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Shooting Nudibranchs

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Colourful nudibranchs make great subjects, but they can be trickier to shoot than you’d think. Here's how to get some stunning images


WORDS + PHOTOGRAPHS | 


Nudibranchs can be found everywhere, from tropical coral reefs to the frigid Arctic waters of the Barents Sea. They come in all sizes, from just a few millimetres long to well over 30cm, and in every colour. Their body shapes can be weird and wonderful and their feeding habits even stranger.

The name nudibranch means ‘naked gill’ – these delicate creatures lack the shell normally found on marine snails and slugs. More than 3,000 species of nudibranchs are already known to science, but being a little researched field there are still lots of new and un-described species out there to be found.

Most of the species are very particular when it comes to food, and will only feed on one or a few specific food sources. Nudibranchs are carnivores, and their diet includes stinging hydroids, sea squirts, soft corals and even the eggs of other nudibranchs. There is little point in searching for a certain type of nudibranch if its preferred food source is nowhere to be found. Getting to know the dietary preferences of the nudibranchs will greatly improve your chances of finding specific species.

There are several books and a number of websites on nudibranch biology that will help you learn the feeding habits of species.

Nudibranchs are among the easier subjects to shoot underwater. They don’t move around much, have brilliant colours and generally don’t hide, even after being lit up by strobes multiple times. As such, they are ideal macro subjects, but they come with some challenges as well.

Many nudibranchs are very small, and it’s difficult to compose your shots because they tend to sit on the bottom or just above it, feeding on hydroids. Some species feed on bryozoans that grow on the surface of kelp fronds, but here you have the challenge of shooting a very small subject on a moving target.

Don’t waste your time trying to shoot something that is not going to look good. Evaluate your pictures constantly, don’t just check exposure and other technical aspects, but look carefully at the composition. If it doesn’t look right, move on and find another nudibranch that has a better background or is positioned better. Don’t worry, if you have found one there will be plenty more of the same species around – all you have to do is keep looking.

Being so small, it might be difficult getting the nudibranch to fill the frame. Even though you can get extremely close using a 60mm macro lens, you will soon find yourself in difficulties getting the strobe light to hit exactly where you want. If you’re too close, there simply isn’t enough space for the strobes. If the visibility allows it, a 105mm macro is often a much better choice, as it gives you greater working distance between your camera and the subject for positioning your strobes.

To get even closer, you might consider a few extra tools like a teleconverter and a dioptre. The teleconverter is basically a magnifying glass that’s mounted between the lens and the camera, and will enlarge your subject by typically 40 per cent or 100 per cent. It’s important to get one that fits your lens and is able to transmit all the signals going between the lens and the camera.

Using a focus gear for manually controlling the focus is a good idea, but finding one that works with a particular lens and teleconverter combination might prove difficult and/or expensive. Some photographers have made their own focus gears, but most rely on auto focus to get at least the initial frame correct, and then switch to manual and pinpoint their focus by moving back or forth.

Being an optical element, the teleconverter will steal one or two F-stops of light, but, since macro photography normally involves the use of strobes, this is not a problem – and you will mostly want to shoot a really high F-stop anyway to get as much depth of field as possible.

Since the teleconverter is mounted inside the underwater housing, it is a choice to be agonized over before you get into the water. Once it’s on, you have to live with it, so think ahead and consider what images you’d like to shoot, the size of the subjects and what other stuff you might be missing out on. With small nudibranchs and good visibility, it’s often an easy choice – put it on and get in the water.

A diopter is also a form of magnifying glass, and will essentially shorten the working distance of your lens by anything from half to almost nothing for the more powerful ones. It may seem like a contradiction to use a 105mm lens with great working distance and then shortening it again by using a dioptre. But finding the right combination is what enables you to really get the shots you want.

These days, several manufacturers offer wet dioptres that you can mount or dismount at your leisure underwater, greatly widening the range of possibilities when you’re underwater.

Composing great macro shots when working with very small subjects can be a real challenge. Wave action, current (nudibranchs tend to thrive in current-ridden areas, because that is where their food thrives) and moving kelp and hydroids all work against you. A couple of extra weights, or even ankle weights, might be a good idea as you will often find yourself in very shallow water where you are more exposed to the elements.

Not only do you have to be stable and have a steady hand to be able to get your composition right, there’s also the challenge of getting the focus plane where you want it. As a rule of thumb, it’s best to have the eyes and the rhinophores (head tentacles) in focus. Nudibranchs do actually have eyes, and while visible in some species, they are invisible in others. Generally, the eyes are where you’d expect them to be – slightly below and ahead of the rhinophores.

Work carefully and methodically, and after a while you will be able to get the focus exactly where you want it. It is worth shifting to manual focus and moving the housing back or forth. Autofocus tends to miss the target slightly when working with really small stuff, and you might not notice just by looking at the camera display. Try to enlarge the picture to get a better idea, or just do it manually – you’ll get better results once you get the hang of it.

Getting the composition right is often what separates ordinary, run-of-the-mill nudibranch images from truly great ones. There are some basic rules you can stick to, like the rule of thirds and using diagonals. But don’t forget that they’re there to be broken. Pay attention to your subject, the background, the posture and the angle you use, and learn how they work together to give your images that little something extra.

In addition to the general composition of the image, focus and depth of field, you need to consider the background. This is often neglected by novice underwater photographers, and can ruin otherwise great nudibranch shots. If the background is cluttered, full of objects and different colours, your subject will not stand out. Who wants to view an underwater fruit salad?

Finding a calm, uniform background often gives you the best results – all you can do is hope there’s a nudibranch there once you find it! Another option is to go for a classical, black background, which is easy to achieve once you find a nudibranch sitting on something that sticks up. Choose a low angle and use the water as background – with both high F-stop and fast shutter speed this will give you a silky-smooth blackness as a backdrop for the nudibranch.


 Kit stop

 

  • nikkor 60mm opt1Nikkor 105mm - or a 60mm could be considered.
  • LightMotion Sola 800 optMacro strobes. An LED focus light that produces around 500 lumen or more and has a wide, uniform beam without any hotspots – such as the SOLA from Light & Motion or the Fisheye LED.
  • subsee adapter optA 1.4x or even a 2.0x teleconverter, one or more dioptres – +2 and +5 are the most useful, +10 is good for the really small stuff, but is harder to work with. Check out the +5 and +10 SubSee diopters made by ReefNet. They are mounted in an adapter that will fit macro ports from most manufacturers, or even screw right into the 67mm thread at the front of your macro port – if it’s got one.

 

Also make sure you have your chargers, spare batteries and not to mention your laptop so you will be able to admire your nudibranch shots in the evening.

You could even join a nudibranch workshop, like the one I help organise every year at the end of March at Gulen Dive Resort  www.divegulen.com on the west coast of Norway.

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