Swirly Sweetlips

Over two feet in length and weighing over a couple of kilos the adult Harlequin Sweetlips is of minor importance to us underwater photographers and divers, and I had to Google it to remind myself of what it looked like. You’ll have to imagine me shrugging and thinking “oh yes,its one of them”

The juvenile of the species though is becoming the latest must have shot for underwater photographers with I think one of the Alex’s either Tattersall or Mustard not sure which was first ( doesn’t really matter) using a very particular technique to portray the dancing motion of this peculiar creature.

A slow shutter speed of 1/3 second and an aperture of f22 was necessary to record the movement, whilst freezing part of the shot of our dancing Sweetlips.

A slow shutter speed of 1/3 second and an aperture of f22 was necessary to record the movement, whilst freezing part of the shot of our dancing Sweetlips.

Unlike the adult, junior Sweetlips is very tiny, rarely over an inch or so long, and mysteriously I have never seen an intermediate version, of course I’m sure they must exist, unless they spectacularly increase in size a 1000% over night, I want to be there when that happens!

Anyway, they dance around in an exagerrated form of snake hips belly dancing, and they do this to mimic a poisonous flatworm to put off potential predators.
They are a very pretty fish, but a lot of their charm is in the movement, and so the technique used by Alex and Alex is to use a form of “shutter dragging” to combine a flash exposure with an ambient light exposure, to show the movement in a still picture.

You can do this too, if you have an underwater camera that you can control manually.
To record enough blurring from the motion of the fish, I experimented with shutter speeds from around 1/2 a second to a 1/20 second, but the best results fell into the range of 1/3 to a 1/15 of a second.
A lot of this has to do with how much ambient light there is, and the background that the fish is moving around on. You’ll have to be patient as the little bugger weaves around incessantly in an area, but if you wait you’ll find that it follows a route of sorts and will eventually move across your choice of background.
To balance the long exposure necessary for the blur you may well find that the prevailing light requires you to shut down the aperture very small in this case I’m showing I was down to f22, this will have the knock on effect of you having to up the power of your strobes a lot more than usual.
Your strobes provide the frozen element of the shot and provide the contrasting colourful foreground elements, and is another reason why these shots look attractive because the orange yellow of the Sweetlips contrasting with the bluey green of the blurry background.

You need patience, be prepared to wait awhile to get the shot. It will also help if the camera you are using has some form of focus tracking like the Nikon 3D system, as this will raise your hit rate. It can be done without but I took nearly 30 shots to get all the elements to fall into place and for me to be happy with the outcome.
If you check out Alex Tattersall’s FB posts recently he has posted my current fave example, but of course it’s nice to have your own, so next time you encounter a juvenile Harlequin Sweetlips, and want to get a shot like this, follow the tech tips and be prepared for a long wait.

I posted a while back a couple of How I Got the Shot pictures which give other examples of  a similar technique using motion blur.

Please just click on the pictures below to take you to the relevant blogs.

If you’d like to put these techniques into practice, with me on hand to offer help and advice then why not join me on a photo workshop? they’re perfect for beginners to advanced alike, with a relaxed itinerary that gives divers a lot more freedom to dive how they want.

Click here to see what a varied group of photographers and divers thought about my most recent trips.

I’ve got a great selection of upcoming trips around the world, check out the schedule planned here.

Check back soon for the latest blogs and news.


This article was originally published by Scuba Travel