How to Photograph Bioluminescence in the Ocean

Bioluminescence in the ocean

Ocean bioluminescence is one of the most beautiful displays of light from the natural world that you can witness. The iridescent blue light emitted from ocean algae at night is a captivating, otherworldly experience, and in this article, we will talk about how to photograph bioluminescence.

how to photograph bioluminescence

I’m based on the Sapphire Coast in New South Wales, Australia, and in September 2018, we were lucky to experience a rare bloom of bioluminescent algae. One photo I took of this phenomenon received attention on news channels and social media sites worldwide.

The photo shows a mesmerizing display of glowing bioluminescence set in the tranquil backwaters of a coastal lagoon and was nominated by both Tourism Australia and Canon Australia as one of their most engaging photos of the year.

While I would like to think that I was simply lucky in this moment, these images took thoughtful planning, careful research, communication with other photographers, an understanding of the local beaches, and knowledge and experience of shooting in low-light conditions in order to find success.

In this article, I’ll share what I’ve learned about how to photograph ocean bioluminescence and give you some top tips for capturing images of this incredible phenomenon!

What is bioluminescence?

Bioluminescence in the ocean, also known as ‘Sea Sparkle,’ is a natural phenomenon caused by Noctiluca, a marine dinoflagellate.

These single-celled organisms, similar to plankton, float near the ocean’s surface, often concentrated by gentle breezes along shorelines or within protected coves.

Noctiluca scintillans, a prevalent species in coastal Australia, emits a particularly mesmerizing blue glow when disturbed at night; what we have come to recognize as ocean bioluminescence.

bioluminescence in the ocean
Noctiluca scintillans ‘Red Tide’ as seen during the day.

This bioluminescence stems from a luciferin reaction, a process in which light-emitting compounds react with oxygen. Calm ocean surfaces diminish the likelihood of observing this glow, although human interaction can manually activate it.

They are best able to be seen and photographed on a new moon when the sky is as dark as possible.

Similar to other bioluminescent organisms, Noctiluca possesses an internal biological clock, refraining from glowing during daylight hours, regardless of external darkness.

In daylight, dense Noctiluca blooms manifest as a soft pink haze on the water’s surface, colloquially termed “Red Tide” (refer photos).

Read more: 10 Ways to Photograph Water

How to find ocean bioluminescence

One of the biggest challenges of photographing bioluminescence is its elusive nature.

It is not a regular occurrence in any particular place or at any particular time, and it only flourishes under specific environmental conditions, which are still not fully understood by marine scientists.

Best places to see bioluminescence

Although these blooms are rare and random, there are certain hotspot locations where appearances are more frequent, as they are susceptible to the algae being deposited by wind and tides.

ocean bioluminescence

Some hotspot areas in Australia are located along the southeastern coast, including Jervis Bay, NSW, and Southern Tasmania.

Other ocean bioluminescence hotspot locations around the world include:

  • Mosquito Bay, Puerto Rico
  • Toyama Bay, Japan
  • Matakatia Bay, New Zealand
  • Matsu Island, Taiwan
  • Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
  • Koh Rong, Cambodia
  • Manialtepec Lagoon, Mexico
  • Manasquan Beach, New Jersey, USA
  • San Juan Island, Washington, USA
  • San Diego, California, USA

I recommend doing some research on your location if you’re hoping to find bioluminescence in your local area.

The lifespan of the algae is relatively short (approximately 48 hours), leaving only a brief window to witness this rare event, so in order to photograph it, you will need to be prepared.

Read more: Taking Your Camera on Expedition? Here’s Some Crucial Advice

How do you find ocean bioluminescence?

With a quick search over the ocean during the day, the algae bloom can be easily spotted by its pinkish/red color, hence the daytime common name ‘Red Tide’.

The algae floats on the ocean surface in a mass soupy-like aggregation and is dispersed mostly by wind. It is easily blown onto shorelines and into estuaries and inlets where it becomes susceptible to tidal forces.

ocean bioluminescence
Noctiluca scintillans ‘Red Tide’ as seen during the day.

Noctiluca Scintillans ‘Red Tide’ as seen during the day.

Your best bet is to pre-scout your compositions and the location of the red tide during the day, and to get yourself in position and ready at sunset because as soon as the sun goes down, the magic happens.

Read more: Composition in Landscape Photography – The Essential Guide

Equipment for photographing ocean bioluminescence

I shoot with a Canon mirrorless R5 with the RF 15-35mm f/2.8 and RF 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses. This gear performs very well in low-light conditions, and as you will be photographing at night for this phenomenon, I recommend prioritizing equipment that copes well in limited light.

ocean bioluminescence
Noctiluca scintillans: Bioluminescence activated by human interaction.

Other essential gear includes:

You may also need to activate the bioluminescent properties of the algae using props like buckets of water, sticks, or human interaction, so it’s essential to have equipment and wear clothing which is also durable and weatherproof.

Camera settings for night photography

Generally, the same settings and techniques used for low-light long-exposure photography also apply when shooting bioluminescence. Open the aperture, use a higher ISO, and experiment with a different range of exposures depending on the location and desired effect.

The following photos show three different setting techniques. Let’s walk through how changing your shutter speed will affect your ocean bioluminescence images.

Read more: The Best Settings for Night Photography

Shutter Speed at 0.3 Seconds

Shot on a Canon EOS R5 and RF 70-200mm f/2.8L Lens | ISO 3200 | f/2.8 | 0.3s | 100mm focal length

In this photo, I used a telephoto lens to capture the glowing bioluminescence in a distant moving wave. This required a relatively fast shutter speed in low-light conditions.

how to photograph bioluminescence
Shot on a Canon EOS R5 and RF 70-200mm f/2.8L Lens | ISO 3200 | f/2.8 | 0.3s | 100mm focal length.

I shot the wave using a shutter speed of 0.3 seconds. This is generally the same speed that I shoot all of my moving water images, as it still captures the form of the wave but with a blurred sense of movement.

To compensate for the faster shutter in low light, you will need to use a higher ISO of around 3200, allowing more light onto the camera’s sensor.

Shutter Speed at 30 Seconds

Caption: Shot on a Canon EOS R5 and RF 15-35mm f/2.8L Lens | ISO 400 | f/4 | 30 sec | 15mm focal length

In the above photo, I used a wide-angle lens to capture the bioluminescence in a landscape setting. As there was little movement within the scene, I was able to expose for anywhere between 30-60 seconds.

ocean bioluminescence
Shot on a Canon EOS R5 and RF 15-35mm f/2.8L Lens | ISO 400 | f/4 | 30 sec | 15mm focal length.

When you have a relatively still low-light scene, I always try to expose for a longer time rather than increase the ISO in order to get a cleaner image with less noise.

You can clearly see the splashes in the water where I used a bucket of water to throw over the scene to activate the bioluminescence.

Read more: How to Reduce Noise in Photos in Lightroom

Shutter Speed at 60 Seconds

I was fortunate enough to shoot this scene during the rain, where each raindrop activated the algae’s bioluminosity. It was the most beautiful experience watching the entire lagoon glow blue!

Bioluminescence in the ocean
Caption: Shot on a Canon EOS R5 and RF 15-35mm f/2.8L Lens | ISO 200 | f/8 | 60 sec | 15mm focal length.

I set the aperture to f/8 to achieve a sharp depth of field, lowered the ISO to 200 to reduce noise, and increased exposure to 60 seconds to maximize image quality in the low luminosity light.

Ultimately, deciding on a shutter speed will determine the style of your bioluminescent images.

It’s up to you to determine how much movement you’d like to capture in the scene, and if you ever get the chance to experience this phenomenon, I highly recommend experimenting with your camera settings as much as possible in the moment.

This will give you the greatest variety of shots to choose from when you get home.

Top tips for how to photograph bioluminescence

To photograph bioluminescence, you’re going to need to be prepared in advance. Forget your smartphone camera; expect to bring a decent camera with manual settings and a tripod and a remote shutter control to shoot long-exposure photography.

This is a technique used to capture scenes in low-light conditions, whereby you keep the camera perfectly still and leave the shutter open for long periods.

how to photograph bioluminescence

For bioluminescence, you will likely be leaving the shutter open anywhere from 30 to 90 seconds. I recommend reading up on long-exposure photography techniques before you head out for this, as it will give you the best chance of success on the night!

Read more: Long Exposure Photography – Creative Landscapes with a Slow Shutter

Get focused

It is often difficult to set the correct focus in low-light conditions. A useful tip is to use a head torch to illuminate your foreground, and use auto-focus on that particular point. Once focus has been detected, quickly change setting to manual focus to lock in the focus point.

Bioluminescence in the ocean

This will ensure your image is pin-sharp when reviewing.

Read more: Back Button Focus – When and Why to Use It

Pre-scout your location

Take a walk up your local beach during the day and try to locate the pink algae aggregations along the shoreline. When you find it, have a think about your compositions.

how to photograph bioluminescence

Is there anything interesting in the foreground? What will the tide be like later that night? Get yourself and your setup ready at sunset to photograph the bioluminescence.

Read more: Landscape Composition – Using Foreground to Create Depth

Look for movement

The algae only illuminates when disturbed, so you will need to find a location with crashing waves on a beach or in a gentle bay with small lapping waves to capture a distinctive glow along the shoreline.

how to photograph bioluminescence

Read more: How to Use Water in Your Landscape Photos

Stay late

Be prepared for a long night. The lifespan of the algae is relatively short, leaving only a brief window to witness and photograph this rare event.

So, take as many shots as you can as you never know when or where this rare occurrence will happen again!

Read more: How to Choose Your Best Images After a Shoot

In conclusion

This magical phenomenon can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so if you get the chance to photograph it, it is important to stay focused.

Brush up on your long exposure and nighttime photography techniques beforehand, make sure you have the right equipment, and don’t be afraid to experiment with shutter speeds or to overshoot on the night.

However, you should also remember to take time out to relax and enjoy the rare beauty of this unusual natural spectacle. ‘Sea Sparkle’ is worth seeing through your own eyes; not just through the lens.

Visit David's website

David is a passionate landscape and nature photographer based on the Sapphire Coast of New South Wales, Australia. His photography has been recognized by both Tourism Australia and Canon Australia, and in 2018, his photos of a rare bloom of bioluminescent algae received attention on news channels and social media sites around the world. To David, ocean bioluminescence is one of the most beautiful displays of light from the natural world that you can witness.

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