Swim along most tropical reefs in the Indo Pacific and you will see a group of sweetlips sheltering around a coral or against the reef. With their inquisitive look and big mouth, these brightly coloured fish are always a good subject to spend some time on. They can be found in small schools or as individuals swimming along, as adults and juveniles, but when it comes to taking their photos, each scenario brings a different challenge.
Tips for success: individual sweetlips
Individuals fish are perhaps the easiest to shoot. They tend to be calm and easy to approach. The main challenge is to find an interesting composition. This will make the difference between wow picture and an ID photo. I know I say this over and over but fill the frame with your subject and ensure good eye contact. These are golden rules that you should always keep in mind.
Always try to position yourself in front and slightly below of your subject. Remember that a fish from above or behind is never attractive.
Depending on your exact camera, a 60mm equivalent lens is perfect for shooting portraits. It will allow you to get close enough to the fish without needing to be right on top of it. This is particularly true when you try to shoot sweetlips on cleaning stations. You won’t spook them and will be rewarded with a great behaviour shot. If you are really patient, you can watch the cleaning wrasses really go to work with the gills.
Tips for success: sweetlips schooling groups
If you find a small school, it is important that you get a good separation from the background. They tend to swim very close to the reef wall or the bottom and in both cases this will create a very distracting background. Try to shoot towards a blue background for the best contrast in colours (think yellow & black fish on a bright blue background). You can point your strobes inwards so you light only faces of the fish. I use this technique whenever I want to use light to emphasise my subject.
Photos of schooling fish can look great, but take your time – and lots of shots! It is important to get them in arranged as a group in a good order. A single subject swimming in the opposite direction can create havoc with the composition of your shot and is extremely distracting. Keep firing away in case there’s a rogue fish you don’t notice at the time. As with many reef fish moving slowly and learn to read the patterns the fish move will allow you to position yourself in the best possible way to get the best results.
I like to use a wide angle lens and small aperture to get a good depth of field for the shot.
Look out for!
Keep an eye out for the juveniles sweetlips. They look completely different to the adults and probably much prettier when they are young. At this stage sweetlips are at the hardest to photograph. They are incredibly fast, never stop moving (away from the camera) and very rarely look up.
They hide a lot under overhangs and backgrounds can be very problematic. A good solution to this is using a slow shooter speed to create a “blur” to convey the movement but also mask the background.
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