The Bargibanti’s pygmy seahorse has captured the hearts of countless underwater photographers. The tiny pink seahorse is one of the most photographed subjects of the Indo-Pacfic reefs. One of the holy grails of any critter hunter, photographing one is almost a right of passage.
The tiny seahorse maxes out at only 2.5 cms, making it one of the world’s smallest bony fish. Bargibanti's pygmy seahorse has only two known color patterns. The pale pink variety that has red tubercles on its body is found the Muricella plectana gorgonian soft corals and the yellow version with orange tubercles is found on the Muricella paraplectana gorgonian. The colors of the seahorse match its soft coral home almost exactly, with the fish’s tubercles a near perfect mimic of the coral’s polyps.
Their camouflage and small size make this one of the hardest species to spot. In fact, the first species was only discovered when its host coral was collected for aquarium use and was carefully observed.
Environment: Bargibanti’s pygmy seahorse is found exclusively on gorgonian corals of the Muricella genus.
Depth: They are found in towards the deeper ends of most recreational diving between 16-40m.
Photographing Bargibanti’s pygmy seahorse
Obviously, macro equipment is essential when photographing a pygmy seahorse. Since bargibantis are so small, the more magnification the better.
If you are using a compact camera, strongly consider using close-up lens to gain additional magnification. Using a close up wet lens will allow you to focus closer to your subject and make it look bigger in the frame. Zoom to max telephoto when using wet lenses and get as close as possible to have the pygmy seahorse fill the greatest amount of the frame. Without a wet lens, the pygmy seahorse will be a small part of the frame.
With a DSLR camera, use a macro lens like a 60mm or 100/105mm that can achieve 1:1 magnification. Considering shooting supermacro using a teleconverter or a wet diopter to further increase your magnification. Keep in mind that when shooting such a small subject at high magnifications it can be quite difficult to keep your subject in focus due to the incredibly small depth of field.
Additionally, focusing can be tricky so consider using a focus light to aid you, and your cameras autofocus in getting sharp images.
You Can’t Shoot It If You Can’t See It
The Bargibanti’s pygmy seahorse is one of the hardest subjects to photograph underwater, not the least because it is almost impossible to spot. The first step in finding a pygmy seahorse is recognizing what the host Muricella gorgonians looks like. Once you spot the soft coral, the search is on for 2 centimeter fish which may or may not be there, and looks just like every other polyp on the coral.
A good way to search is to use your focus light or torch to scour the coral for movement. The best way to find them, however, is to rely on a guide who is trained and highly skilled at spotting these critters. Many times the guides will know which gorgonians have Bargibantis on them, narrowing down the search area.
If your guide indicates that he or she has spotted a bargabanti, prepare your settings ahead of time. The species is usually found in deeper waters and deco times will limit the amount of time you can spend with them. Additionally, there will most likely be other photographers waiting in line to photograph it as well. Setting-up your strobes and preparing your settings before you see the subject is a good idea.
Focus on Focusing
A pygmy seahorse is so small that getting it in focus can be a challenge. Lenses with high magnifications are required to get tight shots of a bargibanti, so the depth of field will be limited. Use high apertures like f/16-f/22 to give you the best chance of getting the small subject in focus. Consider “focus bracketing” by moving your camera ever so slightly back and forth to help increase your chances of getting a sharp image. Additionally, a focus light can be very useful.
Wait For The Head Shot
Pygmy seahorses seem to want to look at everything but a camera lens. If a pygmy seahorse has detected your presences, it will turn its head away from you in hope that hiding its eyes will help its camouflage. Of course, keeping the eyes in the frame is essential to your composition, so you will have to be patient, move away for a few moments and then return to shooting the pygmy in hopes that it will now be facing you.
It’s difficult enough to get a nice portrait fish id shot of a bargabanti, but if you’re up for a challenge consider a super macro head on shot. For this shot you will need a your supermacro equipment. If you can manage to get a head on pygmy seahorse shot with both eyes in focus, it can be quite impressive and even comical.
A note on pygmy seahorse conservation:
Far too often muricella gorgonians are found dying or dead, and many times this is the direct result of over zealous underwater photographers. Never hold on to the gorgonian to keep it in place or help you stabilize. The contact is likely to destroy the polyps, which will eventually lead to the death of the coral. Additionally, if there are many divers waiting to take photos of the tiny fish, only take a few shots and move on. Do not try to “pose” the pygmy by poking it, as this will stress it out.
If you care enough about a pygmy seahorse to take a photograph of it, you should understand that no image is worth the distress of the animal or its habitat.
- Bargibanti’s pygmy seahorses are tiny fish reaching only 2.5cm in size
- They live exclusively on muricella gorgonians
- The small size of the seahorse means that macro or supermacro equipment is needed to photograph them
- Finding a bargabanti pygmy seahorse can be quite difficult so don’t be afraid to rely on the knowledge of local dive guides.
- Prepare your strobes and settings before the shot since deco time and other waiting divers often limit your time with pygmy sea horses.
- Focusing on such a small subject can be difficult. Use high apertures like f/16-f/22, try focus bracketing and utilize a good focus light
- If you have patience, super macro images of pygmy’s can be quite impressive.
- Please do not over harass Bargabanti’s pygmy seahorse or its host gorgonian