I still remember exactly where I was when I first heard about nudibranchs. At the time, I thought to myself, “Nudi what?” and wondered what all the excitement was about. Well, I flooded my GoPro that dive in Roatán and never did see a nudibranch. Several years and several underwater cameras later, I now cannot get enough of them. If you are also hooked on photographing nudibranchs, sea slugs, sea hares and other opisthobranchs, here are 10 tips that can help take your photos to the next level:
1. Make a Plan
Similar to having a dive plan, it can be helpful to have a signal plan for underwater photography. Talk with your guide before you drop in to discuss ways you can communicate underwater while shooting. Ask your guide how they can signal the front of a nudibranch so you know how best to approach.
For some small critters, it can actually be difficult to distinguish the front the back but local guides have expert eyes. Talk to your guide about any other preferences such as if you like some space while you shoot.
2. Slow Your Roll
It is easy to get excited, especially when you spot a critter at the top of your wish list, but remaining calm has its benefits. Keep your breathing relaxed and steady to avoid holding your breath or burning through your air. If you approach a subject slowly, you are less likely to frighten it into hiding. An irritated nudibranch can retract its rhinophores and sea hares can curl up into a defensive ball when scared.
Some nudis are sensitive to bright lights, so you might consider using a lower setting on your focus light or even a red filter over your torch. My favorite light allows output level adjustments in one percent increments offering good control.
3. Get Low and Close
For many nudibranchs and sea slugs, the most visually appealing angle is one where your position is slightly lower than your subject. This gives the effect of the critter having center stage and you can also reduce distracting backgrounds. Topography can limit how low you can get, but even a slightly lowered angle can be more desirable to a viewer than a top-down image of a nudibranch’s back.
If you are using a fixed focal length lens, you will need to zoom with your fins, not your lens. Learn the working distance for your lens and how that adjusts when you add a diopter so you know how close you need to be to your subject.
4. Be Patient
Take your time and try to focus on the nudibranch’s rhinophores. Your subject will likely continue to move so you have to plan your timing. If your camera has multiple autofocus modes, try the different options you have available to see what works best for you in various conditions.
With nudis, I like the Group-area AF mode on my Nikon. If you take time to watch your subjects, you may also be able to capture interesting behavior. Look for egg laying (egg ribbons are common near nudis on hydroids), mating, predation (hint: Gymnodoris are voracious eaters), symbiosis (emperor shrimp sometimes catch a free ride), reaching or climbing – all of which make interesting action shots.
5. Test Your Settings
Take a test shot of your subject. This gives you an opportunity to see how your camera settings are working together without making assumptions. Check color distribution on your histogram, look at angles and verify exposure. Reviewing your image allows you to troubleshoot before leaving your subject.
It is better to know your strobes didn’t fire, for example, sooner than later.
Once you like your settings, take several shots even if you think you have a winner, just to be sure you get one you like.
6. Mix it Up
Try varying the angles in your photos so they don’t all look the same. Think about what makes your subject special and tailor your angle to spotlight those features. A front-facing shot can highlight symmetry. When a nudi has appendages or lobes like a Ceratosoma, a slight angle can showcase dimension.
For ornate or transparent critters like the skeleton nudi (Melibe colemani), a side shot can be striking, especially with a dark background.
7. Gadgets and Gear
For greater precision, maximized bottom time and an overall simplified experience, specialty gear can make a difference. The key is to align your equipment to your subject size. Select a lens that works well for your target subjects. I prefer 105mm on my full-frame DSLR and previously used 60mm on a micro 4/3 mirrorless.
If you want to be able to see the intricate details of a tiny sea slug, a diopter is essential. With a flip diopter holder that mounts to the outside of your port, you can quickly and easily adjust magnification strength as you come across different sized subjects without manually mounting and unmounting diopters underwater.
Another favorite of mine is an angled viewfinder that projects from the back of your housing and provides a clear, magnified viewing area that is especially helpful as you focus. This reduces eyestrain (especially with supermacro subjects) and creates better ergonomic positioning for your neck.
8. Get Creative
As you progress, challenge yourself with different techniques. Try creating black backgrounds with inward strobe positioning, increase aperture for beautiful bokeh, generate green or blue backgrounds with slower shutter speeds, apply backlighting for dramatic effects or use a snoot for a unique perspective.
9. Stay Safe
Use care when you photograph, for your safety as well as your environment. Streamline your gear to avoid drag that can damage your surroundings or create poor visibility. In tight spaces, tuck your strobes to avoid bumping coral or critters.
Maintain proper buoyancy and avoid touching anything. Especially when muck diving, watch for hydroids and fire corals near your hands or creeping urchins near your legs. Try not to steady yourself with your fingers – that rock you are about to brace yourself on could actually be a venomous stonefish.
10. Read Up
The more you know about nudibranchs and sea slugs, the better your images will be. Understanding behavior patterns can also help you optimize your timing. Certain sacoglossan slugs like Cyerce, for example, tend to rock back and forth with water movement so if you have patience, you can often time your photo to include the eye spots as the cerata fold back.
Above all though, have fun and enjoy your practice!
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- 10 Tips to Improve Your Nudibranch and Sea Slug Photography – January 21, 2020