BE THE CHAMP! - Grouper
'When on these dives, I have been left in no doubt that the grouper are the instigators of the interactions'
As underwater photographers, we’ve never had it so good. If you have any doubt, check out Mike Busuttili’s article 50 Years Behind The Lens in last month’s DIVER, which chronicled the severe challenges that faced those who competed for the title of Underwater Photographer of the Year at Brighton in 1965. A personal highlight of attending the London International Dive Show in February was hearing Phil Smith, who won that title, speak.
Diving gear and particularly underwater photographic equipment has evolved so much that photographers are increasingly looking to tricky techniques, such as use of snoots or off-camera strobes, to make it harder for themselves but to make their pictures stand out.
Our underwater cameras are now incredibly reliable. I have never had any of my Subal housings serviced and neither they nor my Nikon SLRs have ever flooded or stopped me shooting over thousands of dives.
Despite the fact that the ocean’s wildlife has been severely damaged by industrial-scale fishing and other human activities, we now see far more than the divers in the 1960s.
Fifty years of underwater exploration means that we really know how to find most subjects. Want to see thresher sharks, sperm whales or ornate ghost pipefish? A specialist dive travel agent can tell you not just where, but when.
The diving world is our oyster, or pygmy seahorse, or whale shark.
From the 1960s to the 1990s, grouper were one of the most sought-after underwater subjects. Divers and photographers still love grouper, but their lure is not as great because we’ve learned to find bigger and more exotic subjects with regularity.
This month, I want to put them back in the spotlight and discuss how to make the most of them photographically.
Grouper are slow-moving, curious, intelligent and often highly colourful. They are long-lived fish and in many areas individuals become so infatuated with divers that they follow them around, which is music to the ears of any snapper.
Many dive-sites around the world have resident grouper, and their big eyes and rubbery lips give them a cartoonish charisma that seems only to be emphasised through a wide-angle lens. The result is pictures brimming with personality.
At a number of destinations in the Caribbean, Nassau grouper are notably friendly and pester divers for a stroke or tickle. I guess it gives them the same pleasant sensation as the actions of a cleaner fish.
Dives in San Salvador in the Bahamas and Little Cayman are classic examples.
I am not a fan of touching marine life, but when on these dives, I have been left in no doubt that the grouper are the instigators of the interactions.
And as a photographer I have no problem in documenting this fantastic connection between man and fish.
Even if you’d rather just look than touch, the grouper still come incredibly close. Their favourite trick is to sneak up on your blind side and suddenly appear inches from your mask.
Photographically, this means close-focus wide-angle techniques, with an ultra-wide lens and strobes pulled in tight, but still behind the port, to light the subject when it is right on the glass.
Having a big fish trying to squeeze between you and your camera can be a distraction, and I find successful shots require pre-dive planning.
Dedicated grouper dives, where we can see many individuals, are possible at a number of sites around the world, such as Cod Hole on the Great Barrier Reef and Grouper City in the Lavezzi islands between Sardinia and Corsica. These sites boast aggregations of massive grouper, which will swim among the divers.
The best shots here are encounter images, emphasising the size of these fish, with the help of a little forced perspective.
The key ingredient is getting the grouper between you and your buddy, which with a wide lens will make the grouper look huge and the diver small.
On these action-packed dives, I always try to float a little above the seabed to minimise backscatter. Excited divers and excited fish can stir up a lot of bits!
My favourite way to photograph grouper is to use them as a focal point for a reef wide-angle shot.
We should count ourselves lucky that one of the commonest grouper is also one of the most beautiful of all fish. Coral grouper, red with blue spots, are found on reefs throughout the Indo-Pacific, but are particularly abundant in spots such as the Red Sea, west Thailand and Raja Ampat.
Wide-angle reef photos often take quite a lot of fiddling about with lighting. Photographers might stick in one place for five minutes or more to perfect the shot.
The result is a pretty scene but no fish, as they have long since departed. The solution, having refined the lighting, is to swim away for a minute, let the fish return and shoot again.
On the right reefs, we might get lucky and be able to include a large eye-catching fish as a centrepiece for the composition. We call these hero fish, as they are the main protagonist of the picture and can transform the appeal of a scenic image. Grouper are the kings of hero fish. We can use them on any reefs that are rich in grouper.
Sadly, grouper are not common everywhere these days. For many people these fish are high in protein, low in saturated fat and particularly tasty cooked on the barbecue. And grouper numbers have suffered.
But these fish have shown the power of recovery, when given a chance.
Kurt Amsler, top dog at the Brighton Festival in 1987, told me: “Near my home in the south of France, 25 years ago, it was very hard to find a grouper. But the French were wise enough to ban fishing and introduce marine parks. Every year for the past 20 years, there are more grouper. Now there are lots of dive-sites with 20 or 30 grouper.”
Sometimes we can have the best of the past and the present.
Just because a friendly grouper will swim close enough to fill our frame, we don’t have to photograph it like that. If a grouper is following you around, swim ahead and set up a pretty reef scenic and wait for it to swim into frame and complete a stunning image.
On action-packed grouper dives, model eye-lines are really important. If your buddy is looking at the grouper in your photo the subject is re-emphasised, but if they are looking out of frame at a grouper out of shot, their presence will be a distraction.
Well worth mentioning this just before the dive!
Grouper love a clean – I guess they have sensitive skin! Check cleaning stations for grouper, especially on the first dive of the day.
Mouth-open shots are the most dramatic, so keep your distance initially and be patient. An open mouth quite small in the frame will out-do a closed mouth filling the picture – because it doesn’t.