I DOUBT THAT ANYWHERE on the planet boasts a greater concentration of underwater photographers and camera gear than a narrow, 10-mile stretch of sheltered water between North Sulawesi and Lembeh Island.
The Lembeh Strait in Indonesia is a true mecca for aquatic snappers who appreciate the smaller things in life.
It doesn’t look promising when we first arrive at a rustic dock, fresh from weaving through the busy streets of the city of Bitung. The waters may be calm, but they are certainly not the crystal blue that we associate with the finest tropical diving. There is even a smattering of litter floating on the surface.
The first few minutes of our opening dive are equally disappointing: the visibility is more akin to Swanage Pier and the scenery, at many of the sites, consists only of mud.
Then our guide pings his tank with his pointer stick and reveals the first of many wonders that make every dive here unmissable. Lembeh dives are not about scenery, but subjects: warty frogfish, seahorse, mimic octopus, devil scorpionfish, ornate ghost pipefish, blue ring octopus and nudibranchs galore. And that was just dive one.
Divers regularly come out of the water laughing – it is the only emotion that makes sense, after dives with such an embarrassment of riches.

THERE IS A DOWNSIDE to this super-abundance of subjects – it turns underwater photographers into stamp-collectors. It is an inevitable consequence of dives that are focused on turning up as many critters as possible.
And is not helped because the chat between dives always revolves around “Have you seen this yet” and under water there is always the temptation of another great subject ready and waiting.
I have seen it time and again. Underwater photographers go to Lembeh and come back with hundred of shots of different creatures, but almost all are simply record-style shots. They are memories of what was seen, but not memorable images.
And what makes it worse is that people don’t realise until they are home.
The problem is not helped by resorts that encourage guests to construct wish-lists: giant frogfish, wonderpus octopus, harlequin shrimps and the like. The resultEveryone’s thoughts are focused entirely on subjects and not on images.
In Lembeh, and other muck-diving locations, the key to memorable photos is to think of more than subjects. Our first thought when shown a subject is whether it is in a good position for a photo. If not, it is better to move on. If it is, we must work the opportunity.

LEMBEH’S OTHER PROBLEM is that the black sand isn’t pure obsidian, but grey or brown, and flecked with grains and pebbles of every colour. In short, it is a messy, distracting background.
In fact, it would be hard to design a less attractive background for our shots. It is fine for an ID-style shot, but the main challenge of shooting in Lembeh is how we deal with this black-sand background in our images.
The good news is that there are many solutions to the problem. The simplest is to find a subject living up, away from the seabed, that can be framed against open water. Subjects such as pygmy seahorses, xeno crabs, whip-coral gobies and many others can easily be composed like this, and with a fast shutter speed pictured on a clean black background.
As a variation we can also slow down our shutter speed to allow the ambient light to come in and produce a blue (well, blue-green) background.
Many critters live on other critters. Every diver knows about anemonefish and anemones, but in the heart of reef biodiversity, almost every imaginable niche is exploited.
Crabs and, particularly, shrimps get everywhere, making their homes on all sorts of other invertebrates. These often make excellent backgrounds, so we should shoot them without too much magnification and a closed aperture to get everything in focus.

MOST OF LEMBEH’S STAR ATTRACTIONS are out on the sand, so we can’t always simply avoid the problem. When any background is further away from the subject it will be less focused, less lit and, in short, less distracting.
We can’t move the subject, but we should always try to find a viewpoint that frames it against as distant a piece of background as possible. Getting the camera as low to the seabed as possible makes all the difference.
Also think about opening the aperture up a little to throw the background even further out of focus. This is especially beneficial with larger subjects (with tiny subjects we are usually working at such high magnifications that depth of field is already limited).
We can also de-emphasise distracting sand with our lighting. Techniques such as inward lighting, where the strobes are aimed to light only the subject, and snooted strobes, where the beams are restricted to illuminate only the critter, are both very effective.
An alternative strategy is to use a wide-angle lens. It will make individual distractions in the background insignificant, because now a large expanse of seabed is in our shot.
The problem with a standard wide-angle shot is that our subject, which is probably smaller than a couple of fingers, is now tiny in the frame.
To compensate, we need to get our lens very, very close to the subject. We need a very close-focusing lens, a small dome and a subject that is so sure of its camouflage that it will remain relaxed and in place as we position the camera.
The result is an image full of impact – where the subject pops out of the frame with an almost three-dimensional look, and the background gives a sense of the habitat without being distracting.
The key to winning images in Lembeh is to assume that we will see great subjects, and instead focus our thoughts on controlling our backgrounds.
That way we’ll come home with much more than a collection of fantastic subjects – we’ll come home with fantastic photographs.

Although Lembeh is a macro destination, many of the subjects are not tiny, tiny. Frogfish, octopus, rhinopias, scorpionfish etc are not suited to the tightest macro lenses. In photo-geek language they are 60mm subjects, not 105. So pack both lenses.

Many of the best subjects in the strait live on the muddy sand, and this is easily stirred up. Learn to settle into shooting position carefully, and equally take off without using your fins.
The visibility is always good enough for sparklingly clean shots, unless you are in a dust-cloud of human creation.

Don’t arrive in Lembeh with a must-do list of dive-sites. The strait has many famous sites, but they are never all hot at the same time. Often the most amazing dive-site on one trip will be quiet on your next visit. Always go where the guides suggest.