Guides & Tutorials

The Ultimate Guide to Shooting Marine Life Underwater

As part of the ReDiveProject Instagram Challenge, I have decided to share with you my personal tips for shooting 14 different common subjects underwater! If you want to get better photos of blennies, nudibranchs, sharks, rays, all sort of fish and more, this is the post for you!

The #ReDiveProject was initiated by Mozaik Underwater Camera to help raise awareness to the diving industry which took a big hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our goal is to share the beauty of the ocean, one subject at a time!

Each day we will add another subject to this list according to the daily theme. Stay tuned 😉

Daily theme list:

July 1 – Blennies⠀
July 2 – Sharks⠀
July 3 – Rays⠀
July 4 – Octopus⠀
July 5 – Parrotfish⠀
July 6 – Moray Eel⠀
July 7 – Crabs⠀
July 8 – Shrimp⠀
July 9 – Seahorses⠀
July 10 – Clownfish⠀
July 11 – Nudibranch⠀
July 12 – Pipefish⠀
July 13 – Coral⠀
July 14 – Turtles⠀

Here we go!

1. Blennies

Blennies are probably the cutest fish I know of. They are fearless, expressive, fascinating and beautiful!

The great thing about blennies is that once they are in their hole, they feel very confident and will allow you, the photographer, to get nearly as close as you want to them! That makes them the perfect subject to practice your macro photography on and try different lenses, lighting techniques and more.

Here are my tips on how to get great blenny photos:

  1. Blennies are EVERYWHERE! Well, almost. If you look good enough, you will find them. In some cases, you will find a coral that is almost like a blenny skyscraper. A coral packed with tiny blennies peeking out of their little holes. If you’re not sure how to find them, ask your dive guide to show you one.
  2. You have to focus on the eyes. There’s no way around it. Shoot as many photos as you need till you get those eyes in focus. Bonus points if the mouth and teeth are in focus as well!
  3. Try to catch them out of the hole. If you wait long enough, they might pop out of the hole for a split second and come back. That’s a great moment to capture their entire body.
  4. Get a strong diopter and try to fill the frame with a blenny. This will be easier with larger blennies of course, but can be done with small secretary blennies as well, if your diopter is strong enough.
  5. If the blenny is hiding on something man made, or a rocky formation, you can use the rock or pillar to stabilize yourself and the camera, increasing the probability of a great shot.
  6. Try to shoot the blenny from the side, so that you separate it’s head from the background and get better color separation, against the blue water.

2. Sharks

Sharks are one the most coveted subjects underwater. While many non-divers are terrified of them, we divers can’t get enough of them and only want to get in the water with as many sharks as possible!!

Taking photos of sharks is not an easy feat. Contrary to common belief, Sharks are rather timid animals and prefer to stay away from divers. Even if they swim in our vicinity (or rather we swim in theirs), they will often not get close enough for a good shot.

So how can you take better photos of sharks? Here are a few tips:

  1. There are many species of sharks out there! Some are easier than others to take photos of. Do your research and learn which sharks will let you get closer, how to behave around sharks, what to expect and how to read their body language.
  2. The “easiest” sharks to take photos of are usually nurse sharks. You can find them all over the Caribbean and they are very docile. They won’t mind you coming close, even very close. As long as you don’t bother them too much, they will stay put on the ground or swim right up to you. For a really cool shot of their mouth try to capture them from below, or shoot them straight from the side for a beautiful sleek profile shot.
  3. Silky sharks like to hang close to the surface. If the operator chums the water, you can capture amazing shots of them getting very close to you. They might even bump into you.
  4. This is the most important tip when shooting sharks – When sharks don’t want to get very close to you, the best thing you can do as a photographer is find a nice patch of coral in the reef, shoot that while aiming up and have the shark swimming in the background. That way you get a stunning and dramatic shot with a shark in it, rather than simply a boring, far away shot of a shark and nothing else.
  5. Experiment with different lenses. While the go-to lens to shoot sharks is a wide angle, if you zoom in you can get really interesting medium shots (portraits) of the shark up close, or even a cool close-up of its eye.
  6. Whale sharks are stunning creatures to shoot photos of! The best places to get in the water with them are Mexico, during whale shark season (June – Sep), Galapagos Islands, Oslob in the Philippines, Utila in Honduras, Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia and several other places around the world. When shooting whale sharks, it’s important to choose a great operator who respects these fish and knows how to get you up close and personal with them in the water. Remember that they usually hang out in shallow water, so you have to set your camera to the correct settings for shallow water, no need to use a flash, and shoot on continuous burst to get the most shots out of your encounter.
  7. Safety – Try to stay within the group and not to turn your back away to an aggressive or defensive shark. Most sharks won’t attack humans, but there are a few species that you want to watch out for more than others. It is a wild animal after all.

3. Rays

Rays are beautiful, alien-like creatures. They come in many shapes and sizes, from the small spotted sting rays that hide in the sand to the majestic giant Oceanic Manta Rays that can reach a 29 feet (8.8 m) wing span.

Rays make excellent subjects for photos for several reasons – they are incredibly beautiful, they move fairly slowly and they don’t mind divers too much.

Here are a few tips on how to get the best photos of rays:

  1. Sting rays usually hide in the sandy bottom. Try to step away from the reef towards the sandy areas, look for their eyes and tails peeking out of the sand. When you approach them do it from the front, so they can see you but very subtly and slowly. If you move too fast, they will swim away. Try to get a good shot of them from the front, or even a close up of the eyes.
  2. The first instinct when spotting a ray is to swim immediately towards it. DON’T!! Fight that urge. Stay calm. Do not try to chase a ray. He will outswim you for sure. Instead, wait and see how it behaves. If he’s minding his business and poking around in the sand, approach him carefully in a big circle to get a good shot of him from the front. Slowly and calm.
  3. If possible, try to shoot the ray from eye level or even from below. You will get a much more impressive shot than from above.
  4. Go diving with manta rays. It’s a religious experience that will literally take your breath away. Manta rays are amazing, graceful, gentle creatures. It is incredibly sad to see how they are hunted around the world.
  5. When shooting manta rays at night, such as the famous manta dive in Kona, Hawaii or Maldives, point your strobes up. All the way up – as in 90 degrees up. This may sound odd, but it creates the best type of lighting that doesn’t light up the many particles in the water that the mantas are drawn to. You will get just a nice rim light on their bodies as they swim close to you and a fairly clean shot even with bad vis.
  6. Go diving in manta cleaning stations. It’s a very impressive sight and very high chance to spot mantas. The problem is that it’s hard to get close to them in those cleaning stations since you might scare them away, so it’s best to point your camera up and hope for a lucky shot when a manta swims above you. Otherwise, find a nice coral in the foreground and shoot the mantas in the background for a nice composition.
  7. The best place to see and shoot schools of hundreds of mobula rays is in Baja California, Mexico. Every year they aggregate there in the thousands and you can join an expedition to see them in action.

4. Octopus

Once and for all – the plural for Octopus is Octopuses! Not Octopi. Trust me I check this…

Regardless of their plural form, octopuses are very strange, wonderful and resourceful creatures. Due to their intelligence, their behaviour varies quite a bit.

Some octopuses won’t let you get near them or will simply hide very well, while some might be quite friendly or even aggressive towards divers.

Here are some tips on how to get better shots of octopuses:

  1. Night time is best! Octopuses come out to hunt at night. It’s generally much easier to spot them and much easier to get close to them on night dives. Some will run away from your light and some will use it to hunt or play with it.
  2. If an octopus has a good, protective hiding place, it will stay put and pop in and out. If they feel the hiding place isn’t good enough, they will rush out to seek a new one or swim completely out of sight. If you find an octopus in a good hiding place, you can stay calm and wait for it to show himself a bit more for a good shot.
  3. If you spot an octopus in a bad hiding place, you better be quick, as they will most likely make a run for it whenever they can and give you maybe one good shot.
  4. If an octopus lets you get close, quite often you can get as close as you want, even get a macro shot of its eye. That really varies and you have to try and see how it reacts.
  5. The infamous blue-ringed octopus is one of the holy grails of UW photographers. If you are lucky enough to spot one, stay with it or it will disappear! Keep your eyes on it. This little critter doesn’t like to be in the spotlight and prefers to hide if possible. If you do find it, take some great shots and keep your distance, as this is one of the most venomous critters in the ocean.
    Tips on how to find it? Be lucky! 😂

5. Parrotfish

A well known fact is that much of the white, soft sand we love so much, is actually parrotfish poop! Parrotfish munch on corals to feed on the algae with their strong beak-like jaws and then poop the grinded coral in a sandy form. Over millions of years it has accumulated to create the amazing beaches we see today.

Besides being living sand factories, parrotfish are a colorful and rather friendly subject for underwater photographers.

Here are some tips on how to take the best photos of parrotfish:

  1. Parrotfish are a fairly large fish (especially the humphead type!) so they don’t mind divers so much. They feel quite comfortable near large animals, divers included so they could potentially get close to you. That being said, if you show the slightest predatory behaviour, they would go munch elsewhere. Let parrotfish come to you! As many fish, they are very attentive to eye contact, so try to avoid eye contact and approach them in baby steps. If they are higher on a slope, they probably won’t mind you coming from below, slowly.
  2. If you would like to capture a nice action shot, try to get them at the moment they bite on the coral.
  3. At night, they go to sleep in saliva cocoons. Yeah it’s disgusting but also very cool. Since most night dives are done rather early, you will probably spot them only starting to blow up their bubble, which makes a cool shot. They stay very still at night so you can take great close-ups of them and their impressive mouth.
  4. The larger the parrotfish, the more it’ll let you get close to it, usually.

6. Moray Eels

Moray eels are one of the most photographed subject undewater!

Remember what it was like before you became a diver? You thought that eels are this grey, slimy snake-like creature that you never want to encounter in the water?

Now that you’re certified, you can’t get enough of them!

Suddenly you discover that moray eels are beautiful, fascinating creatures. They come in all shapes, sizes and colors and are a real treat to meet underwater!

So how do you take better photos of moray eels? Here are some of my tips:

  1. Know where to find them – Moray eels hide in holes during the day and hunt during the night. If you look into corals well enough, you have a very high chance of finding one peeking out with an open mouth (btw, they are not mad at you, they are simply breathing with their mouth open!). You can either find them by identifying the tail, or the head.
  2. A moray eel will usually pose for you even if you get close. They are pretty confident creatures, and don’t really get scared easily, so you can get super close to them and get a nice shot of their face up close. It’s actually the smaller ones that are more confident, and usually the bigger ones tend to hide deeper inside the coral.
  3. Moray eels like to be cleaned by smaller fish and cleaner shrimps. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot one being cleaned and be able to get a shot of this in action. Try to notice the little shrimp on the jaw of the moray, or the fish on their gills. Sometimes the shrimp will be right next to them so you can wait and it may climb on the moray to give it a quick scrub.
  4. Moray eels will sometimes hunt together with other fish, such as Groupers. This could be a very cool shot to take, with these two predators roaming the reef together. They are usually more confident together, so it’s more likely to find a free swimming eel outside along with its grouper buddy, rather than alone.

More subjects coming soon! Stay tuned…

Meanwhile, follow the #ReDiveProject hasthag, follow our Instagram account and join the fun!

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Ran Mor

Sales and Marketing at Mozaik Underwater Cameras
Ran is a professional photographer for over 14 years. His passion for scuba diving and photography has pushed him to combine his profession and hobby and become a professional underwater photographer. Teaching is one of his greatest passions and over the years he has shared his experience with many divers and aspiring photographers. Along with his wife Danielle, an experienced Scuba Instructor, they have founded Dive and More, leading dive trips and UW photo workshops all over the world. Ran is also an electrical engineer and an avid internet marketing specialist.
Visit his personal portfolio at www.ranmorphoto.com.
Ran Mor
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