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Wildlife photographer Neil Phillips captures the curious and beautiful diversity of underwater life

September 3, 2015
An unfamilliar view of a familiar creature: the common backswimmer (or water boatman). Image: Neil Phillips

An unfamiliar view of a familiar creature: the common backswimmer (or water boatman). Image: Neil Phillips

For a while now, we’ve been enjoying fantastic wildlife photographs taken by Neil Phillips and posted on his @UK_Wildlife twitter page.  Many of Neil’s photographs capture otherwise unseen views of underwater life, providing a window into this diverse and often beautiful submerged world.

In many ways, Neil’s photographs demonstrate a shared goal between freshwater science and art: that is through a curiosity to document and bring to life the patterns and processes of underwater life, largely obscured to the naked eye.  As you can see above, Neil’s macro photography can make even familiar creatures like the water boatman seem newly fascinating, curious and strange.

We contacted Neil to find out more about his process and rationale for taking photographs of freshwater life.  His response is posted below, alongside a number of his stunning photographs.

A female pirate spider with egg case.  Image: Neil Phillips

A female pirate spider with egg case. Image: Neil Phillips

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Ever since starting wildlife photography I have attempted to photograph the creatures found in ponds. Back in 2007 when I got my first bridge camera I tried photographing some of the backswimmers, phantom midge larvae and water mites I found in a local lake, using a plastic pot. The photographs that I got were good enough to identify the individual species, but didn’t show these wonderful creatures for what they were.

I did try a few time to photograph the fish and other creatures in my tropical freshwater aquarium at home, which were mostly failures due to reflection from the onboard flash, though I did manage a couple of photos of my pet caecilians (a type of legless amphibian)

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A caecilian, a legless amphibian. Image: Neil Phillips

It was not until I started my job in environmental education I really tried again, this time using flash off camera and putting a dragonfly nymph in an old small display aquarium. The shots I got were OK but I still had a way to go.

Emperor dragonfly nymph.  Image: Neil Phillips

Emperor dragonfly nymph. Image: Neil Phillips

A little later on I was reading Chris Packham’s book ‘Back Garden Nature Reserve‘ which has a couple of relatively random chapters at the end: one covering the problems cats cause for wildlife; and another one on photographing pond creatures. This gave me the confidence to have another go, now with a small plastic tank I bought from a pet shop.

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Four spotted chaser nymph. Image: Neil Phillips

One problem with the plastic tank was the fact it had a curved moulded join between the sides which distorted the image when shooting through it. The plastic itself also sometimes caused strange distortions away from the edges which could be distracting and hard to remove. I bought a flash cable so the flash was no longer mounted on the camera at 90 degrees to the glass (which often causes reflections) so I could angle the light on the subject to where I wanted it, which improved the results considerably.

Soon after this I came across another book with a triangular design for a photographic aquarium and set about building my own (with some help from my dad) from small bits of glass I bought from a local glazier.  With this new aquarium, I started getting images that I was happy with.

Water louse.  Image: Neil Phillips

Water louse. Image: Neil Phillips

The setup I use now is a small triangular or rectangular tank with something natural coloured for the background, filled with filtered clean water, and using my Pentax K-3 and the DFA 100mm macro lens, with the flash (with a diffuser) on the off camera flash cable.

Tank set up for photographing underwater life.  Image: Neil Phillips

Tank set up for photographing underwater life. Image: Neil Phillips

I want it to look like the creature is in its natural setting, so avoid photos of the creature obviously touching the glass or showing sides of the aquariums.  Similarly, I would instead use some pond weed or dead leaves which occur naturally in ponds, rather than gravel or stones which generally do not.

Screech beetle

Screech beetle. Image: Neil Phillips

Phantom midge larvae.  Image: Neil Phillips

Phantom midge larvae. Image: Neil Phillips

So why do I photograph these pond creatures? I suppose the main reason is my interest in freshwater life. As part of my job as an environmental educator I run pond dipping sessions almost daily in summer.  And, as I’m interested in macro photography I thought that the creatures that we were catching would make great subjects for photographs. Being found underwater also means that many of these creatures are rarely photographed too – a process that requires a photographic aquarium – which makes getting original photos easier, something that is becoming increasingly difficult to do in wildlife photography.

Perhaps mostly importantly of all I hope my photos will raise awareness of these wonderful species which a large number of people aren’t even aware of, even though they inhabit the streams, ditches, ponds and lakes that people encounter everyday.
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Neil runs Photographic Workshops on how to photograph underwater life.  You can find out more here.

You can also visit Neil’s website, his Flickr photo gallery, and follow him on twitter @UK_Wildlife

Mosquito larva.  Image: Neil Phillips

Mosquito larva. Image: Neil Phillips

Darter dragonfly nymph.  Image: Neil Phillips

Darter dragonfly nymph. Image: Neil Phillips

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