BE THE CHAMP! - Moray Eels
THE MORAY EEL HAS always been a divers’ favourite. Perhaps this is because everyone can identify one, or maybe it’s those pseudo-threatening poses, with mouth agape and teeth bared.
They range from finger-thin to individuals with girth comparable to Sir Chris Hoy’s thighs. And they come in a host of different colours and patterns.
They are also wrapped up in the mythology of our seas. Jacques Cousteau was forever waxing lyrically about them, and it is said that Emperor Nero, in true Bond-villain style, would throw his enemies into a seawater-filled pit of moray eels!
But I am sure that what makes them most endearing to underwater photographers is their habit of not moving too much. Far more important than being photogenic subjects, morays are co-operative subjects!
However, we shouldn’t take that as an excuse to slacken our efforts. Instead, we should use it as motivation to get all the details right and produce really special portraits.
ALL PORTRAITS ARE BUILT on excellent eye contact, but morays can be tricky in this regard, because their eyes are on the side of the head and set back quite a distance from their snout.
The most dramatic angle for a moray portrait is from dead ahead, so that its main facial features (eyes, nose, mouth) are arranged in the same format as ours, allowing the viewer to see a recognisable face and connect with the individual.
However, the position of a moray’s eyes create a double challenge. Firstly, from head on it can be difficult to capture both eyes really looking at the lens. The only solution is to wait patiently and shoot when the eye contact peaks.
The second challenge is to do with focus. If we fill the frame with the face of a moray, we will be working with very little depth of field and this can make it a challenge for our autofocus to get the eyes pin-sharp.
Typically we use central-point autofocus or all-areas autofocus, and both will come unstuck because both the centre of the frame and the closest part of the eel to the lens is likely to be the snout of the moray, and the autofocus will lock onto that. We’ll end up with sharp nostrils and soft eyes.
The solution is to take control of our autofocus. We can either move our single-point autofocus to be over the position of the eye in the frame, or we can use fixed focus and make the final adjustments by rocking the housing in and out slightly. I favour the latter.
The most elegant and popular method for controlling fixed focus is to take the autofocus function away from the shutter release of our camera and assign it to another button.
Underwater photographers usually call this thumb-focus, because most housing manufacturers now design their housings so that the lever that activates this button falls neatly under your right thumb.
MOST FISH BREATHE by swimming. The action of moving forward flushes water through their mouth and out over their gills, providing them with oxygen.
Sitting in its hole, a moray needs to pump water across its gills by opening and closing its mouth – and in the process shows off its dramatic dentures.
Morays feed on fish and have long, pointed teeth to ensnare their wriggly, slippery prey, which happen to look fantastic in our photos.
We should always try to time our photos to capture the mouth when it is open wide.
Morays have teeth right across the roof of their mouth, and a slightly upward camera angle can be very dramatic.
Another technique I use regularly is to pull my strobes out wider from my camera than I usually would for a subject of the same size.
The effect is to produce a more shadowy lighting, making the inside of the mouth dark and intimidating, especially when the flash does catch a few of the teeth.
Most morays are fairly docile, as long as there is not the whiff of food in the water, but there are a few species that are territorial and will rush out to defend their patch or gape their mouth in an impressive display.
These poses make for dramatic shots, but always treat morays with the respect their formidable fangs deserve.
WINNING PICTURES of morays rely on more than just a good eel; the rest of the frame needs to be up to scratch.
Unfortunately for us, morays live on the seabed, spending almost their entire lives in holes in the reef. As a result, we’re unlikely to encounter them posing on clean backgrounds. We need to generate decent backgrounds with photographic technique.
If we are lucky enough to encounter a moray posing in front of colourful corals we should definitely try to include these in our images. Presented with such subject matter, I will keep both flashes on a similar power and light the whole scene with a soft fill of illumination.
I will achieve subject separation by opening my aperture to blur as much of the distracting detail in the colourful background as I can, while keeping the main features of the eel sharp.
There are no magic settings – we just have to shoot, review and adjust until we get the effect we’re after.
IT IS NOT THAT COMMON to find a moray eel posing against open water, but we can produce eye-catching black backgrounds with selective strobe lighting.
The simplest technique is to shoot with one strobe, angled across the moray in the same direction that it is facing.
This works particularly well for eels that are already sticking out a little from the seabed, such as blue ribbon eels, allowing us to easily light the eel and not the background.
More complex lighting includes two-strobe inward lighting, where the strobes are aimed back at the camera so that they illuminate the subject and not what is directly behind it, and a single snooted strobe, which is aimed to light only the eel.
Both of these advanced lighting techniques I will be covering in detail in future columns, although we won’t always be able to use them because they require some space around the subject to manoeuvre our strobes.
Another final solution to problematic moray backgrounds is to frame the eel tightly so that no ugly background is visible, and the whole frame is moray.
I often use this technique when other options simply won’t work, and it can be very effective. After all, morays are great photo subjects.
Morays are usually an upright oval in cross section and therefore are best suited to vertical pictures when shooting from head on.
This is more of an effort than shooting horizontally as our lower strobe will have to be moved round to the side to help us get the camera down to eye level.
But for stand-out portraits it is worth the effort.
We often encounter moray eels posing for pictures when they are visiting cleaning stations. Eels spend a lot of time being cleaned and they are usually at their most docile and easy to shoot.
Wait for the cleaner to be in seemingly perilous positions, such as swimming among the rows of teeth. In different parts of the world it’s common to find wrasses, gobies and shrimps cleaning moray eels.
As they are relatively easy to shoot, we must work hard for truly memorable moray mugshots. Remember that not every encounter is going to produce classic images.
In short, we’re after great poses, pinpoint focus, perhaps a cleaner as a secondary subject, and all this against a good-quality background.