Photographing Pygmy Seahorses
It was only a short time ago that pygmy seahorses were even discovered. The first named – the Bargibanti – was identified in 1970 and by the turn of the century, seven other species were known to science.
Their distinguishing feature, besides their diminutive size (typically less than 2cm in height), is that they have a single gill opening on the back of the head, instead of two on the sides. They all are found in the Coral Triangle, often on soft corals which match their colour and appearance.
They quickly became a favourite for macro photographers and were often found on scuba magazine covers.
But the issue with any underwater photography craze, especially one involving a species that rarely moves more than a few centimetres, is that the animals are often and, at times, unknowingly, abused by guides and divers alike.
Imagine you’re a dive guide. You make roughly $12 USD a week – believe it or not, that’s the working minimum wage in the Philippines. It’s even less in Indonesia.
All of a sudden, divers with cameras are showing up to see these tiny seahorses and they are willing to tip you ten times your basic wage to ensure they get the shot they want. Simple economics at work.
I have no issue with all of the above, my issue is with the result of that agreement. The guides want to get you that perfect social media post of a ‘fat’ pregnant Bargibanti (named after the New Caledonian scientist Georges Bargibant who discovered the first example) looking right into your lens.
And back home sitting on the balcony of your penthouse flat having your morning coffee, you get an ego boost when 200 people tap the like button on your post.
Back in the resort you just left, your guide is happy, his family is fed and there’s someone else there in your place who wants that same shot because he wants the likes as well.
All seems right in the world, everyone is happy – you, your guide, the resort, the people at home having their coffee impatiently awaiting your post to bring a ray of pygmy bliss into their morning. Everyone that is except the seahorse.
Chances are the one you photographed could be dead, or blinded. Far too often guides use sticks to poke and prod the animal into position. The hold it steady as many times as it takes for you to try and find it. Photographers smashing their diopters against it, again and again; strobes bursting on full power, directly into eyes that cannot close, harming the fan it lives on and leaving the animal in shock.
Hold on, there’s four more divers to go…
Let’s stop this behaviour and let’s shift the conversation from what has been happening to what should happen.
How can we ethically capture images of pygmy seahorses?
Well for starters we can do is move the bar to the side of conservation by simply asking guides not to harass these animals. Ask them to point them out by not touching or moving them and then photograph them where they are.
Your photos will look so much more dramatic with the animal and the fan in their natural state, undisturbed, with layers of colour and depth.
Let’s talk about camera set-ups and the idea of leaving the diopters in the boat
You can easily shoot a pygmy full frame using a 100mm lens. With up to 52 million pixels at your command in a modern camera, you have plenty of room for cropping post edit.
The issue with diopters is the focal length. Too many people crash the rig and possibly the strobes into the sea fan, harming and stressing the fan. Let’s keep in mind, the idea of conservation needs to be extended to the entire reef, not just the pygmy itself.
Learn about the animal’s behaviour before you get in the water. You have at least a ten-hour flight getting to these locations. Most of those flights now have Wi-Fi.
Your photography should always start way before you enter the water. Research the animal, know where you will stand the best chance of finding it and at what times of day it would make the most dramatic and well-composed photos.
Consider when the currents will be flowing and why? Sea fans feed by using polyps, these polyps are retracted when there is no movement of water. When the currents are running and the polyps are in bloom, the image takes on another dimension and the ‘wow’ factor goes up.
If you are familiar with an animal, its behaviour and habitat, then you are arming yourself with the knowledge that will lead to better photographs and more ethical behaviour.
Now let’s talk camera settings. Whether you intend an f10 image that shows the colourful depth of the fan and animal, or whether you want f2.8 with just the eyes in focus, let’s set up our cameras by composing the shot we desire in our heads.
Take only three shots
Never take more than three frames of any one individual.
Keep in mind there is no need to use strobes above half power. I prefer three quarter power max to minimise the impact on the animal.
If your camera knowledge is solid, if your equipment is properly set up, if your exercise professionalism and patience, you can achieve an incredible composed, properly lit shot in three exposures or less.
If you cannot, then you simply have missed this opportunity, there will be others.
Don’t risk the health of the animal by trying to force an opportunity by manipulation, or handling of the fan or the animal itself.
Enjoy the experience for what it was, an amazing opportunity to see an amazing animal. You will always have that memory ingrained in your mind, allowing you to visit it and give it a million likes over your lifetime.
Responsibility to ourselves, the environment and the animals that live on our world’s reefs should always be our priorities.
We can lead the way by simply following the golden rule of never touching or disturbing marine life.
We have all been new divers, we have all made mistakes, most importantly we have the opportunity to learn from those mistakes and move forward as ‘ethical ambassadors’ and conservation-minded photographers and divers.
Have an amazing month my friends, be kind to one another and our planet. With love,