The quest for the ultimate fish portrait is the quest for the ultimate brain-damaged subject. I’ll define brain-damaged in this context as those subjects who are, for some strange reason, not afraid of you or your camera and may even take an interest in you. This is an unusual situation, since fish do not get to be old by being bold and reckless; they grow old by being cunning and wary. Small fish are the most elusive and frustrating of all underwater subjects.
To photograph small fish you need a camera specific to the job. A SLR camera in a housing or a Nikon RS is what you want—along with a 100 to 105 macro lens and a small strobe. Viewfinder cameras, such as the Nikonos, require focusing aids and few self-respecting fish will swim into the “jaws” of these devices. That is not to say that you cannot get good fish photos with a viewfinder camera and framers; it’s that you’ll get fewer opportunities than your buddy with the SLR camera.
In California there are a great number of small fish that make fascinating photographic subjects. Look for blue-banded and zebra gobys, along with scythe butterflyfish and juvenile garibaldi in southern waters and blackeye gobys, kelpfish, skulpins, and señoritas throughout the state.
It’s a bad idea to swim after or otherwise chase a fish (or any subject for that matter). Better photos are created when the subject swims to you. To get photos of gobys, particularly blue-banded gobys, I look for an area where there are many fish. I then kneel on a patch of sand and wait to 5 to 10 minutes until the fish are accustomed to my presence. Only then do I begin composing photos. If one fish swims away, there will be another a foot away. Take your time and be patient, since surely one of the fish in the group must be ‘brain-damaged,” and sit still long enough for you to compose and create the image.
Some fish such as sculpins and greenlings are territorial and if they are disturbed by a photographer, they will often return to the same spot in short order. Find a suitable fish and background, settle down and relax, and the fish will give you many opportunities for great portraits.
Some other fish dart here and there in a very nervous fashion and are very difficult to photograph. Señoritas and members of the wrasse family fall into this category. These fish will sometimes allow you to get quite close and suddenly dart away. In this case I position myself near to where they are feeding and allow them to swim to me. Remember that such nervous fish will often hesitate for just an instant before they split. Learn to look for this hesitation and click the shutter when it happens.
Remember the photographer’s mantra: get close, get down and shoot up. Your fish should stand out from the background. That is another way of saying your viewers should not have to search for the fish in the photo. Remember, the more time you spend in the water, the more likely you are to find those brain-damaged fish.