BE THE CHAMP! - Pygmy Seahorses
I CAN CLEARLY REMEMBER when the first photos of pygmy seahorses hit the scene. It was the late 1990s, and in all my years in underwater photography I can’t recall there ever being so much excitement about a subject.
Underwater photographers instantly fell in love with these tiny creatures, full of charisma and perfectly adapted to their seafan homes.
It is a love affair that endures to this day. As a result, I plan to dedicate both this and next month’s columns to photographing these tiny favourites.
Pygmy photos existed before the late 1990s, but it was only when the eagle-eyed dive-guides of the Lembeh Strait had figured out how to find them reliably that most underwater photographers had the chance to add them to their portfolio.
Soon pygmies were found in many other locations and more species were added to the roster.
By the early 2000s, pygmy shots were so widespread that my buddy Peter Rowlands coined the phrase “pygmy seahorse fatigue” when judging photo contests. They are visually stunning, but at times can make the most unco-operative subjects, making the challenge of getting good shots something of a rite of passage for aspiring underwater photographers.
This is definitely a part of their enduring appeal!
The emphasis soon shifted to creating fresh images of pygmies. Ten years ago this month, I shot my well-known dancing pygmy seahorse composite as my attempt of a new interpretation. Underwater photographers also chased ever-higher magnifications. Pygmies are difficult to find with your eyes, let alone looking through a high-magnification macro lens.
The pursuit of ever-bigger pygmies in the frame was driven by bragging rights, rather than stronger images.
Since then things have calmed down, and most photographers have realised that there is much more to a good pygmy shot than magnification.
I want to get into detail on these diminutive darlings.
PYGMY SEAHORSES differ from standard seahorses not only by being tiny, but also in the details of their bodies. Unlike their full-sized relatives, male pygmies don’t have a brood pouch on the front of their tail, and instead brood their young in a cavity within their main body, which is why they look so inflated when pregnant.
Also, pygmies have only a single gill opening at the back of their head, rather than one on each side as normal seahorses have.
Quite how many true species of pygmy seahorses there are is debatable.
There are three common types in the tropical Indo-Pacific, two that live on seafans (Bargibant’s and Denise’s) and the Pontoh’s type pygmy, which lives on small hydroids and algae growing on the reef. The Pontoh’s type was split into four species in 2008, but they may actually all be the same.
Gilbert Whitley described the first species, which was discovered by his colleague George Bargibant while studying seafans in the 1960s.
The rest have been found since 2000 by underwater photographers or dive guides and named after them. There is a good chance that more species may be found in the next few years, perhaps on a trip you are on…
WINNING UNDERWATER shots of any subject usually start with good pre-dive planning. Our first consideration should be equipment. Although pygmies are small, they are not the smallest subjects we shoot, and because they are often found on pleasing backgrounds they do not necessarily call for really extreme super macro.
The visual story that makes photos of pygmies so compelling is of a tiny, cute critter that is perfectly adapted to its home. The best images should push many, if not all, of these buttons.
As such, pygmies are well-suited to being shot relatively small in the frame. These are usually more powerful images than the willy-waving maximum magnification shots.
Therefore, on a mirrorless or crop-sensor SLR standard macro lenses without accessories will often produce the perfect pygmy shots of a seahorse in its habitat. If you’ve never shot pygmies before, this is definitely the way to start.
If we want more magnification we should consider adding a teleconverter, rather than a dioptre. This maintains our working distance from the subject and reduces the risk of us bumping into the fan with the front of the lens and making all the pretty polyps close up.
For extreme supermacro, a combination of teleconverter and dioptre will give very strong magnification without being right on top of the subject, and will increase our chance of getting an image with strong eye contact.
PYGMIES ARE FOUND in many destinations across the tropical Indo-Pacific, but it makes sense to focus on them in locations where they are abundant. Dive sites that have just a single fan with pygmies, down deeper than 25m, on a vertical wall, are less likely to yield great shots.
While Constantinos Petrinos’s seminal book on Lembeh named it the Realm Of The Pygmy Seahorse, the best location I know is Raja Ampat.
Raja has many, many dive sites with pygmies and most have numerous fans with numerous pygmies. I have often had “one-minute-pygmies” here, where the guides have found the first one during the first minute of the dive.
Shaded beneath the undercuts of the island, seafans grow so shallow that they are exposed by the lowest tides and we can even get “safety-stop pygmies”.
My photo of a Denise’s pygmy in the Raja Ampat Marine Protected Area was taken at just 6m depth.
Raja Ampat even has sites where I have completed the “holy trinity” of the three main pygmy species in a single dive. Although as a general rule, Misool area is best for the seafan species (Denise’s and Bargibant’s) and Dampier is best for the Pontoh’s.
Also, as most of these dive-sites are fantastic for wide-angle, many photographers will not be chasing macro subjects. This minimises the risk of “pygmy-rage”, where one photographer incurs the wrath of the group by hogging the seahorse, and gives us the chance to spend quality time with these subjects.
Those that caught my presentation with Martin Edge at the Dive Show will know the importance of correctly investing our precious dive time in the right subjects.
This is especially true of pygmies, and next month I will get into detail of how to make the most of our underwater time to get those winning images.
Despite many underwater photographers liking to prove their skills by shooting pygmy seahorses with as much magnification as possible, the best photos often have pygmies relatively small in the frame.
Giving them space emphasises their diminutive size and their adaptation to their habitat.
Try to frame the seafan background so that it would be an attractive composition even if there wasn’t a pygmy in the frame. Don’t place the pygmy in the centre of the frame, but towards one side, ideally on a third, facing towards the middle.
Pygmy seahorses may be relatively rare in the oceans, but photographs of them are common. Winning pygmy shots need something extra.
Try long exposures to burn in a blue background, backlighting with a remote strobe, or capturing some natural behaviour, such as swimming or courtship between individuals.