Be the champ! - Anemone Fish
I’VE JUST SPENT a month in Indonesia. I’ve seen anemonefish on just about every dive and photographed them whenever I’ve had a spare moment. Which was my mistake, because I’m not sure I got any pictures of them that I really like!
Anemonefish are not difficult to photograph – they’re easy to find and don’t run away. But outstanding images of the little blighters are much more elusive. The challenge of photographing anemonefish is the same as young children. They never stay still long enough to allow us to compose, focus and expose that special shot.
And as a result we’re never going to create winning images by blatting off a few frames when we pass. What I should have done is dedicate some proper time to photographing them.
Accepting that it’s going to take some perseverance, it’s important that we invest our precious dive time in the right subject matter. The key to great anemonefish shots is not the fish but, yes, that old Be The Champ favourite again, the background.
So when we want to photograph anemonefish, it’s not so much a case of finding Nemo as of finding the right anemone. We want to focus our time and our lenses on the prettiest ones, because these give our shots a huge lift.
Many anemones are drably coloured, while others have dull sausage-shaped tentacles – we don’t want these in our photos.
We want the super-models with bright coloured skirts and attractive or interestingly shaped tentacles.
ANEMONES CLOSE and reveal their colourful skirts when light levels are low. The best time to chase skirts is at the end of the day, although early in the morning or during heavy rainstorms can work too.
Whenever we find a closed anemone, we should always take a quick snap of the skirt, because depending on the depth it can be quite hard to tell the colour, and some of the most attractive skirts can look dull and unappealing before we add artificial light.
The best tentacles are those with bulbous and colourful tips but, as with the skirts, it’s always worth taking a test shot first to check how they photograph. Some fluorescent
hues disappear in photos, while sometimes even nicer colours come through with flash.
If there is current or surge and the anemone has long tentacles, then we should try to wait until the water neatly aligns them before taking a shot.
At times of elevated sea temperatures, reef anemones will expel their zooxanthellae (symbiotic algae) and turn white. While this isn’t good news for the anemone, bleached anemones are very beautiful, and many of the most celebrated anemonefish pictures feature them.
WORLDWIDE THERE ARE 28 species of anemonefish, which live in just 10 species of anemone. Some species, such as the widespread Clark’s anemonefish, are found in all 10 types of anemone, while others, like the distinctive spinecheek anemonefish, are found living only in a single species. So it’s worth bearing in mind that if we want to photograph all species, we may not always be able to find a beautiful anemone for our background.
Our options also vary by region, increasing as we head deeper into the coral triangle of the highest biodiversity in deepest South-east Asia. In the Red Sea, we can see only one species, while in the Maldives we can get two. Recently in Manado, Indonesia, I was seeing seven species on most days.
For winning shots I’d suggest concentrating on the most attractive species, and within those species, the most photogenic individuals.
In all portraits good eye contact with the subject is an essential element. With anemonefish, if their body colour is too dark their eye, and therefore eye-contact, tends to get lost in this background.
Spinecheek anemonefish, for example, have marked differences between the sexes, and the smaller, more brightly coloured male is far more photogenic.
With Red Sea anemonefish, we should concentrate on the lighter-coloured, yellower individuals. It will pay off.
FINALLY, WE’RE READY to shoot – we have the right fish and the right anemone. First, resist pursuing the fish around the anemone with your lens. Your pictures won’t be in focus and your head will spin.
The one guarantee with anemonefish is that they’re not going anywhere. So instead, watch the fish for 30 seconds or so. Most anemonefish swim quite regular circuits around their anemone and seem to have favourite spots from which they like to look out.
Find a photogenic feature on this route, such as a fold in the skirts, take a test shot to be sure of exposure and then wait for the fish to appear. Then fire.
Keep shooting until you have bagged the perfect pose. Take plenty of frames, because it’s also easy to be slightly off with the focus or to clip a fin.
There are several classic angles. Try shooting tight with just a face peering out from pretty tentacles or skirts. The best images reveal some personality, such as confidence or shyness, which are more obvious when both eyes are visible.
Look out for behaviour, such as tending eggs or being cleaned by the shrimps that also make their home in the anemone. And don’t forget to try some close-focus wide angle, which often produces the most complete pictures, telling the whole anemonefish-anemone-reef story in one frame.
Finally, don’t be afraid to think different. Anemonefish are one of the most recognisable subjects in the oceans, so we’ve got permission to frame them in original ways.
Anemonefish race about their anemones, and if your camera is quite slow to focus, consider locking the focus to a fixed distance and waiting for the fish to swim into your frame. This approach will also help to reduce shutter lag on compact cameras.
Use a fast shutter-speed with anemonefish. Not only are they always on the go, but their white bands are always the brightest thing in the frame and can easily blur because they reflect so much ambient light.
If your whole background is anemone, then use the fastest shutter-speed your flashes allow.
Two fish are better than one and three fish are better than two. Characterful portraits of individuals are great, but shots are even better when you have several anemonefish nicely posed in the frame. Not that it’s easy to get!