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Critter Corner Special - Snooting In Lembeh
By Hergen Spalink, December 9, 2010 @ 02:40 PM (EST)

Editor's Note – You may have noticed in the Critter Corner installments that snoots have become a common suggestion for a  lighting technique to help you create a unique critter image. Hergen Spalink has taken some of underwater photographer's favorite critters and explained how he used a snoot to create a unique image.

By Hergen Spalink and Kerri Bingham

For the last few months we have been experimenting with snooting here in Lembeh Strait, Indonesia. The black-sand bottom-dwellers crave the spotlight effect that the snoot offers, tearing them from their oh-so-drab backdrop and putting them front and center in an image. Granted, not every subject is "snootable" and the ratio of junk to good images after a dive is definitely rather high. However, the images that do turn out definitely make all the hard work, missed opportunities (you are fairly locked in when snooting to a certain subject type), and frustration worthwhile. For us, the snoot offered a new way to shoot our favorite critters.  Below are some of our favorite snoot images from the past few weeks as well as a brief description of the snoot technique employed. 

Blue Ring Octopus
This particular blue ring octopus was perfectly happy to have me follow him around while he searched for a crustacean to chomp on. At one point he must have spotted his reflection in my port because he started swimming right towards it. Luckily I had already gotten a few shots off so the exposure and snoot position were already set. What makes this image special is the contrast of those bright blue rings against the midnight background, making the subject really stand out. For this shot, the strobe is positioned above and in-line with the lens, aimed slightly down for a true spotlight effect.



Hairy Frogfish
The hairy frogfish is a master of disguise, his filamentous skin flaps making him blend right in with the algae patches he inhabits. The majority of shots don't make it readily obvious what is being photographed. This willing subject was walking downhill allowing me to shoot at an upward angle, which is always nice. Using the snoot to highlight only his head and body, the resulting image gives the viewer a real sense of what this elusive bottom-dweller's expressive face really looks like. The strong shadows of the single strobe also bring out the algae-like hairs around his chin and mouth.



Janolus Nudibranch
When I found this nudibranch he was being attacked by some angry bronze sweepers. In an attempt to defend himself,  he curled himself into a perfect pose for a picture. The contrast of the serrata with the black background really brings out the yellows that would otherwise be lost with a sandy backdrop. By having the snoot perpendicular to the ground and just above the edge of the frame, the circle of light is contained within the images borders.



Robust Ghost Pipefish
A challenging subject without a snoot, this proved to be one of the more frustrating images to capture.  I placed the snoot below the plane of the lens and off to the right. I then tipped the camera at a 30–45 degree angle so the light was slightly from below the subject. With the ghost pipefish swaying back in forth in the moderate swell, it took quite awhile to get him lined up with the snoot. Whenever the strobe is at or below the horizon there is also the potential for "blowing-out" the sand in front of the strobe. By using the snoot, this problem is significantly reduced due to the constrained nature of the beam.



Mantis Shrimp
This relatively small yellow mantis was entranced by the focus light coming from the barrel of the snoot, making it a willing and cooperative subject. The resulting image is easy to anthropomorphize as the crustaceans compound eyes stare up at the light. The combination of the shrimp's bright color and it's perfect pose made this an interesting shot. The snoot was positioned directly above the subject and just out of the frame to keep the diameter of the spotlight fairly small.



Many seahorses have extremely translucent exoskeletons, lending them well to backlighting. Adding a snoot to the mix leads to a nice silhouette with a little bit of color bleeding through. For this shot, Kerri held the strobe off the housing (still connected by sync cord) while I took the shot. The result is a clean backlight shot without the normal backscatter, halo, or visible strobe flash. In addition the aiming light from the strobe caused the seahorse to turn away from the strobe and into the camera.



Snake Eel & Shrimp
Luckily, these guys were on a small plateau of a steep slope, allowing me to approach from down slope and shoot up. The goal of this shot was to really bring out the shrimp by placing them against a strong black backdrop, removing the distraction of a blurry sandy slope. By keeping the strobe at a slight angle off the vertical and close to the top of the frame, the circle of light surrounding the eel is quite small but the face of the eel is still exposed.



Warty Frogfish
Had this picture been taken with a typical key and fill type strobe arrangement, the camouflage abilities of the frogfish would have overpowered the image. By using the snoot's spotlight effect, the subject is clearly visible, aided by the carpet of green algae beneath him. The resulting image gives a feeling of catching the frogfish by surprise in what he believed to be a pretty good hiding spot. In this shot, the strobe & snoot were pushed out past the font of the camera and aimed down at a 45 degree angle just outside the upper right corner of the image, allowing the entire rock to fit in the frame.



Ornate Ghost Pipefish
The strong white and pink coloration of this pipefish actually make it a great "non-snoot" subject, as it naturally stands out from a dark sand background. However, the aim of this image was to focus on the amazing color pattern and the filamentous "spikes" of it's outline. By placing the strobe at a slight angle off the horizontal, I was able to light the body from brood pouch to snout, but still get that strong silhouette. The tail fading into the background lends a bit of motion into an otherwise passive image as well.



Porcelain Crab
In this shot, the strobe was placed parallel to the horizon, slightly below the plane of the lens, and off to the right hand side. The resulting image is one of isolation on what is actually a very busy anemone. The side lighting also brings out the colors of the transparent anemone tentacles and the crab's feeding arms, showing off their color and texture. As with any crab image, it was important to keep at least one eye and one claw in focus to convey the subject to the viewer. 



It is primarily the excellent camouflage of the Rhinopias that puts it at the top of everyones' wish-list. As with the hairy frogfish the snoot allows the detail in this amazing creatures' outline to stand out. For this image, I waited for the fish to begin to it's duck-like walk across the bottom, at which point the dorsal spines are extended and the pectoral fins are on full display. This combined with his slight head-tilt towards the camera lends the image a nice perspective. With this image, the snoot was pulled back and powered-up quite a bit to open up the circle of light to encompass the whole animal. A slight tilting of the strobe away from the vertical plane lights up the face and side in addition to the silhouette.



Chromodoris Nudibranch
Although I've swam past these nudibranch's hundreds of times and haven't taken a picture of one in years, what made me stop this time was the white outline of the mantle combined with its precarious position on the edge of a bommie. The one rhinophore standing alone against the black background and the white mantle framing the body really makes this image for me. Shooting at a strong upward angle and using a small-bore snoot held just outside the frame give this ordinary nudibranch a new look.



Mimic Octopus
Often times in a mimic octopus shot, the focus is on the behavior, yet the color patterns and expressiveness of their "faces" are often overlooked. This image was captured while the mimic was going from a static position to impersonating a flounder. The circle of light draws the viewer's attention away from the arms and into the octopus' eyes and the beautiful patterns of it's displays. For this shot the snoot was out past the front of the lens and aimed almost directly down from just outside the frame.



Coleman Shrimp
With all the color of a fire urchin, the coleman shrimp are harder to identify as the subject when not shot at higher magnifications. In this image, the goal was to show a bit more of these tiny crustaceans' habitat and their size relative to it. This was a fairly simple shot to accomplish and a good practice subject for someone just starting out with a snoot as these urchins and their inhabitants tend to be fairly sessile (or at least very slow moving). The strobe was just above the camera and out of the right corner of the frame, lighting more of the shrimp and less of the urchin spines in front of them.



It seems that most people either love or hate the snoot (and the resulting images), but it is undeniably an interesting way to shoot your favorite critters. Especially in places like Lembeh, where it can be difficult to create contrast between the subject and the drab background. With complex systems involving adjustable width beams and flexible light pipes, the future is bright for underwater snooting. To find out more about the technique, read Keri Wilk's technique article. To see some possible Close Focus Wide Angle applications, check out our other article  as well. Just remember, the trick to capturing great snoot images is to be patient and picture the image in your mind before approaching the subject.


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