The key to successful fish photography is making eye to eye contact with the subject. Groupers are good subjects because they approach divers and sit motionless for long periods of time. In contrast, the parrotfish are hard to photograph because they are in constant motion while looking for food.
When underwater exploration turns from sometime hobby to recurring pastime, many fishwatchers turn to underwater photography. Some aspiring U/W photographers hope to have their work published, others enter contests and plaster colorful memories on the walls of their homes and offices. All learn after the first or second roll of film that watching fish and taking pictures of fish are two entirely different matters.
Today’s auto-everything cameras make it fairly simple to just point and shoot and end up with pictures of fish that are well lit and identifiable. But the key element that separates photos taken by novices from those taken by experts is eye contact. While a fish may swim right up to you and look you in the eye, typically, you need to get on the fishes’ level and become a part of their world for a little while. It is this connection that transforms good photos into great ones, inviting the viewer into the fishes’ world.
The starting point in successful fish photography is knowing what you’re looking for. Fish photographers are just hunters in disguise, both watch and wait for that prefect moment when everything lines up. We’ve all heard the expression “don’t shoot till you see the whites of their eyes,” this theory is especially applicable to underwater photography. The first thing any hunter will tell you is to learn all you can about your target. Zero in on a few likely candidates and find out all you can. Where do they eat? When do they sleep? Where do they live? Where do they hide?
The bottom line is, unless you have food there are few fish that are going to willingly pose for portraits; most instinctively swim the other way. There are, however, some fish that are a bit more cooperative than others, especially near the surface. Many beginning photographers are lured into thinking fish photography is easy when they find themselves enveloped by thick clouds of Blue Tangs or eye to eye with a six foot toothy Barracuda. French Angelfish, decked out in elegant black and gold suits, will often boldly approach divers and snorkelers at the surface. While these easy targets are great for starters, eventually you’re going to want to go below the surface and photograph more elusive subjects.
If you want to learn the basics of eye to eye contact a good place to start is with a subject that won’t swim away; scour the seafloor and find yourself a nice sedentary Scorpionfish. Barring the occasional shy one, most Scorpionfish will sit motionless for hours, flash after flash. Unless extremely provoked, they rarely swim away.
There are several different Scorpionfish found in the Caribbean, ranging in color from drab brown to brilliant yellow. The common varieties, such as the Spotted Scorpionfish and Barbfish, are a mottled mixture of reds, pinks and browns. Scorpionfish rely on camouflage for protection and often mimic the rocks in their surroundings. They also have poisonous spines and can inflict a powerful sting; painful to humans and deadly to the fishes’ prey.
Typically, Scorpionfish are bottom dwellers and are found on both sand and rocky terrain. Occasionally you’ll find them a bit higher on the reef, resting on a sponge or lurking in a dark corner, waiting for an unsuspecting victim to swim by.
One the most cooperative models and a definite must for any photographer’s wall or archive is the Nassau Grouper and its relatives, including the Red and Rock Hind, Graysby, Coney, Soapfish and the giant Jewfish. Groupers, curious by nature, have become amazingly acclimated to divers and most are incredibly easy to photograph. In many locations they will come right up to divers and snorkelers and follow them around, staring longfully with big puppy-dog eyes. I have yet to see any other fish just sit there and allow a photographer to put a framer over its face!
Groupers and Jewfish vary greatly in both color and size. Most groupers are between two and four feet long; Jewfish can grow to lengths of eight feet and weigh as much as 700 pounds. Groupers display a varied assortment of spots, stripes and blotches, which can change drastically when they move or when they are startled. They also undergo great changes as they make the transition from juvenile to adult. Bold vertical stripes and a dark band that runs through its eye make the Nassau Grouper easily identifiable and distinguishable from its look alike cousin the Red Grouper. Although groupers occasionally cruise the open water, more often than not you’ll find them lurking in the shadowy crevices of the reef. Despite their size, groupers are masters of disguise.
A little trickier to photograph but well worth the effort are parrotfish, available in more than a dozen flashy colors and designs. You probably heard parrotfish before you saw them; they crunch algae laden coral with their parrotlike beaks, leaving behind streams of powdery sand. Extreme color changes make parrotfish among the most interesting fish in the reef community. There are three unique color phases: juvenile, adult and male secondary. Most females have the ability to change into males and typically the males sport the brighter colors and more elaborate designs.
For the most part you will find parrotfish grazing nonstop on shallow reefs during the day. Although not exactly “photo friendly” they are fairly tolerant of snorkelers and somewhat single minded. Parrotfish are simple creatures of habit and not easily distracted from their feeding patterns. With careful planning you can cut them off as they round a corner and look them square in the eye. The easiest time to get parrotfish photos is at night, when they retreat to the shelter of the reef. Parrotfish excrete a mucouslike substance from their mouth and wrap themselves in a transparent cocoon.
No matter what fish you photograph or camera you use the same rules and opportunities apply: If you want great portraits look your subject in the eye.