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Beside the seaside

4 May 2021

Our seashores are teeming with fascinating instances of life, but this aquatic world is one that most of us overlook. With his latest project, veteran nature photographer Rod Morris asks us to look a little more closely


The eye of a female Hutton’s Octopus (Octopus huttoni) guarding her developing embryos, Aquarium Point, Otago Harbour

Rod Morris doesn’t admit to being a natural-history photographer, or even really a photographer. He says he’s “an old-fashioned naturalist”, who uses camera gear to tell a story. However, one glance at his online photo library tells us that he is very modest; his photographs are outstanding.

Rod’s collection of stock images began in the early ’70s, while he was working for the New Zealand Wildlife Service. Accessing locations such as New Zealand’s offshore islands, Rod was involved in rescuing wildlife, including black robins, ka¯ka¯po¯, and kiwi. He soon acquired a concentrated photographic collection of New Zealand’s endangered species, and used the photos as an aid in his talks to interested groups.

Continuing to tell stories, Rod became a director and producer at TVNZ’s Natural History Unit — now called Natural History New Zealand. Aiming the spotlight at New Zealand’s unique wildlife, he created many well-known documentary films, a number of them winning both local and international awards. 

Marram grass (Ammophila arenaria), an introduced grass native to Europe and North Africa, Smaills Beach, Otago Peninsula  

Leaving television, Rod concentrated his attention on writing and photography for books, his subjects ranging from invertebrates to birds, lemurs to komodo dragons. If a creature exists within the South Seas, you can be pretty sure that Rod has photographed it. He’s produced an extensive number of children’s stories and field guides, as well as coffee-table books — and a number of these have been award finalists.

Rod’s images also appear in magazines such as Forest and Bird Magazine and New Zealand Geographic; sometimes he writes the stories, but more often there’s a collaborative approach with a writer. The story that’s given him the most satisfaction was about Denniston Plateau, on the South Island’s West Coast, his photographs documenting the rare and endangered species under threat by mining activity.

Seven-armed sea star (Astrostole scabra) feeding on a cockle (Austrovenus stutchburyi) on sea bed, Quarantine Point, Otago Harbour

Rod’s latest project has lasted for five intense and consuming years. The result is a colourful, comprehensive, and user-friendly guide book for the casual beach explorer, authored by Sally Carson and called Collins Field Guide to the New Zealand Seashore. Averaging three photographs a page for its 400 pages, the book covers a huge variety of subjects — everything from octopuses and shellfish to coastal insects, birds, and anemones. Capturing imagery for the book has been Rod’s most challenging photographic job. His image library already contained 30 seashore images, but none was suitable for the book, so a steep learning curve towards finding each subject ensued. Rod began by going to the beaches that he’d once visited with his children.

“It was a great project to keep me young again,” he says. 

There was a lot to learn, and, while he did travel to different parts of the country, Rod came to realize that about 85 per cent of the country’s shore life is represented in Otago Harbour, near his home in Dunedin. The biggest challenge was the subjects’ availability. 

Small black sacoglossan (Ercolania felina) climbing on the filamentous algae Chaetomorpha. Brighton Beach

“The problem the intertidal photographer faces is that most of the wildlife and interesting seaweeds are exposed for only a brief time each day, at low tide, and, in any given month, there is only one day, or night, when tides are at their lowest,” Rod explains.

When the animals are present, they’re doing their utmost to shelter from the elements, and tidal surges would often stir up sediment that compromised Rod’s macro photography. Rod learned early on that the best way to ensure that some subjects were comfortable and relaxed was to transport them to tanks in a laboratory, recreating their environment. 

Rod took many of the book’s images with a macro lens at the greatest depth of field. He used a Nikon D700 — he now has a D810 — and has two Nikon S910 flashlights on a Wimberley bracket. In front of this set-up is a homemade diffusion kit to disperse light evenly; the wet skin of creatures can be a challenge for wildlife photographers, as their skin can easily become burnt out.

Painted shrimp (Alope spinifrons) pair, with smaller female in foreground, Otago Harbour

Brown seaweed (Scytosiphon lomentaria) growing among sea lettuce (Ulva sp.), and brown sea sac (Adenocystis utricularis), Brighton Beach 

Rod’s the first to say it was a pretty Mickey Mouse set-up, but it was robust and worked really well. Remote set-ups are not part of his practice, as he photographs on the spot. He says that an essential piece of the toolkit was purchasing the best plumbers’ knee pads available, as kneeling on the rocky shoreline was testing at times.

A welcome addition in photographing the field guide book was an underwater Olympus TG-870. Rod calls it “a beautiful little camera”. It had macro capability, and its flip-back viewing screen was perfect for placing in rock pools and small spaces, enabling him to see his subject. Unfortunately, that camera model has since been discontinued. 

Sea tulip, or keao (Pyura pachydermatina), Aquarium Point, Otago Harbour

Rod isn’t interested in having the latest camera; his advice is to spend more money on a good-quality lens. For bird photography, he has a telephoto 500mm f/4, capable of being used with a tele-extender. He also owns an 80-400mm and 60mm macro lens. For photojournalism, his hardest-working lens is a wide angle 20mm, and the latest acquisition, which he loves for people photography because of its control with the subject and background, is a 24–70mm. 

Which photographers inspire Rod the most? In his opinion, some of the best photographers are here in New Zealand. He admires the macro photography of Bryce McQuillan, nature photography from Neil Fitzgerald, and bird imagery from Dunedin photographer Craig McKenzie. 

“New Zealand has extraordinary young photographers, who consistently have a high output,” he says. 

Looking through Rod’s books and articles, you’d think that he’d travelled and photographed the entirety of New Zealand and all of its unusual creatures, but he assures us that he hasn’t. He says that he has “an eccentric collection of photographs”, and he’d love to spend time photographing brown creepers, tomtits, fantails, and more common birds, which are a challenge to any photographer. 

Whatever his next assignment, you can be assured that it’ll be worth a long look.

Munida, or Squat lobster (Munida gregaria), a ‘red tide’, Juvenile munida occasionally wash ashore in spectacular numbers in Otago Harbour