The (eyes) HAVE IT
I have heard photographers in the Red Sea, which is brimming with life, declare that they have dived a particular site before and that there is nothing new to photograph there. If your attitude is this jaded, you need to start looking at potential subjects in a new fashion.
It is at this point that some will give up on photography altogether, while others move away from record or identification shots towards artistic development of their images.
If you are repeatedly diving in similar locations, one of the best ways to develop this skill is to consider the detail features of your subjects, and seek different ways of presenting them.
The standard ID shot is a side-on view, showing the whole fish and perhaps some of the surrounding habitat.
What's wrong with that? Nothing, but you will soon find yourself struggling to find different subjects, and often the fish lacks character.
If fish had shoulders
The secret of a good fish picture is to create a feeling that the subject is looking at and communicating with the viewer. One of the best ways of achieving this is what I term 'portrait' photography. Just as on land, this means a 'head and shoulders' shot, normally taken in portrait (vertical) format, but it can work as well in landscape (horizontal) format, depending on the shape of your subject.
How you compose and frame a shot like this can make all the difference. The classic method is to create a diagonal line in the composition and place the eye towards the centre third of the picture. An upward view can also be very effective, and gives the viewer the feeling of being looked down on by the fish.
You can vary the background around the subject from black to a more natural water colour by balancing the power of your flash with the available natural light. If the fish is in the wrong place for your composition, play with the orientation of your camera until it looks right, but be aware of your flash position and adjust it to suit the composition.
You can normally rely on your TTL flash exposure in these situations, as the subject will fill the centre of the frame. However you compose the shot, the most important feature of a good portrait is the eye of the fish, which must be in perfect focus. Other elements can be slightly out, but the shot will fail if the eye is soft.
It is easiest to take fish portraits with a housed SLR camera and macro lens, but it is also possible with both Nikonos and Sea & Sea systems.
Very often you will need to use a supplementary close-up lens with these systems and it is best to remove the framer so that you can approach the subject without frightening it. Some species will allow a slow, close approach, others will not endure it, and only trial and error will reveal which is which!
Creep up on a crocodile
An alternative to the fish portrait is to move in closer still for macro images of parts of your subject. Many fish, particularly in the tropics, have dazzling colours, textures and patterns which look wonderful in close-up. To capture this sort of image you must get really close to your subject, so to begin with it is easiest to target sessile subjects like scorpionfish or crocodilefish, which are convinced of their own camouflage.
Diving at night is a good way of making a close approach to fish while they are sleeping, or you can position yourself near a cleaning station and wait for clients to arrive and hold still for a wash-and-brush-up.
If you are using an amphibious camera with a framer on a close-up lens or extension tube, take care not to touch the fish, which could harm or distress it. Think about the composition, and move or reorient your camera to gain the best effect.
By concentrating on the finer detail, you will begin to see commonplace subjects in a new way.
As you track across your subject looking for pattern and texture, you will often find that the eye is not the only striking element. This opens up a range of possibilities beyond fish. Extend your search to crustaceans (crabs, lobsters, shrimps), shellfish (clams, scallops, triton and helmet shells) and cephalopods (cuttlefish, octopus and squid), which increases your options on every dive.
Filling the frame
Once again, start with sessile species, then hunt by night. Many crustaceans emerge only after dark and you will most often see octopus and squid during night dives, particularly when they are attracted to feed by lights from a boat.
Many fish sleep in small cracks and fissures in a reef, which might be inaccessible to a macro system with framers, so a housed SLR can be the best choice for filling the frame. An added advantage is that you won't inadvertently poke the poor animal in the eye!
Cuttlefish are often found during the day, partly buried in the sand, and will allow a very close approach, convinced you cannot see them.
The same applies to many species of flatfish and rays, so there is almost endless choice, no matter where you dive.
As your eye becomes attuned to the colours and patterns under water, you realise that almost every creature has potential and does not need to be photographed in its entirety. Many corals, sponges and invertebrates have stunning colours and patterns which become obvious only when you concentrate your gaze and perhaps apply a bit of lateral thinking.
Begin by looking for strong colour contrasts, and then examine the detail for perhaps the perfect shape of a coral polyp or a strong compositional form.
Try not to see the subject as an animal or plant, but more as a combination of colours and shapes which will attract the viewer's eye.
In the tropics, subjects like gorgonian fan corals or giant clam mantles often produce striking patterns. Where the position of your subject allows, try varying your lighting techniques to produce different effects.
Small apertures and fast shutter speeds will produce a black background for showing up pale colours. Or use a slower shutter speed and wider aperture to produce a blue or green water background, which will contrast better with darker colours.
Focus on magnification
You will most often need to photograph these subjects at lifesize reproduction, or perhaps with greater magnification at 2:1 or 3:1, to get the desired effect. This can be achieved with both Nikonos and housed camera systems with the addition of extension tubes, close-up dioptres or tele-converters.
However, the greater the magnification you use, the narrower the depth of field will become, and getting your photographs into sharp focus becomes a real challenge.
Starting with 'flat' subjects is easiest. Concentrate on keeping your lens perpendicular to the subject to maximise the depth of field.
This sort of photography is challenging and rewarding and will reveal a whole new range of subjects and effects as you begin to explore the detail of the reef.
So don't give up, get serious, fire the imagination and rekindle your enthusiasm!