How to Photograph Jellyfish
As we approach summer here in the UK, many seasonal visitors grace our waters. Jellyfish, among many other pelagic species, arrive here as the sea temperatures increase.
In terms of photographic subjects, jellyfish are great for practicing your technique. They are slow-moving, colourful, and abundant in the summer.
Jellyfish are cnidarians, along with sea anemones, sea pens, and corals. Their distinguishing feature is that they have tentacles containing stinging cells. All jellyfish have tentacles, some species larger than others. The barrel jellyfish can grow to be well over a metre long.
Each species has their own unique shape and pattern, but all are radially symmetrical, have a translucent body, and lack organs. The body of a jellyfish usually has the shape of a bell or umbrella. They swim slowly and weakly, and are carried across oceans by currents, spending most of their lives floating in shallow water.
Know your jellyfish
Despite their beauty, some jellyfish can have a nasty sting if touched. All jellyfish have stinging cells, but some do not affect humans as much as others. Make sure you do your research before looking for these magnificent creatures.
Most jellyfish we have here in the UK have a mild to medium sting, often compared to that of stinging nettles, but it’s best to avoid getting too close to any.
Blue jellyfish (Cyanea lamarckii), compass jellyfish (Chrysaora hysoscella), and moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) are the most common species I encounter here in the south west. Occasionally we are treated to some barrel jellyfish (Rhizostoma pulmo), but they are more difficult to predict.
Read more: 5 underwater species to photograph in the UK
Strobes versus natural light
Usually, the introduction of a strobe or two to underwater photography is due to a lack of natural light, or loss of colour at depth. Luckily, jellyfish spend most of their adult lives floating around near the surface.
Strobes, on top of an already expensive camera system, are often not a priority, so many new underwater photographers learn how to use natural light for their photography, and introduce a strobe at a later date.
However, do not fear: jellyfish can be photographed well with or without a strobe, and sometimes a strobe can cause unnecessary reflections when close to the surface.
In very shallow water (1-3m), the sun can be sufficient to light a scene. On a very bright, sunny day, sunlight can reach greater depths, further removing the need for a strobe.
But equally, having a strobe or artificial light source can be useful in lighting the subject and reintroducing the shades of red and orange, which are lost as you dive below the first few metres.
Keep in mind that you need to expose your image for the natural light. This can make the subject dark when trying to expose for a bright sunburst. In this situation, a strobe is useful.
Another way to tackle the overpowering sunburst is to use the jellyfish to absorb the bright sunlight, by framing it in front of the sun. This will backlight the translucent subject, giving it a glowing effect.
When working so close to the surface, you have to consider that the background of the frame will likely be dominated by the surface and sunlight. Weather conditions affect the pattern on the surface: the calmer the seas, the more light is allowed through, and the more clearly you can see the sky.
A wonderful phenomenon happens when the sea is flat and calm, and visibility is good. This is called ‘Snell’s window’. It is the window from beneath the waves to the sky above, a highly desirable feature in underwater photography. Many photographers spend years waiting for the perfect conditions in which to capture the complete circle.
The window is most desirable when the sky is blue, and the fluffy white clouds can be seen clearly in the background. You can achieve this effect when the conditions allow, by using the widest lens possible and aiming your camera towards the surface.
I usually use an 8mm fisheye, but I can’t quite achieve the full circle with this lens.
When the surface isn’t quite so calm, the light creates a wonderful dappled effect as the light rays dance through the ripples on the surface. Golden hour, around sunrise and sunset, is the best time to capture the golden sunbeams in your images. Capturing the golden hue adds another layer of interest to an image which may be dominated by shades of blue.
Reflections in the surface are incredibly rewarding, when they work. They require perfect conditions and are easiest to achieve when the surface is calm, with few particles in the water. I find that before sunset, as the light drops, a reflection can be easier to achieve if you have a strobe to light the subject.
Be careful not to place the strobe too close to the camera, as it can sometimes be seen in the reflection. Being close to the surface or snorkelling is a must. Scuba equipment can be a hindrance, as the bubbles will agitate the surface.
Disturbing the surface will only make it harder to achieve a reflection. The flatter the surface, the better: glass-like conditions are the best.
Read more: An introduction to underwater photography
The key to a good split photograph is to have a subject of interest below the surface, and an interesting sky or landscape in the above-water view. Many well-composed splits fail because they lack a prominent subject under the water.
A dome port and a wide-angle lens are must-haves. The key to success is to use as large a dome port as you can. All of my splits are taken using a 4.3 inch dome, but this is small in comparison to most. The larger the dome, the easier it is to capture both above and below the waves.
A small dome can still achieve these results, but the surface is usually less crisp, and a little more patience is needed to get the image.
Jellyfish are incredibly versatile subjects, and in their abundance provide underwater photographers with the perfect subject on which to practice shallow-water techniques.
They are an under-appreciated creature that many of the public fear due to their sting but, once you dive below the waves and spend time in their world, you begin to appreciate their unique beauty.