Engbretson Underwater Photography

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News From Behind the Scenes at Engbretson Underwater Photo and Stories about the Freshwater Environments We Visit.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Getting Close to Fish: How's That Done Exactly?

How Do You Get So Close to The Fish? Why Don't They Spook?

That's a question I get asked frequently by many people. To photograph fish well underwater, it's necessary to get very close to them. So how do I do that? One thing I've done is to develop a series of techniques that communicate to the fish my lack of hostility, and my general inability to compete with them as creatures perfectly designed for life underwater. One way I do that is to present myself as obviously as possible. I don't try to ambush or deceive them. I don't wear a camouflage wet suit. I don't sneak around or hide behind boulders or timber. I don't try to advance toward a fish when he can't see me. I don't even try to be particularly quiet.

In fact I do the opposite of all those things. I make sure the fish see me coming from a long way away. I try to show myself out in the open and demonstrate what my limitations are. Ideally, you want to convey to the fish how slow and incompetent you are in it's environment; how clumsy you are; how incredibly un-stealthy you are; This is so opposite of what a predator would do that many fish are able to detect that you're not a threat to them, based on your complete lack of cunning or covertness. You want them to see you and think that you're completely ridiculous (which you are of course). The faster you can get them to understand this, the faster their fear will disappear. 

What I'm mainly trying to do with this approach is to begin a relationship with a specific fish or fishes that I expect to see many more times in the future. However, if you have one chance on one day with a fish you know you'll never see again, I'd recommend a more stealth approach. 

Ordinarily though, I'm just trying to get fish used to seeing me. Over many visits to the same lake, the same fish will see me time and time again. Eventually, as bizarre and strange as my appearance may be to them, I won't be considered "an unknown scary thing" to avoid. Fish will come to regard me as that "big funny looking turtle-like thing" they sometimes encounter. Nothing to worry about. Once I can establish this kind of confidence level in the fish, they give me permission to approach closely to get the kind of pictures I want without causing them to flee.

As many who work regularly with wildlife will tell you, it's all about body language. It's the way animals communicate with each other and the only way for inter-species dialogue to occur. Learning how to eliminate unintentional signals of hostility or threats to animals is something we can learn to do and employ effectively in our encounters with them.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Best Fish Photographers to Follow on Instagram

If you're like me and enjoy seeing the work of some of the world's best underwater fish photographers, here are five Instagram accounts you need to follow in 2020.  All five of these photographers work in freshwater environments and their talent is truly exceptional. They continually awe and inspire me and just seeing their pictures make me want to grab my mask and wet-suit and head to the nearest lake. I think you'll agree that their work is simply breathtaking.  While freshwater underwater photographers never get the recognition that marine photographers get, I hope you'll support these brilliant individuals by following them on Instagram.

  • Dr. Paul Vecsei has a M.Sc. in ichthyology and a Ph.D. in fisheries and his underwater photos of cold water fish are exceptional. His pictures of Lake Whitefish, lake trout and cisco are without a doubt the finest images ever made of these species in their natural habitat.
  • Isaac Szabo is a very talented and patient shooter who beautifully photographs native fish and other aquatic life of the Ozarks region and the springs of Florida.
  • Jennifer Idol is the first woman to dive all 50 states and is the author of An American Immersion. As an underwater conservation photographer, her pictures and articles are widely published.
  • Dr. Sean Landsman, PhD is a professional fisheries scientist who has beautifully captured many difficult-to-photograph coastal species like American Eel, Alewife, Eastern Brook Trout and Rainbow Smelt.
  • Patrick Clayton is the USA's premier photographer of wild trout from the streams of the American West.
  • Finally, here’s my own Instagram account.  Evidence that I can occasionally take a picture that's actually in focus.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Swimming With Muskies

The first time I came face to face with a muskie underwater in its environment, I thought I was going to have a stroke. I was scuba diving in a small northern Wisconsin Lake known primarily for bass and bluegills, when I turned and found myself face to face with a monster that looked more like an alligator than anything else. To say I was startled would be an understatement. I remember screaming into my regulator as an eruption of air bubbles exploded from my lungs and raced towards the surface. My arms and legs flapped involuntarily in panic and I stirred up a cloud of silt that quickly enveloped both the beast and me. After a few seconds, when I had recovered from the start and regained my composure, I was amazed to see that the giant fish hadn’t moved an inch. It was still there, just three feet away hanging motionless in the slowly clearing water. In stark contrast to my initial panicked surprise its reaction was just the opposite. Its demeanor was calm, and its steely-eyed gaze remained fixed on me the entire time like a gunslinger in a Clint Eastwood western. This was a fish filled with confidence, instead of fear. He was the ruler of this underwater kingdom, and seemed to regard me with the same sense of apathy and disinterest that’s normally reserved only for telemarketers and late night TV pitchmen. Finally, he slowly finned away into the depths and I was left with a feeling of awe and admiration for these magnificent fish that has only grown over the years.

I’m very lucky that I just happen to live in an area that’s home to some of the most legendary muskie lakes in the country. Over the years, I’ve had a chance to swim in some of these famed waters and encounter muskies up close in their own environment. There’s nothing quite like seeing a large muskie underwater. They glide effortlessly through the water with the supreme confidence reserved for members at the top of their food chain. Because of this, they’re not afraid of divers and I’m able to approach them usually fairly easily. They are surely aware of all the other fish and animals that populate their world and because divers are an anomaly, they will routinely approach me with what I can only characterize as curiosity. They often make a complete circle around me as if to inspect this ‘strange creature” from every angle. They also display keen awareness. When I enter a lake, I don’t have to search for the muskies. I’ve discovered that if I’m patient, they will find me. Drawn, I’m sure by acute imperceptible sensory abilities and also probably just by the noise of my air bubbles too.

One of the attributes of water is that when viewed through a prism of air, objects appear to be larger than they really are.  So when I’m underwater looking through my diver’s mask, a 45-inch musky appears to me to be a 60-inch fish!  Fish and anything else viewed underwater are only ¾ of their actual size.  Fisherman often ask me how big the fish are that I see.  I do my best to adjust for the optics of underwater viewing, but the fact is, I just don’t know.  Fish look really big underwater, and big fish look positively huge when viewed underwater.  For the first few years, I got really excited whenever I saw muskies.  “Wow!  That’s got to be a world record!” I would say to myself.  But over the years, I’ve come to better understand this illusion and now I don’t pee my wetsuit quite as often when I see what looks like Moby Dick.  What this means sadly, is that all those reports you hear of 6 foot long monsters swimming next to the boat, or huge fish that got off before they could be netted are really just ordinary sized muskies.  Some may argue that the fish lined up exactly with something on the boat that’s of known size and therefore, that’s evidence that the fish was really a whopper.  This of course is nonsense. Since you would still be viewing the fish in water through a space of air, the magnification illusion is still in play.  Your boat is a poor yardstick since it’s in air, and the fish is underwater. 

I remember a particular encounter one spring a few years ago. I was taking pictures in Lake Tomahawk in Vilas County Wisconsin.  I came across 2 muskies engaged in spawning activity.  It was a very dark rainy morning. The light was terrible and I wasn’t able to get any pictures, but the fish I saw that day was truly impressive. The size of the spawning male was not remarkable.  In fact, he was simply dwarfed by the female he was swimming with.  She was a real beauty.  She was enormous, and had a girth like those big watermelons that win ribbons at the county fair.  She swam along side of me and I took a good long look.  I’m five foot, eight inches tall, and the fish lined up next to me was longer than I was!  Was this a 6-foot long muskie? I did the quick arithmetic: Since it appeared to be 70 inches or more, its real and actual size would have been a little over 50 inches.  Possibly 52 inches. While not a world record, she was still a spectacular fish in anyone’s book.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Mastering the Close-Up Fish Portrait: How It's Done

The number one mistake novice underwater photographers make is failing to get close enough to their subjects. Since freshwater fish are relatively small, you have to get extremely close to them for striking, frame-filling pictures. On the other hand, this isn’t as difficult as it may seem. 

Once you see a fish, you need to make a quick assessment of its potential for your photographs. If it’s swimming away, let it go. Swimming after a fish is futile and results only in pictures of tails, not the stunning full-body portraits that you’re really trying to make. You’ll want instead to concentrate on fish that are not in motion. These are the easiest fish to photograph. 

Once you see a fish nearby, the first thing to do is to freeze and let the fish come to you. If you remain motionless and quiet, many fish are curious enough to swim right up to you for further investigation. Any sudden movements will cause them to swim away quickly. Remain still and allow the fish to become accustomed to your presence. After a few minutes, if the fish doesn’t approach you further, and it doesn’t swim off, move in closer. Do this slowly and only a few inches at a time, pausing with each new advance. 

Always try to approach fish mainly from the front. Let the fish see you. Because this approach is an unnatural tactic for a predator, the fish will more likely regard you as non-threatening if you behave like this in a slow and deliberate manner. As you move in closer and closer, stop to take a few pictures. Continue to move closer while carefully watching the fish. At some point, you will go beyond the fish’s zone of acceptable comfort. This is when the fish will retreat because you’ve gotten too close. But if you move slowly, studying the fish as you approach, you’ll see early signals from the fish that you’re getting too near. It may begin to get nervous, to turn, or move slowly away. This is where you stop. This is as close as you’re going to get to this particular fish at this time. This is where you take your close-up pictures. 

If you’re doing it right, you should be only one to three feet away. Your pictures at this distance will be amazing, especially in very clear water on a bright sunny day! It’s important to keep in mind that fish vary from lake to lake and species to species. Don’t be disappointed if you don’t get near enough for that breath- taking close-up every time you shoot. There will be other opportunities. With time and patience, you’ll enhance your skills at this method. With experience, you’ll get within arm’s length of most fish most of the time. 

If you have a question or comment about photographing fish in freshwater environments, you can contact me at eric@underwaterfishphotos.com

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Working with Fish Models: The Best Angle To Photograph Fish

Recently, a friend of mine commented on my photography: "I can always spot your fish images when I see them in magazines...", he said. "It's because you always show the fish from below".  I haven't thought about that for a long time, but he's right.  

When I first began taking portraits of fish underwater, I was almost always hovering above the fish looking down on them.  It was just more convenient for me to shoot pictures that way.  The images were Ok, but this angle tended to give them a flat and uninteresting look. It also made them somehow insignificant or easily dismissible. Every beginners book on photography points out that pets and children will always look awful when photographed from above and that you should try to shoot them at eye-level.  I began trying this underwater with fish and noticed the immediate improvement in my images.  

Later, I was reading about Vogue and Cosmo photographers and how the pros never shoot a super-model from below unless she has a terrific jaw-line.  It occurred to me that fish, with their gills, all had great jaw-lines, so I began getting below eye-level and photographing them from below.  The results were so breathtakingly stunning that I began to try to compose every fish picture this way.  Over time, it's become a distinct hallmark of my work.  I'm convinced that it's the best angle to photograph fish underwater.

I think it's incumbent on all wildlife photographers to portray their subjects with as much style and beauty as possible.  This is easy to do with cuddly puppies and furry baby seals, but with reptiles, amphibians and even fish, we often have to work hard to convey their inherent beauty to our audience. People will always care more about pretty things than ugly ones. That's just human nature. 

As a fish photographer, I feel a responsibility to my subjects to try to portray their magnificence in every picture I make. Because of this, I usually won't shoot fish with split fins, scars, injuries or other physical deficiencies. Instead I look for fish that are healthy and vibrant. I want the best ambassadors of each species to represent the entire population. If I want viewers to care about fish the way I do, I have to make it as easy as possible for them to appreciate and embrace these finned marvels.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Where to Find Walleyes-Secret Locations That Are Often Overlooked

Often times when I'm coming off the lake and loading my scuba diving equipment and cameras into the car, fisherman will approach me at the boat landings to ask "Did you see any fish?"  Or, "Where are all the big ones?"  Since I'm actually under the water swimming with the fish, I do notice some things that escape most fisherman.  So in answer to the question, "Where are the fish?" I've compiled a list of the five most surprising areas where I regularly encounter walleyes that few fisherman pay any attention to. How many of these locations do you completely ignore when targeting walleyes?

1) Shallow Water. Since I'm trying to photograph fish, I tend to concentrate on areas where the light is the best.  This often means depths of 12 feet or less.  This shallow water is where I take 90% of my walleye pictures.  It's surprising how many fish can be found close to shore in water that's barely over your head.  If there are large submerged trees close to shore, I almost always find walleyes there.  Most walleye fisherman ignore shallow water, but I can tell you that the fish are there.

2) Under boat docks.  Not all boat docks have walleyes under them, but the ones that share certain characteristics will hold walleyes most of the year.  Nobody seems to fish for walleyes around shallow boat docks, but if you can find ones that have a hard or gravel substrate, extensive areas of shade, and deep water nearby, you'll find walleyes there.

3) Eurasian Watermilfoil.  This invasive plant is almost universally regarded as bad, but fish love milfoil.  If I'm on a lake where EWM is present, I head right for it. It's a fish magnet for all species including walleye.  Sometimes I'll find walleye cruising along the deep edge of milfoil colonies, but usually they're buried inside the thickest and most dense parts of milfoil beds.  It's hard to photograph walleyes in cover this thick and just as difficult to fish for them in these areas, but they're always there.

4) Fish Cribs.  Everyone knows that there are fish around fish cribs, but they aren't as famously known to be places to find walleyes.  The walleyes I see around cribs fall into two categories. Inactive fish are typically underneath the cribs, or buried deep inside them in thick brush.  Active fish cruise cribs in a radius that can extend up to 20 feet.  While it's easy for me to photograph them here, catching them here is harder because there's often an abundance of bass or panfish around that are higher in the water column that will strike the baits or lures before the walleyes get a chance to.  In the presence of other fish, walleyes are timid and won't fight a rock bass or smallmouth to get to a bait first.

5) Sunny days.  The last location where I always find walleyes isn't a location at all, but a condition.  Walleyes have a reputation for avoiding bright sunshine, or going deep on sunny days.  When I'm photographing fish, I relish bright sunny days with calm surface conditions and I'm usually in the water around high noon when the light penetration into the water is the best.  You might think these would be terrible conditions for walleye fishing, but I can tell you I encounter plenty of large walleyes actively feeding during these times... often in shallower water.  If you're a walleye fisherman and as a rule, avoid fishing during the midday hours or on bright sunny days, you're missing out on good opportunities to encounter fish.

For over twenty years I've been photographing walleyes underwater and those are some of my go-to places.  They're certainly overlooked locations and might even seem counter intuitive to most walleye fisherman, but I wouldn't be wasting my own time with them if they weren't highly productive.

(To view our walleye image gallery, click here.)
(For more on walleye behavior click here.)