To divers, fish can seem to show lots of emotions. They can be inquisitive or shy, cute or haughty – but how do you capture that in a still photograph?
Wildlife photographers shooting on land often refer to appeal and character, particularly when shooting portraits and close-ups of their subjects. They’re talking about communicating something of the animal’s personality through their image – maybe its aggression, its composure or its cuteness. But the question is can we capture this in marine life as well? In my opinion most certainly yes, and there are particular species on the reef which ooze natural character and are only too willing to pose and perform for the camera. You just need to know what to look out for and how to compose your image.
The underwater world is blessed with a multitude of colourful and sometimes weird subjects. Underwater photographers shoot a lot of portraits either isolating their subject from the rest of the reef or illustrating their habitat as well. The objective, in my view, should be to capture the character of the fish so there’s a sense of communication with the viewer. This can be a challenge, as fish are often an unfamiliar subject to a non-diving audience and don’t have the cute appeal of many mammals. But it can be done, if we are prepared to be patient, gain the confidence of the subject and then concentrate on the composition and position within the image.
Begin by identifying species that may be willing to cooperate – predominantly species that are immobile or territorial. Many fish are constantly on the move and while grab shots do work, you don’t have the opportunity to get the confidence of your subject and so may miss that important feeling of connection. Larger species like sharks can also produce good portrait shots, but mostly only by baiting for them (a dubious practice), and for me these images often don’t have the character or expression that smaller species can offer.
1. Scorpion fish are a good subject all over the globe to practice your portrait skills on. This one in the UK was determined to get ever closer to his reflection in the dome which provided this unusual but appealing angle on the subject. Nikon D300, Subal ND2 housing, 10-17mm FE zoom with 2x teleconverter, Inon Z240 flash guns, ISO200 f16 1/125.
2. Leopard spotted blennies are the Red Sea’s answer to the tompot in UK waters, but they are much more nervous. They hop from perch to perch within the coral so watch for a while and then focus on one of these spots to grab the shot. Nikon D300, Subal ND2 housing, 105mm micro, Inon Quad flash, ISO100 f16 1/125.
3. The tompot blenny is one of the most popular photographic subjects in the UK and always has a cheeky appearance that adds to their character. They are territorial and very inquisitive, so make an excellent subject for you to practice your portrait photographs. Nikon D300, Subal ND2 housing, 10-17mm FE zoom with 2x teleconverter, Inon Z240 flash guns, ISO200 f16 1/125.
Knowing something about your subject and its habitat is the first step, but getting to know a dive site by visiting regularly is also a big advantage. You can identify potential subjects and encourage them to accept your presence by returning to the same spot and taking pictures, even if you don’t take the perfect image during your first visits. There’s a tompot blenny at my local dive site that I’ve been visiting and photographing for more than five years. He (I am making an assumption here) is now so accustomed to my visits that he will immediately adopt a pose at the front of his hole when I arrive – and if he’s out, he’ll generally return after a couple of minutes while I wait. He’s so relaxed now that if I offer a gloved finger he is bold enough to come forward and nudge it – perhaps he’s telling me I’m too close to his home?
You can also try this away from home if you have the opportunity to dive a site repeatedly. Shore dives or house reefs are perfect, and you can dive them several times during a holiday – Ambon, Tulamben and Lembeh Strait in Indonesia, Marsa Shagra in Egypt and Bonaire are good examples. If you join a dedicated photography trip you sometimes dive a site three or four times in a day or during the trip, which provides the opportunity to return to a subject.
Whatever your chosen subject, the most important element of the composition will be eye contact – or at least the appearance that the fish is peering into the lens and looking at the viewer. A flat profile shot often doesn’t capture this connection, so try to position the subject at a slight angle or head on to create the feeling there’s a shared interest between fish and viewer. Some subjects seem interested or inquisitive, while others may look haughty or dismissive – it’s important to gain the attention of your subject to establish this relationship and so produce a more powerful image.
Many critters are attracted by their reflection in a camera port, possibly as they see a potential territorial challenge – or perhaps it’s just pure vanity! Dome ports offer a greater chance of a reflection than flat ports, so it’s worth considering using your macro lens behind a small dome or perhaps a wide angle macro set up to increase the chances of a fish looking straight at your lens.
1. Many blennies, like this Midas blenny in the Red Sea, live in fissures in the reef or worm casts and will constantly peek out to see what you are doing. This makes it simple to set up and wait for the shot when the fish is looking at the camera. Nikon D200, Subal ND2 housing, 105mm micro, Inon Quad flash, ISO100 f16 1/125.
2. Frog fish do have expression but you need to look for opportunities to get below the subject and shoot up in order to separate them from the background which they blend with so well. Nikon D200, Subal ND2 housing, 105mm micro, Inon Quad flash, ISO100 f11 1/30.
3. Some fish, likethis Caribbean short nosed bat fish, are just so comically weird that they have a strange attraction for the viewer. With seabed dwelling species like this it is often difficult to get a low angle of approach and it may even be worth scooping away some sand to lower your camera housing. Nikon F90X, Subal housing, 60mm micro, Sea & Sea YS60 and YS30, Velvia100 f11 1/60.
Territorial fish or camouflage hunters make easy subjects, as do fish who are just plain inquisitive. Blennies and gobies, with their bug eyes, colourful markings and patterns, make appealing subjects. Look for tompot blennies in the UK, leopard spotted blennies and lemon gobies in the Red Sea, secretary blennies in the Caribbean and, my favourite, hairy gobies in Ambon in Indonesia. Blennies are very territorial and will often live in the same hole for years. They’re also naturally bold and inquisitive. Perfect subjects.
Though difficult to find, frogfish can be great subjects. Although no-one would describe them as attractive, they do have wonderful expressions and seem to stare into the lens. They’re masters of camouflage, so hard to spot, but no matter how close you get, they remain fully convinced they can’t be seen. Occasionally you will find them on the edge of the reef or gripping sponges in an elevated position, which allows you to get low and frame them against blue water.
Other common species which are easily approached and can present a good toothy grin for the camera are groupers (many different species) and lone barracuda – they’re common and often almost tame on popular sites in the Caribbean.
1. This tiny hairy goby has quite a pugnacious look to him, a bit like a grumpy old man with cropped hair! This species lives within small branching corals and is quite skittish, so needs some patience to capture a shot that connects with the viewer. Nikon D300, Subal ND2 housing, 105mm micro, Inon wet lens, Inon Quad flash, ISO100 f16 1/125.
2. Some fish like this black faced blenny are fascinated by their own reflection in the camera port. This male is in his summer breeding colours so I suspect he thinks he can see a challenger to his patch of the reef. Nikon D300, Subal ND2 housing, 105mm micro, Inon Quad flash, ISO100 f16 1/125.
3. In UK waters there are plenty of small fish with inquisitive looks and great character. This is a Cornish sucker fish which is found in narrow fissures in the reef and is often attracted by torch light to pose in front of the camera. Nikon D300, Subal ND2 housing, 105mm micro, Inon Quad flash, ISO100 f16 1/125.
Possibly one of the most entertaining and responsive creatures on the reef is the octopus. They’re tricky to find, but are normally very inquisitive and keen to interact. Changes of shape, texture and even expression make these guys excellent character portrait subjects.
Cuttlefish display similar characteristics but are less territorial. It’s best to be patient and perhaps feign disinterest, which normally encourages them to become more inquisitive. They will come close eventually and perform a number of display activities which can make excellent imaging opportunities.
1. Not all octopus could be said to have character, but species like the wonderpus will occasionally adopt a pose and shape that is appealing. Nikon D100, L&M Titan housing, 60mm micro, Inon Quad flash, ISO200 f11 1/30.
2. If you can connect with the eyes with species like this crinoid squat lobster, then a portrait like this can be captivating. Nikon D100, L&M Titan housing, 105mm micro, Inon wet lens, Inon Quad flash, ISO100 f16 1/125.
3. Pygmy seahorses are of course the epitome of a cute subject but require a great deal of patience as they are so small and constantly moving. Be patient and eventually they will look at the camera. Nikon D100, L&M Titan housing, 105mm micro, Inon wet lens, Inon Quad flash, ISO200 f16 1/30.
Crabs and lobsters generally don’t display much in the way of character, in my opinion. The exception is the hermit crab, which can cheekily peek from its shell at the camera lens. Their bug eyes on stalks give them an almost alien appearance and sometimes their shell will provide a colourful negative space. They’re most active at night.
Squat lobsters and small porcelain crabs found on crinoids, sea pens and soft corals can have a cute appearance, and other crabs can be pugnacious when approached and so provide an image of aggression.
Lens choice for portrait shots depends entirely on the size of your subject and whether or not you are trying to include some habitat as well. A tight face portrait of larger fish can be captured effectively with a 50/60mm macro lens, so this is as always a good all-round workhorse.
If you know the dive site well and what subject you’re targeting, then that will make lens choice a little simpler, but once underwater almost anything can turn up unexpectedly so be prepared to be flexible!