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 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.


  1. Thanks for these tips Eric, from that last blog, very helpful & fun to read! Upon your advice, Il be using a Gopro to see if I can get some videos of Muskies this spring. I'm hoping you could share a couple tips on Gopro resolution & FPS settings (or any other settings tips) to use in a wisconsin clear lake. I won't be using a strobe type light. Thanks so much!

    1. There's a lot of circumstances when you'll want to use various different frame counts and resolution settings. I like to shoot at 4k or 2.7k at either 60 or 30 fps.

    2. Your GoPro manual talks about occasions when higher frame counts are appropriate. Like fast action, that you may want to show in slow motion. For this, a frame count of 120 is good. I've also read that shooting at 24fps gives video a cinematic look that some people think looks better. In watching videos on YouTube, I've noticed a dramatic difference in videos playing back at 60 as opposed to 30. The fidelity is so much better.