All images © Alex Mustard

I doubt that anywhere on the planet boasts a greater concentration of underwater photographers and camera gear than a narrow, ten mile stretch of sheltered water between North Sulawesi and Lembeh Island. The Lembeh Strait in Indonesia is a true mecca for aquatic snappers, who appreciate the smaller things in life. I clearly remember the excitement in the Holland Club when Greek photographer Constantinos Petrinos first shared his groundbreaking Lembeh portfolio from the times when there was just one resort…

If you have not been, a word of warning. Despite its fame, Lembeh doesn’t look promising when you first arrive at a rustic dock, fresh from weaving through the busy streets of the city of Bitung. The waters may be calm, but they are certainly not the crystal blue that we usually associated with the finest tropical diving. There will even a smattering of litter floating on the surface. The first few minutes of our opening dive are equally disappointing: the visibility is more akin to Swanage in an easterly and the scenery, at many of the sites, consists only of mud.

Hairy frogfish and diver – Olympus EPL-5 (left), Schooling catfish – Nikon D850 (right)

Then your guide pings his tank with his pointer stick and reveals the first of many wonders that make every dive here totally unmissable. Lembeh dives are not about scenery, but subjects: warty frogfish, seahorse, mimic octopus, devil scorpionfish, ornate ghost pipefish, blue ring octopus and nudibranchs galore. And that was just dive one! Regularly, divers come out of the water laughing, it is the only emotion that makes sense, after dives with such an embarrassment of riches.

There is actually a downside to this super-abundance of subjects – it turns underwater photographers into stamp collectors. It is an inevitable consequence of dives that are focused on turning up as many critters as possible. And is not helped because the chat between dives that always revolves around “have you seen this, yet?”. Underwater there is always the temptation of another great subject ready and waiting and too often photographers twist rather than stick.

Pontoh’s pygmy seahorses  – Nikon D4

I have seen it time and again. Underwater photographers go to Lembeh and come back with hundred of shots of different creatures, but almost all are simply record style shots. They are memories of what was seen, they are not memorable images. And what makes it worse is that people don’t realise until they are home. The problem is not helped because the resorts even encourage guests to construct wish-lists: giant frogfish, wonderpus octopus, harlequin shrimps and the like. The result is everyone’s thoughts are focused entirely on subjects and not on photography. In Lembeh, and other muck diving locations, the key to memorable photos is to think of more than subjects. Our first thought when shown a subject is whether it is in a good position for a photo. If not it is better to move on. If it is, we must work the opportunity.

Lembeh’s other challenge is that the black sand that makes up much of the scenery isn’t pure obsidian, but grey or brown and flecked with grains and pebbles of every colour. In short, it is a messy, distracting background. In fact, it would be hard to design a less attractive background for our shots. It is fine for an ID style shot, but the main challenge of shooting in Lembeh is how we deal with this black sand background in our images.

The good news is that there are many solutions to the problem. The simplest is to find a subject living up, away from the seabed, that can be framed against open water. Subjects like pygmy seahorses, xeno crabs, whip coral gobies and many others can easily be composed like this, and with a fast shutter speed pictured on a clean black background. As a variation we can also slow down our shutter speed to allow the ambient light to come in and produce a blue (well blue-green) background. Many critters live on other critters. Every diver knows about anemonefish and anemones, but in the heart of reef biodiversity, almost every imaginable niche is exploited. Crabs and, particularly, shrimps get everywhere, making their homes on all sorts of other invertebrates. These often make excellent backgrounds, so we should shoot them without too magnification and a closed aperture to get everything in focus.

The majority of Lembeh’s star attractions are out on the sand, so we can’t always simply avoid the problem. When any background is further away from the subject it will be less focused, less lit and, in short, less distracting. I am not advocating breaking the BSoUP’s Code of Conduct and moving the subject, instead I always try and find a viewpoint that frames the subject against as distant a background as possible. Getting the camera as low to the seabed as possible makes all the difference in this regard. We should also think about opening the aperture up a little to throw the background even further out of focus. This is especially beneficial with larger subjects (with tiny subjects we are usually working at such high magnifications that depth of field is already limited).

Zebra seahorse pan – Nikon D850

Squid panning shot – Nikon D850

An alternative strategy is to stop the background from being distracting is to use a wide angle lens. A wide angle will make the individual distractions in the background insignificant, because now a large expanse of seabed is in our shot. The problem with a standard wide angle shot is that our subject, which is probably smaller than a couple of fingers, is now tiny in the frame. To compensate we need to get our wide angle lens very, very close to the subject. We need a very close focusing lens, a small dome and subject that is so sure of its camouflage that it will remain relaxed and in place as we carefully position the camera. The new Nauticam EMWL lens is designed just for this job and I am very excited to finally get mine to Lembeh. The result of a wide angle macro approach is an image full of impact: where the subject pops out of the frame with an almost three dimensional look, and the background gives a sense of the habitat without being distracting.

We can also deemphasise the distracting sand with our lighting. Techniques like inward lighting, where the strobes are aimed to light just the subject, and snooted strobes, where the beam of the strobes are restricted to illuminate only the critter, are both highly effective.

Turtles are common. Hawksbills are found on most dive sites and every now and then you will find a particularly friendly individual, or at least one so engrossed in its dinner, that you can hang out with it for a while. This is when the best images come. Green turtles tend to be more patchy, rare until encountered in good numbers on certain sites, such as Kuredu Caves. Their particularly pretty shells work well when photographed from above, or if they are resting, their characterful faces make for memorable portraits. Turtles are always more reflective than the reef, so if you remember one thing, always click down your strobe power when you see one!

Stargazer face – Nikon D4

The key to stunning images in Lembeh is to dive safe in the knowledge that we are guaranteed to see great subjects and instead focus our thoughts on controlling our backgrounds. That way we’ll come home with much more than a collection of fantastic subjects, we’ll come home with fantastic photographs.

Veined octopus sheltering in shell – Olympus EPL-5

Alex’s Top Tips

1. Although Lembeh is a macro destination, many of the subjects are not tiny, tiny. Frogfish, octopus, rhinopias, scorpionfish etc are not suited to the tightest macro lenses. In classical photo-geek speak they are 60mm subjects, not 105. So pack both lenses.

2. Many of best subjects in the Strait live on the muddy sand and this is easily stirred up. Learn to settle into shooting position carefully and equally take off without using your fins. The visibility is always good enough for sparklingly clean shots, unless you are in a dust cloud of human creation.

3. Don’t arrive in Lembeh with a must-do list of dive sites. The Strait has many famous sites, but they are never all hot all the time. Often the most amazing dive site on one trip will be quiet on your next visit. Always go where the guides suggest.