The Future of Flash Photography: Dying for the Shot – Or Maybe Not?

There is a quiet buzz on the RHIB as they approach the site.

There’s not much left to be said: every soul aboard is lost in their own thoughts as the hull slams time and time again into the tempestuous ocean. Reaching the lee of the island, the dark-clad divers slip silently into the water. Save for the RHIB driver, cautiously eyeing the gathering clouds on the distant horizon, there is no clue that they are even here.

As planned, they hunt as a pack, descending slowly to the depths of the ocean floor. Their fins create swirling vortices as they patrol, searching for their quarry. Suddenly, a frantic metallic banging reverberates through the water. A find! The divers pile in, anxious for their first glimpse. Flash! The disoriented seahorse couple huddle wide-eyed, frozen in the overpowering strobe light. Flash! Again. Blinded, they don’t know how to respond to this new threat, a huge black camera lens pushed up into their home. Flash! All they can do is panic and freeze, hoping that this terrifying new creature will soon leave…

Stop. Rewind. There is a quiet buzz on the RHIB as they approach the site. There’s not much left to be said: every soul aboard is deep in their own thoughts, yet the crackle of excitement moves through them all like electricity. One by one, each diver slips below the perfect, glass-like surface of the azure water, leaving barely a ripple as they descend. Beneath the gently swaying palms, the throaty burble of the RHIB’s engine is the only indication that they are even here.

Spreading out across the softly waving seagrass meadow below, shafts of sunlight piercing through the crystal waters, the divers scan carefully. They are anxious not to disturb this marine environment, but soon the signal comes from the Divemaster. Seahorse! As planned, the first diver begins their slow approach. The seahorses look warily in her direction but sense no threat. Flash! They stare curiously at this noisy new figure, wondering why they had not seen one before. Flash! Just like the deflection of a sunbeam, the seahorses can’t their heads slightly, interested. Flash! As the diver slowly backs away, memories safely ensconced in the complicated circuitry of her camera, the curious seahorses gaze at each other, wondering what other new experiences their day would bring…

Two different versions of the same event – but which is correct? Historical evidence would traditionally put most scientists firmly in the camp of the former; indeed, in the UK photographers are banned from using strobe lighting to take pictures of seahorses. Various rules exist around the world as to how many strobe-lit pictures a diver can take of a marine creature and well-meaning aquariums around the world blanket their walls with signs:

“No Flash Photography,” they proclaim.

But new research from Curtin University in Australia might be helping to dispel these assumptions.

Martin De Brauwer’s research, published in January 2019 in Nature Scientific Reports aims to answer three key questions: how do different fishes react to the typical behavior of scuba-diving photographers, does the recurrent flashing of seahorses change their behavior, and does the repeated exposure of the seahorses to intense flash damage their eyes?

De Brauwer and his team carefully peer into the tank containing their precious test subjects: thirty-six West Australian Seahorses. They have already tested their first hypothesis, analyzing how different fish react to the typical behavior of scuba diving photographers, and are now back at the University’s state-of-the-art aquarium facility.

“The goal of the second experiment was to test how seahorses react to flash without humans present.” De Brauwer said, speaking in ‘The Conversation.’

“During the experiment, we fed the seahorses with artemia (‘sea monkeys’) and tested for changes in their behavior, including how successful seahorses were at catching their prey while being flashed with underwater camera strobes.”

He glances over at the strobes used in his team’s testing. They are far stronger than flashes that seahorses are ever likely to encounter in the real world – potent, specialist underwater strobes fired repeatedly on full power.

“The conclusive, yet somewhat surprising, result of this experiment was that even the highest flash treatment did not affect the feeding success of the seahorses.” De Brauwer added.

“Un-flashed seahorses spent just as much time hunting and catching prey as the flashed seahorses. These results are important, as they show that flashing a seahorse is not likely to change the short-term hunting success (or food intake) of seahorses.”

The answer to their third question was just as compelling. Can taking photos of a seahorse really cause it to go blind? Microscopes and other other-worldly equipment stand aligned at the side of the lab where De Brauwer’s team have painstakingly dissected the eyes of their subjects – following strict ethical protocols, as De Brauwer is keen to point out. He himself seems surprised by the results of their testing.

“The results?” De Brauwer asks.

“We found no effects in any of the variables we tested. After more than 4,600 flashes, we can confidently say that the seahorses in our experiments suffered no negative consequences to their visual system.”

With this rather surprising finding came a reiteration of the advice that every learner diver should have drilled into them: look, but don’t touch. Less regularly the offence of the novice diver, it is often over-zealous dive guides that fall foul of this oft-touted rule. Whilst handling animals to please guests used to be commonplace, awareness of the effect that this behavior has on fishes is slowly, but thankfully, diminishing unwanted contact. One subset of the diving population who both publicly decry those who interfere with the lives of marine wildlife and yet are some of the most likely to exploit this rule are photographers. When the perfect subject presents itself for a once in a lifetime shot but the background is ugly, surely a little relocation won’t hurt, right?

Wrong. The Curtin University team found that frogfish, seahorses and pipefish who were repeatedly gently prodded into position caused them to move far more, usually to escape the errant muck stick. This has drastic implications for the subjects – not only does it stress the fish but may cause it to leave a prime hunting spot, resulting in malnutrition, or to leave a prime hiding spot, it’s only defense against predation. Ironically, this may cause a loss in numbers of the very creatures that dive guides and photographers are searching for.

Despite a literary landscape littered with conflicting advice, De Brauwer’s research seems to finally give clear direction, with a very strong message: absolutely, look and enjoy the underwater world, take pictures by all means, but don’t ever think about touching the critters that reside there. Whilst their research only directly investigates the results of flash on seahorses, more and more research is coming to the fore to support this finding in other fish. And as for whether the seahorses will ever discover who the curious creatures were that visited them that day, for now, we can only guess.

Four representative species used in this study (From top left, clockwise: Antennarius striatus, Solenostomus paradoxus, Hippocampus subelongatus, Hippocampus histrix). Taken from ‘Behaviour and Pathomorphological Impacts of Flash Photography on Benthic Fishes,’ De Brauwer et al. 2019.

Quotes taken from the article ‘Flash Photography Doesn’t Harm Seahorses – But Don’t Touch,’ published in ‘The Conversation’ on 24 Jan 19.

Story by Charlie Thisby, Institute of Marine Sciences, University of Portsmouth

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