FROGFISH – THE KEY OF SUCCESSFUL UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY
Underwater photography tips
As underwater photographers, we are far more likely to get those “oohs” and “aahs” by aiming our cameras at cute sea lions or smiling dolphins than at our finned friends. But we can hardly call ourselves underwater photographers if we refuse to shoot fish! There are about 25,000 species of fish living today, which is more than half of all vertebrates. In short, if you want to tell the story of life on Earth, you can’t avoid fish photography. I am not going to tell you that every fish species is perfect for jaw-dropping images, but we are lucky that among those 25,000 there are some true supermodels. The subject of this month’s column is a perennial diver’s favorite – The Frogfish.
Lot of experienced divers may have a frogfish addiction. And it is getting worse, not better, the more of them we see. Frogfish can be spotted in the West Atlantic, East Atlantic and right through the Indo-Pacific, Andaman Sea and as far south as the chilly waters of Indonesia.
Yet we still want more, and whenever dive-guides bang on their tank and makes that dangling finger-lure gesture to indicate that there is one lurking near the end of their pointer, we can never resist swimming over and taking its picture, often lots of pictures. We’ve got it bad. So how do we make sure we turn this irresistible urge to click into a set of winning images nestling on our memory card? Most important is to understand the visual lure of frogfish and, to put it simply, it is all in the face. Frogfish have upright faces, with eyes above a nose, above a mouth; it is the same configuration as our own, and therefore we see them as much more than fish, but as individuals.
Frogfish don’t have swim-bladders, so you will almost always encounter them on the seabed. Use a single strobe, aimed from the side you are shooting, to light the frogfish, not the background. This will allow it to pop out of the picture, framed against black and showing off its textured skin.
Their faces are also warty, lumpy, hairy and come in every color, giving them a grotesque, cartoonish appeal – a clear caricature of some of my diving buddies! The key to winning frogfish images is to get down to eye level and focus on these features, so that their character and personality jump out of the image and engage our audience. Several angles can work: Usually try head-on first, although frogfish often don’t give good two-eye contact. Usually find yourself coming round to the side and trying a three-quarter side-view of the face or an entirely profile image. Shoot all the angles on a dive, then judge which one has worked best when you download the shots later.
WE’RE NOT FINISHED YET, because now we need to decide what else we want to say visually about our particular frogfish. And our tool is our lighting. If we want to emphasis its sponge-mimicking color, we should use two strobes on roughly equal power. If we want to show off its warty texture, then we should use one strobe, aimed from the side we are shooting. And if we want to show off its hairiness, we should move one strobe round beyond the frogfish, so that it fires back across the fish, backlighting the hair. We can’t discuss frogfish without talking about yawning. There is no denying that a frogfish with its cavernous mouth agape is a dramatic shot. And I’d encourage everyone to collect this image when they have the chance. However, we should remember that yawning is a frogfish’s way of saying “you’re hassling me, leave me alone”. I have shots of yawning froggies, but generally choose not to show them, as I always see that gaping mouth spelling out the “o” of Bugger Off! I once dived with a celebrated Italian photographer in Phuket, Thailand. Each giant frogfish he saw, he would race up and pump his camera backwards and forwards in their faces. Each one would shuffle about uncomfortably and, within a minute, yawn. Then he’d take a shot. For this reason, I don’t believe in holding this shot up as the ultimate. Some photographers show off collections of frogfish yawning as a badge of honor, but it really says something more about their approach to their subjects than their skills.
FROGFISH ARE AMBUSH PREDATORS.
Their camouflage gives them the confidence to stay stock-still and entice prey by fishing with their lure. This behavior makes them both very easy to photograph and provides an interesting story in our images. And catching the lure, quite unlike a yawning shot, shows that our presence was not an intrusion. We’re unlikely to capture the end result, however, because frogfish have one of the world’s fastest strikes, just 6 milliseconds! Their self-assured nature also makes them ideal subjects for wide-angle macro, or WAM images. To take these shots we need a wide-angle lens positioned very close to the subject, so that it still fills most of the frame, as it would in a normal macro photo, but the wide-angle optic means that the remainder of the image gives a view of its habitat. They are very powerful images, but only possible with the right subject and a very careful approach. Successful WAM images are actually most easily taken with smaller-format cameras. Firstly, the small size of the camera is beneficial when maneuvering in close to the subject and, perhaps, more importantly, for lighting the subject. Big housings, like those for full-frame SLRs, just get in the way. We also need to use a mini-dome on our housing or a small accessory wide-angle lens on a compact camera. This has a double benefit both in terms of not blocking our lighting and, by allowing the lens to be closer than with a big dome, magnifying the subject. The smaller the camera format, the smaller the dome we can use, and the larger a small subject will appear in the frame. This is why I use a 2x crop micro four thirds camera specifically for these types of images.
Underwater photography shooting tips
I am regularly asked how to get a good photography of a black frogfish. In short, don’t bother with these featureless, light-absorbing, backscatter-inducing behemoths. An important photographic skill is subject selection: learning to recognize what will make a good picture and what won’t. Black frogfish won’t!
Not all frogfish are well positioned for photography, and it is important to recognize when one is not going to give special pictures. However, when we get one that is a great color and well positioned we should work the opportunity, remembering to take shots with just one flash to reveal their shape and texture.
Specially as an underwater photographer or videographer, remember that you are under the surface and surrounded by water… not air. After each series of photo shoot, don’t forget to check you air gauge, your dive computer and your buddy.