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A Seeing Eye – Glass eels reveal all 1970

My images fall into two distinct categories. They are either grabbed unplanned shots of a fleeting moment or ephemeral light. Alternatively, since the seasons govern life and death in the natural world, some can be planned weeks, or even months, in advance when I know the subject is most likely to be seen and then I can visualise the shot.

The aim of this irregular series is to explain – in 200 or less words – how I saw the image, how I lit and cropped it.

Transparent elvers or glass eels reveal gills, backbone, heart and gut

Transparent elvers or glass eels reveal gills, backbone, heart and gut

Our freshwater eels migrate down rivers to spawn in the sea. The first stage larva – the leptocephalus – is flattened and leaf-like. These change into the elvers or glass eels that migrate up rivers. They are most active at night, when fishermen on the River Severn catch them in large boat-shaped nets.

I realised the only way to capture the writhing glass eels and reveal the gills, heart and backbone within their transparent bodies, was in my studio. Using a small vertical tank – one of many I had designed to photograph aquatic life – two flash units were angled in obliquely behind the tank with a black velvet background. The composition was inevitably a fluid one since the bodies writhe incessantly. Using film, I shot on both 35mm and 6 x 6cm formats with no option to ‘chimp’ the shoot. Some frames failed because the elvers overlapped each other, but you only need a few.

This image has been used in textbooks, in articles about migrating animals and for ID in an aquarium display. The vertical format has negative space at the top for a masthead.  Now that 45 years have elapsed, I doubt I could improve on the shot today.

200 words

This is a revised and shortened version of a much longer one that originally appeared in Nikon Owner Magazine