, sharing and promoting manipulated photos instantly decreases the value of the images of naturally-occurring situations by comparison, such as a boxer crab in the sand or a single emperor shrimp on the side of a nudibranch.
A striking background can really enhance your subject and provide revealing context
At the same time, don’t be too quick to judge a “once-in-a-lifetime” photo as the product of manipulation. I have a few photographs that no one would believe are completely natural, and I have had to write entire paragraphs when I posted them online to ward off responses from other photographers concerned about manipulation.
Fortunately, the all-too-common practice of manipulation in macro photography is now coming to light, and divers are beginning to speak out against it. As I discussed in the first part of this two-part article, there are alternatives to manipulating animals—simple techniques every photographer can use to achieve more eye-catching photos with minimal impact on critters or their environments. In this second part, I demonstrate how these techniques can be used when photographing some of the typical creatures that are victims of manipulation.
Commonly Manipulated Animals
Highly sought after by macro photographers, harlequin shrimp, tiger shrimp, and bumblebee shrimp are all very photogenic. Without a good background, a great idea is to focus on the face through magnification or decreasing the depth of field. Their faces are extremely detailed, and there is so much contrast and texture to make the photo pop. If you are lucky enough to find a harlequin shrimp naturally on a starfish, see if it is in the process of cutting off an arm for a cool active behavior shot!
A tiger shrimp with magnification
A harlequin shrimp with active behavior
A great alternative for photographing frogfish is to focus on the lure. This can produce a fantastic active behavior shot, whether magnified or showing the prey that the frogfish is after, especially the lure of a hairy frogfish. Decreasing the depth of field also works by centering on the frogfish eye or face, especially when the rest of the frogfish is hidden or at an angle that makes it impossible for a good photo of the entire fish. Another great technique is to showcase the camouflage capabilities of the frogfish. Sometimes having it blend in with the background makes for a better photo—rather than moving it from its original position. Note that yawning is a desired active behavior, but many times it is a result of stress. Unless the frogfish yawns immediately before or after feeding, it is a signal that it no longer wants to be bothered.
A painted frogfish with active behavior
A hairy frogfish with a shallow depth of field at f/2.8
You don't need to poke a pregnant mantis shrimp with eggs out of its hole to get an awesome shot. If you approach slowly, and don’t get too close, sometimes they will stay and watch you. Either increase the magnification or decrease your depth of field and you can get a picture of their eyes which have more detail than most subjects in the ocean. Be careful not to get your camera too close!
A spearing mantis shrimp with magnification
A smashing mantis shrimp with magnification
Flamboyant cuttlefish are a great animal to shoot when it comes to behavior, especially since they also live predominantly in areas with undesirable backgrounds. When they are hunting, they walk with the outer tentacle on each side spread out in a wide “V” shape. When the tentacles come together into a point, that means the feeding tentacles are about to extend and the money shot will soon follow. If they are not hunting, go ahead and magnify your shot and show off its eye or texture.
A flamboyant cuttlefish with active behavior
A flamboyant cuttlefish with magnification
This octopus does not normally show its blue rings, which has led many photographers to put their hands or muck sticks close to the animal to excite the blue coloration. Sometimes you can use a good background to compose a great shot, or you can magnify the shot and/or decrease the depth of field to bring out the texture of the animal. You can always photograph it showing no blue rings, showcasing its brilliant camouflage as a stone.
A blue-ringed octopus with a natural background
A blue-ringed octopus with magnification and behavior
It’s possible to find these shrimp on starfish, nudibranchs, and sea cucumbers, and I have even seen one on a flamboyant cuttlefish. Instead of herding the animal to the rhinophores of a nudibranch or center of a starfish, focus the shot instead on the emperor shrimp itself. Sometimes starfish and sea cucumbers, even nudibranchs, have amazing backgrounds that perfectly complement the shrimp.
An emperor shrimp with a natural background
Many different techniques can be used with nudibranchs, considering they don't move very fast. I love to use a shallow depth of field on nudibranchs and isolate their gills, rhinophores, or even their mating organs if you are lucky enough to catch them in the act for a cool magnified behavior shot. They can also be found slurping tunicates for more behavior.
Nudibranchs with active behavior
A nudibranch rhinophore with magnification
These seahorses are very hard to photograph, and everyone wants the black background shot or the pygmy facing the camera. Instead of moving the pygmy to the edge of the fan, you can utilize the background and prove there was no manipulation behind the shot by photographing the pygmy with the coral polyps out. It is very hard to use a magnification technique on these seahorses given their small size, but it is possible to use shallow depth of field if you are patient enough.
A heavily camouflaged pygmy seahorse with a natural background
Crinoid shrimp, clingfish, and squat lobsters are some of the most heavily manipulated animals due to their habitat. Attempting to move the crinoid arms out of the way normally results in a visible reaction from the crinoid, rendering further photographs even harder to achieve. A better alternative is to photograph a critter at the base or inside of the crinoid using magnification to capture the body of the animal so it is not lost in the clutter of crinoid arms. Depth of field is also a good approach for any critters that are on the outside of the crinoid.
A squat lobster with a shallow depth of field
A crinoid shrimp with magnification
It doesn’t matter what animal is being photographed; there are always options for creativity that do not involve manipulation. Don’t be afraid to try something new or difficult, like shooting at wide apertures or photographing specific body parts. There are going to be missed shots and failed attempts—it happens to even the most accomplished photographers—but that’s the beauty of digital photography. Next time you stumble upon a critter that might look better somewhere else, think of all the ways to compose a great photograph using alternative techniques.
As underwater photographers, it is up to us show others, divers and non-divers alike, the beauty of the underwater world. No photo is worth the life of an animal or the added stress that comes with transferring it to an unnatural habitat, so keep these alternatives in mind when you are diving. Keep photographing, keep improving, and let’s leave the animals where we find them for future divers to appreciate.
About the Author: Daniel Geary grew up in Florida and has fostered a love of the ocean ever since he was a few years old. He has been diving for nine years and photographing for the last four years. He currently lives in Dauin, Philippines and works at Atmosphere Resorts and Spa as their in-house marine biologist, underwater photographer, and PADI dive instructor. He is a frogfish expert who teaches an exclusive PADI Frogfish Specialist course and continually promotes environmentally-friendly dive and photography practices.
I do not know if you are planning a third part for your article but I would like to suggest something that from my point of view might be missing so far. I see you've put a lot of emphasis on composition techniques, assuming the critters are not always in an optimal position. You hinted to the fact that without manipulation, critters can also be in a fantastic position for a shot, making people believe it has been manipulated.
There is an important skill that can help in getting the animals to behave or place themselves how and where we want: patience.
Too often I see people wanting to take a contest worthy shot in less than 5 seconds. We should not forget that it is wildlife we are photographing. When shooting macro, we tend to get really close to our subjects. We can't blame them for retreating first as they see us as a potential predator. If you can spend some time with you subject, he will get used to your presence and ultimately, he will go back to what he normally does: search for food. I've seen blue-ringed octopus flashing their rings like crazy when they catch a prey (or mate). Of course you explained that taking a behavioural shot is great. From my point of view, they are the best shots. It does however mean that the photographer will have to spend the dive with only one or two subjects in order to capture "the shot". Conclusion: patience is key :)
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