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Award-Winning Underwater Macro Photographs: QEPPA 2016

The AIPP (Australian Institute of Professional Photography) is the leading industry body for photographers in Australia. Each year, Queensland’s working photographers can submit prints of their recent work into the AIPP Queensland Epson Professional Photography Awards.

Over two days of judging, expert photographers from across Australia judge all the prints, evaluating the image itself as well as print quality and presentation. There are several categories in the awards; I entered four of my underwater macro photos into the Science, Wildlife & Wild Places category. I wasn’t able to get to Brisbane to watch the judging over the weekend, but I did watch it on Livestream and was just as nervous when my prints came up as if I were there in person.

Happily, all four of my prints were good enough to earn awards. My total score got me through as a category finalist, and from there I was chosen as the overall category winner for the second year in a row.

Here’s a little bit about the four images…

Mating Mandarinfish

Male and female pair of mating mandarinfish swimming cheeck-to-cheek and spawning
Nikon D810, f14, 1/125th sec, ISO 250, two strobes
Photographed in Lembeh Strait, North Sulawesi, Indonesia.

I’ll kick it off with my favourite. For years I’ve wanted to capture this kind of image of mating Mandarinfish. But it’s not easy. For starters, they aren’t common fish; I’ve been diving throughout the Indo-Pacific for 15 years, and can count on one hand the number of sites where I’ve seen Mandarinfish. They are difficult to track with a camera because they swim quickly in and out of the coral, flitting back-and-forth in movement akin to that of hummingbirds. And they are quite small, just 4-6cm. And they are notoriously shy of divers and lights.

Challenge accepted. These little fish are much too beautiful for me to resist!

The males spend the last hour of dusk courting and chasing the females around, lookin’ for love. You have to pick a spot and be still. Watch and wait. And wait some more. All the while holding the camera up to your eye so that you don’t miss the brief moment of mating. The ambient light is extremely low, but Mandarinfish are wary of artificial lights; so, in order to not disturb their behaviour you need to put red filters over your focus lights—dim red light doesn’t bother the fish, and is just enough to keep the camera’s autofocus happy.

When a female is ready to mate, she rests her belly on the male’s pelvic fin. Connected cheek-to-cheek, the pair leave the reef’s protection, and rise up into the water column. At the peak of their ascent, they release their spawn which will quickly disperse with the passing currents. Then the fish dash back down into the coral. The ascent lasts a few seconds, the spawning lasts less than one second. The challenge is guessing when their ascent will peak, and waiting for that moment before pressing the shutter: too soon, and your strobes won’t recycle in time to get another shot; too late, and the fish are gone.

I spent two evenings with the Mandarinfish, and captured a total of just 12 frames. This was the only photo where both fish were positioned facing their bodies towards me during their ascent. And the tiny cloud of spawn is in the frame as well, which was a nice bonus.

Porcelain Crab in Soft Coral

Porcelain Crab on Soft Coral. Tulamben, Bali, Indonesia
Nikon D810, Nikon 60mm macro lens, f22, 1/125th sec, two strobes
Photographed in Tulamben, Bali, Indonesia

Underwater macro photograph of a 2cm Porcelain Crab. The crab’s pale colouring and diminutive size allow it to live hidden and protected amongst the polyps of a Soft Coral. There’s no behaviour or action going on here, but I adore this image because I’m so fond of these little crabs.

Porcelain crabs are so named because their exoskeleton is very delicate. They will easily drop a limb in response to overwhelming attack, even though they have large chelae (claws) for defending their territory.

Coleman’s Shrimp in a Fire Urchin

Nikon D810, Nikon 105mm macro lens, f29, 1/125th sec, ISO 250, two strobes Photographed in Komodo, Indonesia
Nikon D810, Nikon 105mm macro lens, f29, 1/125th sec, ISO 250, two strobes
Photographed in Komodo, Indonesia

Coleman’s Shrimps live exclusively with Fire Urchins. Protected by their hard exoskeleton, the shrimps are safe from the urchin’s venomous spines. The shrimps are reasonably well camouflaged, too.

These critters are monogamous. The larger one is the female, she’s 2cm in length. The pair will clear-cut a small area of spines to form a territory where they live and feed. Their patch lies in the valley of short spines, surrounded by rows of taller spines.

The challenge here was to get 4 eyes and 4 nippers all in crisp focus. It’s not an easy task with a full frame DSLR. When it comes to close-focus macro, I actually miss the larger depth of field of my old cropped sensor D300… why, oh why, did I sell it?

Ladybug Amphipods on a Blue Tunicate

Nikon D810, Nikon 105mm macro lens, f25, 1/160th sec, ISO 160, two strobes Photographed in Komodo, Indonesia
Nikon D810, Nikon 105mm macro lens, f25, 1/160th sec, ISO 160, two strobes
Photographed in Komodo, Indonesia

Underwater macro photograph of Ladybug Amphipods on a Blue Tunicate (or, Sea Squirt). The tunicate is 1″ in size, while the amphipods are smaller than match heads. The amphipods scavenge the surface of their hosts looking for a feed of microscopic detritus and zooplankton.

These amphipods randomly jump from one spot to the the next, just like fleas. This behaviour, combined with their tiny size, makes for an outrageously difficult macro subject. Throw in the fact that Ladybugs are usually found on reef walls that are swept by stiff current (as was the case here), and that underwater macro photography is hand-held… It can all lead to torment.

But look how pretty those ladybugs are!

Queensland AIPP Wildlife Photographer of the Year

I really enjoy the challenge of the AIPP’s print competition. It pushes me to improve my work each year, and I look forward to seeing what I can come up with for 2017.

Check out the winning images of the other category winners here.


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Carole Richardson
5 years ago

Amazing Liz, really lovely, you deserve the award. Congratulations. What beauty lies beneath … I love the Mating Mandarinfish courting description (everything comes to she who waits) and particularly like the Porcelain Crab in Soft Coral. Well done xx

Sharon Wada
4 years ago

I can see why these were winners, Liz. So stunning! You have such excellent mastery of composition and depth of field which is so difficult underwater, especially with moving creatures like the mandarinfish that appear for just a few fleeting seconds in very low light. But this mating pair is in focus from head to tail. Also, the way you highlight each subject in its environment – the crab, shrimps and ladybugs – is so subtle and artistic. The grace and precision with which you captured these gorgeous images are reflected in them. (I know about this because I was there . . !) A big KUDOS for being tops!

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