BE THE CHAMP! - Eyes
'Other species have a reflective cornea, which lights up spectacularly when we take a photo'
IF YOU ARE LOOKING for a classic subject that will always grab attention, then the eyes have it. Eyes are just impossible to ignore. They are the first things we’re drawn to when we look at a portrait, and they dominate compositions.
This month I want to discuss a type of picture that distils composition down to its most eye-catching detail: the eye-shot. The good news is that fish eyes can be snapped with even the most basic underwater camera.
Eyes form naturally pleasing geometric shapes, and because many of the fish that we see when diving are very colourful they are usually surrounded by bright patterns. If we follow a few simple rules, this is a winning picture ready made for us to snap it up.
PROBABLY THE BIGGEST challenge to overcome is getting close enough. Choosing the right fish makes a big difference. Non-moving ambush predators are ideal; species such as scorpionfish, crocodilefish, moray eels and lizardfish.
I tend to avoid frogfish and stonefish for eye-shots, because I feel they have small, unattractive eyes.
Once we’ve practised the technique on these fellows, we are ready to graduate to slow-moving species such as lionfish and trumpetfish. Then, as our collection grows, we will want to include some of the more challenging species, to make our pictures stand out – regular free-swimming fish.
Pursuing every fish we spot is unlikely to be very productive. Instead, wait for one of those encounters with a particularly friendly individual.
There are well-known friendly fish at dive sites all around the world – a Nassau grouper in the Caribbean, a Napoleon wrasse in the Maldives etc.
Most of the time we want to shoot them with wide-angle lenses, but if they turn up when we are shooting macro it is a great change to get some details, especially those eyes.
FISH EYES are not like ours. They see a lot wider than we do, and this super-wide view is possible because the lens in their eye bulges out through the pupil.
Many fish are near-sighted when looking ahead and far-sighted when looking to the sides.
These adaptations don’t make much difference to our photos, although having protruding eyes does add to the character of our portraits, and the large pupil makes them more visually appealing. Look for fish that are colourful, such as the blues, greens and yellows of parrotfish or the deep red of bigeyes and soldierfish, which look as if they are permanently recovering from a big night out.
Many fish eyes have interesting features that work well in photos. Sting rays, for example, have a flap across their eye that they can expand and contract. This is typically expanded during the day, leaving a U-shaped eye, and retracted at night to aid their vision in dark conditions.
The blue-spotted sting ray is a common Red Sea subject and its eyes will have this interesting U-shape during the day.
This feature is also seen in some flatfish and stargazers, though I prefer shooting stargazers at night, because their small eyes are expanded and more expressive.
Other species have a reflective cornea, which lights up spectacularly when we take a photo. The most commonly photographed example is the dwarf lionfish, which is a co-operative poser. Its eyes show a lightning-bolt pattern when illuminated with flash. A number of scorpionfish and frogfish have eyes that flash a colour back when snapped.
Two of the most beautiful are the long-spined porcupine fish and the red Irish lord. The porcupinefish is found in tropical waters around the world, and its eyes glow with an abstract pattern that reminds me of the Northern Lights. The eye of the red Irish lord, from the Pacific North-west, illuminates with colourful speckles when photographed.
Finally, I think my favourite type of eye-bling is the expandable eyelashes of the crocodilefish, which it extends over its eye to camouflage it.
This feature, combined with the crocodilefish’s sedentary disposition, makes it an ideal photographic subject.
GETTING CLOSE to take eye-shots demands trust from the subject, and in return we should always act in a trustworthy manner. Taking a photo of a fish’s eye won’t to do any harm, but it is sensible to show some restraint with this type of picture.
It simply makes sense to set up our exposure and lighting away from the eye and, then once in position, to keep the number of pictures to a minimum.
Taking care is particularly important if photographing sleeping fish at night, or species noted to be sensitive. If your subject flinches after an eye shot, I’d suggest stopping and finding something else to photograph.
We won’t always be able to get close enough to get exactly the composition we want. But modern cameras have so much resolution that we can crop and still have very useable results. Always try to shoot for the composition you want, even if you can’t quite fill the frame, as this will make cropping easier.
If you don’t get the angle right in camera, you might not have enough background space to make the crop you want in post.
Fish eyes are usually spherical, and this strong pleasing shape does look great in the middle of the frame.
But we don’t always want to compose with a bullseye. Try framing some shots with the eye positioned on the thirds, or go even more extreme with an edge-of-the-frame composition, especially if the subject is attractively patterned.
The best background is usually the creature itself. Frame the eye in such a way that the whole frame is filled with the scales of the subject.
Be prepared to rotate the camera, often to an unusual angle, until you achieve this. And don’t be afraid to crop after the event to get the shot you want.
Close encounters come with slow movements and smooth, steady breathing. The opposite will always spook fish.
Once we have successfully stalked our quarry, it is crucial to stay composed and wait an extra few moments for the subject to accept us. Welcomed into the circle of trust, we can make the most of the photographic opportunity.
Once underwater photographers buy a second strobe, they rarely shoot with one again.
But eyes can look much better with a single light source, which introduces texture through small shadows and gives the eye a single catch light, adding vitality to a pupil that can otherwise look lifeless.