Tips for capturing Mating Mandarin Fish

I was in Indonesia during the second part of May and I had in mind to take some clips and stills of mating mandarin fish

Mandarin Fish are very skittish creatures. During the day if you can see them they are usually hanging right close to sea urchins to make your life difficult.

Their movements are jerky and fast and they are very hard to capture. Mandarin fish mate every day at sunset, and they can be seen in specific spots around the world. Indonesia is the country that has more of those spots that are public knowledge.

The spot where they mate is usually shallow, 3 to 5 meters depth, and made entirely of rubble of broken coral.

So when you go and see Mandarin Fish mating all you are going to see is Mandarin Fish as other than the fish that prey on their eggs and the odd nudibranchs or squid there is really nothing else.

The rubble is usually quite light color and unpleasant to film, mandarin fish go swimming around those broken coral bits and only emerge from it for their mating ritual that lasts 4 seconds in total until the disperse eggs and sperm into the water.

Mandarin fish hates our light especially video lights and anything more than 150 lumens means the fish will just not show up and choose another place to make. This is very bad news because it means that all mandarin fish footage has to be taken at high ISO or high gain, with a lot of noise in the picture, it is important to have a camera that performs well in low light conditions and will produce footage that is watchable.

Video requires continuous light and as said before mandarin fish hate light especially cold light as your typical 6500K video light.

In order to make our set up more mandarin fish friendly there are few options:

  1. Buy two special red stealth lights such as Sola Photo light
  2. Buy red filters for your normal video light those also serve the purpose of reducing power output
  3. Use some sort of red diffuser for your lights

If you already have video lights and they don’t have the special red beam you are left with option 2 and 3.

A set of 2.2″ red filters will do the trick for the Sola lights

Sola+2.2" red filter
Sola+2.2″ red filter

I had ordered two red filters for my Sola video lights and of course these did not arrive on time for the trip so I had to improvise as you can see in this pictures that features my red speedo shorts!

Improvised red diffuser
Improvised red diffuser

As you can see the mandarin fish really hang out on the rubble.

The red weak light does not disturb the mandarin fish when they come out to play and allows you to get quite close shots.

I took a video whilst in Bunaken using my Panasonic LX7. I used the flat port and zoom between 50 and 90 mm. I performed custom white balance on the rubble with the red lights on.

The result is in this video

I also shot few stills in another dive. If you want to take pictures of mandarin fish you have a similar challenge in terms of not scaring the fish but also you need to be able to know when to shoot.

Those are my suggested settings:

  • Shoot a normal lens around 90mm equivalent
  • Disable any form of pre-flash as that scares the fish and stops the mating act
  • Try to pre-focus as you will be in low light and don’t want blurred pictures
  • Shoot RAW
  • Try to follow a couple of fish from the start and count to 4
  • The eggs are released at 4 any other shot can be taken earlier
  • If possible (it was not possible for me) try to point the camera up to avoid the rubble
  • Set high shutter speed to have a dark background and get rid of the rubble

The featured image and this other one are my two best shots, there is minimal cropping

Mating Mandarin Fish
Mating Mandarin Fish

I took all my shots at the minimum aperture to have maximum depth of field but this I believe is an error and gives too much detail of the rubble behind.

I think the video that is shot at wide apertures is better and less distracting.

Another tip of environmental nature is that usually the rubble patch with the mandarin fish is small more than 2 cameras and there are just too many and the max is 4 dives plus the guide. I am glad I did my mandarin dives in Bunaken and not in Lembeh where you can get up to 10 people on the same spot whilst in Bunaken I was on my own twice.

I hope you found those tips useful and good luck with your next mandarin dive!

Advertisements