Category Archives: Weed

More experiments with Kermadec seaweed

Moving away from the pastiche of  “classic still life”, I have been exploring shooting the Kermadec seaweed, Pterocladiella in streams of bubbles from my previous experiments for the new whale migration inspired series.  Mixed results.

I also tried a very “straight” shot on with the seaweed in a tiny specimen bottle on white. Another reference to the protection offered the Kermadecs with the announcement of the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary. 


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More Kermadec Seaweed


A new set of raw shots from #projectweed studio.

Once again I am working with Pterocladiella – the only seaweed found in both the Kermadecs and Wellington.

I have taken these shots with the forthcoming Kermadec: Discoveries and Connections Exhibition in Wellington in mind. They are a slight departure from the rest of the “Weed” project because they are not shot underwater. Instead the algae is suspended in a small vial of seawater – A reference to scientific investigation of the region and the protection afforded the Kermedecs by the recently announced Kermadec Marine Sanctuary.

I love the the direct connection between the Kermadecs and Wellington it creates, as well as the reframing of seaweed into a fresh context.

The Kermadec: Discoveries and Connections Exhibition and science symposium will be at the Academy of Fine Arts Gallery in Wellington in April.

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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.

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Latest image from #projectweed


One of my favourite shots from the seaweed project so far. It is less along the line of the classic still life genre I intended to follow but more where I think the project will evolve toward. It features one of my favorite algae Cystophora with it’s distinctive zig-zag branches and this one is hosting a few anemone (which is pretty common on this species)

This photo was taken using the latest rig in the studio – looking straight down through layers of shallow clear trays of seawater. Lit from below and the side.

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#projectweed happy accidents


Sometimes random shit happens and looks cool. While I was setting up for a new photo for #projectweed, I became impatient waiting for a cheap glass vase I had spray painted to dry, and put it into water … resulting in traces of paint floating off and me swearing. Then saw the paint swirling on the surface so quickly shoot it … because it looked cool. Do you need any other reason?

In this setup you are actually looking straight down through layers of clear acrylic trays filled with water. The pro vases in the background ar bolted onto a vertical panel that here looks like the ‘floor’. Note some of the freaky distortion at the base of the foreground vase as the light bends going through the water.

Handy seaweed facts


South coast Wellington rockpool

Next time you’re asked a seaweed question in a pub quiz you will thank me for this post.

But don’t get too carried away with you’re praise of my knowledge because the world of seaweed is complex with thousands of species.  Below is an overview of a few things I have picked up during the project. If you really want to get the full story I recommend reading some of the books from my previous post.


“Seaweed” is not a weed, and isn’t exclusively found in the sea.
The name “weed” implies seaweed is a fast growing nuisance plant. Although it is relatively fast growing and can be a nuisance to us at times, seaweeds are actually classified as algae – photosynthetic organisms which, with the exception of the green species, is only remotely related to land plants.

Although they are most prolific in salt water, they can be found in both marine and brackish environments like estuaries. A few have even been found inland-locked fresh water far from the sea.

Seaweed comes in three colours
Brown, green and red. From a creative person’s perspective this description is a bit simplistic because there definitely some that are coloured blue, purple, yellow, black and white but scientists group them into brown, green and red because, colour aside, the three groups differ from one another in profound ways – their pigments, reproduction, life histories and evolutionary backgrounds.

Often white on seaweed is a sign of stressed seaweed, as I found out by keeping it out of it’s normal environment too long.

Seaweeds don’t have roots, flowers, fruits or cones
Although they often look like plants, the different parts of seaweed do not have the same specialist roles that the leaves, roots, trunks and stems of plants do. Many parts of a seaweed can perform the tasks of nutrient absorption and photosynthesis to some degree. They have no special cells for the transport of water or nutrients.

The root-like structures that connect the algae to the seabed are called holdfasts. Roots on land plants draw nutrients from the ground but most of the outer layer of a seaweed can absorb nutrients from the water. Some algae lives free-floating with no permanent attachment at all.

Some algae have evolved floats and long stems to place parts of it closer to the light allowing it to survive in deeper water. The deepest recorded seaweed in New Zealand has been found in the deep clear waters of the Kermadec region at 200m.

They come in all sizes.
There are about 900 known species of seaweed in the New Zealand region with many more likely to be discovered. Due to our unique geographic location many are endemic.

They vary in form and size considerably, from the microscopic to forests of massive kelp as tall as giant redwood trees. Some can grow up to half a metre a day.

In general terms the warmer the water, the smaller they tend to grow, as I discovered when I tried to find seaweed in Wellington that also grows in the Kermadec region and found the only one in common was really quite tiny. Conversely Dr Wendy Nelson from Niwa said the kelp in Antarctica can grow to truly impressive size.

Although some occur throughout mainland New Zealand there are distinctive northern and southern species. In particular those found from the northeastern  North Island to Bay of Plenty differ markedly from that growing south of Kaikoroura.

Seaweed is important
It has a vital role in the environment. Many fish and invertebrates find refuge and habitat in algal beds. Kelps in particular are known to be very productive in terms of the carbon dioxide they fix.

Although some seaweeds are eaten directly by herbivorous fishes, or by invertebrate grazers such as pāua and kina, much of the productivity of the seaweeds enters the food chain indirectly. The mucilages and, slimes and films produced by algae is ideal food for bacteria, fungi and various protozoans, which in turn are eaten by filter feeders. Fragments of seaweed broken free by the sea swell break down to be consumed by a wide range of organisms. Beach-cast seaweeds may be annoying when you sunbathe but they provide valuable nutrients for coastal food chains as many gardeners will testify to.

We use seaweed for much more than fertilizers or soil conditioners. They are used in a wide range of products including scientific agar gels, ice cream, cosmetics, medicines, fabric dyes, and of course food – in Japan for instance, it constitutes up to 10% of the average diet.

UK based company Seaweed & Co is a good read for more on the commercial use of algae


Some of my seaweed storage and water transport madness

Keeping seaweed happy while photographing it
Seaweed varies in it’s robustness and ability to stand up to different conditions. Some can survive quite a while out of the water or even short bursts in fresh water but in general terms it is best to keep it in seawater as much as possible. Changing the water daily provides vital nutrients and I used a ‘bubble stone’ from a fish tank to stop the water becoming stagnant.

During the day all seaweed requires light and carbon dioxide to photosynthesize (producing oxygen). They also respire day and night producing carbon dioxide.

To play it safe I kept them out of direct sun to stop them getting ‘burnt’. Some lasted for many days while others deteriorated after a day or so.

Seaweeds by David Thomas. ISBN: 0-565-09175-1
NZ Seaweeds an illustrated guide by Dr Wendy Nelson. ISBN: 978-0-9876688-1-3

Thanks to Wendy Nelson for her conversation, time and patience in supporting this project.

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#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.

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#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!

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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).

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#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.

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#Projectweed : Ask the experts

nz_seaweeds_coverOn the “Weed” project I am lucky enough to be working with some fantastic scientists and advisors including New Zealand’s pre-eminent expert in seaweeds – Dr Wendy Nelson.

Wendy is Principal Scientist – Marine Biology and Programme Leader – Marine Biological Resources at NIWA. Her book NZ Seaweeds an illustrated guide (ISBN: 978-0-9876688-1-3)has become indispensable in identifying my algae discoveries.

Because I intend the first showing of this project to be part of a Kermadec exhibition in April I am am very keen to make sure I am including seaweed from that region in the project. With Wendy’s help I have been able to track down the only seaweed from the Kermadecs that can be found in Wellington, Pterocladiella, and one other, Caulerpa geminata, which looks the same as another Kermadec algae (the Kermadecs is C. racemose – same genus but different species).

She has also been a great source on tips on keeping algae happy while I transport, store and photograph it. I never would have found Pterocladiella without her help.

Thanks for all your help Wendy.

Some other good seaweed reads:

South Pacific Reef Plants
Diane Scullion Littler & Mark Masterton Littler
ISBN: 0-9678901-9-5

David Thomas
ISBN: 0-565-09175-1

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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.

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Weed goes big

tank_and_friend After a bit of patient searching (thanks to NIWA, Wgtn Marine Education Centre et al for your help) I managed to find a large fish tank for sale on TradeMe. $500 instead of the thousands I was quoted to get one made.

Basically one metre cubed it literally weighs one tonne when filled. So after a massive cleaning operation and the construction of a very heavy duty base for it, the first nervous fill happened outside – whew – no leaks!

Massey have found me a storeroom with a concrete floor, no windows and a sink which I can use as a studio for a while. The glass is 15mm thick and very green which looks cool but may make it harder to give the illusion that the subject is not underwater – next step is large scale lighting tests.


Project Weed – Proof of concept

Having successfully borrowed a small fish tank (many thanks to Oliver Townend at Massey CoCA) I have been able to create a make-shift studio to do some quick ‘proof of concept’ tests.

The goal: To learn the behaviour of seaweed in a tank and determine if I can make the tank/water ‘disappear’ and for the arrangement look like it is not underwater.
The outcome: Not bad. See the results below.


  • By using flashes located to the side/top/behind the tank I am able to have great lighting control with minimal reflections and no heat.
  • Left for a few minutes the seawater (collected from across the road from the house) clears nicely – but left too long condensation forms on the glass.
  • Lots of crap floats off the weed etc – rinsing and cleanliness will be important if I am to avoid hours in Photoshop.
  • Bubbles do form on the inside of the glass and objects over time but are pretty easy to wipe off.
  • The seaweed seems pretty much neutrally buoyant as expected
  • The small tank (600 x 300 x 300) is very limiting. Only suitable for small seaweed. Certainly no good for anything like kelp.
  • I think this is going to work but “we’re going to need a bigger tank”.
  • I have shot colour but envisage that the final prints will be black and white.


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