Fish Tails vs Fish Tales
The goal of every photographer is to bring back memorable images from those great moments spent beneath the waves. Some of the most challenging images to capture are those close ups with the fish looking back at you with curiosity, rather than running off in the opposite direction or taking refuge in the reef. So how do you get them?
You jump in with camera in hand, yet when you approach a likely subject, the star of the photo appears to flee in terror, and you say to yourself “why would it do that? I mean it no harm; it must be the camera!”
We try to rationalize that the lens port resembles an open mouth of a large predator – triggering a flight reaction by the subject. The reality is that it’s not so much the camera, but what is right behind it. To a small fish, a diver with camera and scuba equipment is not much different in size than a cruise ship. Additionally, body language will tell your subject a lot about your intentions. Fish, as well as other mobile creatures survive by picking up on even the smallest hint of pursuit. While you can’t always avoid tipping your hand, there are things you can do to increase the odds of getting the shot.
The first thing you need to determine before attempting to get close to a fish is whether they are a swimmer or a sitter. Swimmers are either active, moving hurriedly about the reef, picking and grazing as they go, or passive, just hanging about as if they have no place in particular to go like these three batfish. Batfish are often curious – to the point of investigating something as large as a diver, provided the diver hangs back several feet and calmly and behaves as if they are not interested in them.
Anthias are by far the most numerous small fish on the reef, and among the most colorful with shades of orange, purple, yellow and red represented by over four-dozen different species. Trying to capture one alone can be daunting, like singling out one bee from a swarm, whereas getting a group shot is easier. When you make your approach, the little fish will often take cover in the coral. But if you allow yourself to remain still for several moments they will re-emerge from hiding to feed once again in the current.
When it comes to more active subjects like Clown triggerfish for example, don’t expect them to hang around in one spot for very long. The odds of getting that great frontal or side portrait shot is not going to happen if you are chasing after the fish. Your most successful shot will come by first by watching where it is going and what is doing when it pauses on the reef; anticipate where it will go next so you can be there when it passes by.
These Yellownose Shrimpgobies are further examples of small fishes that do not do much moving about, but rather stay in one spot – or sit – as sentries for the blind shrimp they share their burrow with. This allows you time to prepare your camera settings. Then you’re ready to move in ever so slowly, and remain calm until you are close enough for that great shot. Highly territorial fish can be a Photographer’s best friends. They will defend their homes and their land fiercely against much larger fish, or intruders such as divers. Some examples of territorial fish include damselfish and anemonefish like these false clownfish. When intruders come into their realm, they will swim at them with rapid, jerky swimming patterns and may even try to bite in an attempt to drive off the intruder. When the intruder is a camera, you can often accomplish a very good full-frontal picture of these fierce little critters.
Each cleaning station brings a great opportunity for photographs. Cleaner fishes fan their “customers” with their little fins and their customers calm down and enter a relaxed state. This also means that the fish will allow you to come closer. However, it is important to move slowly and still keep some distance, so the cleaners and their “client” are not disturbed.
Scorpion fish are a prime example of what could be called a sitter, as they often have little reason to move. As their name suggests, scorpionfish can cause a painful sting, but this comes not from a dedicated stinger but from a series of sharp, venomous spines in their back. Like all members that belong to the family Scorpaenidae (this family is a large one with hundreds of members), they are also masters of camouflage; so before you can approach for the perfect shot, the challenge is to first find them!
Fish that rely on camouflage are also the most inactive, laying in wait for an unwary fish or small crustacean like a shrimp or crab to become its next meal. Their appearance is also for defense rather than the ability to escape. Some fish like Blennies have a similar coloration to the color or bottom they tend to most associate with. They are likely to stay in one area and go unnoticed, and even when disturbed may dart only a short distance before resettling. Finding one of these stealthy species can be challenging so the hunt is on.
Most of us think of crustaceans and mollusks as something that lays motionless or moves about slowly on the bottom. Cuttlefish on the other hand, are fairly active creatures of the reef and are also highly intelligent and curious. If you convey that you are not threatening, moving slowly and cautiously their curiosity will get the best of them and they’ll come closer to you. When this happens they can go through a variety of color patterns providing a great show, not to mention a series of photographs that can be mistaken for multiple cuttlefish rather than just one.
It’s impossible not to mention the underwater photographer’s best friends, those who generally go about life at a slow pace. Nudibranchs are among the top of everybody’s list as there is no issue on being able to approach them. Because they move about so slowly it takes little effort to get the best angle and capture a great picture.
Overall, the very best tool for an underwater photographer or even those who just like to watch fish, comes from within – patience. As a good rule of thumb move slow, slower, slowest … and you will capture more of what you see in the process.