Breaking the adage of getting close – get back to capture entire shoal
Breaking the adage of getting close – get back to capture entire shoal

Following his last article on fish portraits, Martyn Guess provides some tips on how to get the best pictures of fish shoals

Photographs by Martyn Guess

My fellow Dive Pro at Scuba Travel, Mario Vitalini, wrote recently about photographing fish aggregations and getting yourself in the best position to take great images. In this article I want to expand the discussion and look at different approaches and the photographic techniques to get the perfect shot of fish shoals.

Fish shoals are amazing to behold underwater and go to the heart of the underwater world and can therefore make stunning images. Pictures of shoals are always popular with non-divers and can be very successful in competitions if taken carefully and imaginatively.

It is therefore important to get the basics right. The first thing to get into your head is, it is far better to get back from the subject rather than the established underwater photography adage to get close. Fish shoals can be huge and therefore if you want to photograph the whole thing, you simply have to get back. Successful shoal images tend to be those that show the whole shoal with the fish in a tight and orderly shape. You are more likely to achieve this if you are back from the fish and not frightening them into moving or changing direction.

Ambient light is liberating as you can take the strobes off.
Ambient light is liberating as you can take the strobes off.

If you are taking images of the whole shoal, then in all probability this will be an ambient light shot with no strobes and with a fish-eye lens. The reason being simply that the distance that the strobe light will have to travel, assuming you are well away, is far beyond your strobe’s lighting distance. A fish-eye lens will give you the most coverage. Sometimes it can therefore be quite liberating to take your strobes off. You will be able to move around much more freely and fire off rapidly without having to wait for your strobes to recycle.

When I know that there are large fish shoals on the next dive (maybe a repeat dive), I will remove my strobes. One of the first things I do underwater is check where the sun is. Ideally you want this on your back and to shoot with the light. Time of day and the relative position of the sun is therefore very important for shoal photography.

At roughly the depth I intend to shoot the shoal from, I will what I call ‘shoot the blue’. I will shoot into the background water column and alter the camera speed and ISO to get the blue I want. As long as you stay at roughly the same depth and shoot in the same direction, then the background blue in your images will be what you wanted. Too fast a speed, then the water column becomes dark blue or black. Too slow a speed then the surface can easily become white and uninteresting, or even burn the highlights out.

 strobe power/burning highlights
You can get close and shoot the entire shoal where it is compact and tightly packed but beware of strobe power/burning highlights

Shoal photography where the subject is relatively shallow and where you are shooting with ambient light only, is an ideal time to use filters, such as the Magic Filter invented by Alex Mustard. These filters will give you a very natural colour of the background water and the fish and in post-processing no colour casts on the shoal.

If the shoal is not too big, or maybe if it is really tightly packed, then it can be  possible to get slightly closer and with a more open aperture and strobes on a relatively high power, throw the light out further, so to be of use lighting some of the fish. Beware though, fish are very reflective and if you get too close you will easily burn the highlights out. Also, if you get too close with a fish-eye lens the shape of the shoal and some of the leading fish can get distorted.

The middle of the day and the sun directly overhead will give you problems with the surface burning out too easily. This is because often large fish shoals will cover quite a bit of depth, from close to the surface and down into the depths and ideally, we want to shoot slightly upwards, to include some of the under-surface texture created by waves and ripples and give a  point of reference in the image. With the sun directly overhead, it is impossible not to overexpose the top part of the picture in this scenario, so it is best to shoot straight and not up to the surface.

Using Histograms when shooting fish shoals

In a previous article I wrote about the use of Histograms and they are essential to review in these types of images, where the contrast between the surface and deeper down is considerable. They will tell you graphically if you have over-compensated the exposure for the surface, making the rest of the image too dark. In the speed of the action, it is easy to keep shooting, resulting often in disappointment when back on the boat!

If the sun is high and you have no choice but to dive at that time, then you can consider shooting the fish shoals with sunball type settings and your strobes on high power (Small apertures and higher speed), but you do have to be very critical of the camera-to-subject distance, as the light will fall off extremely quickly.

If you process an image that has issues with the surface being too bright then more often than not a black and white image will work better than colour. In high sun situations, I prefer to go close and just fill the frame with a section of the shoal – at least you avoid the issue with the surface burning out.

fish shoals
With the sun directly overhead shoot fish shoals straight or slightly down

Sometimes the fish shoals will not pack together tightly and just look messy. There is little you can do, if anything frankly, so it is best to go in tighter for frame filling images. Diagonal compositions will work very well in these situations. Alternatively, diver shots with fishy backgrounds can work well.

Shoal images often look better with a diver in them. A diver will give some perspective to the scene and an impression of how big the fish shoals actually are. It is unusual to dive on the sites where large fish shoals are common, with nobody else around you. Hang back and wait and I guarantee a diver will come into the frame. If I am diving with a group, we often will organise a model, normally the guide, who is otherwise bored out of his brains, waiting for everyone to finish their seemingly endless snapping!

Where the shoal breaks up or is messy, go in tight for a frame filling image
Where the fish shoals break up or are messy, go in tight for a frame filling image

In darker overcast conditions or maybe on a dive later in the day, try shooting at very low speeds and panning your camera for some slow-motion blur. My go-to settings will be a speed of around 1/8th sec to 1/10th sec, and then smaller aperture and perhaps if needed a lower ISO to ensure a good exposure. If the fish shoals are moving along but not too quickly, then with the camera held still use rear curtain sync (normally found in the flash settings of the camera). The strobe light will flash at the end of the shot freezing the moving fish but will have a streak of blur behind their bodies, giving the impression of movement. If the subject is moving faster, then you will want to use an accelerated panning of the camera from head to tail. In this situation change the flash mode to front curtain sync, where the strobe will flash at the beginning of the exposure and the panning affect will produce a streak of blur behind the subject. I personally love to dive at dusk which is perfect for these types of shots.

I mentioned it earlier, but images of fish shoals can look stunning in black and white. I use a bespoke software Silver EFeX Pro2, as I like the contrast of black and white tones that can be created. There are several other software packages on the market, which are all well worth considering. It can otherwise be difficult to get really strong contrast images, in Lightroom for example.

Next time you have the opportunity try shooting fish shoals in the different ways I have outlined and think about the position of the sun and also other divers’ bubbles!

MY ESCORTED TRIPS

Want to learn how to take or improve your underwater images? Why not come on a photo-specific trip? These trips are meticulously planned to the best destinations at the best time of year where the conditions should be perfect for building a portfolio of great images.

The workshops, which are for all levels of experience but mainly aimed at people with a few trips under their belts, include classroom sessions and presentations as well as in-water help and guidance, all done in a relaxed and non-competitive friendly environment.

I am leading a trip for Scuba Travel to Lembeh Resort in Indonesia in Oct/Nov 2022.

BIOGRAPHY – MARTYN GUESS

Martyn has been diving for over 30 years and taking underwater images for over 25 years. He has been very successful in national and international competitions and regularly makes presentations to camera and photography clubs and diving shows as well as the British Society of Underwater Photographers (BSOUP)and other underwater photography groups.

Today he shares his passion and knowledge – as well as teaching underwater photography courses, he leads overseas workshop trips for Scuba Travel.

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