How to Hunt Tiny Underwater Animals

Hunting for 3mm long macro underwater photography subjects is not easy.  In fact, when you first start out, it’s just one step short of impossible.  Here are some tips for you to try…

Do Your Research

The easy answer to finding tiny animals is that you don’t really hunt them, you hunt the places where they hang out.  Every animal has a home, and a place to eat, and a way to find a mate.  These are usually easier to find that than it is to find a 3mm subject.

Research dive sites and macro photos that were taken there.  You learn which species to expect.  Get an idea of the silhouette and color.  But more importantly, look at what they are “sitting on” when the picture was taken.  That gives you something that is easier to find.

If you can find somebody who seems to know where the animals are, get them to take you for a couple of dives or at least mark on a map what areas you should try.  Or follow all the other people with the big cameras.  =)

Tips for Stalking

Plan your Dive, Dive your Plan.  You only have so much gas to breathe, so having a plan on what area you want to hunt in helps you make better use of your time.  At a minimum, you should have an idea on what depth you’ll be going to, how long your gas will last, what animals you’re looking for, when you will move into shallower water, and what your surface technique will be.

Take a Test Shot First.  As soon as you descend, turn on your strobes, get a good focus lock, and take a test photo.  You’re checking if your lighting is appropriate for the depth that you’re at.  This saves you time once you find your first subject.

Swim into the Current or Uphill.  Everybody I know does this when we hunt.  This keeps any sand that you kick up going behind you instead of into the area that you’re searching in.  Don’t follow other divers, that puts you into their sand trail which is even worse than your own sand.  Instead, do your own search 2-3 meters to either side of them.  A tech-diver frog kick and helicopter turns here also help.

Go Slow.  On most good macro dives, we’ll travel 10m horizontally at the most once we get to the right depth.  Going slow means that you can scan left-to-right across the sandy bottom and cover every bit of the area.  It also means that you can see small movements of your subjects much easier.  Normally I scan between 1-2 meters left and right in a 10cm strip, then move forward 10cm and scan again.

Use a Torch.  In low visibility diving or when the sun is blocked by clouds, you won’t be able to see small things below 10 meters deep.  You need light to see creatures: shapes and colors are muted by the natural light being filtered by the water.  Sometimes you will see animals “flash” when they move in the torch light.  Shrimp and crabs will move visibly because they don’t like white light.  For coral whips, hydroid, tunicates, etc I will reach around behind them with a torch and check for silhouettes.

Take Extreme Close-Ups.  When I’m having a slow day of spotting, I’ll start to take pictures of scorpionfish eyes, coral polyps, sea pens, christmas tree worms, etc.  A lot of times, while I’m doing that I’ll find another real macro subject nearby.  I just wasn’t in the right mental state to find subjects, and taking a couple of snaps gets my head into the right place.

Mark your Subject.  Once you find a good subject, mark it with your torch, pointer, etc.  That way, you can find it again if you lose sight of it.  It also makes it easier if you go find somebody and want to take them to your subject.  I’ve left my torch sitting on the bottom numerous times while I went to bring another diver over.  I’ve also detached my focus light, set it on flash mode, and pointed it uphill towards other divers so my friends know where to come find a special subject.  I’ve seen people send a SMB to the surface and tie it off next to their subject so that they can come back on a second dive to find their animal again.

Turn off your Camera and Lighting.  I turn off my camera, strobes, and focus light while I’m hunting to save battery.  However, in an emergency at the end of a dive I’ll use the focus light or the focus light button on my strobes to give myself a torch.

Places to Check

Hydroids.  Where 2-12cm white hydroids grow out of the rocks, check them quickly for anything that doesn’t look like it’s part of the hydroid: bumps or strange colors.

Tunicates.  These tube structures sometimes hold shrimp or isopods.  Don’t spend much time, but always check them when you see them.

Under Rocks.  Shrimp and crabs like to hide in cracks under or between rocks.  You’ll normally see them run into the crack when you come close.  Stop and wait, they’ll usually come back out and let you take their photo as long as you don’t hit them with white light.

Coral Whips.  Sometimes they have whip gobies, small camouflaged coral whip shrimp, or a sawblade shrimp.

Swim-Throughs.  Nudibranchs and other macro subjects like them because they’re protected from the current and the surge.

Inside Anemones.  They have porcelain crabs and at the deeper depths (15+m) they have white-dot transparent shrimps.

On Fire Urchins.  Coleman’s shrimp and zebra crabs live on them.

Sides of Boulders and Wrecks.  Some nudibranchs like to travel on the sides of these.

Larger Sea Pens.  Smaller crabs and shrimp live in their sheltered crevices.

Where you see Flashes.  That means another photographer has found a subject and has started taking pictures.  Don’t hover over them (it’s a cardinal sin), but look around in the area and wait for them to finish with their subject.  If you have your own subject and can trade them yours for theirs, they will gladly show you what they were looking at.

Hire a Good Spotter

If you want to do some serious macro photography, hire a spotter.  In places like Anilao and Tulamben, there are a handful of dive guides that can serve as your spotter.  There are also tons of dive guides that can’t see anything smaller than themselves.  In Tulamben, I’ve worked with Darmada, also known as Nemo.  In Anilao I’ve worked with Jason Mendoza at Anilao Photo Academy.

Where a good spotter pays for themselves many times over is that when you’re photographing a subject, they’re on the hunt for you.  That way, when you’re ready for a different subject, they already have one found.  This optimizes your time: you spend hardly any time hunting and you find at least 4x the animals than if you were hunting solo.  If you have a special species you want to find, your dive guide can find it for you.

This Doto sp. lives on the hydroids.

Larger (20+cm) sea pens usually have macro subjects inside them.

 

See you underwater!!

–Mike

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