BE THE CHAMP! - Shrimps
CREEPY-CRAWLIES give me the heebie-jeebies. They say it is the mild autumn weather that is responsible for the huge wolf spider in my bath tub the other morning. And when I say big, I mean the size of a small cat. Well, it was in my mind.
It took me a good 30 minutes of procrastination to finally get a glass and a piece of paper and to return it to the garden. And it probably took another 30 minutes for my heart rate to return to normal!
Yet, put me under water and I find similarly sized creepy-crawlies top of my list of must-sees.
Shrimps, in particular, are a favourite with underwater photographers, not in small part because of their huge diversity in tropical waters. They are an inexhaustible photographic resource.
To name a few: we can shoot the variety of intricately patterned and ornate marbled shrimps. Or aim our lenses at commensal shrimps living on crinoids, anemones, corals, seafans, starfish, sea-cucumbers, nudibranchs or even in holes in the sand with partner gobies.
Then there are numerous cleaning shrimps, strangely shaped species such as the sawblade and Donald Duck shrimps, and beautifully patterned creatures like the harlequin, emperor, bumblebee and tiger shrimps.
And I must mention the miniscule hairy shrimp, to which underwater photographers get addicted once they find pygmy seahorses too easy!
However, despite there being so many shrimp stories to tell with our cameras, they are not naturally the most photogenic species.
Shrimps are decapod crustaceans, which means that they have 10 walking legs sticking out at all angles.
But this is only the start of their scruffy appearance. They also have a host of other appendages, including a similar number of swimming legs beneath their abdomen and then a bunch of antennae sticking out the front. Oh, and if that isn’t enough, their eyes are usually on stalks.
In short, shrimps are a mess, so to produce compelling images we have to be as tidy as possible photographically. I’ll explain.
A MESSY SHRIMP on a messy background unsurprisingly yields a messy photo. The subject gets lost in the background and the photo fails.
So when we find a shrimp, we have to think about how to get a clean image. There are a few options.
The simplest is to search for a shrimp that is sitting up on top of the reef, so that we can frame it against open water and make it stand out against a clean black background. Unfortunately, shrimps have many predators, so rarely climb up into such exposed positions.
If you will excuse the Bantin-esque name-dropping, last week I was chatting about my photography to a keen diver called Kate, although I was using her more formal title of HRH the Duchess of Cambridge!
She was telling me that she loves night dives because the colours look so intense in the torch-beam, and all the smaller creatures come out.
And the wife of BSAC’s President (Prince William) is completely right. Fish are the main predators of shrimps, and the best time to find shrimps out and posing in good positions is under the cover of darkness.
Selective lighting can also help us to isolate messy subjects when they’re not posing perfectly. I often photograph shrimps with a single snooted strobe aimed down from above, to light them and not the background.
I favour Retra’s excellent LSD optical snoot, which focuses the full power of my flash, rather than just cutting the beam down. But a simple tube or funnel snoot will work as long as ambient light levels are low.
SHRIMPS ARE SMALL, and one of my favourite methods for simplifying their busy bodies is to shoot them at high magnification. This usually means adding a teleconverter or an external dioptre to my macro lens. Or sometimes I add both!
As magnifications rise, so depth of field falls, and this is a great help in blurring out all the messiness of our subjects. It remains crucial to keep the eyes in focus, and this can be a big challenge with shrimps, which have their eyes on stalks, sticking out from their bodies. Once into the realms of super-macro, if we focus on the face of a shrimp the eye will definitely be out of focus. Care is needed.
This is another type of shot that I believe is much easier to nail with thumb focus. We’ve discussed this technique before in Be The Champ, but it is worth another mention because increasingly I find on my workshops that teaching this focusing technique turns out to be a real watershed moment for photographers.
Most advanced cameras will allow you to move the autofocus activation away from the shutter-release button and assign it to another button on the back of the camera, that falls beneath your right thumb.
The good housing manufacturers have realised how important this thumb focus function is to photographers, and provide ergonomic levers that puts this function even closer to your fingertips –well, thumb-tip.
This technique allows for very accurate final focusing, and avoids our macro lenses hunting in and out when they can’t discern focus.
It is up to us to make the final adjustments by rocking in and out, shooting only when the shrimp’s eyes are perfectly sharp.
It is also worth studying your shrimps, so that you know where to find the eyes.
I won’t mention any names, but one well-known photographer with whom I dive came up from a dive shooting harlequin shrimps, rejoicing that he had got the eyes pin-sharp.
Instead, he had photos of the sharpest antennae I had ever seen!
Sharp eyes and a pleasing bokeh blur of the multitude of appendages, which comes with high-magnification shooting, are key to the powerful compositions that really unlock these challenging subjects.
It transforms a messy creepy-crawly into a winning image.
Simplify, simplify, simplify. Shrimps are complicated animals, so we need to photograph them in simple ways to make the natural beauty shine through.
Clean, simple backgrounds and narrow depth of field are two of the best ways to make them pop.
When shrimps are on attractive backgrounds, such as when they are living on patterned starfish, corals or sea cucumbers, try shooting them small in the frame.
Let the beauty of the natural design of the background dominate the scene, with the shrimp providing an accent for the composition.
Far more shrimps are out and about at night, when they are much less likely to become fish food.
Use a red-beamed dive-light, rather than white-beamed light, when photographing them, as it is much less likely to have them scurrying for safety.