For whatever reason, nudibranchs seem to be everyone’s favorite critter. Not just underwater photographers—all divers simply love these colorful little creatures to bits.
They are often associated with tropical diving and coral reefs, but even in colder water the beauty of nudibranchs spellbind divers and photographers alike. Come with us to Norway to see some of the splendor for yourself.
Norway’s vast coastline, including its islands, spans around the globe at the equator. Along these almost countless miles of shoreline you will find some of the best cold-water diving in the world. The magnificent kelp forest, the breathtaking drop-offs, wild currents and strikingly beautiful seascapes are home to many different fish and invertebrate animals. Among them you will find close to 100 species of nudibranchs. Not all are living at depths suitable for divers, some 30 species live deep in the ocean and are never seen except when hauled up in some scientist’s net or bottom-scrape. That leaves a little over 60 species for divers to search for, be amazed by—and of course, photograph.
Nudibranchs can be found all year round, but most species have their peek season in the winter, especially from March until May. Unfortunately, this coincides with the coldest time of the year in the water—which is of course what they like. For underwater photographers this means putting on loads of undergarments and more weights just to get down, but even so, nudibranch hunting is a cold business in Norway.
The reward for enduring the harsh conditions, however, is great. The spectacular colors, strange shapes and interesting biology of the nudibranchs never cease to captivate an audience. Even the coldest dive conditions will soon be forgotten when you have bagged the shot of your favorite sea slug or found a species new to the area, to the country or even to science. Yes, it happens, even in this day and age.
Finding the Nudibranchs
When searching for nudibranchs, it is very important to know a little about their biology and feeding habits. Most of the species are very particular when it comes to food, and will only feed on one or a few specific food sources. Some nudibranchs are carnivores, and their diet includes such treats as stinging hydroids, sea squirts, soft coral and even the eggs of other nudibranchs. Other species of sea slugs may feed on algae. This severely limits where the different species can be found. If you’re looking for the big coral slug Tritonia hombergii for instance, there is little use in searching for hours unless there is a healthy growth of dead man’s finger coral, as this is their preferred food. They same goes for almost all other species, and getting to know their dietary preferences will greatly improve your chances of finding specific species.
There are several books and a number of websites on nudibranch biology that will help you learn the feeding habits of species. Alternatively, you could even join a nudibranch workshop. In Norway, they are held every year at the end of March at Gulen Dive Resort, just a few miles north of the western city of Bergen.
Trickier Than You Think
Nudibranchs are among the easier subjects to shoot underwater. They don’t move around much, they’re quite slow, they have brilliant colors, and they generally don’t hide even after being strobe-lit multiple times. As such, they are ideal macro subjects, but they come with some challenges as well.
Most nudibranchs in Norwegian waters are small, and it is difficult to compose your shots because they tend to sit on the bottom or just above it on their food source. Some species feed on bryozoans that grow on the surface of kelp fronds, but here you have the challenge of shooting a very small subject on a moving target.
The only solution to these challenges is patience. Be careful when looking for subjects, and don’t waste your time trying to shoot something that is not going to look good anyway. Evaluate your pictures constantly, not just checking exposure and other technical aspects, but look at the composition as well. If it doesn’t look right, move on and find another nudibranch that sits prettier and has a better background. Don’t worry, if you find one, there will normally be plenty more of the same species around—all you have to do is have a look.
Being so small, it might be difficult getting the nudibranchs to fill the frame. Even though you can get extremely close using a 60mm macro lens, you will soon find yourself in trouble getting the strobe light to hit where you want it to—if you’re too close, there simply isn’t enough space for the strobes. If the visibility allows it, a 105mm is often a much better option. During the winter months, this is normally no problem in Norway—the water will be as clear as it is cold. The 105mm gives you a much better working distance between your camera and the subject for positioning your strobes.
To get an even tighter shot, you might consider a few extra tools like a teleconverter and/or a diopter. The teleconverter is basically a magnifying glass that is mounted between the lens and the camera, and will enlarge your subject by typically 40% or a 100%, depending on the strength. Shooting images with a teleconverter can be challenging, and it is important to get one that fits your lens and is able to transmit all the signals going between the lens and the camera. Otherwise, things such as auto focus might not work, leaving you in dire straits—unless you have a custom made focus gear that will allow for the length added to your lens by the teleconverter. Some manufacturers offer focus gears for the most popular lenses plus teleconverters, but they are expensive and hard to come by. Some underwater photographers have made their own focus gears, but most rely on auto focus to get at least the initial frame correct and then switch to manual and pinpoint their focus by moving the housing a little back or forth.
Being an optical element, the teleconverter will steal one or two f-stops of light, but since macro photography normally involves the use of artificial light this is not a problem, as you can just increase the power of your strobes. Since the teleconverter is mounted inside the underwater housing, the choice to use one needs to be agonized over before you get in the water. Once it’s on you have to live with it, so think ahead and consider what images you’d like to shoot, the size of the subjects and what other stuff you might be missing out on. With small nudibranchs and good visibility, it is often an easy choice—put it on and get in the water.
A diopter is also a form of magnifying glass, and will essentially shorten the working distance of your lens by anything from half to almost nothing for the more powerful ones. It may seem like a contradiction to use a 105mm with great working distance and then shortening it again by using a diopter, but finding the right combination is what enables you to really get the shots that you want. These days, several manufacturers offer wet diopters that you can mount or dismount at your leisure under water, greatly widening the range of possibilities when you’re down below. For instance, you can check out the +5 and +10 SubSee diopters made by ReefNet. They produce high-quality optical diopters mounted in an adapter that will fit macro ports from most manufacturers, or even screw right into the 67mm thread at the front of your macro port, if it’s got one.
Composition Is Paramount
Composing great macro shots when working with really small subjects can be a real challenge. Wave action, current (nudibranchs tend to thrive in current-ridden areas, because their food also thrives here) and moving kelp and hydroids all work against you. A couple extra weights, or even ankle weights, might be a good idea as you will often find yourself in very shallow water where you are more exposed to the elements.
Not only do you have to be stable and have a steady hand to be able to get your composition right, there is also the challenge of getting the focus plane where you want it. As a rule of thumb, it is always best to have the eyes and the rhinophores (head tentacles) in focus. Nudibranchs do actually have eyes, and while visible in some species, they are invisible in others. Our brains do, however, tell us that they should be located to the front of the animal, slightly below and ahead of the rhinophores—and this is where they actually sit most of the time.
Work carefully and methodically, and after a while you will be able to get the focus exactly where you want it. Try shifting to manual focus and moving the housing back or forth to achieve the correct focus. Auto focus tends to miss the target slightly when working with really small stuff, and you might not notice just by looking at the camera display, which is usually lying like a dog. Try to enlarge the picture to get a better idea, or just do it manually and you will get better results once you get the hang of it.
Getting the composition right is often what separates ordinary run-of-the-mill nudibranch images from the truly great ones. There are some basic rules you can stick to, like the rule of thirds, diagonals, etc.—but don’t forget that they’re there to be broken at times. If the viewer can tell that you broke it on purpose, you have achieved something—most likely a striking image. Pay attention to your subject, the background, the posture and the angle you use, and learn how they work together to give your images that little something extra.
In the Background
In addition to the position of the subject in the frame, focus and depth of field, you need to consider the background of the image. This is often neglected by many underwater photographers, and can ruin what are otherwise great nudibranch shots. If the background is cluttered and full of objects and different colors, your subject will not stand out and make a lasting impression on the viewer. Who wants to view an underwater fruit salad? Not me!
Finding a calm, uniform background often gives you the best results—all you can do is hope there is a nudibranch there once you find it! Another option is to go for a classical, black background, which is easy to achieve once you find a nudibranch that sits on something that sticks up from the bottom. Get below the nudibranch, shoot at an upwards angle and use the water as background. Using both a high f-stop and fast shutter speed will give you a silky-smooth blackness as a backdrop for a brilliantly colored nudibranch.
As you can see, photographing nudibranchs is not just about getting the photography part of it right—searching for good opportunities and the right location will often take up most of your dive time. Since nudibranchs can be found almost anywhere, developing a keen eye for finding them is often just as important as knowing your camera’s bells and whistles.
What to Bring
Photographing nudibranchs obviously falls into the macro category, so you should bring everything you normally use for this kind of photography. As mentioned earlier, a 60mm lens might be considered optional, but could be a useful tool in combination with a 1.4x teleconverter. Bringing a 105mm macro lens (or equivalent) is a definitive must, and you should also consider bringing several different teleconverters and dioptres.
You will also find yourself in need of a good focus light. Norwegian waters may be a little on the dark side, especially during the winter months when the sun is low and sets early. A LED light that produces from around 500 lumens or more and has a wide, uniform beam without any hotspots is ideal. If you don’t already have one, you might want to consider the SOLA from Light & Motion or the Fisheye LED from the Japanese manufacturer of the same name. Both have proven to be excellent choices and will provide your camera with enough light to focus properly.
Apart from your camera, housing and macro ports, you should consider bringing the following to ensure a successful nudibranch photography expedition:
Lenses: 105mm + teleconverter and diopters (a 60mm could be considered)
Other: A 1.4x or even a 2.0x teleconverter, one or more diopters (+2 and +5 are the most useful, +10 is necessary for the really small stuff, but is harder to work with).
Light: Macro strobes and a suitable focus light to ensure optimal working conditions for your camera.
Also make sure you have your chargers, spare batteries and not to mention your laptop so you will be able to admire your nudibranch shots in the evening.
Where: Norway lies in the northeastern Atlantic, both below and above the arctic circle. There are numerous diving possibilities along the coast, and several professional dive resorts will cater to your needs.
Language: Norwegian, but everyone speaks good English.
Currency: Norwegian Kroner, 100 NOK = US$18 or 13 Euro.
Water temperature: The temperature ranges from 2 to 4 degrees centigrade in the winter. Not only is this definitely drysuit territory, you will also need to bring lots of warm undergarments. In late summer, water temperatures might reach 17 to 18 degrees at the surface, but will still be cool at depth.
Diving experience level: Excellent for novice divers, as nudibranchs most often are found quite shallow. Be aware that some areas may have anything from slight to ripping currents.
Photography experience level: Excellent for beginners, but quality equipment is necessary to get the really good shots. If you have a compact camera, look into what macro lenses and attachments are available, as you often will be unable to get the really small subjects to fill the frame without them.
Who/when: Gulen Dive Resort hosts a Nudibranch Safari at the end of March every year. Here you can learn a lot about sea slugs, their behavior, feeding habits and biology, in addition to photographing them. The house reef at Gulen is an ideal place for nudibranchs, and at peak season in March there will be millions of them. In 2011, a staggering 50 species was found at this dive spot alone, much to the surprise of the scientists from the Science and Technology University of Trondheim who conduct the workshop.
About the author: Christian Skauge is the current Nordic Champion of underwater photography, and has won several international photo contests. He has previously worked as editor for the Norwegian dive magazine Dykking. Christian has a strong passion for finding and photographing nudibranchs, and is the organizer of the above-mentioned workshop at Gulen Dive Resort. To see more of his images, please visit www.scubapixel.com.
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