How To Photograph Reef Fish

By Marty Snyderman

What's your advice to first-time underwater photographers?-Richard P., Chicago, IL

Like many underwater photographers, Richard had several years of topside photographic experience under his belt before purchasing a single lens reflex camera to house for underwater photography. Richard made the move to a Nikon F5, and along with it, he purchased a Nikon 60mm macro lens, a flat port for his housing and two macro strobes with arms. Richard was set for success.

But it wasn't until he made his first dive that he realized he didn't know exactly how to photograph marine life. Richard contacted me and asked my advice.

My first piece of advice was to avoid doing anything that might make the subject (fish) feel at risk or in danger. I told him to move slowly and deliberately when approaching his photographic quarry. I advised Richard to avoid direct eye contact with marine life whenever possible, as it may make a fish feel cornered or threatened.

Years ago, Howard Hall (see Skin Diver Photo Annual, July 2000) told me that he approaches fish the same way he approaches a new acquaintance. He moves slowly, avoids being pushy and gives the person space in order to relax in his presence. The same human interaction rules apply with marine life.

Second, I suggested that Richard have an idea of what type of shot he'd like to get before entering the water. In order to help Richard visualize his shot, he may want to separate his "imagined" shots into different categories. By doing so, he can concentrate specifically on creating a course of action and capturing the photograph he wants, rather than being bombarded by what can be an overwhelming underwater environment. My categories include: 1) identification shots, 2) animated or aesthetically pleasing shots, 3) fish in their natural habitat, 4) behavioral shots and 5) dramatic shots.

Identification images are often popular with aquariums and scientists. To create an I.D. image I try to position the fish so that it is parallel to the film plane. The entire body should be in the frame, and the background should not compete with the subject.

Animated images show off a fish's visual appeal. When possible, I try to orient myself so that I am looking slightly upward at the subject. More specifically, I try to attain a slightly angular approach of about 15 to 45 degrees off of head-on. And, as is the case with all images of fish, facial features and eyes of fish must be in sharp focus or the image is not likely to be acceptable.

In natural environment shots, I try to include something in the frame that instantly tells viewers that the image was created in the wild and not in an aquarium. That something might be backgrounds of blue or green water, part of a shipwreck, a sunburst or colorful reef or kelp. Capturing the setting in which the image was shot is key in natural environment photographs.

Images that depict cleaning behavior, feeding, courtship, mating, nesting and schooling fit into the behavioral category. Audiences almost always find behavioral shots, along with dramatic shots, to be some of the most intriguing underwater photography. I suggested that whenever Richard has a chance to capture natural behavior, he go for it immediately. Mind you, he shouldn't barge in at full speed, but he shouldn't waste time or assume that the behavior will last indefinitely.

Full face portraits and close-ups of body parts make up the bulk of images in the dramatic shot category. Dramatic shots get viewers' full attention, but as a rule, they are generally the most difficult to acquire. It's not easy to persuade an angelfish to sit still. So, I suggested to Richard that he and other novice underwater shooters go for images that fit into other categories first.

All underwater photographers have their own way of categorizing their shots, but the five categories explained here are easy to learn until a more personalized list can be established. The key point is that having a plan helps in capturing the perfect underwater shot. In my experience, photographers that have a game plan are a lot more successful than shooters who just fall off the boat and fire away.

My last bit of advice for Richard was not to feel restricted to the definitions of these categories. The purpose of the categories is to help him develop a plan and capture his desired image. As he becomes more experienced in underwater photography, the categories will shape themselves.