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My Ultimate Mandarinfish Shot - Or How I Captured the Image


Often when I travel to a new destination, I have done some research on the signature creatures of the area, and I have an image in my head that I would like to achieve in my photographs. On my trip to the Solomon Islands, there were two shots I wanted- a pygmy seahorse and mandarinfish mating. Lots of photographers have beautiful close-ups of the pygmy seahorses, and because these creatures are the size of a grain of rice, are a challenge to find and focus on – but easy to photograph, as they are fairly stationary.

So many of the photos I have seen of the pygmy seahorse are stunning and colorful, but there was no way to show the viewer how small these subjects really were. I still wanted to get the seahorse in my portfolio, and was lucky to do so… but the impact was not there….

What I was hoping to get on this trip was the Mandarinfish…having no clue how difficult that was going to turn out to be. It seems these small 2” dragonets- orange with ornate patterns of blue and green bands, with a few yellow line markings under the jaw- live in shallow coral rubble up to 50’ in depth. The catch is, they only come out at dusk (then about 5:30 to 6:00 p.m.) to spawn. Did I mention the visibility was less than 3’ and dark and the water filled with particulate? And, oh yes, they were spooked by your dive lights and wouldn’t come out of the rubble if you had the lights on? How do you focus on a subject just 2” long that is darting around the rubble, and in the dark?

We descended just before dusk near the dock of the Wilderness Lodge in the Morovo lagoon in about 30’ of water. There were 3 photographers , the guide, and our dive buddies, all hovering around this boulder, coral rubble mound. As it got darker, I lay quite still, hoping my eyes would adjust to the darkness in time, watching for any movement. Truth be told, I couldn’t see anything but a sandstorm caused by the surge. As I lay there, I started thinking what a waste of time, and what a crappy dive this was turning out to be. I had tried to preset my camera for the distance I thought I would be shooting, set my strobe, and had to turn off the focusing light. When I thought I saw movement, I would turn on the focusing light just so the camera could focus, set it, and take the picture while turning off the light to not spook the fish any more than necessary. I got fantastic shots of coral rubble and lots of out of focus fish. I was getting very discouraged. In the dimness, I saw these forms come out of the coral rubble into the water column - I really couldn’t tell what they were - but I shot away anyway…I was thinking, “so close, but yet so far” – I felt my quest to capture my image had failed.

As I swam away to the boat in resignation, upon climbing the ladder, my husband commented “Worst dive ever - all I saw was sand and as I hovered above you all, saw a few flashes from all your strobes - never could see the mandarinfish!”

That night, I downloaded the images on my computer. Lots of photos of sand and coral in what looked like a snowstorm. Then, there it was! I had actually gotten a couple of shots of them spawning, but only ONE was just right - good exposure and actually in focus! Suddenly, all thoughts of how much this trip cost to get here didn’t matter anymore. This one shot for me was worth every penny. This was my ultimate moment as a photographer of my recent trip to the Solomon Islands. I would like to think some skill was involved, but Lady Luck was sure working hard that night. (As it turned out, no one else was able to capture that special moment in time).

So when people see this shot, I do know that for them the significance of how special this image is, is lost – but I know, and now, so do you.

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