How to take pictures of mudskippers
Last weekend, I visited the mudskippers again, this time with my girlfriend. We both came prepared with our telephoto lenses and proper outdoor-wear.
One challenge faced when taking pictures of mudskippers is the fact that they look like mud, and mud brown is not a very inspiring color. Of course, mudskippers by themselves are interesting and fun to watch, but after you see about a hundred photos of them, they start to blend into each other. So, to make things interesting, I’ve found that taking pictures of them at golden hour helps make them more interesting. The brown mud takes on both blue and orange tones (blue in the shadows and orange in the highlights). It makes for more drama and interest. So, we went at around sunset for a photo session at the bridge I wrote about before.
Getting interesting light isn’t the only challenge. From past experience, I’ve found that getting mudskippers in-focus is actually more difficult than you might imagine. There are several factors that contribute to the difficulty of getting mudskippers in-focus.
- Shutter speeds. Mudskippers move surprisingly fast in short bursts, so you need a high shutter speed to prevent motion blur.
- Depth of field. Shooting with my Oly 40-150mm f2.8 is fun, but even when shooting mudskippers far away, when they jump, they often jump out of focus. It’s also a problem when trying to get two battling mudskippers in focus.
- Both are compounded by the necessity to stop down and reduce shutter speeds at sunset or before sunrise (when the most interesting lighting occurs).
This photo was taken at a shutter speed of 1/800, which I though was more than enough when I was shooting that day. When I got back home and checked my pictures, I found that many of my pictures looked blurry. Bummer, dude.
To get ride of the motion blur I was getting, I had to increase my shutter speed to 1/2000, much higher than I expected.
But, of course, even at 1/4000, if the mudskipper jumps out of my depth of field, it will be blurry all the same.
Even stopped down a bit to f4.0, shooting at 150mm gives me very little wiggle room. I pre-focused on this mudskipper in anticipation of a jump, but it quickly jumped out of my depth of field. This happens regularly with mudskippers, and the only choice you have is to stop down some more, or hope that they stay in your depth of field.
It could also be the two mudskippers go to battle over territory or a nice lady mudskipper, and while one mudskipper is in focus, the other is just a bit out of focus. Notice how the face of the mudskipper in the water is in focus, but the face of the other one is out of focus a bit? It’s just in front of the depth-of-focus. In this case, my only option would be to stop down to give them some room to tussle.
But, if you are increasing your shutter speed and stopping down, then naturally you have to increase your ISO to compensate. When I first tried photographing mudskippers, I thought that an ISO of 200 would be possible since I was outdoors in “good light”. However, I found that at golden hour, an ISO range of 640-1600 was necessary. I would like to stop down some more, but ISO 3200 is really the upper limit in the useable range of ISOs on my OMD-EM1. The good news is that at 640-800, image quality is still excellent and noise is not a big problem.
So, if you go taking pictures of mudskippers, you should expect to use the following settings:
- Shutter speed: 1/2000 or above
- Aperture: f4 or above
- ISO: 640 or above, depending on your camera’s high iso picture quality.
If you go at the right time and get your camera settings right, you’ll definitely increase your chances of getting good photos, but there are still a few more challenges. It’s fun to take pictures of mudskippers scooping mud into their mouths or just hanging out, but those don’t usually make for the most interesting pictures. You want some action, right? But, even when you are absolutely surrounded by rolly-polly, flippy-floppy, hippity-hoppity mudskippers, it’s actually surprisingly difficult to have your camera on the right mudskipper at the right time. Mudskippers don’t yell out, “I’m gonna jump! Get ready!”, the just suddenly put up their fins and go for it. They also don’t usually jump more than a couple of times before stopping for a break or returning to their burrow. So, how do you get the right moment?
- Be patient. Yes, there are many mudskippers everywhere else fighting and frolicing, but you aren’t gonna get anywhere constantly reaiming your camera and trying to get the action in focus. Take your time, and focus.
- Mudskippers that have jumped around during the breeding season are likely to jump again, as long as they aren’t bothered. So, if you see one jump and stop, just wait for it to jump again. It might be a few minutes.
- When there are lots of mudskippers out, some will be roaming around in search of food, opening up the chance of a fight as the roaming skipper goes into another’s territory. So, if you see one moving around, just keep an eye on it for a while. If you see it approaching another mudskipper, you may have only a short window to capture the moment of conflict. Usually, roaming mudskippers aren’t looking for a fight, so they’ll quickly run off.
- Those roaming skippers might go in and out of their burrows. Keep an eye on one if you notice it doing that. You might be able to capture some interesting moments as they enter or exit their burrows.
- Sometimes mudskippers will engage in protracted territory conflicts or fight for breeding rights. They might fight for 5-7 seconds, separate for a while, then go back at it again several more times. If you see two skippers fight for a long time and then separate (but not too far away), then you should definitely observe those two for a while. It probably won’t be long before they fight again.
If you do things right, you’ll get lots of nice photos of our muddy friends.