In the first post about fish photography I emphasized the importance of having good snorkeling skills. To recap, having them allows you to become more efficient and less obtrusive in the water. Coming in a close second in the hierarchy of important skills that lead to good fish photos is getting as close to the subject as possible. For anyone who has ever tried taking pictures of fish, this is not as easy as it sounds.
Fish spend their lives on the alert for predators. As attractive as you think you are, most fish will turn tail and swim away from you because you are larger, foreign, and have binocular vision. The first two adjectives are easy to understand, but having binocular vision? Yes, and it is probably the first criteria a fish uses to determine if you are friend or foe. Most predators have binocular vision so that they can judge distance. Obviously this is an important part of the overall strategy when chasing down fish. Herbivores, corallivores (those that feed upon coral), and planktivores (those the feed upon plankton) tend to have eyes on each side of their head. This allows them a large field of vision so they can see a potential predator coming from almost any angle. And since they are not chasing down moving objects, the need for judging distance is not as important. Make sense?
Okay, so now you are this large, clumsy creature in the water with binocular vision, often swimming quickly towards your potential subject. Seeing you, the fish can only react in one way: swim away, swim away! So how can you accomplish your goal of getting close to your fish subject? There are three approaches and all of them can be implemented on your photo shoot.
1. Do not approach the fish from above. In other words, do not surface dive while the fish is right under you. Doing that is a guaranteed way to startle the fish and elicit a reaction that involves swimming away or for cover. Think about it, if you are swimming along and a large object whizzes by you from behind, you would get a startled. But if that object were coming from a distance and you could see it approach, you might have time to assess what it is and decide if it is dangerous or not. It works the same for fish. Instead of dive-bombing on a fish for a photo, once you see your subject, swim away and surface dive down to its depth and approach it slowly from the side. If you have good snorkel skills, you will not be making much commotion and the fish might assess you as a non-threat and hang out for a bit longer.
2. Use your camera viewfinder or LCD screen to see your subject. Doing this covers your eyes and makes it hard for the fish to immediately assess you as a predator. Again, this might buy you some distance and time before the fish decides to swim away.
Parrotfish getting cleaned by a cleaner wrasse
3. Learn and observe the behavior of your fish. This knowledge will allow you to understand how it will react and when it is best to go for the shot. For example, parrotfishes are exceptionally hard to photograph especially when they are swimming about the reef. They zig and zag, go up and down, move here and there, eat this and that, and it is hard to figure out where they will actually stay still long enough to get a photo. Understanding that parrotfishes often like to get cleaned gives you the opportunity you were looking for. Hang out by a cleaning station. A cleaning station is an area on the reef (typically a coral colony) where cleaner wrasses (Labroides spp.) will pick off tiny parasite or dead scales and skin from fish that hover nearby. When the parrotfish goes in to get cleaned, that is when you can surface dive nearby and swim slowly up to the fish as its getting cleaned. This works for many species of reef fishes that like to get cleaned but even for those that do not often avail of this service, there are always opportunities if you observe your subjects swimming patterns and behaviors and are…
4. Patient! Yes, be patient. Do not go in for the shot right away. Take your time and let the fish become comfortable with you around. Why don’t fish ever get scared of floating logs? It’s because the floating log has been bobbing up and down and not doing anything else. After a while, fish just accept it as part of the reef environment. In other words, be the log! I can remember many, many times where a photo of a fish took me well over 30 minutes to get as I just floated and slowly followed until the right moment came up.
Okay, this is enough for now. In part 3, I will address camera tricks and setting you can do that will increase your success, but understand that the skills I outlined above in combination with good snorkeling skills are 90% of the success. The camera takes a back seat…like, back of the bus seat, compared to the importance of mastering these skills!