Be The Champ! – Photographing Anemonefish

Be The Champ!

ALEX MUSTARD begins a mini-series on techniques to employ to get the best images of iconic marine species. If you know the term ‘field craft’ from topside photography or spy novels, here’s how it applies to anemonefish

‘Many in our community consider that they
have “progressed” beyond Nemo. Not me’
BTC87 Mustard 01
Anemonefish are great subjects, but it is the right anemone that makes the photo.
Taken with a Nikon D5 and Nikonos 13mm lens. Subal housing. 2 x Seacam strobes. 1/125th @ f/18, ISO 500.

The underwater photographer has never had it so good. The cameras, lenses and strobes to which we now have access are hugely capable and reliable. There is a huge variety of diving adventures and subjects all around the world from which to choose, and we are able to travel to even the most remote spots relatively painlessly.

We get to stay in first-class resorts or aboard cosseting dive-boats, with restaurant-quality nosh and hot and cold running spas!

Welcoming dive-staff put our gear together and lug it to the boat, then help us into the water and find and point out even the rarest critters.

Everything is set for us to take crisp, clear images and, most of the time, most of us do. And that’s the problem. Because ever since the beginnings of underwater photography, snappers have always wanted our work to stand out, and these days that is harder than ever.

In an age when so many have access to good kit and great subjects we must look to other areas to give ourselves that all-important edge.

An area of skill that I have long believed is ignored by the majority of underwater photographers is field craft.

Now I realise that underwater photography doesn’t usually take place in fields, but bear with me because the very fact that we don’t have a good term for this subject shows how widely neglected by our community this knowledge is.

Appeared in DIVER October 2019

Field craft is a phrase that I am borrowing from terrestrial nature photographers, who talk about this subject all the time and use the term to describe the multitude of factors that go into producing stunning images, but are not to do with camera handling.

This includes how to find the subjects, from the geographic range to micro-habitat, the season and time of day they are most likely to give good images, how to get into photo range, the most photogenic angles and lens choices, any interesting behaviours to capture, and photographic challenges and solutions.

In short, field craft is subject-specific photography knowledge covering everything that will help us to achieve a standout shot.

I think what puts off a lot of underwater photographers is that they think they have to start geeking out about small brown shrimps and learning Latin names.

This misses the point of field craft. Being able to spell or even say Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis won’t improve your sea-urchin photos. But knowing a little bit about how your subject lives its life will. Knowing types of shots and opportunities to look out for with that subject will. As will being aware of which subject-specific problems to dodge.

Field craft is an area that underwater photographers rarely discuss, something I want to change by covering some popular underwater subjects over the coming issues of DIVER.


Find the right anemone before committing to a photo session. Balled-up anemones are particularly attractive, especially when the skirt is brightly coloured.

Look out for red skirts in the Red Sea and purple ones in Asia. In the Maldives you will find both.

The skirt colour can look drab without flash – so when you spot a closed anemone, take a test shot to check its true colour.

Surely you don’t still photograph anemonefish?” I am often asked by photographers who join me on my workshops. “They must be the most photographed type of fish in the world.”

That might be true, and there is no denying that many in our community consider that they have “progressed” beyond Nemo. But not me.

First, anemonefish are a great subject: cute, colourful, characterful and site-attached. They are also a subject that non-divers know and love, meaning that people want to see pictures of them and, because they are familiar with the subject, it grants us more photographic freedom to take more interpretive images.

For me, however, I learned my lesson more than 10 years ago, when BBC Wildlife magazine contacted me for a vertical anemonefish portrait for its cover. I was very excited, as it would be

a rare chance to get one of my underwater shots on the front of this prestigious mag. And I was certain that I must have the shot. After all, I had taken so many photos of anemonefish that I’d pretty much given up shooting them.

The problem was that when

I searched, I didn’t have anything that quite worked. Someone else got the cover. Since then, I know never to turn down a good opportunity with a common subject.

BTC87 Mustard 02
Anemonefish are shy when it comes to spawning, so shots are rare.
Taken with a Nikon D4 and Nikon 105mm lens. Subal housing. Inon strobes.
1/125th @ f/14, ISO 400.

Finding nemo isn’t the key to memorable anemonefish pictures; it is far more important to focus on finding a beautiful anemone. Some anemones are dull brown with pudgy sausages for tentacles. Others are beautiful, with bright colours on the skirts; some with elegant thin tentacles, tipped with colour or attractive bulbs.

They can be fluorescent red or, occasionally, be bleached white. The fish vary much less, so when we find a beautiful anemone, we should work it.

The right fish does make a difference. There are 28 species of anemonefish worldwide, but in some regions, such as the Red Sea, there is only one, while in South-east Asia we can commonly find up to seven species on a dive.

Anemonefish do vary between individuals. I focus my attention on the lighter, more colourful ones. Juveniles are often especially photogenic, and I avoid individuals with dark pigment around the eye, because it stops the eye showing up clearly in the pictures.

Some anemonefish can be very shy or very aggressive – neither extreme tends to lead to strong images.

Anemonefish and their host anemones are covered in mucous and tend to suit soft even illumination, with two strobes in 10 & 2 o’clock positions.

Hard light from a single strobe aimed in from the side will bring out the texture of the tentacles and can be a solution with unattractive anemones.

Anemone tentacles do look great with backlighting, but this can be hard to position, unless the anemone is right up on top of the reef. It is simplest to shoot anemonefish lit only with flash.

That said, the warm colours of anemonefish look great against blue water, but the longer exposures required to capture this also make the fish’s white bands difficult to handle.

These bands are super-bright and strongly reflect the ambient light, creating unattractive ghostly blurs as the fish swims. I always use rear or second curtain flash synch with anemonefish, because it ensures that this blurring goes backwards from the band, rather than forward, which obscures the eye.


The big story of anemonefish is their relationship with the anemone, so most pictures should include both species.

It is essential that the fish is sharp, so always focus on it, and don’t worry if the anemone is or isn’t. It works both ways, so try some shallow depth of field images.

BTC87 Mustard 03
Anemonefish bark to defend their home and eggs – the ideal moment to shoot.
Taken with a Nikon D4 and Nikon 105mm lens. Subal housing. 2 x Inon strobes.
1/100th @ f/22, ISO 400.

Finally, anemonefish have a host of fascinating behaviours to capture. The trick to snapping all of these is not to race in close for portraits, but to keep our distance and let their natural behaviour continue.

Look out for them chasing other fish from their home, particularly species like butterflyfish that feed on anemones. They will also defend their home against all-comers, including photographers, by barking a warning, opening their mouths to reveal their teeth.

This is a great moment for photographing the gruesome isopod tongue parasites with which many Asian anemonefish are infected.

Shrimps cohabiting in the anemone will commonly act as cleaners for the fish, and larger anemonefish will even visit nearby cleaning stations.

Anemonefish have a strict hierarchy and they bark, chase and occasionally fight to maintain their status.

Anemonefish mate, like their relatives the damselfish, by laying eggs on the reef. It is common to see them guarding eggs, which usually last for about a week from being laid to hatching.

The eggs start off brightly coloured and become more silvery with age, the eyes of the young becoming increasingly obvious. Anemonefish will guard and care for their eggs, mouthing them to clean them and fanning water over them with their pectoral fins, all of which can help to make our images stand out.


Few photographers have shots of anemonefish laying eggs, because the fish must leave the protection of their anemone to spawn, making them shy about it.

If I see anemonefish with colourful new eggs, I will always back off and see if they are actually mid-spawning, giving me the chance to bag this rarely shot behaviour.


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