The Art of Fish Portraiture

Of all of the possible underwater subjects fish can be among the most elusive. It may be difficult to get the proper angle for that once-in-a-lifetime nudibranch shot, or you may not be able to communicate effectively with your underwater model. Fish, however, rarely hold still and they’re lousy at following instructions. They require the photographer to exhibit the most fluid and unobtrusive behavior, while at the same time assessing the fish’s mood and comfort level. The quest for the ultimate fish portrait is the quest for the ultimately cooperative fish. Very few of the fish you encounter will make cooperative models, since fish do not get to be old by being bold and reckless; they grow old by being cunning and wary.

Some time ago I took a class in situational leadership. What I learned was everyone is different and to achieve your goals you need to adapt your behavior to the personality of the person you want to influence. The same concept can be applied to fish portraiture. To be optimally successful you need to understand what image you would like to acquire, and make a critical assessment of your subject’s mood and personality. There are no hard-and-fast rules here, and we all learn something from each encounter.
The direct approach — swimming right up to a fish — usually results in the dreaded “fish butt” shot of a fish’s tail as it flees. A “slow and steady” approach usually yields better results. I suggest you pause for a moment and observe the situation from a comfortable distance. Watch your photo target’s behavior for a while before moving closer. A little knowledge about fish behavior is indispensable. Prospective subjects can be grouped based on expectations on how they might react to an approaching photographer.
Invisible Fish
The easiest subjects to photograph are those that believe they are invisible. Examples of this type of fish include sculpins, angel sharks, and various scorpionfish. Try approaching the fish slowly from the side rather than straight on. Avoid direct eye contact. Instead, take a quick glance at your subject from the corner of one eye. Then just remain there for a little while until the fish becomes comfortable with your presence. Pay attention to the fish’s body posture; if it raises its fins this typically means it’s bracing for a hasty departure. Back off a bit should you these preflight behaviors. Wait until the fish settles down before you begin shooting.
One technique I regularly use when trying for close-up shots is to deliberately take a few shots from farther away, in hopes that the fish might become accustomed to my presence — and my strobes firing — before I actually set up for the desired portrait. This method has proven effective in many instances. 
The “invisible” fish is normally well camouflaged and blends in with its surroundings. Remembering the mantra “get close, get low, and shoot up” is helpful when composing images in which your fish stands out from the background.
Territorial Fish
Sometimes fish engage in territorial behavior that makes them protective of a particular the area. Examples of this are fish at cleaner stations (either providing the cleaning service or being cleaned), fish guarding a nest, those that dwell in holes, or fish that are sleeping. California fish that fall into this category include moray eels, nest sitting lingcod, cabezons, and garibaldi. Simply approach your subject, rest on a sand bottom, and breath slowly. The fish may dart away should you approach awkwardly, but will eventually reemerge from its den, or return to its nest. Then you can shoot in a relaxed confident manner once the fish is comfortable with your presence.
To get photos of gobies, particularly bluebanded gobies, look for an area where there are many fish. Then kneel on a patch of sand adjacent to the reef structure and wait several minutes until the fish are accustomed to your presence. Take your time and be patient since surely one of the fish in the group will sit still long enough for you to compose and create the image you imagine.
If you are fortunate enough to witness a garibaldi guarding its egg patch, you’ll notice it will grunt, posture, and rush towards any creature that approaches the nest. You can typically get good photos of the garibaldi during this time, as it will likely pay more attention to its nest than to you.
Some fish are constantly in motion and are very challenging to photograph. Señoritas and blacksmith fall into this category. It is best to remain in one place and let these fish come to you. They will often come quite close and then suddenly dart away. Remember that they will often hesitate for just an instant before they flee. Learn to anticipate this hesitation and be ready to click the shutter when it happens. Also, watch the fish from a distance. Many fish exhibit some form of repetitive behavior. Learn to identify the pattern and position yourself to be in the right place when they pass by.
Game Fish
Game fish such as halibut, yellowtail or kelp bass are among the most difficult to photograph, since it’s possible the last diver they encountered tried to invite them over as dinner. One of the best suggestions to get images of game fish is dive in a reserve where they are unaccustomed to being hunted. Sometimes these large fish expect divers to yield the right-of-way. In other areas simply tuck into a depression on the reef, or become one with the kelp. Relax, breath slowly, and wait. If you must approach a resting fish, like a halibut, always approach from the side, and minimize eye contact.
Using Bait
I generally do not like the idea of baiting fish. There are several reasons for this. First, a magic moment occurs when the fish becomes interested in my camera or me. That moment rarely happens with bait in the water, since the fish’s attention is focused on the bait and not me. Second, bait often clouds the water producing less sharp images and backscatter. Most importantly, I do not believe one creature needs to die to get images of another. 
One big exception here is the use of bait to attract large pelagic sharks. This is a “don’t try this at home, folks” situation. If you wish to photograph sharks, I strongly suggest that you book a charter with a professional shark diving operation that has experience with using bait to attract sharks. Even in this instance, it’s important to remember that no photograph is worth risking your life to get. Sharks are wild creatures. Their behavior is unpredictable.
Getting the Shot
After you get the fish comfortable with your presence, take some time to watch the fish. How it flutters its fins, moves its mouth, or interacts with other fish may give you insight on how to capture its personality. You have a better chance to capture a more interesting image if you can get the fish to look directly at you. Sometimes a fish might see its own reflection in your camera port and may be curious or protective of its territory. All the time try to get close, get low, and shoot up to give yourself the best chance to get that great shot.
The final tip is to dive and photograph a lot. The more time you spend in the water the more you will learn about fish behavior and the more opportunities you will have. You will also encounter more cooperative fish — the ones who are unafraid to pose. 
What is a portrait? 
This is often not the easiest concept to define since we all have our own sense of what is beautiful and what commands our emotions. The endeavor to define a portrait is similar to endeavor to discriminate art from craft. We may not know the right words to describe art, but we all know what it is when we see it.
I believe that a portrait is not simply an image of a fish. It should go deeper than that. A portrait should reveal something about the fish — what it is feeling, a glimpse into its personality, its behavior. The “look” in its eye, the position of the fins or mouth may make a subtle, but noticeable, difference between a portrait and a snapshot. Just as art should inspire deep thinking and lead to a greater understanding of the human situation and the universe around us, a portrait should reveal something substantial about the subject. 
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