It’s drummed into us to get close to our subjects, but all that goes out of the window when it comes to photographing schools of fish, says ALEX MUSTARD. In fact he has found success by letting other divers get too close!
âShooting schools requires that we unlearn one of the golden rules of underwater photographyâ
UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY, it is said, would be easy if it wasn’t for the water! There is a little more meaning to this statement than just the blindingly obvious. Not only does water cause challenges to our camera’s optics and electronics, but it also affects our images. Shoot through too much water and it robs our shots of the three Cs: colour, contrast and clarity. The result is murky, dull pictures.
Now we can’t completely get rid of the water, but by getting as close as we can to the subject, we get rid of almost all of the water, with big advantages for our photos. As he invariably does, my buddy Martin Edge makes the point most clearly: “There is no point blaming the camera, the flash gun… the number of megapixels. The best tip for any underwater photographer who is struggling to achieve pleasing results is: Get close and fill the frame.”
In the old days of film cameras, when the backs of housings weren’t cluttered with an LCD screen and countless dials and buttons, many BSoUP photographers scrawled the golden rule “Get close. Get CLOSER!” right there, beneath their nose.
The more we shoot under water, the more this law is reinforced. And experienced photographers know it best, well aware that if they can creep that bit closer to the subject the picture will be more colourful, more contrasty, more detailed and more impactful.
OUR LOCAL PATCH, Cousteau’s “Corridor Of Marvels” or the Red Sea, is a marvellous destination for underwater photography. It is why so many British underwater photographers make such regular pilgrimages there. You can rack up a lot more air-miles, spend far more money and find yourself doing much less spectacular diving.
Unusually for a coral sea, the Red Sea is strongly seasonal. Coral reefs typically thrive in the tropics, which don’t have pronounced seasons.
But the sunny desert climate allows corals to flourish surprisingly far north in Egypt, which leads to the more marked seasonality. The upshot is that timing is everything in Egypt. We need to visit at different times of the year for different subjects and different shots.
Right now, in summer, the big draw in northern Egypt is schooling fish, particularly at the famous Ras Mohammed dive site.
These schools are mostly spawning aggregations, made up of large fish such as bohar snapper, blue-spine unicornfish and giant trevally that are usually solitary, but gather in impressive numbers for a handful of weeks to spawn.
The spawning isn’t the attraction; it is the massive gatherings that are catnip for photographers. And for the past 12 years I have run up to three workshops a year focusing on the schools. It makes for a great workshop because the schools don’t just produce stunning photos, but teach photographers lessons they wouldn’t learn with others subjects.
First, Ras Mohammed is a popular dive-site, so photographers must learn patience and the ability to share subjects with other divers. This is a good skill not just for politeness’ sake, but because it encourages photographers to develop the ability to stop and think when they see a great subject, and not just go barrelling in blinded by tunnel vision.
One of my favourite lessons, however, is that different species all have slightly different schooling behaviours.
Some schools, like the barracuda, are highly magnetic and polarised, always staying neatly stacked together whatever the photographers do.
Others, such as the snapper and the unicornfish, are much more easily disturbed and a careless photographer will quickly squander a good opportunity.
THE BEST SCHOOLING shots show the togetherness of the fish. That’s what schooling is all about! And the one thing guaranteed to mess up these pleasing arrangements is a photographer!
Shooting schools requires that we unlearn one of the golden rules of underwater photography – the key is not to get too close.
Each species is different and we need to learn and recognise that each school needs different amounts of personal space.
The mood of the fish also changes. Sometimes a species really wants to stick together, at other times they are higgledy-piggledy, pointing in all directions. The best images come when they are at their most magnetic.
Current is usually our friend, lining fish up and giving them a direction of travel. It takes leg-work but the best strategy is to swim upcurrent, giving the school lots of space, and then let the fish swim to us as we drift back towards them. This ensures that the fish come on to the camera and stay in formation.
One of my favourite tricks is to watch for another photographer charging about and getting too close to the school. Then I simply swim to the opposite side of the school and stay still.
The school will always turn away from the disturbance and end up constantly coming on to my camera.
THE FINAL REASON I love teaching schooling photography is that the long camera-to-subject distances of schools make shooting challenging.
And you don’t learn anything when photography is too easy!
The two main options for getting colourful images of large schools are shooting with flash and shooting with filters. Filters are great for schools in the top 15m or so, and at Ras Mohammed suit colourful fish such as batfish and snapper, but work less well with silvery barracuda.
They also allow us to ditch our strobe arms, which makes it much easier to swim with the schools out in the blue.
Strobes work with all subjects but are trickier to use effectively at longer distances. To light big schools we need to set our strobes on high power.
We should also open aperture slightly more than usual to capture more strobe light, and then increase our shutter speed to compensate and correctly expose the blue.
We should also position strobes on long arms, which helps the light reach the subject without lighting up all the particles in the water.
When shooting schools I stretch my strobes out as wide as they will go and point them straight ahead, while still keeping the front of the strobes behind the handles of my housing.
It all makes for a large camera rig, but that is part of the fun and challenge of shooting schools.
It is a type of photography that pushes us out of our comfort zone, but one that is also most educational – even challenging us to go against some of commandments of underwater photography.
When shooting schooling fish, go for two main compositions. If the school is small enough and your lens wide enough, try to get the whole school in frame. Nothing says schooling togetherness better than a group of fish surrounded by open water.
The other option is to totally fill the frame with fish, aiming your camera on the densest part of the school.
Appeared in DIVER August 2017