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In the second appearance of his new column on all aspects of underwater photography, Alex Mustard chases some skirt in order to get the perfect shot of one of the world’s best-loved fish
The main photographic problem with anemonefish is one that they share with young children: they never stay still long enough to allow us to compose, focus and expose that special shot. I often sit in front of anemones, watching those pesky little fish buzzing around, with the ideal image in my head, struggling to transfer it to the camera. The best anemonefish photos require perseverance.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before we dedicate precious dive time to waiting for that perfect pose, there are other factors to consider. The key to great anemonefish shots is not the fish, but the background. So when we’re down on the reef, it is not so much a case of finding Nemo, but finding the right anemone.
It’s the pretty ones we’re after. Many anemones are drably coloured, while others have dull, sausage-shaped tentacles – we don’t want these. Also, avoid ones covered in specks of sediment, as these always show up in your pictures. We want the supermodels with tentacles in interesting shapes and colours, accompanied by skirts in even brighter hues.
In the Red Sea, for example, there are two types of anemone to look out for. The first is the fluorescing red anemone, such as the well-known one at 10m at Small Crack in Sha’ab Mahmoud. On film, this fluorescence always seems to photograph a disappointing brown, but digital cameras capture it much more effectively. Even more appealing are anemones with striking red skirts, like the one you see here from St John’s, which add a real punch of poster colour to pics. Pose any fish against such a shock of scarlet and the result is certain to be eye-catching. One of the best places to find red skirts is at Anemone City at Ras Mohammed. Elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific, you’ll find skirts in attractive pinks, purples and burgundies.
There are 28 species of anemonefish worldwide, and few photographers have completed the set. I am still more than ten short. Even within each species there are differences, which are important for photographs. With anemonefish, the definition of the eyes is the crucial feature and in some species, such the Red Sea anemonefish, this is very variable. In all portraits, good eye contact with the subject is an essential element. With anemonefish, if their body colour is too dark, then their eye – and therefore eye contact – tends to get lost in this background. In the Red Sea, invest your photographic time in the lighter-coloured, yellower individuals, or at least in fish whose yellow face continues behind the eye. It will pay off in the pictures.
So, now we have got the right anemone and fish, how do we get the image? First, resist pursuing the fish around the anemone with your lens. Your pictures won’t be in focus and your head will spin. The one guarantee with anemonefish is that they aren’t going anywhere. Instead, watch the fish for 30 seconds or so. Most anemonefish swim quite regular circuits around their anemone and seem to have favourite spots from where they like to look out. Find a photogenic feature on this route, such as a fold in the skirt, take a test shot to be sure of exposure, and wait for the fish to appear. Then fire. Keep shooting until you have bagged the perfect pose. Take plenty of frames, because it is also easy to be slightly off with the focus or to clip a fin.
That is exactly what I did here. I visited these same anemones on three dives during this particular day. I selected the wide lens for the final dive, when I expected them to begin to close up and reveal more of their red skirt, which I thought would look best against some blue water. Anemones often show more skirt in the afternoon, as they close up after a day of catching the rays. Looking at the times on the photograph files, I spent about 15 minutes with this anemone and shot nearly 40 frames. I have many similar shots, but I like this one because the wave breaking overhead adds something special.
Each year in the British Underwater Image Festival competition, we judges always comment that many entrants send in pictures of their best dives, rather than simply their best photos. Common subjects give photographers the chance to show what they can do, rather than how lucky they have been with an encounter. You can capture a great photo of an anemonefish with any camera. If you can come up with something eye-catching and original, you might just have a winner on your hands.
BYTES… BYTES… BYTES…
Canon’s new EOS 5D MkII 21MP digital SLR is causing much excitement among underwater photographers because it is not only a fabulous stills camera, but is also capable of taking high-definition video. Such a dual-purpose camera causes headaches for housing manufacturers because the ideal ergonomics of still and video housings are quite different. We’re all waiting to see which features for shooting video are incorporated. The first housings should be available in the first quarter of the year.
Anemonefish under breaking waves Nikon D700 SLR. Subal housing. Nikon 16mm fisheye with a 1.5x Kenko teleconverter. 1/125th at f10. Two Subtronic Alpha strobes at 1/8th power
If you have any questions for Alex please feel free to contact him via our forum PHOTOPRO