Engbretson Underwater Photography

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

Friday, June 28, 2019

The Best Thing About Being An Underwater Photographer

What's it like to be a professional underwater photographer? It’s like every day is Saturday!  

Sometimes in the mornings when I’m driving to a lake I plan to shoot in, I’ll see people on their way to work.  Inside the other cars are guys wearing suits and ties holding cellphones in one hand and spilling coffee from the other.  Often they have scowls on their faces.  The stress and despair is evident in their zombie-like gazes and they haven’t even arrived at the office yet.  Meanwhile, I’m in shorts and sandals and heading to my office: the lake bottom.  I never forget that I was just like them not too long ago, and I feel so grateful and appreciative of the life I have now. I’m really lucky to love what I do, and do what I love.  I wouldn’t trade places with anybody.  

The early days were tough. I began taking pictures professionally in 1993.  I was disillusioned with my previous occupation (radio broadcasting) and was looking for some kind of business where I could set my own hours and be my own boss.  I had no training or education in photography whatsoever and knew nothing about the business aspects of shooting, selling and marketing stock images.  But I had a passion for my subject matter that made up for my lack of experience and knowledge. I loved fish, and I just wanted to show people images of common freshwater fish that perhaps they’d never seen before.  Seeing underwater Images of freshwater fish in their natural habitat were almost as rare then as they continue to be today.  I was motivated by three things:  1) I wanted to create a self-sustaining income that would replace my regular 9-5 hamster wheel job, 2) I knew it had to something that I enjoyed, had fun with, and would never regard as work, and 3) I wanted to generate in others the same kind of awe and appreciation I had for fish, and I thought that through photos I might be able to do that.     
During those humble early years, it was difficult to even find a mentor. There were many underwater photographers, but none who worked in freshwater with the subjects I was interested in.  One guy who did a little of the kind of photography I wanted to do was Doug Stamm.  He became a role model to me because of the way he was able to sell and market so many of his images to the same venues that I would later work for.  I remember going to the magazine stand and counting the number of covers and inside pictures he was selling in any given month and being astounded.  One of my goals then was to generate an income I could live from, so seeing what Doug was doing gave me hope that it was indeed possible. 

I’ve gotten so much help over the years.  I can’t begin to tell you about all the different individuals who have made it all possible.  From fisheries biologists who share information with me about lakes and fish behavior to lake-front property owners who grant me access to their lakes and suggest specific places to check out. There’s been family members who gave me financial support in the early years that made it possible for me to spend time shooting instead of “working”.  There’s literally been hundreds of people who certainly share a part in my success.  

But not every association was useful. Because of the uniqueness of what I was doing, it was difficult to find a group of people to relate to.  I dive underwater to photograph fish, but I’ve found I have little in common with either photographers or divers.  The photography people just wanted to talk about cameras.  The scuba diving people just wanted to talk about dive computers or dive vacations.  Nobody wanted to talk about fish.  I felt very alone until I began meeting professional fisheries biologists. Those were the friendships that were naturally harmonious. I'd finally found a group of people, who like me, could talk about fish all day long.

I'm often asked what advice I have for aspiring underwater photographers. I think today it's very difficult to make a living in this field. The saltwater environments are really saturated with photographers, many of whom have the world’s best locations in their back yards.  It would be extremely difficult to compete with them.  They actually live in the same places that others spend thousands of dollars and travel thousands of miles to get to.  How can you possibly compete with someone who has access to places like that 51 weeks of the year more than you do?  Freshwater however, is a different situation altogether.  Freshwater material is an area nobody is covering, so there is no competition.  On the down side, the demand for freshwater images isn’t as great either.  I’m hoping to draw more awareness to freshwater environments so that more people will become aware of the importance of these ecosystems.
I think there’s always room for more good photographers, and I think interest in underwater subjects will continue.  I encourage beginners to learn about their subjects.  Become an expert on the life and behavior of your animal subjects.  Become a steward of their habitat.  Think of yourself as a PR person for that particular animal.  If you do this, you’ll show them in the best light, you’ll be mindful of disturbing them, and your work will automatically show these creatures at their most magnificent.  Don’t sell pictures.  Instead, fall in love with your subjects and sell that love!  And instead of exploiting them for personal profit, you’ll become partners with them in calling attention to their inherent beauty and value in the ecosystem, and the special problems each one of them face in an increasingly crowded world.   You know, the freshwater world has never had an ambassador in the same way the oceans had Jacques Cousteau.  Perhaps, all of us who spend time in lakes can collectively be some sort of equivalent to that.  At least that's my dream.
Speaking of dreams-  I often refer to the small group of freshwater photographers that my stock photo agency represents as the “dream team”. I look for people who have a genuine interest in freshwater subjects.  They’re not as glamorous and sexy as whales, dolphins and sharks, so very few people are attracted to them.  I look for people who can competently take a picture and get it technically right.  And I look for people who are going to be shooting freshwater with some regularity and frequency.  Anybody can get a picture here or there, but I want someone who’s going to be generating new material often.  That essentially means someone who's spending a whole lot of time in freshwater.  
I see how miserable many people are at their daily jobs, and I still remember what it was like to live that way.  I’m thankful and appreciative for what I have and the niche I’ve carved out.  I guess my only goals are to be able to get up tomorrow morning and do the same thing all over again.  For people lucky enough to have a career that brings them genuine joy, it’s indescribable.  You’d do it for free because you’re so passionate about it.  It’s like being on vacation every day.  When there’s no distinction between work and play, you know you’re there.  What more could anyone want?

Monday, May 27, 2019

How Does Artificial Fish Habitat Work?

The Science Behind Fishiding Artificial Fish Habitat

I recently collaborated with David Ewald from Fishiding.com on a ten-part video series that explains how artificial fish habitat works. In the videos, which you can watch on myYouTube channel, we examine many of the characteristics that are necessary to design the kinds of structures that serve fish most effectively.

While natural elements like trees, stumps, rocks and plants provide the best habitat, artificial surrogates have a place in this conversation. The bottom of many southern reservoirs resemble moonscapes and there is little if any existing natural habitat. In many of these man-made lakes, man-made habitat is often the only viable option to provide young fish with the kind of sanctuaries they require to survive the challenges of early life.

In our video series “The Science behind Fishiding Artificial Fish Habitat”, we show you never-before-seen underwater footage of how fish utilize this habitat and why it should be considered a legitimate tool for fisheries professionals faced with managing waters where habitat is marginal.

If you’re interested in watching the videos, make sure you also read the 800 word narratives that accompany each video. Each narrative provides a complete description of the footage you see and points out key aspects of design, function, installation, testing, configuration, size and complexity. There really is a lot to know, but we’ve worked to distill everything we’ve learned into an easy to understand presentation that we hope you’ll find both interesting and useful.

You can view the entire video series on YouTube here and on the Fishiding page here.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

What are Wisconsin's Clearest Lakes?

What are the clearest lakes in Wisconsin?  Every year, I consult with Wisconsin's state-wide citizen's lake monitoring group. They're a network of individuals, usually lake-front property owners who monitor and regularly take a variety of water samples from lakes all across Wisconsin.  The data they compile helps to give us a look at how our lakes are doing. One of the many tasks lake monitors perform is to take regular sechi disc readings. This is a universal way of assessing and comparing water clarity.  I'm always interested in knowing which Wisconsin inland lakes are the clearest.  Here are the lakes that recorded the highest average water clarity in 2018. In short-here are Wisconsin's clearest inland lakes and their average water clarity in 2018:

1)   Lake Wazee, Jackson Co. 30.3 feet
2)   Whitefish Lake, Douglas Co.  27 feet
3)   Smoky Lake, Vilas Co. 26.7 feet
4)   Paya Lake, Oconto Co. 26.6 feet
5)   Black Oak Lake, Vilas Co. 26.5 feet
6)   Pine Lake, Waukesha Co. 25.5 feet
7)   Lake Metonga, Forest Co. 25.5 feet
8)   Presque Isle Lake, Vilas Co. 25 feet
9)   Mildred Lake, Oneida Co. 24.3 feet
10) Blue Lake, Oneida Co. 23.25 feet

To See the lake list from 2017, click here. To see the lake list from 2016, click here.To see the lake list from 2015, click here.  To see the lake list from 2014, click here.  For the lake list from 2013, click here.  And for the 2012 list of clear lakes, click here.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

How To Photograph Timid Fish Underwater

In freshwater environments, photographing timid fish can be an exercise in frustration. After nearly 30 years of working with subjects underwater, I’ve learned a couple of things that might help you get closer to fish and get better images.
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, 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 the early signs 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. If fish in a particular lake refuse to let you approach closely, go to another lake. There are just some places where fish don’t see many divers, snorkelers or swimmers.  In waters like these, they tend to be more apprehensive. On other lakes, where fish see people with more regularity, they’re less frightened by our presence.
 One technique I often employ is called the “swim by”. That’s where you make one pass near a group of fish at a distance. Your objective here is simply to be seen. You swim by not approaching them or barely even paying them any attention. This gives them an opportunity to see and evaluate you.  Later you can return to this group. They’ll be less alarmed because they’ve seen you before and their prior experience with you wasn’t regarded as hostile.  The “swim by” helps to build some confidence in timid fish.
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. 

Friday, February 22, 2019

Why Do Smallmouth Bass Catch and Release Crayfish?

The interaction between bass and crayfish is something I've been watching for a very long time and now think I understand. Typically, when people view these kinds of videos, they get the wrong impression of what's going on. Most people believe the crayfish is successfully repelling the attack of the hungry bass simply by its posture and extending the claws out in a menacing fashion. What in fact is happening is the bass is choosing not to eat the crayfish. This decision is arrived at by a single factor that has nothing to do with the defensive posturing of crayfish.

Bass are initially attracted visually to the crayfish, and rush in close. The decision to attack is then based solely on the hardness of the shell or exoskeleton. This most certainly can be determined once the crayfish is in the bass's mouth, causing the bass to immediately spit out the crayfish, if the crayfish is in its "hard shell" state. But it seems that bass can also detect this without first mouthing the crayfish. At first I thought they were doing this by visually inspecting the crayfish, but now I think they must be picking up a scent as well. Crayfish that have recently molted have soft shells and are much sought after by bass. Crayfish can't ward off attacks by sticking their claws out defensively when confronted by a bass. Bass laugh at this pathetic attempt. When they're in this soft shell phase, after a recent molt, no amount of claw wagging, or any other posturing is an effective defense.

When there are competing bass nearby, there's no time to evaluate whether the crayfish is soft or not. The main goal here is just to get to the food before your competitor. So in these cases, bass will more or less attack and "ask questions later". Once they have the prey in their mouths safely secured from other bass, they will release it if it turns out to have a hard shell.

Predation on individual crayfish seems to be solely determined by the current state of hardness of the crayfish exoskeleton.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Working with Fish Models

When photographing fish underwater, the trick is to get as close you can and shoot through as little water as possible. In freshwater environments, even the clearest water has a lot of suspended material in it that will degrade picture fidelity, so getting close is paramount. This smallmouth bass was only a foot away from a camera equipped with a wide angle lens. The wider lenses are necessary so that the entire fish and some of the scene can be included in the frame. Some fill-flash from strobe lighting is added to bring out the color and fill in shadowy areas. Even on bright sunny days, ambient light underwater quickly degrades after only a few feet under the surface so supplemental lighting is always helpful. 

Smallmouth bass make excellent subjects because they tend to be very friendly and curious fish and will easily approach a diver with a camera. This is an older fish that I've worked with before as a photo model. He (or she) has somewhat of a back hump which makes him (or her) easily recognizable. I photographed this fish against a background of northern watermilfoil. Anytime you're able to include a nice background like this curtain of plants, it helps make the picture more interesting and gives the viewer a sense of the underwater habitat where these fish live.

I'm sometimes able to enlist the the same fish as a model if I've been able to establish a relationship with them.  This can occur only after many repeated encounters and a certain level of comfort develops.  While fish may never understand what we are, they know we’re not the otters they see who move with great speed and agility and should be feared. We’re probably regarded more like the way they view snapping turtles.  We're large, plodding creatures with no real underwater skills who aren’t a threat unless we get very close. 

Over time, the fish begin to notice that as we clumsily move through the water, we create a disturbance.  Unseen insects and other invertebrates that are hiding on plants or on the lake floor may be exposed or displaced and to the fish, they magically appear for them to eat.  Maybe a crayfish is suddenly seen fleeing and again a food item is summoned out of nowhere. They may begin to view us as sorcerers who can conjure up food items by our mere presence.  If they arrive at this conclusion, the entire dynamic between fish and us changes.  We become viewed as a waiter or sorts.  Instead of fearing us, we instead become something that should be paid attention to and even followed around so they’re able to snap up any treats that we may cause to appear.