I look at a moray sticking its face out of a hole on the reef and the image of a witch always comes to mind. Just like that witch with her green skin and a big nose, morays have beady little eyes, generally, look a bit miserable and long faces. They are not the prettiest creatures we encounter, but without a doubt, they do have a lot of personality. These are super subjects for photographers. Here are my tips and tricks to get the best shot of a moray on your next dive.

The Challenge

Morays come in different sizes and colours. Species like the pretty coloured Ribbon eel are constantly moving and others are easier to spot at night when they patrol the reef in search of an easy prey. But for the most part, the vast majority of morays stay in their holes or around the same area day after day, sticking only their face out. This can make them simple to locate and shoot.

A relatively stationary subject is a gift to us underwater snappers. But they do have a tendency to pull back into their holes if you get too close, especially with a wide-angle lens. Getting close enough to fill the frame can be challenging.

Mario Vitalini, fishinfocus, Scuba Travel
An example of not what to do: Subject too small in the frame, messy backgrounds, poor flat lighting and no eye contact.

The next issue is getting a good separation between the background and the subject. This is important because most of the time you find them hiding in areas of the reef that are not very photogenic. You can take the nicest pic in the world, but don’t forget, people are really easily distracted by messy backgrounds.

Finally, remember, a lot of morays are dark coloured. They suck in light, especially juvenile Ribbon eels. You may have to be more creative with the lighting (backlighting or snoots) to sculpt texture and shadows. Eye contact becomes even more important.

Ribbon eel, Mario Vitalini, fishinfocus, Scuba Travel
Good eye contact and separation from the background are particularly important when shooting dark morays.

Tips for success:

Giant morays are some of the most commonly encountered morays and probably the most photographed. They can grow up to two meters and can look very grumpy. This just adds to their character. That’s the personality you are trying to convey in your image. When shooting them try to get below the moray and if possible try to get them against some blue background and not too much messy reef (unless it is colourful). This will help strengthen the image. Occasionally you can find 2 or more morays together. Even better!

Giant moray eel, Mario Vitalini, fishinfocus, Scuba Travel
2 morays at The Barge on Gubal island, Red Sea

Old individuals have a very textured face, a black and white with strong contrast treatment in postproduction can enhance this wizened characteristic.

Giant morayMario Vitalini, fishinfocus, Scuba Travel
Black and white treatment of a giant moray enhance the skin texture

If you are shooting with a wide-angle, try to include divers in your shot, this will give a sense of scale and add depth to your picture.

Giant moray eel, Mario Vitalini, fishinfocus, Scuba Travel
Giant moray between the toilets of Yolanda reef in the Red Sea

If the area of reef where you see the moray is not particularly interesting, try to fill the frame with the face and point your strobes toward yourself (inward lighting). This will minimise the amount of light that reaches the background. Using a snoot to channel the light into the subject’s face is another option. This way of lighting can be trickier so be patient and take lots of pics, repositioning your strobes as you go to refine the effect.

Mario Vitalini, fishinfocus, Scuba Travel
Inward lighting was used to minimise lighting the background for both of these pictures

Peppered morays are very cute and one of my favourite morays to photograph. They are a bit more mobile than their giant cousins, but I find them quite co-operative for the most part. I love the effect of back and top strobe lighting with their white, almost translucent skins. Using a fast shutter speed will help you get a very dark or even black background, making the moray really pop.

Mario Vitalini, fishinfocus, Scuba Travel
Peppered morays benefit from some creative lighting and fast shutter speeds

Ribbon eels, as I mentioned early, move constantly, are nearly always dug into the sand and are very shy. These have to be one of the hardest morays to make work for you. Try to shoot from a safe distance and get very low on the ground to avoid getting the sand and rubble on your picture. Give yourself some time so the eel gets used to you. I have found that inward lighting or snoots work very well with these little guys.

Ribbon eel, Mario Vitalini, fishinfocus, Scuba Travel
Ribbon eel moray

Look out for!

Often you will see cleaning wrasses getting to work inside the moray’s mouth or around their faces. This is always a very interesting behavioural opportunity.

Giant moray eel, Mario Vitalini, fishinfocus, Scuba Travel
Giant moray with a cleaning wrasse

Why not try something different?

When you find a subject that does cooperate, I like to try different techniques. I have found that with giant morays swirls can yield very fun pictures. For this, you should use a very slow shutter speed (around 1/10 of a second) and pull your strobes back, almost to the side of your head. This will light only the face of the moray freezing the movement while the rest of the photo gets the spinning effect.

Scuba Travel, Red Sea, Liveaboards, diving holidays, Moray eel,
Swirl effect on a giant moray

Word of advice

Morays are generally speaking gentle creatures. They do look mean and aggressive as they open and close their mouth, but that is only them breathing. There are however some species such as the masked moray that are very territorial and won’t hesitate to bite your hand if you get too close to their burrow. I experienced this behaviour first hand in the Maldives. Thankfully these guys are not big and even if they do land a bite, the effects are nothing more than a small cut.

masked moray, Mario Vitalini, fishinfocus, Scuba Travel
Masked moray can be very territorial and can bite if you get too close

Dive with Mario

Mario hosts a number of photography workshops throughout the year with Scuba Travel. From the Red Sea, Indonesia, Maldives and more.
For UK 1:1 courses you can see more about Mario here