Photographing cephalopods

Words and photographs by Sam Glenn-Smith

“I told myself that this might be the night. Three months I had been looking for a southern blue-ringed octopus with no luck. But as it turned out, patience was truly a virtue.” Underwater photographer Sam Glenn-Smith shares some tips and techniques that have changed the way he is photographing octopuses.

Having entered the black and tranquil water for countless times over a three-month period, I told myself that this might be the night. Three months I had been looking for a southern blue-ringed octopus with no luck. But as it turned out, patience was truly a virtue. Cruising between the wooden pylons of Blairgowrie Marina near Melbourne in Australia, a site I had dived countless times before I spotted something unusual in front of me. As my video light began to illuminate this strange being as I got closer and closer, my heart skipped a beat. There before me was this strange yellow grey clump of sand with arms, slowly but methodically moving with purpose, almost like its arms were thinking independently of its body. The scene reminded me of an underwater ballet.

As I got closer, those quintessential blue rings flashed like neon lights as the creature’s attention turned to me and its movement slowed. Finally, I had found a southern blue-ringed octopus. Three months of heartache and searching had yielded one of my most incredible dives yet. I was fortunate to spend 15 minutes with the elusive octopus as it hunted and searched the sandy sea floor. My passion for octopuses had only just begun, and whether it’s my first or 400th blue ring octopus, I still feel that same excitement and thrill today. With passion burning and camera ready, it was time for me to become an octopus photographer.

Octopuses are some of the most incredible, colourful and charismatic animals in our oceans, and as such they have become a bucket list item for most underwater photographers. Whether it is the wish to capture the incredible behaviours of a mimic octopus, the textures of a coconut octopus or the mystique and power of a blue-ringed octopus, the opportunities and possibilities are almost endless. However, shooting an octopus can be a daunting and unforgiving task for photographers new and old. The thrill of seeing an octopus can often be a photographer’s downfall, as there is a tendency to rush shots and miss the purpose of our experience – to document and share something unique, incredible and breathtaking. So, how can we as photographers enhance our skills to photograph octopus; what are the signs and behaviours we should look for, and what are the techniques we should adopt?

I have grown up on the Mornington Peninsula and been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in the water with a wide range of octopus species, including the maori octopus, the southern keeled octopus, the pale octopus, the sand octopus and, of course, the infamous southern blue-ringed octopus. My time in the water with these incredible and unique creatures has taught me so much about photography, diving and the octopuses themselves. Whilst there is no formula for a perfect shot, these are a few tips and tricks I have found helpful to capturing the incredible creatures that so many divers admire.

When we as photographers see something new or exciting, emotions can get the better of us. We are all guilty of this including myself, however in my experience I have found, more often than not, a rushed photo never truly conveys a moment and is often a bit of a letdown. This is why slowing down is of essence. A good philosophy to adopt (not just for shooting octopus but for all marine life) is to focus on getting one good shot, rather than 15 bad ones.

Whilst this is a concept, I am sure most photographers would agree with, doing it in practise is much more difficult than many of us might think. My first dives on which I would meet a new species of octopus would often yield over 200 photos of a single individual, most of which were terrible. In comparison, in most circumstances now I may only shoot five to ten photos of an individual, a few of which are to adjust settings and the rest are to capture behaviours, colours and textures of the individual. Slowing down and taking your time also leads into the next point, which is to go in with a plan or a particular shot in mind and attempt to execute that one brilliant and unique photo you have dreamed of.

I am fortunate to have access to many octopus species at my local dive sites, some easy to find and others not so easy to find. During my time underwater, I have learnt a lot about the behaviours and patterns of these animals, and have adopted a shooting plan when photographing octopuses. Similar to how a director might storyboard a film, or a designer will come up with multiple sketches and ideations, I like to plan my shots. Whilst there is only so much one can plan for when shooting an octopus, going into the dive with an idea of how the shot will look has helped me a lot.

Whether it is shooting with a snoot and isolating the octopus from a messy background (such as habitat I am most likely to find the octopus in) or capturing its habitat such as a reef outcrop or a blue background, having my equipment and myself focus on achieving a particular shot certainly helps.

Without question, the best advice I can give when taking an image of an octopus is to emphasise and capture the behaviour of the creature. Octopus are incredibly charismatic and unique, and no two species nor octopuses are and act the same. A photo that captures behaviour in new and unique ways makes for a much more interesting photo than one that has been taken countless times by other divers.

By being patient and observing octopuses before rushing in to take a quick photo you may find that the octopus becomes curious and active around you. Quite often you can have an individual reach out to touch or taste your dome port or begin hunting or interacting with other marine life around you. Always be respectful of the octopus and keep a safe and healthy distance so that you do not startle or disturb the creature and you will find you probably will get some incredible behavioural shots.

Quite often, octopuses will be found in hard-to-photograph areas. Whether the individual is tucked away in a rocky crevice or hides in a den with only its eyes and a few arms visible, photographers need to get creative to create an image that works. This provides a unique opportunity to try something new and different, whether that means to shoot macro with a shallow depth of field, to use a snoot to isolate the subject from its backdrop or to get creative with backlighting or coloured filters. The photographic opportunities are endless.

It is also worth experimenting with different lens options and camera settings. Shooting from large to shallow depth of fields can dramatically change your image, as will switching from macro to fisheye lenses. Be mindful of the environment, as well as the behaviour of the creature as this can play a large role in lens selection. Southern blue-ringed octopuses, for example, are quite large in comparison to other blue-ring species and can therefore be shot with a variety of lenses. You don’t have to strictly choose a macro lens here to really change your shot.

Another important tip: shoot low to high. This may seem like an over-exaggerated point when it comes to underwater photography but showcasing an octopus against a blue background or in front of a sunburst almost always yields breathtaking results. Getting a dome port as low as possible and tilting it upward will make the octopus look large, powerful and omniscient. If you can then contrast this with a bright glowing sun you will have some incredible images. It may also solve the issue of having your individual in front of messy and cluttered backgrounds that you will often find octopuses in.

Researching your subjects and knowing what kind of octopus you might be shooting on a dive – or at least hoping to – can provide you with the knowledge of behaviour and habitats to look out for. Finding octopuses can be almost impossible, let alone pulling off an incredible shot, so the more information we can have going into our dives the better. Researching octopuses will provide you with information on their behaviours and traits, and in turn can prepare you for a unique shot. Knowing the mating patterns of pale octopuses, for example, allowed me to not only witness the pre-mating rituals, but also the mating of these incredible creatures. I was able to capture these photos because I was not only in the right place at the right time, but because I knew my subject and planned the dives around seeing this behaviour by gathering information, doing online research and speaking to fellow divers and photographers.

Whilst there is certainly no perfect way to shoot octopuses, there are so many different techniques and attitudes we can adopt as underwater photographers to help us improve our skills. Whilst producing breathtaking shots may come down to practice, rehearsal and luck, many of the above tips have helped me improve my octopus photography considerably. Pre-planning my shots and knowing my subjects has allowed me to photograph behaviours and unique images that I never would have dreamed of only a few years ago. Whilst I will always have something new to learn, my time in the water with these incredible creatures has taught me a lot about my photography and myself, and it is truly a privilege to share the water with such a sentient and charismatic being.