Dr. Richard Smith guides us through reef fish portraiture:

It was during a trip to Cenderawasih Bay on Indonesian Papua’s north coast that I really got into photographing reef fish. This unique bay has been cut off from the outside world by large landmasses several times over the past several million years, and subsequently new species have evolved in isolation. This environment fascinated me as both a marine biologist and an underwater photographer. I set out to document as many of the indigenous fishes as I could during my once-in-a-lifetime visit. Thus began my love of reef fish portraiture.

Anemonefish are a good practice subject. Try and shoot the big female using different techniques, such as shallow depth of field.

Anemonefish are a good practice subject. Try and shoot the big female using different techniques, such as shallow depth of field.

Why photograph reef fish?

In hindsight, I have overlooked how rewarding reef fish photography can be. I often spend my dives searching for small, hidden fishes such as pygmy seahorses, ghost pipefish or frogfish, completely ignoring the beauty of the more common wrasses, damsels and parrotfishes. While they may be common and often out in the open, that doesn’t make them unworthy or easy photographic subjects.

Here are three ways to master reef fish portraiture:

Using the right equipment

A compact camera will do! The beauty of reef fish photography is that specialised and expensive macro or wide-angle lenses aren’t necessary and the standard lens of a point-and- shoot will often do the trick.

Or a macro lens if you have one. I use a Nikon DSLR and my lens of choice for shooting reef fish is the 105 mm macro. This isn’t for the macro function per se, but I find that for many medium sized fish the extra distance from the subject allows you to take shots without spooking the animal.

Correct techniques and tips

A few techniques can make all the difference to your reef fish portraits.

Buoyancy: Maintaining good buoyancy while photographing active fish is paramount. They will often be much more active subjects than you’re used to and I have found that following them while looking through the camera’s viewfinder is the only way to catch them in action. This means that you must have a good command of your buoyancy and sense of surroundings to prevent crashing into and breaking the coral or other substrate.

Lighting: When the distance from your subject is greater than it is for macro, you must keep the lighting in mind. The trick is to provide enough artificial light to avoid a cyan cast without blowing out the subject. As always, you’ll want to be mindful not to illuminate the space between the camera and the subject, as this will show up any sediment in the water as backscatter.

Depth of field: Adjusting the aperture can give you nice results. With a shallow depth of field, where the eye is in focus, you can achieve a blurred, pastel coloured background. You need to be spot-on with your focus though, as you’ll want to get the eye sharp, and a reduced depth of field will make this harder. Apertures between f/4–f/7.1 are prime for this shallow depth of field technique. Alternatively, using a much greater depth of field will result in a darker background and much more of the fish in focus. Fish portraits provide a lot of creative control for the photographer.

Take it further

Set some goals: Photographing reef fish opens many new avenues of possibility. You can set yourself goals, like shooting all the life stages, geographic variants or colour morphs of a given species. Some ichthyologists set long terms goals, such as attempting to collect images of all the butterfly fishes in the area.

Try something different: There are so many different styles of photo that you can take. For a fish you can’t identify, you might be looking to get a more typical ID shot of the full body. For the more common species it’s nice to experiment. Try slowing the shutter speed to get a little blur into the shot, adding some action.

Reef fishes are beautiful, challenging subjects that are well worth spending some time to photograph. Whether you set out to shoot a few of the fish that take your fancy or have certain rare species as a goal, you can rest assured there will always be a subject for you to shoot.

The techniques for shooting some of the biggest reef fishes are slightly different. I used a fisheye lens on this huge potato grouper (Epinephelus tukula).

The techniques for shooting some of the biggest reef fishes are slightly different. I used a fisheye lens on this huge potato grouper (Epinephelus tukula).


About the author:

Richard Smith is a British marine biologist and photojournalist who aims to inspire a passion for the ocean and raise awareness about marine conservation issues through his images. He has been diving since 1996, which began his fascination with the sea. In 2011, he completed a PhD in the biology and conservation of pygmy seahorses. Richard leads marine life expeditions where the aim is for participants to get more from their diving and photography by learning about the marine environment. www.oceanrealmimages.com