Learning from Cuttlefish

Back when I first started underwater photography, I remember being told by many people that macro photography is not challenging; that's it's easy compared to wide-angle photography; that macro photography is a pursuit for beginners...the strong implication being that real underwater photographers don't shoot macro much.

I still hear this sentiment from time-to-time, but now I know better.

Of course, macro photography can be relatively easy if you want it to be. Just get close, set your strobes for a proper exposure and press the shutter. You'll get nice, but often ho-hum, run-of-the-mill results.

But if you know what you're doing, have a keen eye, and work to exercise your creative skills, macro photography underwater is as challenging, if not more, than any other photographic discipline.

Here are a few examples from Ambon.

First, this is a nice, perfectly acceptable image of a small cuttlefish (about 8cm long, no idea what type it is...anyone know?):


In fact, it's a relatively nice cuttlefish portrait (at least I think so), because the cephalopod is doing something with its tentacles, as opposed to just sitting there.

But then again, if you've been diving for a long time and have taken hundreds of images of cuttlefish, this photo isn't anything particularly special, and you're likely to find hundreds, if not thousands of similar images on the web.

I decided to spend some quality time with cuttlefish on this trip...not for any special reason. There were just a lot of them around, so they were easy to find.

Devoting entire dives to the abundant cuttlefish (as opposed to scouring the reef for rare and unusual critters) allowed me plenty of time to observe their behaviour and apply myself to being creative.

For instance, here's a shot of a hunting cuttlefish:


I noticed that many of the cuttlefish I came across had no problem with my hanging around at close quarters. After a short period of checking me out, they went about their normal routines, which often involved snagging little fish and crustaceans.

In the photo above, I decided to go with a shallow depth of field and selective lighting just to hit the eye. I have to confess it was sort of a hail-mary pass (for those of you who aren't familiar with the term, basically, it was a long shot), but I managed to get my new Inon S-2000 strobe pointed at just the right angle at just the right time.

The rest of the exposure is based on ambient light, hence the pastel-ish tone. The flash froze the action just on the eye area, so the cuttlefish's eye is tack-sharp, while the body blurs a bit with the motion...exactly what I wanted.

For the data-obsessed, this was shot at f4, ISO100, 1/60, 100mm.

Another interesting thing to note about this image is that I only used one strobe. People often ask: "Should I use one strobe or two?", and my answer is always: "It depends."

For those of you who've asked and gotten that answer from me...I'm not trying to be difficult, and this is a good example. Using only one strobe in this instance isolated the lighting variables down to (a) ambient and (b) a single artificial light source. It also allowed me to play with my new S-2000 to see what it can do, without any interference from other strobes.

Changing the mood a bit, I went for a darker image here, with the lighting emphasis just on the cuttlefish.


Notice the "glow" of the cuttlefish, which I achieved by using multiple lights from different angles...four to be precise. We found this particular cuttlefish (actually, a whole bunch of them together) immediately upon descent, and I spent my entire dive with this one in order to nail this image.

Choosing black as the background in this instance was for practical as well as aesthetic reasons. It was relatively dark at the time I took this photo, so trying for a brighter shot would probably have meant using a higher ISO and/ or slower shutter speed than I would've liked. Here we're looking at f10, ISO200, 1/160 with 100mm lens.

Also, the background wasn't pretty or consistent enough to make for a pleasing backdrop, so it made the most sense to go with black.

The trick here was to illuminate the entire cuttlefish without painting too much light on anything else. Subtle rim-lighting really makes the cuttlefish stand out and look more 3-D than simple front-lighting would have achieved.

Here's a view of a cuttlefish chomping down on an unfortunate shrimp, whose pleading eyes you can just make out:


With this situation, I chose to go with a wide-open aperture (f4, with ISO100, 1/160, 100mm) and blur the cuttlefish and its prey into the background. The background was cluttered and would have detracted from the main subject had I opted to go with a smaller aperture and more definition.

As it is, your eye goes to the cuttlefish eye first, then you notice everything else.

So that's four different interpretations of the same type of animal at the same location (the Laha dive site area in Ambon), with each image conveying a different impression and message.

I guess my point is that photography is as challenging and difficult as you make it, and that anything...even relatively common subjects...can test your skills and creativity.