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.