By DPG Editorial Staff
Muck. Yuck. Right? Wrong!
Muck might sound like not the most pleasant type of diving, but for underwater photographers this environment characterized by a seemingly barren silty, sand bottom can yield some of the best macro opportunities.
And the best thing about muck? It’s found almost anywhere in the world! From the muck capital of Lembeh Strait to the boat channel in your backyard there’s macro gems to be found everywhere.
So here’s our top favorite, photographable muck subjects:
1. Blue Ring Octopus
These might just be near the top of any underwater photog’s list. There’s just something about capturing an animal the size of a golf ball that can kill 30 adult humans with just one bite.
Of course, if you’re interested in photographing a blue ring instead of being bitten by one, you’ll need a high focal length macro lens to approach these often-shy critters, which blend in so well with the muck bottom until threatened.
2. Pygmy Cuttlefish
Any critter that start’s with the word “pygmy” is usually an awesome one—and the pygmy cuttlefish is no exception. These muck critters will often hover close to the bottom, blending in with the rubble. It takes a careful eye to spot one, but once you start taking pictures, the cuttlefish will turn on a brilliant light show of colors, just perfect for photography.
3. Emperor Shrimp
Emperor shrimp are the rare muck subject that actually tends to live with a pleasant background behind them—often making a home on a nudibranchs or colorful sea slug. As photographers, this colorful negative space is way better than the usual sand and silt! Make sure to have strobes to really make these guy’s colors “pop.”
4. Mimic Octopus
With mimic octopuses, it’s like getting 10 critters in one. These amazing shape shifters can be seen in various forms—lionfish, sea snakes, jellyfish, sea anemones, even mantis shrimp (see next favorite critter).
These scintillating cephalopods make their homes exclusively in the mucky estuaries and straits of Indonesia and are considered one of the holy grails of underwater photography. Personally, the real Holy Grail would be a mimic mimicking an underwater photographer…
5. Mantis Shrimp
Mantis shrimp (the actual ones, not mimicked ones) burrow deep in the rubble and sand of muck environments, making photography a matter of tact and patience. Found throughout the world in tropical environments, mantis shrimp make for stunning photography subjects, often sporting a pastel of colors.
6. Snake Eels
Another family of sand burrowers, snake eels take up residence in tropic and temperate waters around the world—and each species has its distinctive look.
The black finned snake eel makes for a great behavior shot, as they can often be found being cleaned by shrimp. For something a bit more alien, look for the crocodile snake eel, which has a face that even its mother might not love.
Speaking of strange faces, they don’t get much stranger than the stargazer. Found buried in the muck rubble of the Indo-Pacific, these strange subjects are most common at night, when they peek out from their sandy abode.
The real trick is making these well camouflaged benthic fish pop out from their sandy background. Using low apertures can blur out the majority of the image and just draw attention to the stargazer’s eyes. Snooting is also a popular choice with the fish’s natural round shape.
Just be careful—many species possess two venomous spines behind the gills and some are even able to produce an electric shock!
Ribbit. Ribbit. No, these underwater frogfish don’t make the same noise as their topside cousins, but their shared appearance is striking. Frogfish hopped onto our list of favorite muck critter list for their distinctive form and variety of stunning colors.
Frogfish also come in a huge diversity of sizes—from the size of your nail to over a foot tall—so you might just need a wide-angle lens on your next muck dive…
Ghost, banded, Hawaiian flame—we love ‘em all! Pipefish share a lineage with seahorse, diverging in shape millions of years ago, but they are still a muck critter favorite today. Perhaps the most photogenic is the Ornate Ghost Pipefish, a species found in the Indo-Pacific bearing remarkable frills to better hide in crinoids and soft coral.
Across the Pacific, the flame pipefish is endemic to the Hawaiian islands and has a red beauty of its own. The real trick with photographing pipefish (ghosts or not) is getting exact focus as they swim about in the muck. Instead of relying on your camera’s autofocus, try pre-setting a focal distance and waiting for the subject to move into focus.
10. Anything living in something cool
In most environments, finding garbage from humans seems like a tragedy. But in muck diving, one man’s garbage is another fish’s home. From tennis sneakers to toothpaste bottles and everything in between, nothing goes to waste in muck environments.
And photographing these unique relationships can bring something new to your portfolio. How many people can say they have an image of a super-rare Mototi poison octopus living in a Sprite bottle? So get out and make some muck images of your own!