Be The Champ!
We move on from Micronesia to Indonesia this month as ALEX MUSTARD alights in Misool – another classic location in which the photographer’s task is not so much to find suitable subjects as to do justice to an overload
‘The challenge is not finding something to shoot, but
keeping your focus to get the best possible shots’
Next on our list of exotic, once-in-a-lifetime photographic destinations is Misool. Misool Eco Resort, to use its formal title, is a tiny island in the very best part of the richest reef system I have ever dived and probably ever will – Raja Ampat, in remote Indonesia.
I first visited the Misool reefs in 2006, before the resort had been built, and it was easy to conclude that these were the best hard coral, best soft coral and fishiest reefs I had ever seen.
Appeared in DIVER June 2019
What is perhaps even more remarkable is, that returning there down the years and again this year, the diving is ever more impressive. OK, there are more liveaboards and therefore more divers, but many new dive-sites have been discovered and we now know more manta-cleaning stations.
Above all, however, there are more, scratch that, a lot more fish, a lot more turtles and a lot more rays and sharks. Species we’re used to witnessing being strangled from the oceans are blossoming here.
What’s the secret formula? There’s no magic trick, just sound marine conservation. The Eco in the name is much more than marketing.
A 300,000-acre marine protected area is an integral part of the resort and is funded and staffed from part of what you pay to stay. The reserve employs a 15-strong team of local rangers, many of them former shark-finners, patrolling using a five-boat fleet and using radar surveillance to prevent fishing.
And when we give Nature a fair chance, it really works. Scientific studies have measured a 250% average increase in the amount of fish inside the reserve over a six-year period and there are 25 times more sharks here than when I first visited.
Back then it was rare to see one in a week’s diving, but now you see multiple reef sharks on pretty much every site.
What this means for the photographer is an abundance of subjects, making the challenge not finding something to shoot, but keeping your focus to get the best possible shots!
There is far more to Misool than the spectacular reef scenery. This is also the best destination I know for pygmy seahorses – we found 18 just on the resort’s house reef, so they are well worth focusing on.
Choose a dive on which everyone else is shooting wide-angle, so that you have lots of time to shoot. Then invest that time watching the pygmies, and zapping only when they are perfectly posed.
Raja Ampat is situated just south of the Equator. In fact I have dived across the Equator under water in the very northern part of the archipelago, which means it doesn’t have a limited diving season.
Most photographers tend to avoid going there in our summer months, which typically bring rougher seas.
Our autumn is my favourite season because it brings grand schools of baitfish that flood these already vibrant reefs. I also enjoy visiting in early spring, when the visibility is typically at its best, but it’s important to stress that the place is special whenever you go.
The first thing that strikes you under water is the richness of life. Think back to how overwhelming your first dives were on a coral reef, packed with such movement, shapes and colours of life that it was hard to process.
Slowly over the years you build familiarity, and a reef dive is more like reuniting with old friends.
Well, the richness that greets you when you dive in Raja Ampat is like resetting the clock. And this mesmerising abundance of life is something I have learned to try to capture when shooting these amazing reefs.
My classic advice when it comes to shooting wide-angle is to simplify. Powerful pictures tend to be simple, graphic compositions, rather than the mess of shapes and colours we’re presented with under water.
In practice on a coral reef, this means focusing on a single soft coral, seafan or anemone and combining it with a pleasing background.
This approach permeates all branches of photography. In landscape photography, one of the greats, Charlie Waite, teaches “intend and attend”; strong pictures come from purposely intending every single thing that appears in the frame, while carefully attending to the details to ensure that nothing has crept into our composition that shouldn’t be there. It is essential advice.
I followed the “simple is strong” approach on my early visits to Raja Ampat and produced lots of eye-catching scenic images. But the shots left me unfulfilled, because they failed to properly capture the place and its energy, density, chaos of life.
So down the years I have changed my approach, challenging myself to capture the richness of the reefs, accepting messier compositions to produce images that I feel do justice to the dive experience.
You don’t need a scuba tank to catch some of the best images in Misool. The hard coral gardens are stunning and grow right to the surface, so they’re great for gliding over when snorkelling without disturbing reflections with bubbles.
Where corals thrive near islands, such as Kalig, they are ideal for split levels. You can even incorporate the plentiful blacktip reef sharks into these images.
The adjustment required isn’t a big one, but for me at least it demands a conscious change of mindset.
These reefs are packed with excellent subjects for close-focus wide-angle, but we have to resist and instead look for bigger scenes where there are several subjects (fans, corals etc) that work together. The next step is to inject the energy of life into our scenic shots, making fish, not corals, the top priority in our scenic compositions.
There are two types of fish that I try to incorporate: the foreground hero fish and background schools.
A hero fish is any medium-to-large reef fish that we can incorporate in the foreground of a scenic shot to provide a focal point for the picture.
In Misool there are many options, but I regularly use angelfish, pufferfish and coral grouper in this role, because they tend to hang around the most attractive scenery.
Ideally, we don’t want our hero fish right in the middle of the frame. They are best placed off-centre and facing into the composition.
I seriously doubt that a hero fish has ever posed for a photographer in exactly the right place, just as they have perfected their composition and lighting. Instead, they’re normally there when we arrive and move away just before we press the shutter!
This means it is important to arrive with settings ready, as often our first shot of the scene will have the best-positioned hero fish.
Similarly, even in the rich reefs of Raja Ampat you can’t rely on schooling fish conveniently swimming into your backgrounds on cue, although it will happen.
Instead, when I see schooling fusiliers, anchovies or silversides massing together because of the presence of predators, I immediately look for a nice reef foreground to shoot them with.
They are particularly dramatic when they fill the entire frame or form into interestingly shaped schools in the background of our pictures.
As ever in underwater photography, producing pictures that capture the essence of a destination doesn’t happen by accident, even in a dream destination such as Misool.
But with careful planning we can take home something that really tells its story.
Another great snorkelling option in Misool are the friendly resident green turtles that almost come right up to the beach to feed on the seagrass beds.
These herbivores are easy to approach snorkelling and we can shoot a range of pictures, such as them munching on the grass, shooting up as the turtles coming up to the surface to breathe or down to capture their attractive shells from above.