How to photograph fish

Alex Mustard’s new guide to underwater photography is required reading for aspiring snappers. Here we feature extracts on how to capture the best fish images



02 P172c big CAY04 am 1676 hamlets fish grand cayman underwater photography guideBackgrounds often let down behaviour shots. If in doubt, frame against open water for a powerful picture. I prefer the balanced light blue of the image below to the black background above. Small gestures, such as the yawning mouth and flared fins of this hamlet, often define the decisive moment in a sequence


Behaviour is nature’s way of transforming your images from ordinary to outstanding. Photographing behaviour is a true measure of your mastery of underwater photography because it simultaneously tests a wide range of skills. A successful behaviour photographer has to dive well to ensure their presence in the subject’s home is not an intrusion. Only then will life return to normal and behaviour be revealed. Just as important, you need the ability not merely to look, but to see. Behaviour is a subject that is hard to show, it is something you have to find for yourself. A little marine life knowledge goes a long way, but just as important is being attuned to the unusual. That said, spotting interesting behaviour is just the first step, the real challenge is recording it as a powerful photo.


Behavioural subject matter is almost inexhaustible. Every single species has different ways to feed and defend itself. Some are solitary while others school. Some species even live their entire lives with a completely different type of creature. Cleaning is almost universal underwater and animals are particularly approachable at cleaning stations. Finally, all species have their own mating strategies and scientists have studied very few of them. There are fantastic opportunities not only to take stunning images, but also really useful ones too.

In terms of technique, behaviour shots are taken from a little further away. Underwater telephoto lighting can be valuable. The best optics are either longer macro lenses or zoom lenses, which give you flexibility to fill the frame. A lot of behaviour occurs at dusk, which puts the emphasis on good autofocus systems. I try to avoid using a focus light when I can, because it can disturb the action, whereas strobes never seem to. A focus light with a red-light mode works very well with many species, especially crustaceans and mandarinfish. A blue or green background adds more context to a behaviour story than a black background, so when possible try and use balanced light.


Unlike a film-maker, still photographers are challenged with shooting the precise moment and composition that tells the whole story. It is much easier to show a behaviour across a series of frames, but photographic excellence was never supposed to be easy! Legendary French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson was the master of capturing the decisive moment.

Few images are as exciting for audiences, or as satisfying to take, as those that capture the peak of the action. They push your primeval hunting buttons. As Cartier-Bresson observed, ‘The creative act lasts but a brief moment, a lightning instant of give-and-take, just long enough for you to level the camera and to trap the fleeting prey in your little box.’

Photographs are at their most powerful when they leave the viewer in no doubt about why that moment in time has been preserved forever. Even fleeting gestures in or between the subjects can transform a photo from ordinary to extraordinary. Behaviour bestows your pictures with interest, but more importantly it gives you the chance to supercharge their impact by pressing the shutter at just the right moment. Look up behavioural images by Doug Perrine and Angel Fitor to see how powerful this genre can be.


03 P172a big CAY05 am 44813 angelfish fish grand cayman underwater photography guideMost fish will spawn by swimming into any current that is present. Sense the current and plan your shot so the subjects come to the camera


04 P174b med MAL05 am 0476 maldives fish school underwater photography guideMaldives. Filling the entire frame makes the school feel limitless. Here, I have used a long exposure and accelerated panning to create more of a sense of movement with the diagonal composition


05 P174c med DSC2156 2 fish school underwater photography guideWork to get into position, but then stop and let the school come to you. Here I am hanging vertical, not swimming toward the fish and I am rewarded with a school coming straight to the camera


Swimming among schools of fish is an irresistible attraction for every diver, but producing stunning images means curbing your enthusiasm. Successful schooling photos always communicate the togetherness of the fish. That’s what schooling is all about. The one thing guaranteed to mess up these pleasing arrangements is you. Shooting schools requires unlearning one of the golden rules of underwater photography; the key is not to get too close. When I teach schooling photography, I find it is often the most experienced photographers who find this hardest to learn. Years of shooting has taught them that pictures get better when they edge that little bit closer. Yet do this with schools and you get graphically weak, messy images.


Technically, the long camera-to-subject distance leaves you with four main options: big scene wide-angle, filters, silhouettes, or black and white. Schools can also be used as a background in close-focus, wide-angle images. However, great schooling photos benefit most from good diving skills, because the less you disturb them, the better the formations.

Schooling pictures require the patience and the discipline to hold your position and let the good things come to you. When you swim towards a school, the fish naturally swim away, leaving you with tail shots. You may even split the school into two smaller groups. Instead, swim around the school and get up-current while finning and exhaling slowly and smoothly. Once in prime position, stop swimming and wait. Whenever I am drifting towards a school, a quote from the movie The Hunt For Red October always pops into my head: ‘Shut everything down and make like a hole in the water.’ It seems to help!

One of the most effective tips is to look for a lively photographer who is tearing around getting too close to the school. Position yourself on the opposite side and stay still. The fish will always turn away from the disturbance and will constantly be coming on to your camera. Finally, although it sounds crazy, try taking your regulator out and making a popping sound with your mouth. This will attract several species of jacks, and I have used this on schools from the Caribbean to the central Pacific.


There are two standout compositions for schooling fish. First is shooting the whole school; a mass of fish surrounded by open water simply shouts togetherness. Fisheye lenses are great for schools, but don’t get too close as the distortion of the lens bows the school, making the fish appear to come toward the camera on one side of the frame and away on the other. Time your shots for when the school happens to form pleasing shapes; fish schools regularly form circles and rings.


06 P174a big RS13 am 18830 egypt fish school underwater photography guideThe essential ingredient for striking schooling pictures is the arrangement of the school. Strong formations communicate togetherness, when the fish are all lined up and the whole school is contained in the frame. Graphic shapes and a sense of movement make images even more powerful

The better the shape, the better your shot. Really big schools are often more impressive when you include a diver to give a sense of scale.

The second option is to go for wall-to-wall fish, where the frame is entirely packed with bodies. Focus the camera on the densest part of the school, where the fish are most neatly aligned. If you have a zoom, don’t be afraid to zoom in. A small, perfectly aligned formation will trump a bigger, messy group.


Schooling fish want to be together, but their desire to stay together varies. Some, like barracuda, are very magnetic and you can swim right through the middle of them and they will hold formation. With other species, you only need to breathe and they will start pointing in all directions. Recognising the characteristics of the species you are working with is valuable in planning your approach.

Reprinted with permission from Ammonite Press, Underwater Photography Masterclass © 2016 by Alex Mustard, RRP £19.99. Available from all good bookshops &



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