Fish are a subject where I see a lot of what I call ‘ID shots’, with the fish sideways on, lifeless and on the whole not very interesting. Fish are not easy subjects, as they can move around quickly and are certainly unpredictable and therefore it can be difficult to take a good image.
They are also not necessarily the man in the street’s favourite. “It’s just a fish”, I hear my friends and family say! Show them a shark shot or maybe dolphins or whales and they will be a lot more interested! However, the sea is full of fish and there will always be something to photograph so taken carefully and imaginatively it is possible to show the subject’s character or personality, and sometimes behaviour, which immediately introduces far more interest for the viewer. Given that some fish have fantastic colours and markings, the combination of character and bright colours will help to create an image with impact. In this article, I want to look at how to take interesting fish images and the different techniques I use.
My lens of choice depending on the size of the subject is a 105mm Nikon Macro lens on my full-frame DSLR camera. Cropped-sensor DSLR users should start with their 50mm or 60mm lens, and for mirrorless systems, 50mm or thereabouts as this will be easier to focus than slightly longer macro lenses. The final choice will depend on the size of the likely subject and also rough subject-to-camera distances. For compact users, the zoom facility on their lens will pay dividends as long as you remember that just because the fish appears closer on the screen because you have zoomed right in, don’t forget how far the strobe light has to travel and compensate accordingly by maybe a wider aperture or higher ISO.
Generally, I use two strobes placed on either side of the lens port and slightly wider than I would do for macro photography. The camera-to-subject distance is often further than when shooting tiny subjects and having the strobes slightly wider will help the light travel further. I quite often also push the strobes forward and in extreme situations, really well forward of the port, if I want to push the lighting closer to a skittish subject some way from me. Only one strobe can also create a very nicely lit image with the strobe set to one side of the port. A natural shadow will be created on one side of the fish’s face, which can work very well. For users of two strobes consider turning one down a few clicks to help create more natural lighting. When photographing a fish with textured skin such as a frogfish with its sandpaper-type skin, I often take off the strobe’s condenser. This will mean that the light emitted by the strobe is harsher and if the strobe is then angled to the side rather than straight onto the subject, each little bump or bristle will have a shadow that boosts the textural look. With small frogfish photography, I often use a snoot attached to my strobe, which is uncondensed light and very directional, which helps amplify the texture.
Depending on the type of shot you are trying to create, inward lighting or cross lighting (which I covered in an earlier article on macro lighting) where the strobes are set at right angles to the port (cross) or even pointing back to your head (inward) helping you to get a darker or black background.
When you find a suitable subject spend some time watching its behaviour. Fish are creatures of habit and will often move in a set pattern and return to where they started. Cardinalfish, mouthbrooding eggs, will move slowly but sometimes erratically but they always tend to come back to roughly where they started. If you can anticipate this, you can wait patiently for them to return and then get that ‘peak of the action’ shot just as they open their mouths and aerate their eggs. If a fish does something interesting, it will likely do it again once they are comfortable with your presence, so keep still and don’t make erratic movements!
The eye or eyes of the subject must be in focus and sharp. They are what holds the viewer’s attention. In any portrait situation, it is the eyes that the viewer will see first. The rest of the subject can be blurred but the eyes are what will grab you. Taken correctly and with the right angle of view, the viewer will get an impression that the fish is actually looking at him or her. Depending on the type and shape of the fish’s jaw, the area from eyes to mouth should also be in focus, but it is not absolutely critical. A long-nosed hawkfish is a nightmare if not impossible to get both eyes and mouth sharp and depends on lens choice and indeed the type of camera too. A blenny looking at you out of a hole has a flatter face and it is easier to get the eyes and the face and mouth sharp. The angle you photograph the subject at is also important and generally, I advise students to get slightly lower than the subject and shoot up.
As with any other portrait photography, you can compose really tight shots of maybe just part of the fish face, or create an image where you have backed off against a simple background. Try also to shoot the subject face on.
This will give you a more recognisable face, with a mouth, eyes and other facial features. Longer-headed fish should be photographed at say 45 degrees coming towards you as the diagonal composition will work much better than sideways on.
When I find an interesting subject among other things, I consider what sort of background I want to set it. I won’t want to set it against a complicated or messy background as this will detract from the portrait. If there is no choice, because of where the subject is sitting, then using an open aperture will create a nicely blurred background and soften the look of the reef etc.
If you can get low and shoot upwards into the water column, then you can take control of the background colour. Inward lighting and a fast shutter speed will help create a black background and a slower speed and straighter angle with the strobes will turn the background to a lighter and even blue background. I quite often look out for a nice simple and brightly coloured background, such as a pink or orange sponge, and then wait for a subject to set against it.
Some types of fish portraits and their success will depend on the speed that you can shoot at and the speed of the focus system on your camera. Little anthias darting around as they feed on plankton are very erratic and need your camera to focus very quickly. If you want sharp images of fast-moving fish, then use a higher speed and if your camera has the facility, set the focus to 3D tracking, once focused the main focal point will stay in focus and move with the subject as it flits around. If your camera struggles with focus lag, then try introducing more light by way of a spotting light attached to the housing, which will help with a quicker focus, or maybe shoot subjects that don’t move so quickly like frogfish or scorpionfish, etc. When shooting fast-moving subjects, I often set my shutter too fast shooting and shoot as many frames per second as my strobes will allow, although this necessitates higher ISOs and lower strobe power, so that they can quickly recycle. This also works better when the subject is relatively close to the camera. Open aperture images (small F-stop) of fish faces are probably the most popular type of portrait currently and you see many of them winning competitions. With softer faces and features blending in with lovely bokeh backgrounds, it gives a surreal feeling to the image and a much more ‘arty’ feel than a detailed image.
When you next dive with a camera, try using some of these tips as they will help you get better fish portraits. As ever, practice makes for better images!