Some insight into, and also tips on looking for and capturing, interesting behaviour in the subjects we find to photograph in macro
Behaviour is defined as the actions and mannerisms made by individuals and organisms in conjunction with themselves or their environment, which includes other systems or organisms around.
We have all done it and shot the subject that the guide points out and more times than not, the subject might not actually be in a position that is conducive for a good or particularly interesting image. The guide is doing his or her job, but it is up to you to see if you can get a good shot. Quite often it is worth watching very carefully to see if the subject moves or perhaps displays any interesting behaviour. You might need to wait a minute or two and carefully study the surrounding habitat to see if there are any eggs or babies or a mate, for example. Good guides will be very aware of interesting behaviour and will look out for it if they find a subject that can or commonly displays something they know will elevate the images you are taking.
I urge you to improve your fieldcraft, read up about different species, and definitely ask the guides if there is anything interesting currently going on with the subjects you are likely to come across. It is amazing how quickly your knowledge base builds up. It is an interesting behaviour that will make for a more compelling image and capture the interest of viewers.
For example, when I see cardinalfish hanging out maybe under an outcrop of rocks or under a wreck, I will always carefully look out for the egg brooding males (see image 1) or when there are little damselfish displaying some aggression to me, I will always then look out for their nest where their clutches of eggs have been laid – quite commonly in very open places on the surface of flat rocks. The fact that they are in these very accessible places is why they have to tend them carefully and ward off potential predators. When I spot the little blue tunicates on the reef I look out for gobies with eggs. When I find an anemone with clownfish, I will always look around the base of the anemone where it fixes to the rocks for the little eggs and the behaviour of the fish cleaning and aerating their clutch of eggs by blowing water over them. We have all heard of cleaning stations and it is very typical behaviour on the reef whereby the fish or other species get themselves cleaned up of parasites, dead skin, etc, by cleaner wrasse or shrimps and this can make for an excellent behaviour shot Images of a peacock mantis shrimp are always characterful as they are a photogenic subject, but when you find one with eggs this will elevate the image considerably (See image 5). The point here is that everything on the reef at some point will do something more interesting than just sitting there or hanging around in the water column be it feeding, cleaning, mating, aggregating or aggression. Fish in particular are also creatures of habit and they will often swim in a pattern and come back to the same spot so with behaviour photography you have to be patient and watch and wait for the peak of the action to occur as that is the precise moment you want to shoot.
The male cardinalfish with the bigger square jowls will move around in a set pattern. When I see shoals of these fish I look out for the males and try to spot the one with eggs and then watch and wait and stay still working out my camera settings, lighting and the angle of shot I want to take. He will move around and sometimes disappear for a minute or two but almost always (unless you frighten him off) come back to the spot where you have the shot set up for.
If you wait, every few minutes, he will open his mouth wide to move the eggs he is holding in his mouth to aerate them, albeit very quickly. You need to consider using as fast a speed as you can to capture the image sharply as the aerating process is over in a second or two. Watch out particularly for the fish with the silver eggs – these are the ones about to hatch and they are more photogenic than the orange eggs which are young.
With a bit of practice, you will be able to find and see all sorts of behaviour on a macro dive or even on a dive with a wide-angle lens with bigger subjects. You need to be aware of the time of year or moon phase when planning your dives and have an idea of what to look out for. This is why local knowledge is king. Certain phases of the moon or time of day or tide will provide opportunities for seeing subjects with their eggs or mating.
For example, a mandarin fish dive at dusk in the tropics is often on offer for most macro diving destinations and it is well worth putting in the effort and reserving the time just before dusk to go and explore the patches of broken and dead coral at the edge of the reef to see if you can capture these amazingly colourful fish in their mating ritual (see image 6). Photographing the mating pair rising from the labyrinth of dead staghorn coral or rocky bottom can be extremely difficult but if you get a good shot you will be very pleased that you made the effort. My recommendation is to use a torch with a red light or shielded carefully by your other hand to spot the male fish in the depths of its coral home and wait and watch. The colour or careful use of your torch will not frighten the fish away or stop them from mating. You will see females in the harem moving towards the male, maybe several at a time and then watch carefully. As it gets darker there will almost certainly be rises where the pairs of fish come together and rise off of the bottom into the water column in an almost trance-like slow dance and then immediately turn and dash for the safety of the reef when the egg-laying, and fertilization act, is complete. This entire spectacle will only last a few seconds, so you have to be ready. I use a long macro lens – my Nikon 105mm – and push the strobes right forward on their arms. I also sacrifice a higher ISO in order to get a relatively fast speed and an aperture with a reasonable depth of field. The next image was taken at 100th sec/ F 16 and 800 ISO. I also put my strobes on low power and the shutter on 3 or 4 frames a sec so I can get a few shots off.
The following picture shows off some interesting behaviour with the emperor shrimp riding on the back of the Ceratasoma sp. nudibranch displaying a symbiotic relationship between both of the subjects. One protecting the other and the other keeping his friend nice and clean. Not a common sight, but when you find opportunities like these, make the most of them. This image was lit with a snoot to hide the distracting and ‘mucky’ sea bottom and highlight the subjects in the snoot’s harsh light, helping to bring out the texture.
Next time you dive, make a point of moving slowly and watching subjects carefully for interesting behaviour. If you can get more interesting images like these into your portfolio, your photography will move on in leaps and bounds