SHOOTING FISH WITH A CAMERA ISN'T EASY! Unlike people, fish are perfectly adapted to the aquatic environment, aquadynamically advantaged and, in all their colourful splendour, quite indifferent to any direction from the photographer. So to get that perfectly framed shot, we have to apply the appropriate strategies and equipment.
Caution is the better part of valour when photographing many tropical reef inhabitants. Trying to capture a sardine, full-format, with an ultra-wide-angle lens is an advanced undertaking.
To keep your average fish comfortable and in your finder, a minimum distance needs to be maintained. Usually this would be between 0.7 and 1m. Lenses of 28, 35 and 50mm focal length are best for picturing a 20-50cm long fish at such a range.
To get close enough requires experience, unless youre diving in a much-visited spot in which fish have traded their natural caution for easily available food distributed by humans. Remember that you are altering natural behaviour when feeding fish, and that your new scaly friend may face the business end of a speargun before too long - that is, if he survives the bad case of indigestion your breakfast scraps may give him.
You need to have the right flash. TTL metered strobes are ideal at the subject distances normally used in fish photography, because at a set working f-stop an entire distance range is covered, and usually fast-moving subjects will be perfectly exposed anywhere within that range.
Bigger fish require a change of strategy, both for lens and lighting. Once you graduate to larger-than-diver size - a whale shark, say - the superwide angles come back in to improve contrast and definition. Here we switch the strobe to manual, because no TTL sensor program can compensate when half the light energy vanishes into the deep blue water instead of bouncing back.
For any size of fish, autofocus lenses are an advantage, especially on cameras with focus tracking.
With focus and lighting taken care of by technology, the photographer can concentrate on fish behaviour and picture composition.
The ground rule for successful fish photography is: Shoot first, think later! In real terms, this means that your camera needs to be set up before you approach your unsuspecting subject. Once in range, there will be no time to choose programs, focus or set f-stops. And the flash had better be pointing in the right direction, too.
With practice and experience, the photographer soon learns which subject distances are needed to frame a fish of a certain size perfectly. The camera is then set for that range, the flash adjusted and the rest is down to diving skill and, as always when shooting wild animals, a good portion of luck.
A 50cm-long grouper would be reproduced full-frame using a 35mm lens from 80cm away. The photographer sets camera and flash to that distance and approaches slowly and without rapid movements.
If not using a rebreather, bubble fright can be minimised by exhaling through the mask rather than the regulator. This may seem clumsy and wasteful of precious dive time, but ultimately it is the most successful approach.
However, to become an outstanding nature photographer takes more than stealth and preparation - it needs an understanding of the animals behaviour and its interactions with its environment.
The more knowledge the photographer brings to the job, the better he or she will be able to adapt to situations and predict what a fish will do next. If you plough through the coral, even snails will beat a hasty retreat. You are far more likely to sneak up successfully on your subject when you are neutrally buoyant, breathing in a controlled way and moving slowly.
As with land animals, approach from the front, keeping eye contact at all times. This is less likely to trigger a flight reflex, because the animal sees whats happening and curiosity may get the better of caution. If the fish moves, freeze. In most cases it will come back if not pursued and it is always better to remain patient (and motionless) than to give chase. Just keep that camera ready.
And, please, show some respect. Chasing pufferfish through the reef until they pump up with water is as unacceptable as poking animals out of their holes with your snorkel, taming moray eels by feeding so that you can touch them, or riding turtles or manta rays.
Instead, join the ranks of the true wildlife photographers, who enjoy the challenge of improving their knowledge and techniques to come up with an even better shot, one that shows natural behaviour in all its glory.
ONE Eye contact is top priority (coral grouper, left). Approach in such a way that the fish looks at you with at least one eye - better still, with both!
TWO Eyes of fish are very beautiful, but capturing their colours depends on the angle at which the flash hits the eye. Where possible, take several pictures of the same fish.
THREE Try to show typical fish behaviour, such as cleaning, camouflage, mating or fighting situations. By getting more than merely an animal in the picture, the images become more interesting to the viewer.
FOUR Medium-sized fish are not suited to standard focal lengths. If an animal lets you get close enough, use a wide-angle lens. Such images provide spectacular perspectives and great depth of field.
FIVE Sharks and manta rays in open water are very tricky subjects, with their dark backs and white bellies. Never use TTL. Choose an aperture and shutter speed with regard to the ambient light and use your flash on low power, just to fill in.
SIX If the ambient light is not bright, you can do long shutter exposures. Use your flash as usual, but extend the shutter speed to 1/15 or 1/ 8 of a second. The resulting blurred fins or tails will give an impression of motion or speed.
SEVEN Fish photography requires knowledge about behaviour and environment. The more you know about them, the easier youll find it and the closer youll be able to approach.
EIGHT You need great patience on the one hand but rapid swimming ability on the other. Avoid diving with bulky diving equipment when shooting fish.
NINE For photographing most fish, two flashguns make little sense and can be a handicap when trying to swim fast. A second flash is useful only if an animal allows you to stay close enough to position the light at its side or back.
TEN Large fish such as great white or whale sharks usually swim near the surface, where there is plenty of ambient light. In such situations, avoid using flash. Even in clear water it will create diffusion, and your picture will never be as brilliant as without it.
With super-wide-angle lenses, it's usually best to dive in maximum sunlight. Its more difficult to be creative than with macro, but one way of getting unusual pictures with strong expression is to use ambient light. This sting ray was taken shortly before dusk, when you get a nice reflection at the surface and warm, soft light.
This picture was exposed with f8 / 1/15sec shutter speed and the flash on TTL. The camera was set on the second shutter curtain so that the flash fired at the beginning of the exposure time. The most important thing in achieving a blurred effect is to swing the camera at the same speed as the subject is moving. To avoid an over-exposed background, always choose a location with low ambient light.
Sharks like these blacktips are among the most elegant animals in the oceans, but are less appealing from the point of view of exposure. In open water they present an almost white belly and a dark back, so the belly reflects light while the back swallows it! When shooting from below, never use TTL mode - half or quarter power is best.
Many photographers never use super-wide-angle lenses for medium or even smaller fish, but such pictures are spectacular because they show the subject in the context of a wide view and great depth of field. The difficulty is in getting close enough. These butterflyfish were taken with a Nikonos V and 15mm lens, which has an angle of 96.
Schools of fish are not easy subjects. Composing shots that contain so many animals in the frame is difficult because what you need is a collective position, movement or look about the eyes. But there are two successful approaches to schools - static and in action (above). The techniques are more or less the same...
... search for schools of fish like these grunts in strong currents, where they stay together facing against the flow in a solid wall. By approaching them from the front and shooting as fast as you can, the static image (above) will change in a few minutes to an action image as the school disperses. A flash with a fast reload makes it easier.
To show the prominent profile of this scorpionfish, a black rather than a blue background was necessary. This picture was not taken at night; the fish was lying in about 10m in full sunlight. The exposure was 1/250sec / aperture f16. Because a fast shutter speed was used, no ambient light could pass through the small aperture to the film. To achieve a blue background, the exposure would have been 1/60sec /aperture f11.
Stationary subjects such as this leaf-fish allow you to place a small slave strobe at the side or even beyond. TTL mode is the best setting for such close-ups. If you use a regular slave strobe, make sure it is always lower than your main one. Sea & Sea makes the YS-30, which measures only 12 x 7cm and works as a slave in TTL without cable.
Silver fish in open water make a very tricky subject when using flash. Never use TTL mode. Shooting into the open water, the TTL reading cannot be accurate unless the subject covers two-thirds of the frame. The TTL sensor cannot receive enough back-reflected light and will fire on full power. This picture was taken with a 16mm fisheye at a distance of 50cm and on the lowest manual flash setting.