Tips for Shooting Macro Behavior

We all see many excellent macro photos every day, but what does it take to stand out from the crowd?  It’s simple – add some rarely seen marine life behavior to your trip portfolio. A good behavior shot will take some time and will probably not impress your non-diving friends any more than a regular shot, but divers and photographers will respect the planning, skill and luck involved in getting the shot. This nod from more seasoned photographers makes the effort well worth it.

Here are a few of my thoughts on capturing unique and rare behavior shots, whether you are camping out waiting for a precise moment or randomly notice something in the corner of your eye.

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mating mandarinfish with eggs
A pair of mandarin fish (Synchiropus splendidus) fertilize and release eggs while mating – a process that takes a mere two seconds. This type of reproduction is called cast spawning. Anilao, Philippines.

1. Do Your Homework

Yes, this tip is in every article, but it’s especially important for macro marine life behavior. I have seen lucky photographers shoot hatching eggs without even knowing it. Imagine if they knew what was happening and had spent more time getting the shot, or even calling over their dive buddy. Recognizing behavior like feeding, hunting, cleaning, mating, aggression and protection can help you decide when a photo opportunity is unique enough to spend the rest of your dive with.

porcelain crab feeding
A porcelain crab (Lissoporcellana nakasonei) skims food from the water while standing on top of a soft coral. Anilao, Philippines.

2. Work Quickly and Methodically

Some marine life behavior is fairly common and doesn’t require quick action – like shooting a mouthbrooding cardinalfish. But some behavior happens for just a few seconds, and may have started before you noticed it. This is when you need to work very quickly.

The first order of business is to get a shot of the action. If you know your housing controls, camera settings, strobe lighting and strobe positioning well, it will be simple to set up and fire the first frame.

The next step is when you need to make a decision. Do you keep shooting to make sure you capture the peak moment regardless of image properties, or do you have a little time to review the LCD and start making adjustments to improve your image? Each situation will be different depending on the animal behavior (and your knowledge of it), so there is no right or wrong answer. Sometimes I will fire a few “adequate” frames to document the behavior before realizing that the action is lasting longer than anticipated, and then start making adjustments in composition, settings and strobes to create a nicer image.

Sometimes behavior can also be anticipated. In this case, it’s best to get your settings and lighting dialed in the way you want them, and then wait for the precise moment to push the shutter. A yawning fish is a great example, but in this case be sure to pre-plan your composition for the extending fish lips! 

 black hairy striated frogfish yawns
A black hairy frogfish, aka striated frogfish (Antennarius striatus), opens its mouth in a big yawn. Anilao, Philippines.

3. Tell a Story

In photojournalism the goal is for each image to tell a story. Shooting macro animal behavior follows the same rule – you want the viewer to know exactly what is happening. A good behavior shot will clearly show the action that is taking place, and there are a number of ways to achieve this.

Try shifting the composition so that you can clearly see the behavior. Try focusing on the behavior instead of the critter’s eye. Try using shallow depth of field to highlight an area or help a subject pop from a cluttered background. On the opposite side, try increasing depth of field to show more of the scene.

The right combination of photo techniques will emphasize the behavior and tell a great story, even for your non-diving friends.

Learn More: How to Shoot Marine Life Portraits

nudibranchs mating
Two lined nembrotha nudibranchs (Nembrotha lineolata) mate. The distance between the slugs provided a great opportunity to show this process in detail. Lembeh Strait, Indonesia.
sweetlips fish cleaning behavior
A sweetlips (Plectorhinchus polytaenia) opens its gill for a little wrasse to eat parasites – a process known as “cleaning”. Anilao, Philippines.

4. Be Lucky

Logging your hours underwater will drastically improve your odds of finding unique macro behavior, but no matter what, there is still an element of luck. You just never know when you’ll cross those mating blue-ringed octopus!

mating blue-ringed octopus
Two blue-ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena lunulata) crawl along the reef while mating. The smaller male is holding on to the female.

Photographing macro behavior is a lot of fun and results in some truly unique photos. It’s important to share subjects with your dive buddies, but when you’re on the hunt for behavior you can often wait for everyone to get their fill and then move back in to spend all the time you like with a subject.


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Brent Durand

Professional writer and underwater photo instructor. Brent is an avid diver and surfer, and has led many intensive photo workshops around the world.