Eels—love them or hate them, they make for awesome underwater photography subjects. And best of all, they’re found in almost every tropical, temperate, and cold water destination in the world. Here’s your guide to producing stunning images of eels.
Eels as Photography Subjects
Eels come in a variety of sizes, colors, and temperaments. The smallest eels can be only a few inches long, while giant morays can reach up to 10 feet long. Likewise, some eels blend into their environments, while others, like ribbon eels, feature electric colors and patterns.
There’s hardly an underwater photography destination that doesn’t feature one (or many more) species of eels. That’s why it’s important to have a game plan for producing great images, no mater what species you may encounter. Having said that, there are some common eels you are likely to encounter on tropical dives: morays (chain, green, giant, etc.), ribbon eels, snake eels, and even the shy garden eels. In temperate and cold waters, the wolf eel is a prized photographic subject.
Eels can be found in a variety of sizes and colors, helping diversify your photography portfolio
Finding Eels to Photograph
The most common tropical eel category, the moray, can often be found hiding in cracks in the coral reef, or amongst large rocks. Keep an eye out for their heads poking out from the reef, with mouths open to help facilitate breathing. Other species of eels are sand-dwellers, meaning they bury their back-ends deep in the sand with only their heads protruding. These can be more difficult to spot, and a knowledgeable dive guide will be your best chance.
Eels live in an array of locations on the reef, from the sandy rubble to colorful coral, as in the case above
Equipment for Photographing Eels
The equipment needed to photograph eels is as diverse as the subjects themselves. For interchangeable lens cameras, a macro lens (55–105mm) is a good choice for the smaller and shyer species, such as ribbon eels and snake eels. A mid-range zoom is also a good choice for capturing eel portraits. For larger subjects, a fisheye or wide-angle zoom lens will allow you to fit the whole subject in the frame, while also including some of the surrounding environment.
The fixed lens on most compact cameras will be sufficient for photographing medium-sized eels. However, for larger eels or to capture an image of them free-swimming on the reef, adding a fisheye wet lens will limit the amount of water between you and the subject.
Additional equipment considerations include a focus light—since many eels live in coral holes—as your camera might otherwise have difficulty focusing. For eels buried in the sand, another valuable piece of equipment is a snoot, which may be used to selectively illuminate only the animal and not the bland background.
Using a longer focal length macro lens, such as the 100/105mm, allows a photographer to more easily fill the frame with shyer, smaller eel subjects
Eel Photography Techniques and Tips
Eels are one subject that often make excellent candidates for a portrait orientation, meaning you’ve rotated your camera to make the image vertically longer. This is because most eels have long, slender bodies and shooting horizontally will likely cut out more of the subject. You want to fill the frame as much as possible.
The eels’ long, curvy shape is also a great fit to try leading lines, or S-curve photographic composition. Here, consider tilting the camera at an angle so that the eel’s body is on a diagonal line, rather than straight up and down. This helps draw the viewers’ attention to the face.
Having a vertical (portrait) orientation allows you to fit more of the eel’s long body into the frame
Don’t be frightened by what may look like the eel flashing its teeth at you with big yawns—it’s actually just trying to breathe! Having said that, timing your image so that you press the shutter when the mouth is open does add a bit of drama.
Perhaps the most common behavior associated with eels is getting a teeth or body cleaning from smaller critters, like shrimp and small fish. In this case, you must realize both the eel and cleaners are a little skittish and getting too close may frighten them off and ruin the opportunity. If you have a longer focal length lens, you’re in luck, as you won’t have to get as close. If not, approach slowly: Take an image every few fin kicks—as it may be your last before the dentist closes. Finally, make sure to have a small enough aperture (at least f/8) to increase the depth of field to ensure all of the elements are in focus: the eel’s eyes, teeth, and the cleaners.
Being cleaned by shrimp or small fish is a common behavior for eel photography. Make sure to approach slowly so as not to scare off the eel or its cleaners
When just starting out with underwater photography, your inclination may be to use a macro setup to fill the entire frame with the eel. But all rules were meant to be broken. Try a fisheye lens (or wet lens for compact shooters), which will allow you to come within inches of the eel, and still capture more of its surrounding environment to give a sense of place in the image.
Capturing eels with a wide-angle or fisheye lens includes more of the background into an image, which adds a sense of place
Creative Eel Photography
Because of their mostly motionless temperament, many eels make great subjects for experimenting with new creative techniques. For new underwater photographers, consider experimenting with bokeh photography on an eel subject. Here, you take control of your manual settings to set an open aperture, producing a blurring effect on all but the subject.
Using a shallow aperture blurs out the distracting sand background and helps accent the subject
Intermediate shooters can experiment with motion blur and panning. By setting your flash settings to rear sync, slowing your shutter speed (1/15–1/30s), and moving your camera as the shutter is pressed, you can create really striking results.
Slow shutter speeds, combined with a rear-sync flash, can produce creative blurring in your image, helping it stand out from the crowd
Finally, advanced underwater photographers can experiment with snooting. The eel species that live in the sand are perfect subjects for this, as the snoot focuses your strobe’s light into a small diameter. The result is black negative space with only the eel illuminated.
By using a snoot, a photographer can selectively light just the face of this ribbon eel, leaving the rest of the negative space black for dramatic effect
Eels are an extremely common and versatile subject for underwater photographers. They are great for new underwater photographers looking to learn manual exposure, while more-accomplished photographers have the opportunity to practice advanced techniques. With just a few techniques, anyone can capture a stunning eel image.
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