For some of us, jellies may evoke childhood memories of gelatinous blobs on the beach; for others they’re milestones in the evolution of life. Scientists regard jellies as living links to some of the earliest animals that appeared 600 million years ago. The ancestors of jellies were among the first creatures whose bodies had groups of cells joined together to perform unified functions, such as muscle tissues that helped them pulse. But to photograph animals that have no head, heart, bones or brain, you need a different approach to show them at their best.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium gave me an opportunity to work with some of the jellies they’re raising for exhibits in tanks. When you want to photograph animals in an aquarium, no matter whether it’s a public institution or a private fish tank, you need to add light and eliminate reflections. I set up two strobes wrapped in softboxes on each side of my camera, and aimed them at 45-degree angles so that they wouldn’t reflect back into the lens. I put black fabric behind the tank because I wanted to show the jelly and nothing else. I also draped black fabric in front of the tank and cut a hole in it for my lens, keeping my camera, tripod—and myself—out of view. (I also dressed in black.)
The rest was up to the jelly. This particular kind, known as the “Flower Hat Jelly,” spends a lot of time sitting on the seafloor off the coast of Brazil, and that’s what it did in front of me as well. But when it finally moved, I was prepared to capture its otherworldly beauty, with the jelly suspended in blackness, looking like a translucent spaceship. The image I like best is perhaps one small step as a photographic achievement, but it visualizes a giant leap forward for all animal kind.
Get creative during one of Frans Lanting’s April 2011 workshops in Santa Cruz and Monterey, California. See a video clip at www.lanting.com/workshops.