Napoleons, or bumphead wrasses, are fish with character.  I yet to meet a diver that doesn’t smile when one of these curious creatures comes in to have a look. With the intricate pattern in their faces, big lips and chameleon-like eyes, these distinctive fish are prime subjects to take pictures of. In locations like that Red Sea, they are fairly commonly found.

For the next time you find yourself face to face with these big lipped beauties, here are some hints and tips for taking better pics.

Napoleons. The Challenge:

Napoleons are curious creatures and is not uncommon for adults to approach divers. They will even sometimes follow us along the reef.  So getting close to your subject is – for once – not the main difficulty.

This means your main challenges as a photographer are to get a good lighting and composition. These are the main areas you should have in mind when an encounter comes along.

If I know there is a good chance to encounter a Napoleon wrasse I will generally choose a wide angle lens or even a fish-eye.  Curiosity gets me close and I can fill the frame for max impact!

fishinfocus, Mario Vitalini, Napoleon Wrasse
A Napoleon approaches curiously and check it’s own reflection on my dome port

Napoleons. Tips and tricks for success:

Mature individuals are probably the best subjects. They are bold in nature. The swirling patterns on their faces, inquisitive eyes and big mouths are so interesting that is worth spending time working on your composition .

I know a couple of dive sites where these wrasses will swim under the boat and check out all the dives. They rarely swim away as long as you do not chase them. Sha’ab Claudia in the Southern Red Sea is one of these sites. I always try to visit it during my Southern Red Sea photo workshops.  Normally I get the best results at the beginning or at the end of the dive. It pays to be very patient. When you spot the wrasse, do not swim towards it, let curiosity work and wait for the Napoleon to come and check you out.

Never, ever feed the marine life to “encourage” them to come closer.

fishinfocus, Mario Vitalini, Napoleon Wrasse
Napoleon wrasse under the boat in Fury Shoals Egypt

When the fish approach, try to position yourself so the reef is behind you. This will allow you to shoot with the blue water behind the fish and help you to isolate your subject.


Now think about composition.  The below shot has a good, clean background, but the side on shot is not very attractive or appealing. Is more an ID picture. Use the fish curiosity  to get as close as possible. Try to capture the inquisitive eyes. If possible take the photo when the fish is swimming to you. A face on shot is always much more interesting.

fishinfocus, Mario Vitalini, Napoleon Wrasse
Using the blue as a background brings out the colors of this bumphead wrasse

Using ambient light

If you do not have strobes, try to shoot when the sun is high. Stay as shallow as possible to ensure the best possible light and colors, try to keep the sun behind to get the most of the light on your subject and try to use a slight downwards angle. I know most of the time I recommend to shoot upwards but in these situations, the bright sun will more likely overexpose the background.

fishinfocus, Mario Vitalini, Napoleon Wrasse
Napoleon wrasse taken using ambient light t in Fury Shoals Egypt

Using strobes

When it comes to shooting napoleons with strobes, the trick is to avoid backscatter and get enough light on the subject. Keep the strobes far back or at least align them with the handles of your housing – even further back. This will minimize the number of particles being lit and therefore reduce the risk of backscatter. I tend to use a 10-2 position (referencing a clock dial) and if I want to light only my subject I will cross my strobes. If you use this position make sure your strobes are far back, almost aligned with your head otherwise you will get hot spots and potentially a lot of backscatter

fishinfocus, Mario Vitalini, Napoleon Wrasse
Crossing the strobeswill minimize lighting the water behind the subject but can potencialy create backscatter or hot spots, pull your flash guns way back to avoid this
fishinfocus, Mario Vitalini, Napoleon Wrasse

Look out for!

Occasionally bumphead wrasses will extend their jaws as if they were yawning. This is a fantastic behavioral shot I haven’t been able to capture properly – I’m still waiting for that magic moment when I have my camera with me.  But if you are patient and are prepared to stick with wrasse, you may have better luck than me.

Dr. Alex Mustard, Scuba Travel, Napoleons
This great shot was taken by Dr. Alex Mustard of a bumphead wrasse about to yawn.

You can join Mario and improve your underwater photography on any of his photo trips

Mario is well known for his patient, calm approach to teaching underwater photography – he will help you develop new skills and build your confidence in a relaxed and fun environment.