In last month”s column on producing photos of contest-winning standard, ALEX MUSTARD looked at schools of fish. Tiny anthias can form less well-disciplined groups, but there are ways of tutoring them
‘We can shout ‘boo!’ through our regulator, which makes all the anthias retreat, momentarily, to the reef’
SMALL, ORANGE AND FREQUENTLY found around coral heads, anthias are often under-appreciated by divers. Their downfall is probably that they are just too common on the reefs of the Indo-Pacific, especially in the Red Sea, where their numbers seem to reach their zenith.
Indeed, the late underwater image-maker and TV presenter Mike deGruy joked that it was the abundance of this colourful fish that was the reason for the naming of the “Red” Sea.
The diversity of anthias species, like most other groups of reef animals, actually peaks in the Coral Triangle of South-east Asia. However, for me, in Asia anthias are too small and the mixture of colours and forms lessens their visual impact, in life and in photos.
This means that they look most impressive away from the biodiversity hotbed, in places with brisk currents such as Fiji and the Red Sea.
For me, it is Egypt where they reach their peak. The cool winters of the Red Sea mean that they grow more slowly but get bigger, and their orange hue looks particularly intense against the cobalt water.
Although divers don’t get too excited about seeing anthias, underwater photographers certainly do. It is just one of many ways that we stand apart!
Photographically, these are subjects that suit all our lenses. Go wide and we can capture the life they inject into scenes, whereas with a mid-range lens we can show dense throngs or small groups in formation. Or go for a long macro lens and show off their individual beauty in portraits.
THE NAME ANTHIAS derives from the ancient Greek word for flower, and these fish certainly decorate any reef scene with bouquets of colour.
The key to a stand-out wide-angle image is to frame a striking reef scene, with the anthias providing just one layer in the composition.
A lick of current is essential, not only because it will puff up the soft corals, but also because it sorts out the fish.
When there is no current, anthias emerge from a coral-head in all directions, milling about in a messy formation. When the current picks up, all the anthias are out and they are all concentrated on the upstream side of the coral-head, swimming in formation.
Many photographers shun shooting scenery when the current makes it tough, not wanting to expend the energy or blow through their air quickly.
This is a mistake. I rarely shoot Red Sea reef scenery unless there is a decent current and I consider it a prudent investment of air if I end up making a shorter dive because I’ve emptied my cylinder more quickly.
Anthias look their best in current, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t improve things by marshalling the troops.
Often when the current is blowing anthias will billow out widely from a coral-head. In this case we should approach slightly from above, causing them to retreat towards the coral-head in a concentrated school, packing our frame with colour.
We need to use a bit of common sense here, because the extent to which we can herd anthias depends on their mood.
When they are out and feeding strongly they can be corralled easily, but when they’re milling about, pressurising them can cause them simply to cower near the corals or retreat away from the part of the reef we want to shoot.
The next trick is to conduct them, a technique I’ve covered in this column before. Once all our settings are correct, we can shout “boo!” through our regulator, which makes all the anthias retreat, momentarily, to the reef. As they start to spread out again, it’s time to shoot, catching them in a perfect formation.
The ruse works only once or twice, after which they’ll realise that we’re no threat and ignore us, so it’s important to be ready for that first opportunity.
WHILE ANTHIAS are impressive en masse, we shouldn’t fail to appreciate them on an individual level, especially the males, which come in a variety of extravagant patterns, dependant on the species.
Even if you’re not a photographer, it’s worth taking time to marvel at a single anthias. Spot a male and watch his perfectly coordinated stop-start dance, darting forward to pluck morsels from the plankton brought to the reef by currents.
Anthias live in harems and from time to time the male will make a J-shaped dive in an attempt to impress his ladies.
When shooting anthias portraits with a macro lens, it’s best to seek out weak currents, to make shooting and framing easiest.
I also tend to take these pictures away from the most spectacular dive-sites and shooting portraits on training sites with shallow, isolated coral-heads.
Here the fish will be accustomed to divers, and the shallow water gives bright blue backgrounds.
Modern SLR cameras do a good job of tracking fish such as anthias with autofocus, although it still requires plenty of patience and stability to get the best images.
Some other cameras will be able to track anthias easily, while some may struggle and it will be easier to shoot using fixed focus, which requires even more patience!
If the species has attractive patterns, show it at least partly side-on, using an off-centre autofocus point to keep the eye of the fish sharply in focus.
If there is a little current, it’s quite easy to shoot anthias coming straight at the camera. If you dedicate a dive to shooting them, you will almost certainly get an image or two with its mouth open gulping food, usually with its pectoral fins fanned out attractively at the same time.
The final lens option is a zoom, somewhere in between macro and ultra- wide-angle, which means wide-angle or standard mid-range zooms.
These allow us to frame a smaller part of the scene, from a handful to a couple of dozen anthias. The trick is to use the zoom to frame as many fish as possible, while still keep a neat composition. Something that is harder than it sounds when every element in the frame is moving! Again, we want a decent lick of current to provide lined-up fish.
If anthias are appreciated by photographers, they pay us back by teaching us the value of shooting the same subject with lenses of differing focal lengths. Such images have different perspectives and give our portfolio visual variety that is essential when presenting multiple images in a slideshow, gallery or book.
Just as with any schooling fish, neat formations of anthias make our pictures much more attractive.
A current is our biggest friend here, as it will concentrate anthias on the upcurrent side of the coral head and line them up.
The downside is that it makes photography much harder work!
Head-on portraits show character; side-on reveal the colours of this endemic Red Sea anthias.
Taken with a Nikon D4 and Sigma 150mm. Subal housing. Seacam strobes. 1/100th @ f/13, ISO 200.
In wide-angle, anthias provide the icing for the composition, though we still need to find a scene that would be satisfying without them.
Taken with a Nikon D4 and Sigma 15mm. Subal housing. Seacam strobes. 1/250th @ f/14, ISO 320.
Zooms allow us to fill the frame with anthias.
Taken with a Nikon D5 and Nikon 16-35mm. Subal housing. Seacam strobes. 1/80th @ f/20, ISO 800.
Appeared in DIVER September 2017