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
Juvenile French Angelfish
Goldentail Moray Eel
Do you have any tips for successful fish portraits? If so, please share. I’d love to know what works for you.
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Snorkeling Photography – Moving Beyond the Basics
Guide to Photographing Fish