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Full Frontal: Non-invasive Techniques to Get Your Subject to Look at the Camera
By Gabriel Jensen, May 8, 2024 @ 10:00 AM (EST)

Ol’ One-Eye has been a resident polka dot batfish at my local dive site for two years. Her one eye is sensitive to light, so a red light allows me to focus without stressing her out, Florida, USA
 

Connecting your audience with your subject creates a powerful image, and few features on an animal are as compelling as the eyes. Thankfully, with the advent of extremely accurate in-camera AI-powered eye-tracking autofocus, it has never been easier to nail that perfect eye focus. There is just one small hurdle that AI has yet to overcome—getting the subject to turn and look at you!

We have all heard stories of poorly behaved underwater photographers physically moving animals, baiting them with a meal, or disrupting their environment, causing them to pose in a dramatic fashion. While “effective,” these techniques have the potential to cause environmental damage and—at the very least—discomfort for extremely delicate subjects. Thankfully, there are non-invasive techniques for getting your subject to turn around and make eye contact with your lens.
 

A daddy jawfish with eggs will allow you to get the SMC-2 close if you spend time and avert your eyes. He is lit using two off-camera snooted Backscatter Mini Flash 2 strobes to avoid looking like eyes, Florida, USA

 

The “Eye Effect”

We as humans can decipher action through eye contact. Underwater critters also look to eyes—both your real eyes and your camera’s “eyes”—to assess if they are in danger and need to act. Many underwater subjects will interpret your camera lens, dome, or strobes as very large (and intimidating) eyes, which will cause them to panic and run for cover or swim away. It is not natural behavior for most underwater animals to look into the eyes of another larger animal, so the challenge is to minimize the “eye effect” if we want good eye contact from our subjects in our images. This eye effect is strongest with medium-sized critters like angelfish, sea turtles, and groupers, which are small enough to register us as a potential predator, but not so small that they don’t notice us.
 

Grouper grunts convinced this 200lb goliath grouper to leave its nook and come investigate me, Florida, USA
 

When attempting to photograph skittish subjects, the eye effect can be minimized by pointing lenses slightly away from the animal, turning strobes slightly outward so they don’t look like two eyes and even averting your own eyes. Subjects like eagle rays and angelfish will frequently circle back around to investigate if you don’t look too interested in them. In the same vein, your movements should be slow and deliberate, like a relaxed manatee; this slow movement puts subjects at ease, whereas herky-jerky, fast movements, like a fired-up reef shark, will send subjects ducking for cover.
 

Shot in almost complete darkness save a very dim 200-lumen red light, I was able to capture the luring motion of a Scaber’s frogfish fishing for dinner, Florida, USA

 

Looking… and Sounding Attractive

As an underwater photographer, you are acutely aware of how attractive... this makes you on land, but underwater we want to turn fish heads instead. Historically, this has involved using bait or chum. While chumming is still a common technique used in the shark diving world, we have several less-invasive tools we can use to attract our subjects of interest. Typically, this involves creating a small light signal or a sound, which then causes the animal to be curious.

  • Flashers: Just as a fisherman would use a metallic lure, shiny objects such as bolt snaps or bits of foil can be very enticing for a critter whose guard is down. An example is my local toadfish, which is usually deep in his hole during the day; dangling a shiny stainless steel bolt snap from the back of my torch causes it to come out and investigate a little closer.
  • Clickers: Known for a while to spearfishermen in the Mediterranean, noise-making fish clickers, or “fish callers,” are small round devices that can generate interest in predatory species. When articulated in the vicinity of fish like barracudas, snappers, or seabirds, a clicker can generate enough interest for them to turn their head and look at you. Luckily for us, I have found that some of the most popular underwater photography equipment has inadvertently included clickers: spinning shades on my Inon Z-330s do the job just fine on my local reef. Jawfish, in particular, will react well to a clicking sound and may rise slightly out of their holes to see what the ruckus is about.
  • Grunts: A free tool most of us have no trouble using is our voice. In my region, “grouper grunting” involves using your throat to make a deep grunt or gulp. It is particularly effective on groupers, but I have found it works well on many big fish and may make the difference on a dive where the goliath or potato grouper is initially ignoring you. There are many good videos on YouTube about producing a proper “grouper grunt”!

Some more controversial techniques are effective but generally avoided by many conservation-minded photographers because they may stress the animal. Mirrors can elicit aggressive reactions from territorial fish like pike blennies, who will expose themselves to predators to fight their mirrored “opponent.” Many fish and crustacean species react strongly to laser pointers, but this too can cause adverse stress reactions. There are stories of mantis shrimp abandoning entire clutches of eggs to chase a bright green dot.
 

Mother manatees communicate with their babies using clicks and clacks. Relaxed and calm manatees will come up to you and investigate clicking noises coming from other big animals (like us)

 

Light Corralling

Every photographer has experienced the seahorse that simply does not wish to look your way, or the nudi that promptly turns its tail and shows you its gills instead of its rhinophores. These instances can be an exercise in frustration! For situations regarding shy macro critters, light corralling can be an effective technique that allows you to “direct” your subject without ever touching or moving the animal. This is most effective on creatures like certain nudibranchs which dive for cover as soon as they notice too much light. Nudibranchs have rudimentary eyes or eyespots which does not give them a detailed picture of the reef, but it does allow them to orient themselves to the surface and the safety of a dark rock.
 

Cratena peregrina nudibranch corralled by light, Florida, USA
 

To effectively use light to corral your subjects, you first must assess if it will actually be harmless in the moment. A light-stressed seahorse that is ducking your light after being photographed by 10 other photographers will not be a great choice, since you’ll be stressing it out even more and further reducing its chances at survival. The goal here is to get that image in the least impactful way. When you’ve found your light-adverse subject, turn off your focus light, and then have a buddy hold your torch behind the subject. With some luck, the subject will then turn away from the light and look directly at your camera. Without turning on your focus light, it is then possible to have your autofocus catch on the lighted silhouette of the animal.
 

A lined seahorse looks right into the camera. My wife is behind holding a 200-lumen torch to turn it my way, Florida, USA

 

Final Thoughts

The art of capturing eye contact underwater involves a delicate balance between understanding animal behavior and fostering a respectful connection with marine life. Through techniques such as minimizing the "eye effect," utilizing attractants like flashers, clickers, and grunts, and employing light corralling strategies, photographers can enhance their chances of capturing captivating images while minimizing disturbance to their subjects and the underwater environment.

It cannot be overstated that a photographer’s patience and respect for marine life are paramount. By taking the time to observe animal behavior, adapting our approach to minimize disruption, and fostering a sense of trust with our subjects, we not only enhance the quality of our photographs but also act as stewards for that little corner of the ocean.

As we continue our journey in underwater photography, I encourage you to experiment with these techniques and share your experiences with fellow enthusiasts. By collectively refining our methods and promoting minimally impactful practices, we can ensure that future generations might continue to marvel at the beauty of our oceans, one photograph at a time.
 

A bumblebee shrimp riding a variegated urchin takes interest in its reflection
 

To see more of Gabe’s work, please give him a follow on Instagram, visit his website, or perhaps join him for a dive in Florida at the Blue Heron Bridge.

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