SHOOTING THE SCHOOL
Diving big schools of fish is one of the most aweinspiring underwater experiences. I could watch schooling behaviour for hours, and I would never tire of the constantly changing formations of these elegant dances below the surface. Looking back at my very first dive with a school of sardines, the well-known school at Pescador Island in Moalboal, in the Philippine province of Cebu, I can remember it like it was yesterday. Jumping into the water, we found ourselves surrounded by what seemed like millions of sardines – at a depth of only five metres. Completely bowled over by the extraordinary display, I must have taken literally hundreds of pictures. But perhaps more than any other kind of wide-angle photography, getting impactful shots of schooling fish – and not just lots of mediocre photos – is an immense challenge. Here are some of the things I’ve learned over the years about capturing this tricky subject.
Large formations of fish may be some of the most eye-popping natural spectacles, but they are also some of the hardest to shoot
CHOOSING A SUBJECT AND APPROACH
Creating confusion is the main objective of schooling behaviour, and fish do a very effective job, disorientating predators and photographers alike. You’ll need a great deal of discipline and self-control to capture the action. Begin by planning your shoot before getting in the water. One important decision to make is choosing your subject. Is it a single fish? A small group? A large group? Or, indeed, is the entire school the subject? The temptation, when you start out, is changing the settings with every movement of the school, but this approach will inevitably get you tied in knots very quickly. Instead, I try to stick to my plans, let’s say 80 percent, and make an effort to exercise self-control and patience. With this strategy, when the particular behaviour that I’m looking for happens, I’m ready for it. Your diving skills are as important as your familiarity with your camera and housing, and learning to dive on
THE RIGHT LIGHT
rebreather can help a lot in this instance as well. Water is a potent blur filter, and it’s important to get as close to the school as you can to avoid putting too much water between your camera and the school. I mostly use a fisheye (though occasionally a 12mm lens, and very rarely a 12–40mm wide-angle zoom), and I try to get very close to ensure I achieve the best possible image quality for the entire school, including the parts that are furthest away.
When photographing the school as a whole, the challenge is capturing well-defined individual fish – the last thing you want is a fuzzy “mash” of fish. Aside from minimising your distance to the subject, getting the light right is crucial.
Unfortunately, in this situation, the light underwater is subject to tremendous changes within a very short time. A “sardine tornado”, much like a regular tornado on land, can block a lot of sunlight, and it can suddenly become very dark. Yet only a second later, the “clouds” will disperse, allowing the sunrays to pass through once more. You’ll need to get the timing just right to place the subject between you and the surface, allowing natural light to flow through the school from behind. Another advantage of this placement of the subject is the shooting angle. An upward angle is different to a diver’s normal point of view, and therefore lends itself to powerful and surprising images that communicate the glory and dynamic nature of the subject. As much as I love to work with ambient light, there are times when a school is very dense that artificial light is a necessity. In such instances, strobes will give your pictures depth and structure. However, great care needs to be taken when using flash, as fish such as sardines and jacks reflect the light very well, and in an unpredictable fashion, depending on their swimming position.
DON’T RUSH THE COMPOSITION
It’s worthwhile planning some compositions up front, even if you need to be prepared to make some minor (or major) adjustments underwater. Very exciting compositions can be achieved by having a school as a background and a single subject in the foreground. Corals or anemones also make good secondary subjects. I was once very lucky to have a turtle pass by while I was shooting a close-focus wide-angle composition of the reef. These subjects bring not only a secondary element into the picture but also some colour to a scene filled with the school’s homogenous hue. Working on composition with schools is real work. At the beginning of a dive, I first take time to observe the school, and try to predict what they are doing. Sometimes, there is a pattern to their movement; for example, they might swim to a certain point on the reef and back again. Then I get into position, adjust the camera settings, and wait. One of the most important pieces of advice I can give for shooting schools is: Take your time!
OPTIMISING SETUP AND SETTINGS
As ambient light is crucial for shooting schools, and you’re facing fast-moving subjects, shutter speed and
aperture settings must be chosen to provide sufficient exposure while also freezing movement. At the same time, I like to keep ISO values low to maximise image quality, so I’ll typically open up the aperture quite a lot. Shooting with a fisheye lens, half the hyperfocal distance is about 50 centimetres (20 inches) with an open aperture (f/3.5 on my lens). This is close enough to shoot a big school and it leaves enough room to set the shutter speed fast enough to freeze the action – and even stop down a little in favour of general sharpness. With such settings, strobes are useful for brightening the shadows, adding structure and depth. I recommend setting strobe power to a moderate level to avoid strong reflections. Since strobe power is not particularly crucial, positioning two smaller, compact flashes far apart is often a good approach.
For me, post-processing belongs to the craft as much as getting great shots in the camera. And while there’s no way of conjuring brilliant pictures out of “fish stew”, investing some time on post-processing high-quality raw material is immensely valuable. I take a conservative approach, with the emphasis on subtly applied adjustments. For my schooling fish images, I focus on clarity, meaning the separation of individuals. To that end, improving contrast is sometimes more effective than sharpening, which can introduce undesirable artefacts. Some tools allow contrast adjustments via several controls, which I have found to produce better results than the single slider in Adobe Photoshop. Big, fast-moving fish schools are some of the most challenging subjects in underwater photography. But with patience and perseverance – and a fair amount of practice – these mind-blowing displays could inspire you to produce your most impressive pictures yet. SDOP
1. A hawksbill turtle, illuminated by strobes, passes by for a fortuitous close-focus wide-angle shot, Panagsama Reef, Moalboal, Philippines Settings: f/6.3, 1/100s, ISO 200
2. For a dense school of jacks, the majority of the light has to come from strobes, Balicasag, Philippines Settings: f/13, 1/250s, ISO 200
3. Using only natural light, an 8mm fisheye shows the sheer scale of a large school Settings: f/3.5, 1/125s, ISO 200
4. Strobe light adds just enough definition to this “sardine tornado”, Pescador Island, Philippines Settings: f/5.6, 1/250s, ISO 250
Henry Jager is a passionate underwater, wildlife and experimental photographer. His work has been recognised by National Geographic and Ocean Geographic, among others, and his images have been widely published and exhibited around the world. Henry also writes travel stories, judges photography contests, and conducts photography courses and tutorials. www.conartix-photo.ch