Be the champ! Patience
AS I’M AMONG FRIENDS, I have a confession to make: the average man in the street is not that interested in fish.
There, I’ve said it out loud. It’s a reality that presents us with a problem as underwater photographers, because our fishy friends are among our main subjects.
Shooting fish in the ocean is not as easy as in the proverbial barrel. Fish are always on the move, darting in and out of focus, waiting for the exact moment we press the shutter to turn away and leave us snapping at their tails.
Under water, fish can be everywhere, but stand-out images of them are much rarer.
The key to praise-winning pictures is to find that scaly supermodel, a particularly friendly fish that will
pose long enough for that special shot.
Some individual fish are clearly more relaxed around us than others, and these are always the best to shoot. But with the right approach we can transform most fish into co-operative subjects.
It’s essential to advance with slow movements and smooth steady breathing. Sudden exhalations or jerky movements always spook fish. It’s best to take a test shot before approaching, rather than risk scaring the subject by fiddling with the camera when we’re up close and personal.
If a fish is moving, we shouldn’t approach it directly, but instead swim on a course such that we will intercept its path.
Many photographers hold their breaths at the crucial moment, going against one of the fundamental rules of scuba. I am not going to advise you to follow their example, but so many do this that it would be disingenuous to pretend it doesn’t happen.
Once we have successfully stalked our quarry, it’s crucial to stay composed and wait for the subject to accept us.
Once we’re welcomed within the circle of trust, we can start to think about the photography.
FISH PHOTOGRAPHY is technically straightforward. The usual combo is a macro lens and flash. We’re unlikely to be as close as when we shoot true macro, so we want our flashguns out on longer arms to keep backscatter to a minimum.
If I’m in clear water, but can’t get that close to the subject, I will push my flashguns forward to reduce the flash-to-subject distance and give me better lighting.
Unfortunately, not all underwater cameras are created equal when it comes to fish photography. The two most important features are fast autofocus and minimal shutter lag.
If your camera is not the best in these departments, try to find ways to improve it, such as adding a light to aid focusing speed, or shooting manual flash to reduce the lag time associated with pre-flashes.
These are really helpful with moving fish, but are less critical with subjects sitting on the seabed.
With an SLR, I prefer to use continuous autofocus with subject tracking. Some autofocus modes will not let the camera take a photo unless the camera can verify that the subject is in focus. I turn this feature off, so the camera will always take a photo when I press the shutter.
This is because sometimes under water we can see that the subject is in focus, but the camera cannot be sure.
I would rather delete a few out-of-focus photos afterwards than miss a shot.
When people see stunning piscine portraits, they often comment that the photographer must have endless patience. I have always thought that patience is the last thing you need. The shooters who take the best pictures with fish are those who would happily spend all their dives looking at fish anyway.
If you require patience to sit watching wildlife waiting for that perfect pose, then wildlife photography isn’t for you.
This doesn’t mean that you don’t need persistence. The best underwater photos come when we focus on one subject at a time.
One of the great attractions of the underwater world is the huge diversity of wildlife, but if we’re always chasing the next exciting subject, we won’t do justice to the one we’ve got.
PERSONALITY, CHARACTER, EMOTION. Our fish pictures will be impossible to ignore if we are able to inject any of these into them.
They allow the viewer to connect with the subject, and it is elevated beyond being just a fish, and becomes an individual to which anyone can relate.
You may well already have a fish photo that people say looks grumpy, surprised, curious etc. This is exactly what we want.
All we need now is to understand how to do this on a regular basis.
The most important aspect when shooting fish portraits is to get on the eye level of the subject and get strong eye contact. Eye contact doesn’t mean that you can see the eyes; it means that the eyes look right back at the viewer from the picture.
As I have said before in Be The Champ, if you have to ask whether a photo has eye contact, it doesn’t.
I delete many of the portraits that I shoot because the eye contact is slightly off. But when I get it, the photo always gets attention.
Are two eyes better than one Generally, yes, but only when we get eye contact from both. We have to accept that two-eye shots don’t work with all fish. Quite a lot of species, as varied as bigeye, john dory and parrotfish, have their eyes right on the side of the head, and therefore photograph best when we only try to include a single eye. In this case a profile of the face is the best angle.
Species with two forward-facing eyes give us the best chance to make the two-eye-shots. In these cases we have to approach from directly in front, or wait for a swimming fish to turn and face us.
This camera angle means that we arrange their features with two eyes over a nose, over a mouth. And importantly, this forms a recognisable face.
Once our viewers see a face, they can see an individual and will project character, emotion or personality onto the subject.
Go back and look at your own fish portraits; notice that the ones on which people comment almost invariably have a recognisable face.
The key to memorable fish photos is not to photograph fish, but to photograph faces. The man in the
street is interested in faces.
Slow down. I know everyone says it, but honestly, the slower you go the more you will see.
The less you move, the fewer subjects you will spook.
When you have finished with one subject, don’t immediately move on. Look around. Often staying still photographing one fish will have habituated others to your presence.
Some fish, like frogfish, lizardfish, hawkfish, scorpionfish and chums, hardly move at all, and others such as morays or anemonefish stay in one place. Naturally, they attract photographers, but the bad news is that the world is already awash with their pictures.
If we’re going to work these subjects, we must try to do something different.
Don’t just dedicate a dive to fish photography, but choose the right dive site for it. The best scaly supermodels are the friendliest fish. I usually find that training sites or check-out dives are best for fish photography, because the fish are very used to people flapping about. Stay still and you’ll be surrounded.