Nudibranchs are marine gastropods that are certainly one of the most interesting and diverse creatures yet to be discovered on planet Earth. These slugs, commonly referred to as “nudis,” can be found worldwide, in warm and cold waters, tropical and non-tropical areas, and at nearly any depth.
Surprisingly, producing quality images of slugs can pose quite a challenge as their sizes and habitat can be just as diverse as the slugs themselves. Oftentimes, the smallest and the largest slugs can be found in close proximity to each other, causing frustration among even the most experienced photographers. So what can we do?
Photographing a Variety of Nudibranchs
The real challenge is trying to stay away from shooting generic images or using the same technique over and over, as this leads to a plain vanilla flavored portfolio. Slugs are perfect to hone your camera skills and knowledge by experimenting with a variety of lenses, lighting and even f-stops. So, get creative.
Writing a guide to photographing nudibranchs is a bit like writing one for photographing “reef fish.” There is just so much diversity in color, shape, size, and ecology that there is no singular method for creating a nudi shot that stands out from the rest. Instead, I’ve provided a few case studies of common and not-so-common nudis that demonstrate different lighting and composition techniques to be employed.
Species: Miamira alleni. Settings: 1/250s at f/25 (strobes on full power)
Case Study #1: The Moving Nudibranch
The Costasiella usagi nudibranch features dark green silver-tipped cerata and rolled black rhinophores and is found on single bladed algae. Rather then removing the algae, I place a small stone at the base of the algae to stabilize its movements against surge or current. Critical focus is vital and using your focus lock function will help you to keep the lens from hunting at just the wrong moment.
Many nudibranchs live on algae or soft coral that moves in the current. Instead of relying on autofocus, lock your focus and wait for the subject to become crisply in focus in the viewfinder.
Species: Costasiella usagi. Settings: 1/200s at f/25 (with Nauticam SMC diopter)
Case Study #2: The Super-Tiny Nudibranch
Remarkably small is the only way to describe Cyerce nigra, found in association with the algae Avrainvillea asarifolia in sandy estuary habitats. Anyone who has encountered one of these Cyerce slugs will attest to the way they move and the difficulties associated with shooting quality images of them.
Many other nudibranchs fall into the category of super macro, with sizes smaller than a pea. For such subjects, an additional diopter is a must. It’s also critical to shoot at high apertures (more than f/18) to provide as much depth of field as possible. Shooting these small nudis head on, with the rhinophores at a level distance from the lens, will help ensure critical focus.
Species: Cyerce nigra. Settings: 1/320s at f/25 (with Subsee +10 diopter)
Case Study #3: The Nudibranch in the Sand
Finding rare and unusual nudis isn't as uncommon as one might think. Sometimes, a nudibranch won’t be seen for many years, and then suddenly reappear due to an available food source. This was the case with the “Purple Pikachu,” below.
Unfortunately, not all nudis recognize the photographer’s need to have an interesting background match their unique outfits. Often, the most beautiful nudis can be found sitting in bland surroundings such as muck or sand. Using a snoot creates a spotlight so that only the nudibranch is illuminated. Alternatively, try using a narrow-beamed dive torch as a continuous light source.
Species: Thecacera sp. Settings: 1/250s at f/22 (with Reefnet optical strobe)
Kalinga ornata (below) is a “holy grail” species I never expected to see. As in many cases, all credit goes directly to my guide for this find. K. ornata is an interesting subject: Like an ambush predator, they bury under the sand with only the tips of the bright orange cerata exposed—a hunting technique used to capture their exclusive dietary prey of brittle stars.
Species: Kalinga ornata. Settings: 1/200s at f/20 (with Retra Light Shaping Device)
Case Study #4: The Larger Nudibranch
Nudibranchs can get quite large and work perfectly for shooting close-focus wide-angle images. For interchangeable-lens cameras, use a mini-dome and a fisheye lens to capture larger nudibranchs with their environment included in the frame. Pay close attention to strobe placement, as an increased chance of backscatter can occur with any dome port.
Pearly white with orange gold trim, giant gills and a flowing delicate body structure, the Ardeadoris egretta can get quite large, also making them a candidate for wide angle. Using a second strobe isn’t always necessary: A single strobe focuses attention to the nudi and creates a bit of mood. Try coordinating with your guide or dive buddy before the dive and ask them to model for you if needed.
Species: Ardeadoris egretta. Taken with a Tokina 10–17mm at 17mm
Case Study #5: The Dark Nudibranch
Dark subjects can pose a challenge to many photographers. Dialing back the f-stop to a wider aperture will allow you to illuminate details that are normally lost in the shadows.
If you keep dialing back to the maximum of your lens, the bokeh can get quite buttery—in this case a bit extreme. But again, experimenting allowed me to use the otherwise confusing background that this slug was perched on to create a solid pastel color.
Species: Tambja morosa. Settings: 1/320s at f/4 (constant lighting with FIX video light used for fill)
Bonus Case Study: The Nudibranch You Can’t See
Morphology in the marine world is another fascinating phenomenon that could occupy volumes of books. How one subject mimics another is endless, and in no short supply with slugs.
Stiliger smaragdinus (below) is found in the algae that they so closely mimic. A keen eye and perseverance on the hunt often results in that special find. Using a snoot helps to separate the subject from its background as many of these slugs are found right on top of their food source.
Species: Stiliger smaragdinus. Settings: 1/160s at f/22 (with Retra snoot)
If you have spent any time at all photographing nudibranchs, you are sure to have realized that there is no shortage in variation. Likewise, underwater photographers must always consider all options for which works best with a specific subject. The good news is that you are unlikely to photograph all nudi species in a single lifetime, so there will be few moments of boredom.
For more on nudibranchs, check out our “Going Nudi” series, which includes a multi-part chronicle of Mike Bartick’s personal journey of slug discovery.
About the Author: Mike Bartick was raised in sunny Southern California just a short distance from the shores of the Pacific Ocean. An avid diver and marine wildlife enthusiast, he turned to photography to capture and share some of his diving experiences with others. Mike’s work is featured in magazines, text books, calendars and more, and can be found worldwide. He is a small animal expert that frequently leads groups of photographers into Asia to seek out that special critter.
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