Story Behind the Shot: Octopus Sunball

Josh Musselwhite describes how he shot an Octopus on the hunt that won him the best in show in the SoCal Shootout 2018
By Josh Musselwhite

For me, diving and photography started roughly around the same time. After getting certified in California in early 2014, I was in such awe of the beauty underwater that I had to share it with my family. So, I purchased my first compact camera and began taking photos. I read every article I could get my hands on – especially those by the Underwater Photography Guide, and The Underwater Photographer, by Martin Edge, more times than I can count. After several years with my compact camera, I upgraded to a Nikon D7200 and dual Sea & Sea YS-D1 strobes, which is what I shoot now. 

Finding the Octopus

The octopus encounter which led to my winning shot in the SoCal Shootout 2018 was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. I went out on Saturday with the Sundiver Express to the front side of Catalina. About 15-20 minutes into my first dive (at Little Gieger), I spotted him. At first, the octopus was very shy and tucked himself back into the rocks, so I ignored him and tried to shoot a nearby sea fan instead. But after about 3 shots, he started walking along the pinnacle.

At that point, he didn’t seem to care about me at all; he had food on his mind. For the next 30 minutes, I watched him hunt. Every couple of steps, he would dig his tentacles into the reef and inflate like a balloon – turning solid white as he searched for food.

Composing the Shot

To create an interesting background for the shot, I moved to the opposite side of the octopus and placed the sun at his back. Because he was moving around so much, I had to keep re-adjusting the settings for each shot to get the water color and sunburst I wanted. In general, I shot between f18-f22 and 1/200 to 1/320 on ISO 200. The strobes were at the 10-2 positions, 2-clicks below full power. To keep backscatter to a minimum, I angled the strobes straight down at the reef so that the front edge of the light would hit the octopus and not the water. The octopus’s hunt was an amazing sight to witness and I feel very grateful and blessed to have been there for it.

Check out all the winners of the SoCal Shootout 2018, hosted by Bluewater Photo


Josh Musselwhite is an Android software engineer who has been delivering app-for-that solutions for a decade and an enthusiast photographer. When not working, you’ll either find him scuba diving or at a jazz club listening and bobbing along.


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