By Allison Vitsky
I recently competed in my first big “shootout”-style competition, NCUPS’ 2010 California Beach and Boat Dive Photo/Video competition. I live and dive in San Diego, and I am obsessed with shooting nudibranchs – OK, probably to a fault. My boyfriend, photographer Andy Sallmon, and I usual dive buddy. He enjoys making fun of the fact that I refuse to shoot creatures with more complex eyes! I can’t help it, though! I appreciate the fact that one can make a nudibranch look lovely, even when the visibility is less than stellar.
I had only been diving in Monterey once before, and I arrived just an hour before shootout registration. With no time to scout out the dive sites, I knew I was going to be at a loss when it came to looking for rare creatures. However, I knew that beautiful Dendronotus iris nudibranchs were very common at some sites in Monterey Bay, and I hoped to capture one poised over its food source, a tube anemone.
The potential problem was that the anemone stalk is almost always a dirty brown cylinder sticking out of an equally uninspired sandy sea floor. Making matters worse, the anemone retracts its tentacles once the nudibranch starts eating, pulling in the nudibranch’s head – and this can be a pretty rapid progression of events! (Let’s just say that I often wonder who started the rumor that nudibranchs are easy to photograph due to lack of movement!)
While diving at home the weekend before the competition, I tested an idea on some tube anemones – I tried using a snooted “primary” strobe at half power, using the other “secondary” strobe powered way down for fill light only. I didn’t find any Dendronotus, but I knew the lighting might work if I found the right subject at the right time.
After 30 minutes of swimming around in circles at “The Breakwater”, I found a nudibranch in perfect position. My camera was set in its usual “pretty-ugly-day-in-California-water” settings of 1/250 and F22 , which not only helped me to get a black instead of mucky green background, but also served to freeze the action and give this large nudibranch a nice depth-of-field.
I got as low as I could, positioned my primary strobe (a narrowly snooted, conventionally attached YS250 – I don’t have the faintest clue how to use a tripod), and squeezed the shutter. I got only 5 shots before the nudibranch was sucked into the body of the anemone, and I never saw another well-positioned Dendronotus during my dive.
When I downloaded my images, the obvious choice and winning shot was the first one – it had the best positioning, the least backscatter, and I knew local divers would be able to imagine the nudibranch plowing headfirst into the anemone 2 seconds after the shot was taken. Best of all, the shot was precisely how I’d imagined it – and as a pretty new photographer, this was truly the best prize of all.
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