The ghost pipefish is from the family Solenostomidea and is a favorite of underwater photographers, especially the brightly colored variations of the ornate ghost pipefish and the more rare species within the genus, like the velvet and Halimeda. Ghost pipefish are a fairly common subject in the Indo-Pacific region, especially the ornate and robust, but in some places they are more prolific than others.
Finding ghost pipefish can be harder than photographing them, as they blend into their environment very well. This is where a good guide comes into their own, as they will have an eye for spotting these little fish and may know where a pair is living already, as once a ghost pipefish settles in an area, if left undisturbed, they will stay there for some time. I have found ornate, velvet and robust in the same spot for weeks on end before!
Let’s Meet the Family
Ornate Ghost Pipefish
The ornate ghost pipefish is most common member of the family, as well as the most colorful. It lives in association with crinoids, black corals, gorgonians and soft corals. Ornates will adopt the coloration of the environment it settles in after its larval stage.
It can be found in black, white, red, yellow and various hues in between, all with an intricate pattern. It has short skin filaments on the body and snout with fins that have jagged edges, giving it a spikey appearance. They are sometimes found alone, but are more commonly seen in a male/female pair and, on occasions, in small groups. Depth range is from the very shallows at 4m/12ft down to 30m/100ft plus.
I have personally found these more common in sandy/muck sites that have the odd crinoid or other structures that they can make a home alongside. The most common colour variation is black, but these can be trickier to make stand out from the background. Try shooting with a light coloured background or even blue water.
Robust Ghost Pipefish
Other than ornates, robust are the most common ghost pipefish family member. They, too, have few different colour variations. The most common is brown, varying from light to dark depending on the environment. In areas that have seagrass beds, green variations can be found, and these generally make nicer photographs. They can also come in pale red, purplish, yellowish and white, all coloring themselves to blend in with their environment. Normally found solitary or in a pair in coastal waters from 4m/12ft to 20m/70ft.
Thin Ghost Pipefish
The classification of this species is uncertain and is quite possibly a variation of the robust. Coloring is normally brown and the body shape only really differs from the robust in the tail base, which is extended in comparison.
Velvet Ghost Pipefish
Now we have come to the very rare family members! The velvet ghost pipefish is another taxonomically undescribed species and again could possibly be a variation of the robust. Colour is normally pink to purple, but I have seen a white colored individual before, living with white whip corals. This fish will also let algae grow on it’s body to assist it with blending into it environment. It’s normally found in a male/female pair.
Rough-Snout Ghost Pipefish
I have only seen this species on three or four occasions. It comes in shades of brown, light tan to green and has skin filaments on the snout and body, which are often long, and hair like. Found solitary or in pairs in sand and rubble areas from depths of 8m/25ft to 20m/70ft, often in association with filamentous algae. Extent of hairy growth is variable and the extremely hairy individuals may even be a separate species. Other common names for this species are the Irish setter ghost pipefish or Rufus ghost pipefish.
Halimeda Ghost Pipefish
I have had the privilege of seeing only one of these in North Sulawesi six years ago prior to having a DSLR! Green to whitish grey, fin lobes rounded to mimic the leaf-like segments of Halimeda algae in which they seek shelter. Can be found in sheltered coastal areas and lagoon reefs in 8m/25ft to 23m/80ft. Probably the least seen species of ghost pipefish.
Equipment for Photographing Ghost Pipefish
For the most part, due to their size, a macro set up is ideal for shooting ghost pipefish. A 50mm/60mm lens is ideal as this species relies on camouflage to avoid predators, so will normally allow a close approach. With the 100mm/105mm lens you are normally backing off a little too far to fit the whole fish into the frame, which can invite more backscatter into the image unless you are in clear water and requires stronger strobes. This lens is appropriate for tight facial shots though, as you can invade the fishes ‘comfort zone’ if you try to get this type of shot with a 60mm!
Another option is to go wide to incorporate some of the environment into your shot. A 10.5mm fisheye coupled with a Teleconverter or the Tokina 10-17mm at the 17mm end work well for this letting you get some nice blue water in the background. Other semi wide-angle lenses will also do the job.
For compact camera users you will find that ghost pipefish generally do not require any additional wet-lenses to shoot, as they are a nice size for the built-in lens to handle. If however you are looking at extreme close-ups then a macro lens will definitely help to save cropping too much in post-processing and losing resolution. Also, if you want close-focus wide-angle images, a wide angle wet-lens is necessary.
Ghost Pipefish Underwater Photography Tips
The Fish ID Shot
This is the most common shot to see of a ghost pipefish taken from a side on view. This is the easiest shot of ornate, but it can still be quite tricky. Ghost pipefish have the annoying habit of constantly rotating and a big mistake I often see with photographers shooting an ID shot is that they do not wait until the fish is parallel with the camera plane. This leads to a slight rotation of the fish’s body, making them look quite thin and in the case of ornate ghost pipefish, it does not show off the body patterns as best as we could. Being patient and timing your shot until the fish is parallel to the camera plane, ideally with fins extended, is the key here. Once you have this shot in the bag, try getting something different.
For those that have a 100/105mm lens on, a facial portrait may be easier than trying fit the entire fish in the frame. Facial portraits can be quite striking, given the unique shape and patterns of the fish. The 100/105mm is the preferred lens because it’s a little easier to light the subject with this set up, given the slightly longer working distance of the lens. Again watch out for the rotation of the fish to ensure that it is parallel to the camera plane.
Quite commonly ghost pipefish live in pairs, and, if you are lucky, you can come across a number of individuals living together. The 60mm or even a little wider is an ideal lens. Again, watch for the rotation of the fish, but this time you need to time your shots to coordinate both fish (or more) in the frame to be parallel to the camera plane. A lot more patience is required here, as you will be waiting for multiple subjects to be in the right position.
Creative Ghost Pipefish Underwater Photography Techniques
The current craze of using snoots to channel the light of your strobe works quite well with ghost pipefish, as they do not move around too much (a moving subject is very frustrating when trying to light it with a snooted strobe). This being said, a lot more patience is needed to get a good shot with a snoot and normally involves a lot of trail and error to get the lighting right. Be prepared to send a lot of files to the trash! In particular, I have found it works well with robust ghost pipefish that, in the brown variation, are a bit dull for striking images. This can bring out the detail in the body, separate the subject from its background, making a drab looking subject have a bit more impact.
All ghost pipefish have a brooding pouch for incubating their eggs. Patience is the key to getting a photo of the eggs, as periodically the fish will open the brooding pouch to aerate them and this is the moment that you need to get the shot. The 60mm lens works well here letting you get quite close to the rear of the fish. I have found that the 105mm to be a bit harder to use for this type of shot as you are further away and the fish can move around a little bit or even sway back and fourth in a swell if you are shallow. This makes keeping the eggs in frame a lot harder. In lighter colour variations of the ornate ghost pipefish you may even be able to see the eggs though the brooding pouch walls.
Abstract and Eye Detail
Abstracts are a bit more applicable to the ornate ghost pipefish than the other species as they have intricate patterns on their bodies. Close up shots of these patterns can make nice abstracts, but you will probably need the help of a diopter or Teleconverter added to your macro lens to really fill the frame with just the livery of the fish. A similar set up is helpful for a shot of the eye, which normally incorporates some of the pattern on the head and snout, but you can get this type of image without additional magnification.
Macro Wide-Angle/Close Focus Wide-Angle
We can bring a bit of the ghost pipefish’s environment into our images by using a wider lens. I normally use the Nikon 10.5mm in front of a Kenko 1.4x TC and a small dome port that lets me focus extremely close (just like the 60mm) but gives a wider perspective.
Lighting is harder when shooting close focus wide angle, as you need to bring your strobes in very close to the port for even illumination, which invites backscatter to creep into the edges of the frame. Precise strobe positioning, power setting and angle is key to even lighting and minimizing backscatter. Zoom into your LCD screen to check the edges of the frame for backscatter before deciding that you have the shot that you were after.
Also, as you are generally using wider apertures than you do for macro shots, which will let the ambient light illuminate the background you can easily overexpose a light coloured subject or the white sand. I therefore switch my diffusers from the normal –0.5 to a more opaque –1.5 on my Inon strobes to stop the light down a bit. If you are shooting close to a light coloured bottom, try bringing your strobes up a little, so instead of the normal 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions, go for 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock.
Backlighting is when your strobe is placed behind the subject. This is an interesting technique to try with ornate ghost pipefish as they are semi transparent, which makes for a nice effect when light is shining through them. Additionally, backlighting highlights the shape of the subject, and ghost pipefish have interesting bodies.
However, this is one of the trickier lighting styles, as it is very hard to get the correct lighting without lighting up particles in the water and over exposing the subject. Balancing strobe power, angle and position is required here and minor adjustments can make all the difference. This usually takes a lot of trail and error, so be prepared to spend quite some time with your subject to get this right. Similar to when ‘snooting’, you will have limited keepers compared to what ends up in the trash!
Ghost pipefish are naturally stunning fish. Even a standard portrait will captivate an audience. However, since they are a relatively still subject, they provide you with an opportunity to try some creative techniques. So once you have got the standard shots in the bag, why not try something different to expand your portfolio?
Descriptions of the different ghost pipefish species were referenced from Reef Fish Identification: Tropical Pacific from New World Publications.