Fish Portrait and Close-up Techniques
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Fish portraiture is arguably the easiest technique of anything you can do
with a camera underwater. It generally doesn't require much in the way of
special equipment, the composition rules are easy to remember and easy to
follow, and everyone likes pictures of colorful fish. TTL strobe control works
most of the time.
|Housed camera: almost any "normal" to mild
telephoto lens (35 - 100 mm)
Nikonos: 28 or 35mm lens (close-up kit optional)
Snapshot cameras: "standard" setup
|50 W-s strobes will do fine
Coverage angle unimportant. Diffusers can be helpful, but are not
|f/5.6 - f/11
|1/60 (really, any speed that syncs with the strobe is OK)
|TTL flash OK?
Here are the basics.
First, your goal is to get your subject to fill most of the frame (no less
than 50%), preferably in perfect profile. That is, the most common fish portrait
is completely from the side, so you can see the whole length of the fish. You
want sharp focus from eyeball to tail; since generally only one subject-to-lens
distance is perfectly focussed, you pretty much need the entire fish to be at
the same distance from your lens. This means that if has to be shot from the
side. This rule should not keep you from shooting if the fish is slightly
"tilted" towards or away from the lens, but for great fish portraits
you should avoid shooting the fish directly head-on. You should never shoot
"fish butts," as they're not good for much. You can't use the pictures
for ID purposes easily, and you often can't get enough detail of color or
structure even to see what kind of fish it is!
Second: The most important place to focus is on the eye of the fish. If the
eye is out of focus, your pictures will look weird. This is not to say you have
to focus exactly on the eye, just that the eye needs to be in sharp focus. If
your depth of field is enough to cover the eye, that's good enough. Just make
sure the eye will be in focus. When in doubt, focus on the eye.
Third: the best fish portraits demonstrate some sort of behavior that is
typical of the subject. For instance, blennies are often shot sticking out of
their holes, jawfish are often shot hovering over their burrows, etc. A grouper
sitting on the bottom is often dull, but the same grouper with its mouth wide
open at a cleaning station is much more exciting. Think about your subject and
try to think about what you visualize the fish doing when you think about
it, and then go get that picture. Chances are that other people think about that
fish the same way...and if not, well, you'll get a picture that's unique to you
and your style. That's not a bad thing!
Fourth: do not shoot the fish from above, with reef below it. Several
bad things happen when you do this. First, your subject is easily lost in the
clutter. Consider that many predators strike from above, so many prey fish are
colored to camouflage themselves when seen from above. As a result, many fish
will disappear into the background if you shoot from above. Even the ones that
don't have natural camouflage will be harder to pick out from the background
clutter. You're best off shooting fish from the same level or slightly below
them. If you're slightly below the fish, the background will likely be mostly
blue water, which will provide some natural separation between subject and
background. Shooting on the same level as the fish is a good choice too, as long
as the background doesn't compete too strongly.
Fifth: get as close as possible to your subject. You'll get sharper focus,
better light from your strobes, etc. All of these are good things. Keep in mind
that some subjects pretty much require long lenses for reasonable portraits;
small creatures like blennies, jawfish, shrimp, etc. will often require 60 to
100mm lenses to yield decent portraits. In these cases, the "rules" of
macro photos apply as well. Larger subjects will not be easy to photograph with
long lenses. You have to know the limits of the lens setup you're using. Use
long lenses to shoot small subjects, and shorter lenses for larger subjects.
There are exceptions, of course, but this is still a good rule of thumb. In
general, I'd say 50mm - 60mm is the ideal lens length for general fish
portraits. You'll be able to shoot blennies up to angelfish with a 60mm macro
Finally: don't forget the general rules of composition. Rule of thirds,
diagonal lines, etc. It all still applies.
Some examples and comments
The classic fish portrait: full frame, everything is in focus, and the
relevant body markings/shape are easily visible. Composition-wise, the eye
is "on a third," the body makes a diagonal line, and the fish is
doing something typical for the species.
Subjects this small are difficult to photograph. However, using the extra
space in the frame to provide some information about the subject's habitat
is a good backup.
This one is not nearly as good as the trunkfish portrait, but it still has
some merit. The eye of the grouper is almost dead-center, which is not a
great thing. The body of the fish is slightly turned away...but at least
the subject is swimming into the frame! Finally, a closer shot would have
been nicer, as it would have made the subject larger in the frame.
Cropping this frame is an option to consider.
|Be sure to try using 'vertical' framing for
Large subject, long lens. What to do when you're stuck with too long a
lens for the subject? Go ahead and shoot; you might get something
Creative use of the background can add a lot. In this case, the plates of
star coral provide diagonal lines to frame the subject. Don't forget the
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