Category Archives: Kermadecs

Behind the scenes on #projectweed

There have been three main setups for the ‘Weed’ project to date. Each with very different pros and cons so I would not say anyone was the most successful.

The big tank:


A 900 litre monster tank weighing close to one tonne when full. It’s size and location (at Massey University) makes it impractical to regularly use salt water which mean only the most robust seaweed can go in it. Fantastic for large algae like Kelp – see earlier post. The seaweed I shoot in this tank is usually taken off the beach so I am not killing any coming fresh from the sea.

In the setup shown in this photo it was “crazy upside-down day” in the studio as I tried hanging the seaweed, and therefore the entire set, upside down in an effort to get the weed to hang as I wanted. Mixed success – I am not happy with this shot at all but lots of learnings. The tank is setup so I can light directly from below. I also installed a modified garden irrigation hose in the base of the tank to create movement in the tank.

The small tank:


Relocated to my garden shed for summer this was the tank I originally used for proof-of-concept but now is perfect for macro shots of smaller seaweed.

It’s size and being at the ‘home studio’ by the sea allows it to be filled with fresh seawater which is much better for the algae and allows me to include small animals in the shot. After shooting the seaweed is returned back to the sea asap.

As you can see in this shot the sets may be small (those white bottles are only about 70mm high) but the can also be quite complex with textured/painted backgrounds diffusers, masks, and multiple flash units usually fitted with home-made snoots, barn-doors and other gobos. The average shoot in the project uses 3 or 4 flashes.


This is a typical example of the complexity of the lighting rigs. A snooted flash above, a very low-power diffused keylight to the side and a barn-doored rear flash behind shooting directly behind the bottle through a large diffuser. You can see that the set can be made of pretty humble materials – in this case the bottle is sitting on a cheap baking dish from The Warehouse.

The copy-camera rig:


The latest experiments have used a modified copy-camera stand to allow me to shoot straight down through layers of clear acrylic trays. I made a base (looks a bit like a Mondrian chair) to hold layer of trays and allow me to light things from all angles.

This rig allows the use of seawater and lets me arrange the algae relatively precisely but reflections are the enemy in this setup so I use black fabric all over the place.

More on #Projectweed >> 

#projectweed: First Kermadec weed shots

Kdec_1-288Some samples from the last couple of days in the shed photographing seaweed. It has been long slow work with regular collections of fresh seawater and new experiments.

On the whole the results are getting there given the scale and unspectacular nature of the two algae I am working with; Caulerpa geminata (the green one) and Pterocladiella (the red one). But although the shots are looking good there is less emphasis on the beauty of the actual seaweed than I would like but I am sure that will be more than made up for as the project goes on.

I am also playing with some colour grading but the final prints may end up being very large scale black and whites.

The shot of both algae in the clear bottle  is a reference to the recently announced Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary  (Read more on Stuff) with the curved green line of Caulerpa geminata representing the line of submarine volcanos which run up next to the Kermadec Trench – within the protection of the bottle.

More about #projectweed

More about the Kermadec project



#projectweed moves into the shed

shedWith the exciting discovery of the Kermadec seaweeds in Wellington I am going to go small scale and work from the home studio to be closer to a ready source of fresh seawater. So I am converting the garden shed to a photographic studio for a while.

Yes – I am going to experiment with weed in the garden shed! A teenage boys dream job. The twitter jokes will be flowing my way.

Back to the 50litre fish tank I used for proof of concept. It seems tiny after the 900 litre tank at the university.

And moving the project has the added advantage of making me clean the shed!

More about Project Weed


The shed becomes studio: Before and after cleanup and blacking out windows

#projectweed |Kermadec weed

As I mentioned in a previous post the are only two seaweeds that can be found here in Wellington that also can be found at the Kermadecs. Because I hope to show some works from this project in the Kermadec exhibition it was important I included them in the photographs.


Caulerpa geminata

One of the pair, Caulerpa geminata, was easy to find – it is relatively common and I found some literally across the road from my house in Breaker Bay. The catch – although it is the same genus and looks the same as another Kermadec algae, it is strictly speaking a different species- and I am a detail freak! I will use it but really want to find the other Kermadec seaweed – Pterocladiella.

So the search began …

With the help of Dr Nelson at NIWA I was able to narrow down the search area to a spot just outside the Taputeranga Marine Reserve on Wellington’s South Coast but it still took multiple visits and a couple of weeks before I found my elusive wee friend – Pterocladiella.



So I now have a very small amount of Pterocladiella, ID confirmed by the NIWA expert and under lock and key in the storage tank.

New challenge: Both are very small. I will be leaving the big tank and going back to macro scale to capture these. At least I will be able to easily keep them in seawater at this scale.

The other new challenge: The are both pretty boring looking (Pterocladiella in particular).

More about Project Weed

More about the Kermadec Project

#projectweed: Kelp experiments

The Weed Project is starting to come together with some good experiments in the big tank with Bull Kelp (Durvillaea antarctica) or Rimurapa to use it’s Maori name.

There have been a lot of learnings along the way:

  • The kelp is super robust and  looks fresh even after a while on the beach and has the added bonus  that it doesn’t cloud the water too quickly.
  • It doesn’t seem to mind fresh water too much (some weeds bleach and leach colour very quickly) making it practical to shoot in the big tank. Obviously that is a good thing with such a big algae
  • It takes on a magical quality under the studio lights. Almost skin-like which I will explore further
  • I have also refined my aqua set building using fibreglass concrete-look planters and plastics painted with textured paint. I am wanting to keep the sets very minimalist, monochromatic and man-made to shift the weed into a total new context.

Although I still envisage the final prints will be black and white here is a sample of some of the raw files from the shoot.

More on Project Weed

Project Weed: Lighting tests


I haven’t been focussing on composition at this stage – just learning how various weeds behave and what different moods I can create with the lighting.

On the whole this have been pretty successful … well even failure is just discovering was not to do it I guess.

I can definitely  overcome the 15mm glass to make the subject look like it isn’t underwater if I want. Some weeds float and some don’t. I suspect I am getting more sinking because I am using fresh water. The large tank is at the university so it is impractical to fill it with 900 litres of seawater regularly. Some of the weeds cloud the water quite quickly so I need to change it regularly. I suspect some of the weed is behaving differently because of the difference of buoyancy between fresh and salt water.

It is amazing, but not surprising, how differently the weed behaves underwater. The humble Sea Lettuce (Ulva pertusa) goes from being like a clump of snot out of the water to being a delicate and translucent element in the photos (it’s the bright green one in  these photos).

Low environmental impact approach

I am trying to maintain a low environmental impact approach on this project. Gathering most seaweed off the beach directly after large swells and only taking what I need. Where possible all materials are returned to the source. Most will be collected in Breaker Bay Wellington and obviously nothing from the nearby Taputeranga Marine Reserve.

I hope to shoot some incidental marine subjects (e.g. anemones) and these will be shot in a small marine tank in my home studio (within 50m of the point of collection. These will be collected with great care and returned asap.


I am using a set of Nikon Speedlights (flashes) to light everything. They give me complete control and help to keep reflections to a minimum. They have the added bonus of reducing the amount of mains electricity on what is a times a wet set. From previous projects (Lilly was a nice girl) I have developed a set of light modifiers and techniques that work very well on this project too. I have made a set of gobos and barn doors for the speedlights using card and straws. I get the best results if I avoid any lights hitting the front glass of the tank – if all the light hitting the lens is coming to it through the front glass there will be no reflections (he said crossing his fingers)

Some samples:

Remember I am not working on composition yet. Nice to see the ability to get dark a moody or white and contemporary. I have tested using my home-made lens with a glass from a camera that is 100 years old which give a wonderful softness to the shot.

More on #Projectweed


Company of Giants at Kermadec

Highlights of theatre group Company of Giants performing at the Kermadec Exhibition in Tairāwhiti Museum in Gisborne in November.

They have created a powerful piece that responds to the works and tells the history of Raoul Island. Very talented people – very moving. I am happy to say they will be performing at the new Kermadec Exhibition in Wellington in April.

Below are some stills from the performance:

Dancer at Tjibaou

I just received this great photo of the Kermadec Exhibition at the Tjibaou Centre in New Caledonia. In May last year a group performed a contemporary dance in response to the works including my video installation “Surface Tension” .

You can see the “Surface Tension” video in my earlier post.

Jason O'Hara Surface tensions

©ADCK-Centre culturel Tjibaou, photogr. Eric Dell’Erba


Making seaweed sexy

weed_DSC_5746Seaweed has a bad rep. That smelly, slimy goo that takes the edge off your beach holiday or hides who-knows-what when you go swimming.

But if you take the time to look into algae (the scientific group they belong to) you find some stunningly beautiful forms and begin to understand the important role it plays in the marine ecosystem.

I worry that the general publics perception of seaweed is representative of it’s relationship with the marine environment as a whole and one of many barriers to people actually exploring the sea.

So as a researcher I posed the question: How might seaweed, an element of the marine environment that is often perceived negatively, be represented in such a way as to change not only it’s perception, but also the perception of the beauty and potential of the marine environment as a whole?

A new project – “Weed”

Making seaweed sexy – That is the goal of this new research project I am working on.

One of the biggest challenges in marine conservation advocacy is the lack of general public engagement with the marine environment. It is something distant and foreign from their normal life – something they might skim over or dip in on summer holiday, but the submarine environment is generally a place adventurers go to – something they see on TV.

One manifestation of this disconnect is seaweed – often seen as “scary” or “yukky” it is a contributing factor that discourages people from activities like snorkelling.

I want to twist this perception by shifting the context and using seaweed to create something they already consider beautiful – still life photography … in some ways …floral arrangements.

To do this I am creating large still life photographs shot underwater but in such a way to be ambiguous where they are.

In many ways you could consider this an extension of the Kermadecs Project in terms of it’s advocacy for the marine environment.

Follow the project

Read up about the project in the project section of my site. I will be posting regular updates on progress or you can follow it on my Twitter #projectweed (yes – you might find all sorts of other projects with that hash tag!)