Jan 252015

Fish portrait photography can be a challenging endeavor.  Some fish are notoriously shy.  Some dart away faster than the blink of an eye.  Others are curious and may swim around you, but will seldom give you a facial shot (the barracuda and the porcupine fish come to mind here).

If you are looking to improve your fish portraits, or even if you are just starting out, below are a few strategies you can employ to maximize your chances of getting the perfect shot.

1.  Get Close to the Subject – This is probably the most important rule.  If you aren’t close to your subject, you have almost no chance of capturing a sharp, compelling image.

2.  Regulate Your Breathing – Try to take slow, deliberate breaths.  Many fish are afraid of the hissing and gurgling noises that you inevitably make underwater.  Not to mention that your bubbles are a visual disturbance.

3.  Approach Slowly- Approach your subject in a slow, cautious and deliberate manner.  You may need to stop and watch before your move in closer.

4.  Maintain Situational Awareness – You may have sighted a rare species, which is naturally an exciting moment.  But this does not mean that you can forget about basic diving skills, your own safety, and your duty to protect the reef and its inhabitants.  Maintain good buoyancy and watch your depth.  Don’t descend too deep in pursuit of a subject.  Likewise, if you spot a fish at a higher depth, beware of ascending too quickly.  These may sound like basic concepts, but I have heard stores of experienced divers incurring serious harm by ascending too quickly in pursuit of a subject.  Also, don’t harm the coral or harass sea life in pursuit of the shot.  And remember that your flash is harmful to the fish’s eyes, so please don’t take 50 flash shots of that frogfish that can’t get out of your way.

5.  Increase Shutter Speed and Shoot Full Manual if Your Camera Supports it (Many lower end compact cameras may not have these features, so feel free to skip ahead if you have a camera that shoots only automatic modes).  – The best way to clearly capture quickly moving subjects is to set your own aperture, ISO and shutter speed.  I typically use a shutter speed of 1/250, an aperture between 4.0 – 5.6 and ISO 100-200 for fish portraits in clear, tropical water.

6.  Background is Important – Whether its a deep blue or black background, or a brightly colored sponge of a contrasting color – your background matters.  It isn’t solely the subject that makes a shot come to life.  If you are shooting RAW, it may be easy to fix some background disturbances or problems. A stray fin from a diver may be easy to remove, excess noise can be reduced, and you can often darken your background while maintaining a nice exposure on the subject.

7.  Study Fish Behavior – Get to know your subject.  Is it skittish?  Does it repeat a certain behavior pattern?  Does it have a mate?  Take time to dive the same sites and become familiar with the critters.

8.  Know Your Camera – Shutter lag time, auto focus lag time, and flash recycle time are important things to know when shooting moving subjects like fish.

9.  Focus on the Eyes- Keep the focus on your subject’s eyes.  Watch your depth of field.  If it’s too shallow, you risk losing focus or clarity on other important features of the fish.

10.  Minimize Direct Eye Contact with the Fish – Some fish (and many other animals) feel threatened by direct eye contact and will take defensive measures.  Your goal is to make the fish comfortable with your presence, while not interfering with its natural behaviors.  Keep your eyes on the camera’s viewfinder or display screen.

Here are a few of our recent fish portraits from Bonaire.

The Odd Shaped Swimmers

balloonfish yellow sub S


scorpionfish bari reef S


 The Angels

French Angel Yellow Sub M

Juvenile French Angelfish

french angelfish salt pier M

French Angelfish

 The Eels

goldentail moray bari reef S

Goldentail Moray Eel

lone garden eel invisibles m

Garden Eel

Do you have any tips for successful fish portraits?  If so, please share.  I’d love to know what works for you.

Related Links

Underwater Photography Etiquette

Snorkeling Photography – Moving Beyond the Basics

Guide to Photographing Fish

Jan 192015

Bonaire’s sister island of Klein Bonaire is known for its powdery white sand beaches and its healthy and abundant reefs.  This tiny islet (of almost 2.5 square miles/6 km sq) was under private ownership until 1999, when it was purchased by the government of Bonaire.  Management of Klein Bonaire is now the responsibility of STINAPA.

No Name Beach on Klein Bonaire

No Name Beach on Klein Bonaire

In the 1800’s and early 1900’s, Klein Bonaire’s once abundant vegetation took a major hit.  Large and durable trees like the Brazil wood were harvested to produce furniture, boat parts, charcoal and other goods. Goats, which were kept on the island for export, also contributed to the island’s deforestation.

In 2006, STINAPA initiated a reforestation project, with the goal of restoring the island’s once-dense flora.  Led by Elsmarie Beukenboom, STINAPA’s dedicated project director, this project continues today at full speed.

On the final day of 2014, Steve and I went to the island with Elsmarie, her daughter and a group of volunteers to assist with the project.

After a short hike to the base camp, Elsmarie briefed us on the project history and the tasks at hand.  Our mission would be watering the young trees which had recently been planted.

The Base Camp

The Base Camp

Recycled 2-liter bottles are used to water each plant

Recycled 2-liter bottles are used to water each plant

At this point you may be wondering where the water comes from, since Klein Bonaire has no infrastructure or inhabitants.  Early last year, Elsmarie discovered a fresh water well on the island – the discovery sparked by a chance encounter with a feral cat.  Since the discovery of the well, the fresh water is no longer laboriously brought in by boat.

Children playing in the freshwater well.  These children volunteered their time to help the project.

Children playing in the freshwater well. These children volunteered their time to help the project.

The freshwater is pumped from the well and stored in two large cisterns.

Elsmarie's daughter (purple hat) Naomi cheerfully fills bottles from a cistern.  Elsmarie, in green, fills bottles from the second cistern.

Elsmarie’s daughter Naomi (in purple) cheerfully fills bottles from a cistern. Elsmarie (in green) fills bottles from the second cistern.

Filled bottles are carted to each individual plant via a wheelbarrow.

water bottles full

Steve collects empty bottles from the field

Elsmarie (left) and my sister-in-law Suzanne with empty bottles

Elsmarie (left) and my sister-in-law Suzanne with empty bottles

My brother-in-law Bob collects empty bottles at the project site

My brother-in-law Bob collects empty bottles at the project site

Elsmarie works tirelessly to ensure the success of this project.  She’s a hands-on leader who is passionate about the environment of her native Bonaire.  And while she’s the driving force behind the reforestation project, an army of volunteers provide the assistance necessary for a project of this magnitude.

Elsmarie at Klein Base Camp

If you are on Bonaire, please consider volunteering your time for this worthy cause.  Please contact Elsmarie at Ebeukenboom@hotmail.com or send her a private message via Facebook at Elsmarie Beukenboom.

More about Klein Bonaire and the reforestation project-

After the Ax, by Patrick Holian


Jan 162015

Steve shot this beautiful Lettuce Sea Slug (Elysia crispata) at The Cliff dive site on Bonaire recently.  This shell-less snail wears a kaleidoscope of colors and moves gracefully across the reef.  Its ruffled skin, which resembles a curly lettuce leaf, serves to increase the surface area by which it can absorb oxygen.

This species may be easily mistaken for a nudibranch, however, unlike the nudibranch, it has no external gills (a characteristic that gives the nudibranch its name).

lettuce sea slug

More about the Lettuce Leaf Slug-

Phyllum – Mollusca

Class – Gastropoda

Order – Sacoglossa – Sapsucking Slugs

Family – Elysiidae

Color – Variable, often shades of green

Range – western Atlantic and Caribbean, common

Size – Average 1-2 inches (2.5-5 cm), max 4 inches (the specimen in the photo was at least 3.5 inches)

Feeds on – Algae

Have you seen this creature on the reef?  Did you think it was a nudibranch?  I did, until this photo prompted me to do more research.

Jan 122015

Some random shots from the past month in Bonaire.

On Kite Beach

kites on the beach

kites on the beach

kite surfer in bonaire

From the rugged east coast – a particularly windy day with high seas

east coast large waves

east coast waves

Me and my sister-in-law Sue

Me and my sister-in-law Sue

Lots of sea spray

Lots of sea spray

Some underwater silhouettes

sea turtle silhouette

A hawksbill turtle surfaces for a breath

Bob descending_

My brother-in-law Bob takes in the underwater scenery

ocean triggerfish

On Klein Bonaire


Klein Bonaire

Klein to Bonaire

From Hamlet Oasis

dive site pole

debris free

The results of Dive Friends’ Debris Free Bonaire program. To find out how to help, please visit www.debrisfreebonaire.com

At “The Lake” Dive Site

Steve takes the plunge

Steve takes the plunge

pelican at sunset

A pelican takes flight at sunset


Jan 072015

It was a beautiful day, the sea looked calm, and I was at one of my favorite dive sites on Bonaire – Bari Reef.  I began gearing up, following my usual process (like most divers, I have a mental pre-dive checklist).

My last step in the gear-donning process is to slip on my fins.  Left fin on – check.  Right fin on – check huh, that’s weird!  Had my right foot grown a few inches overnight, or had my fin shrunk in the rinse tank?  I reasoned that I had adjusted my fin too tight, and I descended to the sandy bottom at 8 ft, waiting for Steve.

As I hovered there waiting, my fin became even tighter.  OK, now it was obvious that something was wrong (as if it wasn’t obvious enough before).  I removed the offending fin and peeked inside.  By then Steve had joined me, and what we saw almost caused us both to spit out our regulators in a massive laughing fit.  A gigantic large, purple and red land crab had nestled into the tip of my fin, likely thinking that it had found a comfy home.

I handed Steve the crab-stuffed fin.  How was I supposed to know how to remove a land crab from it?  Steve would know what to do.  Ah, yes, but first a photo!

Steve holding fin

Slowly, he squeezed the crab out of the fin so as not to hurt the poor crustacean.

Crab coming out of fin

Eventually it made its way to the end of the fin, and we set him free.

Crab on Fin

After this incident, I have added a new step to my pre-dive checklist.  Step 12 – check inside fin for foreign invaders!

What is the strangest thing you have found in your dive gear?  Friends on the island have reported finding scorpions in fins.  I’ve also read of a diver finding a cockroach in his mask.  Eek!!