BE THE CHAMP! - Behaviour
'Spotting a great behaviour is just our first step'
THIS IS THE FINAL INSTALMENT of Be The Champ! before the closing date of the new Underwater Photographer of the Year competition. I hope you’ll be entering! The competition has eight categories, but the one on which I want to focus this month is behaviour.
Behaviour is nature’s way of transforming our images from ordinary to outstanding. I can’t think of a better example than my favourite moment of TV in 2014, which was cameraman Hugh Miller’s fantastic sequence of the male Torquigener sp pufferfish carving circles in the sand to attract a mate, in the BBC’s Life Stories.
Behaviour is a fantastic category in underwater photography contests, because it simultaneously tests so many skills in our approach to underwater photography. But I like it equally for the aspects it does not test.
A behaviour category cares not how fancy your camera is, or where you dive. You are as likely to win plaudits for photos taken in Stoney Cove as in the South Pacific.
TO BE A SUCCESSFUL behaviour photographer, first we have to dive well. We simply won’t get to watch things happening until we are in the water on the ocean’s terms, ensuring that our presence in our subjects’ home is not an intrusion. Only then will the patterns of life return to normal and natural behaviours be on show.
The late Peter Scoones told me several times that he could always tell when a group of divers were approaching the section of reef he was filming, by the reaction of the fish.
Long before the divers came into sight, behaviours would quieten down.
Just as importantly, we need the ability not merely to look, but see. Many dive-guides are amazing at spotting behaviours, but it is not really practical to show a group. So a behaviour category will reward photographers who can discover things for themselves.
The next ingredient is knowledge. You absolutely don’t need a PhD in marine biology to be a good behaviour photographer. In fact many of the best behaviour photographers have no scientific background at all.
Academic knowledge is actually not that useful – what really matters is what wildlife photographers on land call field-craft, which is a practical knowledge and enthusiasm for wildlife.
You don’t need the Latin names, but you need to know where to find creatures and how they live their lives.
Perhaps the most important talent is being attuned to unusual goings-on. So many of my best behaviour encounters have come, not because I knew exactly what was going to happen, but because I just had a feeling that something was. This sixth sense comes only with time watching life under water.
SPOTTING A GREAT behaviour is just our first step. Now we need to capture it as a powerful picture. Probably as few as 15 years ago, getting any sort of behaviour into an in-focus, correctly exposed photo would have been enough to win big. No more.
A good test, when composing a behaviour, is to ask ourselves whether this would still be an eye-catching image with the subject and no behaviour. Backgrounds are often the key factor.
Macro shots usually benefit from clean backgrounds, and this is especially the case with behavioural images, which tend to have a lot going on.
The simplest solution is route one: frame the behaviour against open water and use a small aperture and fast shutter speed, which will allow our flashes to pick out the subjects against a black background.
While this is definitely graphically strong, I prefer more of a sense of place in these images, because this shows where the behaviour is happening.
The last thing we want is a busy background, so I often shoot with a wide aperture, to give me a shallow depth of field and get the feeling of place without the distraction of detail.
In wide-angle shots the feeling of place is easier to make part of the story. We should still challenge ourselves to make the setting for the behaviour as captivating as possible. Again, we should question whether it would be a pleasing image if nothing was happening!
THE FINAL INGREDIENT is capturing the peak of the action. Unlike film-makers, stills photographers are challenged with shooting the precise moment and composition that tells the whole story. It is usually much easier to show a behaviour across a series of frames, but photographic excellence was never supposed to be easy!
Capturing the decisive moment was what made French photo-journalist Henri Cartier-Bresson a legend. His street images were timed to perfection to freeze intimate human moments from everyday lives.
Photographs are at their most powerful when our single image tells the story and leaves the viewer in no doubt why that moment has been preserved forever. Even simple gestures can transform a photo from ordinary to extraordinary.
Behaviour endows our pictures with interest. More importantly, it gives us the chance to supercharge their impact by pressing the shutter at the right moment.
AND THE GOOD NEWS IS that behavioural subject matter is almost inexhaustible. Every species has different ways to feed and defend itself. Some are solitary while others prefer to hang out with friends. Some species even live their entire lives with a completely different type of creature. Most get cleaned or clean other species, or both!
And all these species have unique mating and parental-care strategies. I have chosen to illustrate the article with three examples of parental care of eggs.
There is also a huge amount still to discover. We’ve not even given names to all the creatures we see diving – even the BBC pufferfish doesn’t have a Latin name yet.
Coral reefs are probably the most explored underwater environments, but even there scientists think there may be a million more species to describe. That is a lot of different behaviours, and very few have ever been studied by scientists.
This is a fantastic opportunity for photographers to take not just stunning images but really useful ones too.
Go slow, see don’t just look, and the huge gamut of behaviour photography will be yours.
Don’t think you can’t! A lot of photographers tell me that they don’t have behaviour photos, but when I ask they have plenty of shots of cleaner wrasse in action, anemonefish living in anemones and even damselfish guarding the eggs. Behaviour is all around – photographing it well is the challenge.
The most photogenic behaviours are often the easiest to spot. You really don’t need to be a marine-life expert.
But you do have to slow down. Have you ever noticed that you often spot the most interesting subjects and behaviours as you bimble about on a safety stop?
Spend your whole dive at this pace and you will be amazed what you see.
The easiest mistake to make is to get too caught up the behaviour and forget image aesthetics.
A memorable behaviour photo needs visual impact as much as any other type of image.
Remember to think about composition, focus and lighting. Often, it is best to get all this set up before moving in, so we don’t disturb the behaviour by moving strobes and reviewing the LCD.