If you like small and wired creatures, very few places in the world can beat this little section of North Sulawesi, the Lembeh Strait. I’ve been lucky enough to visit the area on three occasions and every time it blows my mind.

Last week I joined a great group of underwater photographers competing in a team shootout against Gulen resort in Norway and I’m happy to say we won 🙂

This particular competition forced us to approach the diving in a slightly different way, we had 3 subjects, Nudibranches, critters and wide angle and were given a day to practice and a day shooting for each one.

 

Approaching your underwater photography in this way, with very specific subjects in mind is a great way to focus your mind and concentrate on the techniques needed to achieve the specific shots you have in mind.

Nudibranchs

The first couple of days were dedicated exclusively to nudibranchs. Together with the dive guides, we selected the dive sites where these slugs are more prolific. The first day was dedicated to get “in the zone” and to practice some shots that could do good the next day.

Day two was Competition day. for this, our dive time was limited as were the number of divers per dive guide. We all got in the water at the same time and had exactly 60 minutes per dive to take our shots.

Photographing this “slimy” fellas can be a bit tricky, they do crawl on the seabed and getting a good angle is not always easy. If you are lucky you can find them on top of a coral head or a rock giving you enough space to shoot face on. Otherwise, it is important to get your housing right on the sand to get a good angle.

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Some species are much easier to photograph than others and getting a good shot of this difficult ones is a great challenge.

The trick when photographing nudibranchs is to get the rhinophores perfectly in focus. Failing to do so can take an otherwise great photo to the reject pile.

Critters

The format for days 3 and 4 followed the same format. A practice day and a competition day.

This time the subjects were much varied, we could photograph pretty much anything that wasn’t a nudibranch or a plant.

Octopus, fish and shrimp were among the most popular subjects with the 8 legged cephalopods being some of the favourite ones.

coconut octopus are incredibly intelligent, this one is using a discarded box as it’s residence.

In Lembeh you can different species of octopus but in my opinion, the most charismatic is the “coconut”. These guys are incredibly photogenic and love to use anything they can find to build they “homes”.

I was incredibly lucky to see one of the rarest octopus in that area, the Hairy one. I have never seen one before and was surprised by how difficult they are to photograph.

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Measuring no more than 1″ hairy octopus lives among the rubble making it incredibly hard to separate the subject from the background. I tried different techniques but at the end settled for backlighting it to accentuate the hairy head.

After shooting a variety of subjects, trying to look for obscure and interesting critters, I decided to go for more common ones. Gobies can be a great challenge and yield very striking portraits. The secret is to be able to creep right in front of them and light their faces but not their bodies. This can be archived by using inward lighting.

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A goby looks into the camera.

 

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Seahorses and frogfish are among the most popular subjects

Wide Angle

The last two days were probably the most challenging, we had to put away our macro setups and get our wide angle/fisheye lenses out. Is something strange to do in a place like Lembeh.

Saying that you will be amazed to discover the amazing photo opportunities on offer. I’ve dived a couple of interesting sites located toward the north of the strait were you can find some submerged pinnacles and coral encrusted walls, however, I did not know that there is a shallow mangrove site, Batu Angus, where beside the luxurious vegetation you can find some beautiful coral formations.

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An anemone and clownfish in shallow water among the mangroves at Batu Angus

Because most of the shots you take in this area involve snell’s window and have the sky and mangroves in the frame, good weather and blue skies are necessary. If the sky is overcast I wouldn’t bother visiting the site.

When shutting in shallow water trying to get the sky and vegetation through a snell’s window is very important to control your breathing. Bubbles can easily ruin your picture so once you frame your shot, exhale and wait for the bubbles to reach the surface and the waves to dissipate so you have a clear view of the outside world.

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A sea fan inside the swim-through at Angel’s window

Angel’s window is another great site for wide angle, here a swim through with a series of windows into the blue offer great scenic opportunities. A giant frogfish posed near some sponges giving everyone a chance to get some cool pics. Fishlife around the pinnacle was buzzing with thousands of baitfish creating beautiful patterns to make the backgrounds a bit more interesting.

Last, we decided to try some wide angle on a”muck” site we have previously visited. Rojos is home to some hairy and giant frogfish and a couple of very cooperative coconut octopus. Here we put into practice some close focus wide angle techniques.

With that, the competition came to an end and we had to wait patiently for the results. a day later they arrived and we were delighted when we find out we managed to beat the guys in Norway for the second time. With a huge smile, we finish our packing and said our goodbyes to the excellent staff of Lembeh resort and Critters@lembeh, boarded the speedboat and start our journey back home.

If you are into small critters and looking for a fantastic trip Lembeh Resort should be on top of your list. A beautiful location, a service like no other, great food and the kind of diving that will amaze any macro lover are the recipe for a holiday you won’t forget.