Scuba Diver Ocean Planet - - Through The Lens - By Henry Jager

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


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


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.


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!


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.conar­

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