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This month, Alex Mustard elicits the advice of one of his photographic gurus as he considers the challenge of shooting schools of fish
It sounds easy in theory, but the main factor that upsets perfect fish formations is people being in the water – which is something of an obstacle when it comes to taking their pictures. Striking schooling shots require excellent diving skills to avoid disturbing the school shapes, more than any specific technical expertise with the camera.
I learned much of my field craft from diving with Peter Rowlands, one of the visionaries of British underwater photography and a contributing editor here at DIVE. We’ve enjoyed many dives together with the summer schools at Ras Mohammed in the Egyptian Red Sea, and I have always been jealous of his knack of being in the right place at the right time. ‘The most important thing is your mindset,’ he explains. ‘I don’t put myself under pressure to get the shots.’
Some subjects, such as macro critters, require a steely determination from the photographer; we must persevere until we have really nailed the image. Schools are a different challenge. ‘You can’t force the pace or they will disappear or disperse,’ Rowlands says. ‘If they are going to come to you, they will.’
The golden rule is to avoid swimming directly at the school. Most schools form as a refuge from predators and fish are predisposed to be nervous. I am sure we’ve all seen a school of fish hanging off a reef wall and swum directly out to it. The fish just move further and further out, and soon we’re way out in the blue, but no closer to the school.
A proven tactic is to try to get upstream by swimming parallel to the school, at all times finning and exhaling slowly and smoothly, and then drift towards them. Whenever I am sneaking up on a school, a quote from the movie The Hunt For Red October always pops into my head: ‘Shut everything down and make like a hole in the water.’ It seems to help!
Happily, most schools are usually resident on particular dive sites, making it possible to plan encounters and repeat dives. It’s rare to dive alone with a school, so success depends on a degree of cooperation. ‘Some people get overexcited and race around trying to get their shots,’ Rowlands says. ‘It happens with schools and any impressive pelagic species, but if photographers work together, they can actually corral the fish and keep them in a pleasing formation.’ Dedicate a few dives and once everyone is over the ‘wow’ factor, the great images will come.
On occasion, it is possible to conduct certain species of fish into pleasing arrangements at your beck and call. Schools of anthias in the Red Sea are the classic example, and it’s another tip I picked up diving with Rowlands. These pretty little fish are best photographed when there is some current running, as this causes them to line up nicely around the coral heads. Now we can move in and take our shots, zapping off a few frames to ensure exposures. Once set, throw your hand forward towards the school and even shout ‘boo!’ through your regulator to send them darting back to the reef for cover. A second later, they will re-emerge in picture-perfect formation. You need to be ready because it only works a couple of times, as the fish soon get wise to your game and learn that your bark is much worse than your bite. Large schools are the most spectacular, but are challenging to light with flash, which is limited in the area it can cover.
We can help it go further by opening the aperture and increasing the ISO, but really large schools are often best photographed without our strobes. Our main technical concern is therefore the direction of the ambient light. If we want to see the details of the fish we need it behind us, whereas if we want a silhouette then it must be behind the fish.
I have two favourite compositional formations: wall-to-wall and whole-school. Wall-to-wall refers to images where the schooling fish fill the entire frame and run off all sides, suggesting an infinitely large school. If the fish are moving fast, we can add a long exposure to give movement blur, and even tilt the camera to get a dynamic diagonal. If we can get the front of the school, wall-to-wall can be improved with a sliver of blue water ahead of the first fish. Another variation, which is hardest to pull off, is to have fish coming straight at the camera and going off either side of the frame. There is a popular spread in my book The Art Of Diving with the bohar snappers in this composition.
Whole-school compositions are simply images where the entire school is in the frame, heightening the sense of togetherness. If we get lucky, the school might form a particularly pleasing shape, such as a sphere, as demonstrated by the paddletail snappers in the small image. Jacks and barracuda are the most geometrically minded and will form circles and even tornadoes, producing particularly memorable images.
‘Scale is important,’ is Rowlands’ final nugget of advice. ‘The size of some schools of big fish is incredibly impressive, and if you can have a diver in there, it can really help convey the spectacle.’ The main picture here is not one I chased, but one that came to me. The diver in the picture was trying to swim around the school and this caused the fish to turn towards me, as well providing a model for scale. Good things come to those who wait.
Bohar snappers, Egypt [above]. Nikon D100 SLR. Subal housing. Twin Subtronic Alpha strobes. Nikon 16mm. 1/60th at f6.7. ISO 200
Paddletail snappers, Maldives [right]. Nikon D2X SLR. Subal housing. Twin Subtronic Alpha strobes. Nikon 17–35mm. 1/100th at f6.3. ISO 100