BE THE CHAMP! - the tompot blenny
"The golden rule of capturing character is getting first-class eye contact"
CO-OPERATIVE AND CHARACTERFUL, the tompot blennies of Swanage Pier have long been an irresistible subject for British underwater photographers. Since long before I was born, aquatic snappers have been ducking beneath the Pier to bag a portrait or two.
One hundred and sixty years ago, Swanage resident William Thompson took the world’s first underwater photograph off the Dorset coast.
The tompot action peaks in the summer months, when Swanage Pier is most accurately described as “infested” with the cheeky chaps.
The deep-end of the dive is safety-stop depth, which endows us with lots of time. I often dive with just a single 7-litre, which is so comfortable and will last 80 minutes if I don’t get too excited!
SWANAGE PIER in high summer is also the warmest British sea-dive I know. It is regularly a degree or two warmer than anywhere else on the south coast.
It is a great place to break out a wetsuit, especially if you have only ever dived home waters restrained in a dry one. The warmth also means that we can dive all day, if we fancy.
The tompots of Swanage are habituated to seeing divers, meaning that many are very happy to pose. They are easy to photograph with almost any camera, so to produce a winning image we need to push on a little further and get all the details right.
Ask a British underwater photographer to describe tompots and you will hear words like “cheeky” and “cute”. This is a fish brimming with personality, so capturing this is essential for a really memorable tompot shot.
THE GOLDEN RULE of capturing character is getting first-class eye contact. As I have said before, this doesn’t just mean that you can see the eyes in the photos. If you have to ask if a photo has eye contact, it doesn’t.
To achieve it means getting the camera right down to the eye level of the fish with the eye or eyes looking right into the lens, and grabbing the viewer’s attention.
Most fish have their eyes on the side of their head, which means it is often better to shoot them from one side and get really good eye contact with one eye than poor eye contact with two.
Tompots have their eyes on top of their head and can swivel them so that they both point forward, as you can see in the picture on the right.
However, tompots will also move their eyes independently, so it requires patience and lots of shots to get both looking at the camera at the same time.
Once I’m in position, I will sometimes waggle my finger on the shutter-release, which I think can help to catch their attention. Although it only works if we are totally stationary, and the only movement comes from our finger.
Shooting from head-on allows us to capture double eye contact and it boosts the personality of our images by arranging the fish’s features in the same structure as a human face.
By this I mean pair of eyes, above a nose, above a mouth. This arrangement allows the viewer to see an individual, to project emotions or character onto the subject. It means that the photo goes beyond being a picture of a fish and becomes a portrait.
ON PAPER THIS SOUNDS easy but, like many things, it is less straightforward under water. Like most fish, tompots’ eyes are set back on their heads, which means that when we photograph them from the front, filling the frame, the auto-focus will lock onto the mouth, leaving the eyes slightly out of focus, with the limited depth of field.
The solution is Thumb Focus, where we stop the camera focusing when we press the shutter and instead it will only focus when we press a button or lever on the housing with our right thumb.
This technique is also called back-button focus (although confusingly on some cameras the button is not on the back, but on the top).
Thumb Focus is now well-established in underwater photography, and most good housing manufacturers provide the controls to exploit it.
Start by setting up the approximate subject size in the frame required, then push the thumb-button to focus on the eye. Now recompose and rock back and forth very slightly to ensure that the focus is exactly on the eye.
We should shoot some frames to check lighting and exposure, then settle in to wait for the peak of eye contact.
PERSONALITY-FILLED PORTRAITS are the most reliable way to produce powerful pictures, but don’t forget that tompots offer other shots.
Behaviour is a good option. Many of the largest blennies are males and will often be guarding eggs in their burrows. Sometimes the blennies will squabble over territory. Alex Tattersall, with whom I have made most of my dives at Swanage, and best known as the UK’s venerable Nauticam dealer, captured a splendid fight with bared teeth. I always felt this image should have had more competition success, when so many simple blenny portraits win prizes.
Wide-angle is another option for variety, and works because the largest blennies are both a decent size and friendly. Gear makes a big difference – the key is to have a small lens/port combination that can focus close, so the blenny is as big as possible in the frame.
Compact cameras are less good at shooting portraits than SLRs or mirrorless cameras, but better for this type of close-focus wide-angle, their small size being far more suited for manoeuvring close.
As a photographic subject, tompots have a timeless appeal. Even if you’re not a regular British diver, it’s worth a summertime trip to the South Coast to shoot in William Thompson’s waters.
Practice using thumb-focus on land before diving. It can be fiddly to set up in some cameras, requiring a suite of menu setting changes, which you don’t want to waste time with under water. Give yourself time to adjust, as it is a different way of shooting, but some photographers like it so much that they shoot all their images this way.
Rather than shooting tompots on the seabed, look for those living on the legs of the pier. There are slots in many of the legs about 50cm above the bottom.
With patience, blennies living there can be framed against open water, giving us the option of clean green/ blue or black backgrounds.
Tompot faces suit portraits, yet most people take the easy option of horizontals. Rig your camera specifically for shooting verticals, so that you can get it as low to the seabed as possible.
I often dive at Swanage with the left handle removed from my housing, in order to get it as low as I can.