Underwater Photography

Crabs of the Coral Reef – Great Newbie Photo Subject

Underwater macro photography can be frustrating when you’re just starting. You need subject matter to practice with, but it’s sometimes hard to find the little critters you like. Or else, the ones you can spot seem terribly camera shy.

Lots of littles prefer to hide away. And if you catch a glimpse of them, it only takes one false move and, boom – they get startled and dart back into their hiding spots.

With that in mind, it stands to reason that along with smoothing out your buoyancy control and finning finesse, you should also start looking for some of the easier targets, at first.

There are plenty of compelling photography subjects that are also relatively easy to find, and that seem quite ready to pose for us! What’s not to like? You’ll get more time with them, and ultimately more satisfying practice shots as you go along.

And one of the best of these groups of marine critters to start practicing with? The almighty crab.

Crabs in the Caribbean

OK, maybe to some people, crabs don’t seem all that sexy at first. But trust me – the more you study them, the more you’ll appreciate the variation in sizes, shells, markings, colors and – of course – their eyes.

The first main class of crabs for newbie underwater photographers is the Hermit crab category.

Large Hermit Crabs

Hermit crabs are plentiful along the reefs and open sandy areas of the Caribbean and Atlantic areas, like Florida and Cuba.

Start with the Giant Hermit crab and other large ones like the White-Speckled Hermit and the Stareye Hermit.

Star-eyed hermit crab

They’re big. They don’t spook easily. You can hang out and watch their behavior for a while and try taking a few shots from different angles.

Hermit crabs come in a wide variety, and have fascinating coloration, neat and expressive stem-based eyes, and are often busily using their ‘forearms’ to manipulate and consume food.

I’d say you can find several on any given dive, here, so they’re magnificent animals to focus your efforts. Not only will your early frames be cool, but as you progress, it’s an excellent way to see your improvements.

Start to strategize on how you could approach more deftly, what kind of movement and behavior you want to try to capture, and which types of crabs have the characteristics you want to highlight in a photo.

Pair of blue-eyed hermit crabs

As your collection of hermit crab images grows, start to notice unusual behaviors, or keep your eyes open for pairs of the animals interacting. There is always something new to see and learn.

Smaller Hermit Crabs

The reefs are full of smaller hermit crabs, as well. You’ll find a wide variety clinging to various coral, hiding in the bases of sponges, and along just about any surface of a wreck or other artificial reef.

Common Reef Crabs that are Better at Blending

Other common crabs that are plentiful, but a little more challenging to capture well due to their size and tendency to hang out in hiding spots, are Arrow Crabs and the Banded Clinging Crab.

As mentioned in my previous post about typical hiding spots, the arrow crabs often hang out inside and/or under vase sponges. In contrast, the banded clinging crabs are most often found nestling among the arms of common sea anemone.

Arrow crab “guarding” a corkscrew anemone.

Both of these are excellent subjects for the beginner underwater macro photographer, but my very first pick is the arrow crab.

First off – they’re everywhere along the Mesoamerican coral reef system, so much easier to find and get some good shots on nearly every dive.

Secondly, the arrow crab has sharp angles and racing-strip markings on its ‘face.’ Images of this spindly crab often create a striking geometric look against a softer, otherworldly reef backdrop.

Don’t forget to try to capture its bright blue claws that seem to glow with an almost iridescent violet light (see above).

The banded clinging crab, on the other hand, is covered in fuzz! This makes it a bit tough to get a sharp image. Is that its fur? Is it out of focus?!”

Banded clinging crab

Your best bet is to focus on its small, smooth claws. Or better yet, try to capture its crisp, black and white, polka-dotted eyes.

Occasional and Lucky Crab Captures

As you dive more and more, you’ll quickly improve at spotting marine life and learning about where things typically hang out and how to find them.

Some animals like the elkhorn coral crab take their name, quite obviously, from the species of coral they tend to inhabit.

Elkhorn coral crab

So, naturally, when you are cruising along the reef and see some elkhorn coral, take a few minutes to scan the knobby arms of this caramel-colored coral and see if you have the close focus needed to spot one of these teeny, tiny crabs. (Be especially careful not to brush up against it, as the elkhorn arms are covered in tiny, hair-like bristles.)

The elkhorn coral crabs are about as big as a kernel of corn, so finding one is no easy feat at first! The more you do see, though, the easier it will get.

But not so easy to get a clean shot! If you’re lucky, you’ll see one fiercely protecting a cluster of eggs – so take a picture, but then move on so you don’t cause too much stress.

Elkhorn coral crab protecting eggs

Of the rarer variety in the Caribbean and Southern Atlantic, you may get lucky and find the Gaudy Clown Crab – my personal favorite.

Gaudy clown crab in sponge

Clown crabs are bright orange, with intricate blue and yellow markings, and a cute, kind of “chubby” look. And check out those clear yellow eyes!

The clown crab shown here had tucked himself into the bottom of a blue-grey vase sponge – a neat find, considering he’s no larger than a plain M&M. (They are not bright orange to the naked eye – more like a dull brown – but their shape is distinctive.)

He took a few little scampering steps away from me but eventually stayed put long enough to get a few nice, quick shots before I moved along with my dive group.

Charismatic Crabs

So, newbie underwater photographers, give it up for the crabs!

They might not seem like the prettiest or most charismatic models when you first start, but the more you study them and find more small ones with amazingly ornate details, you’ll realize they are a great subject.

Red reef crab

They have so many shapes and colors and those eyes! – all kinds of cool visual features that keep on giving. They also make tracking your photography progress really challenging and fun.

The ones shown here are just the tip of the iceberg. While diving, linger at almost any stretch of coral reef, and you’re bound to encounter some type of reef crab.

Once you’ve got your buoyancy right, and master your hovering skills, you’ll be filling up frames and honing your photo craft in no time.

Rachel Schreck

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