How to Photograph Anemones

blurred anemone

Sea anemones are weird and wonderful creatures that can be found in shallow waters across the world’s oceans. At a depth both snorkellers and scuba divers can access, their accessibility makes them an excellent subject for underwater photography.

They are often mistaken for plants, but they are in fact predatory animals. Classified within the phylum Cnidaria, which translates to ‘nettle’ in Latin, sea anemones are a group of predatory marine animals. Anemones can catch any fish, small crustaceans, or plankton that venture too close to their stinging tentacles.

They use their powerful stinging nematocysts to stun and capture prey as well as a defence mechanism against predators.

Anemones are usually brightly coloured and stay in a fixed position. This makes them a good option if you’re looking to practice underwater photography skills on a slow-moving subject, or experiment with more creative lighting or techniques.

What is a sea anemone

Understanding the species you wish to photograph is vital for nature photographers, and it is no different when it comes to the underwater realm.

photographing anemones

Despite their colourful and plant-like appearance, anemones are a well-refined predator. They are able to catch passing food with their flexible tentacles and can even move to find a better position to feed from.

Anemones come in all shapes and sizes; the largest individuals such as the Horseman anemone (Urticina felina) can reach up to 35cm in length, and the smallest is only 5mm. Amazingly, these animals have the ability to survive indefinitely without predators.

Some anemone species have developed a mutually beneficial relationship with other animals. This means two organisms are in a symbiotic relationship in which they both interact with each other and, in some cases, are totally reliant on each other for survival.

A knowledge of these interactions can provide great opportunities for adding interest to anemone images.

The most well-known example of this is the clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris) and their anemone home. These two organisms benefit from each other; the anemone provides protection and shelter to the clownfish, whilst the clownfish provides the anemone with nutrients.

how to photograph anemones

Looking for these relationships, where a fish or crustacean is living within the anemone, can help to give your photographs a story and can add that extra bit of excitement to your photography.

Read more: Photographing a Species In-depth

How to find and photograph anemones

Anemones are invertebrates which are often found attached to hard surfaces such as rocks or reefs. Some species can also be found burrowing into the sand or mud on the seabed. These colourful creatures can be seen in oceans across the world; the waters around Britain alone are home to over 70 species of anemone, with over 1000 species worldwide.

plumrose anemone

Something important to note is that as we dive deeper, we begin to lose colours. The sunlight struggles to reach below the waves; reds, oranges, and yellows in particular are absorbed in the shallowest waters and cannot be seen after a few metres.

Anemones are notoriously colourful and to capture the true colours of these vibrant creatures it is essential to use an artificial light source. It can be in the form of strobe or video lights and helps to reintroduce some of the light absorbed by the ocean.

It is also worth knowing that many anemones are also translucent, which can create a wonderful glowing effect in your images if they are lit from behind or the side.

Lighting can be used to create harsh shadows by placing your lights directly to the side, or above the anemone. Having the confidence to move your lights or strobes around and control the lighting on your subject can have a huge impact on your images.

photographing anemones

Sea anemones (depending on their size) can be photographed with wide angle, macro, or super macro lenses.

If you are struggling to make the anemone pop, or are dealing with a distracting background, then selective lighting may be the best option for you.

A single strobe or snoot aimed at the subject will allow you to isolate an area and show the subject’s natural colour. Once you have isolated your subject you may need to adjust your setting and lighting to allow natural light to illuminate the background.

how to photograph sea anemone and clownfish

As they are related to jellyfish, sea anemones can deliver a painful sting to anything unlucky enough to come into contact with its tentacles, so be careful not to get too close!

Their tentacles are positioned in rings around the central mouth of the anemone. When extended they wave and sway in the currents, catching any creatures which stray too close, including eager underwater photographers!

Read more: How to Choose a Strobe for Underwater Photography

Slowing it down

Capturing the movement of an anemone’s waving tentacles offers an opportunity to create creatively wonderful, blurred images. We can capture this using a technique called motion blur.

This technique uses a setting called rear curtain flash or flash two: your flash fires at the end of the image exposure instead of the beginning and requires a slow shutter speed.

blurred anemone

Speeds between 1/5th and 1/15th of a second are a great place to start when trying to capture blur in your images. Remember that you can control the amount of blurred movement with the shutter speed, so don’t be afraid to experiment with it.

One thing to keep in mind with this technique is your overall exposure. You will have to compensate for the brightness with other settings, so make sure to lower your ISO and close the aperture accordingly.

Intertidal zones

Not all anemones are hidden under the waves. Some species live in the intertidal zone – the area where the ocean meets the land and rock pools appear at low tide. These are the most accessible of all sea anemone species. No special equipment is required, and in some cases, you don’t even need an underwater camera!

A keen eye is needed when working in rock pools; the anemone species will be much smaller than those you may encounter scuba diving due to limitations in the size of their habitat.

group of anemone

Rock pools can also be a very tight space to work in, especially if you’re trying to stay dry. If the pools are shallow, wetsuit boots or wellies will help to keep you dry. If you plan to go into the water, a wetsuit, mask, and snorkel will help you to see your camera screen when it is underwater.

snakelock anemone

For rock-pooling ventures, a small camera system is a must. It will be much easier to get it into the right position as there isn’t much space to work with. You must also be careful to not disturb any marine life which lives there when positioning yourself and your camera.

Read more: Top Tips to Improve Your Underwater Macro Images

In conclusion

Anemones are common species. Regardless of if you are looking in rock pools or scuba diving, there is a good chance that in every underwater outing you will find at least one.

Their abundance makes them great subjects to practice your underwater photography skills on. Of course, it is also helpful that these cnidarians spend most of their time in one position and rarely move quickly. Stationary subjects, such as anemones, are a great way to boost your confidence with new or more challenging underwater photography techniques!

Visit Shannon's website

Shannon Moran is an award winning underwater photographer based in Cornwall, UK. She has always had a love of the natural world and began scuba diving and photography in 2017, and has been following this passion ever since. Shannon hopes her photography can be used to highlight the importance of healthy seas and protect marine life in the UK.

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