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Behind the shot: Pharaoh Fight
By Steve De Neef, December 4, 2012 @ 07:00 AM (EST)

Editor’s Note: Steve’s fantastic shot of Pharoh Cuttlefish is part of our series on “Sailing with Sirens.” It was given the amazing recognition of receiving an honorable mention at the Nature’s Best Photography Competition, and is now on display at the Smithsonian.

By Steve De Neef
Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to be on a Worldwide Dive and Sail’s liveaboard en route to Myanmar for a 10-day trip. After two fantastic days diving and photographing the wide-angle wonders of the Siliman and Surin Islands of Thailand, we moved on to the Mergui Archipelago of Myanmar.

There were amazing photo opportunities like leopard sharks, smiling parrotfish, pristine coral walls, and macro marvels. But the best dive didn’t come until the last day, when the crew decided to stop by the famous Richelieu Rock in the Surin Islands one more time. 

One of many shots from an amazing cuttlefish encounter

The Idea
During some of our dives in Myanmar, I’d come across the beautiful pharaoh cuttlefish (Sepia pharonis). These cephalopods are a joy to watch and photograph, as they can change color and texture with the blink of an eye.

On the last dive at Richelieu Rock I was behind our group quite a bit and decided to stay shallow at around 30ft (12m) to look for a few more cephalopod subjects. Coming around a corner on this horseshoe-shaped pinnacle, I saw not one but three pharaoh cuttlefish hovering over the healthy reef. Sneaking in for a closer shot, they seemed not to even notice my presence at all. I already knew it would be a fantastic photo-op and one of the most memorable scenes I’d ever seen underwater.

The cuttlefish behavior was stunning, especially when captured on video.

The Shot
As I watched the cuttlefish for a few minutes, I noticed one female and two males. The female could be seen laying her eggs under a ledge in the reef, while one male protected her by continuously fending off the other slightly smaller male who tried to get a little too close for comfort.

Every time the smaller male would come too close, the bigger one would start flashing its colors while spreading out its arms. I decided it would be great to catch this behavior on “film.” As the cuttlefish pretty much ignored me it only took a little bit of patience to get some shots. My super-wide lens, set at 10mm, allowed me to get especially close to the subjects and eliminate any unnecessary backscatter in the water column.

One male cuttlefish fends off the others with his "arms." The encounter lasted for
more than 15 minutes.

Even in the well-lit tropical environment, I relied heavily on my strobes to add color and detail. I kept a fairly tight aperture for wide-angle photography, f10, to make sure that I could keep both subjects in focus while at different distances from the camera.

After getting images of all three cuttlefish together, I moved on to capturing just the fighting display between the two males and frame it as tightly as possible, while still showing the lively background of Richelieu—baitfish, groupers and coral made for an attractive negative space.

When it was time to go up and leave Richelieu Rock the cuttlefish were still in the same spot, it was the perfect dive to end a trip.

Finally...the award-winning shot!

Camera settings: ISO320, f10, 1/200, with a Canon 7D and Canon 10-22mm lens at 10mm.

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