Engbretson Underwater Photography

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

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Photographing Native Fish in Freshwater Lakes: Overcoming the Obstacles

Walleye Underwater

I'm often asked what the biggest challenge is to taking underwater fish pictures.  Well, there are quite a few obstacles and many things that have to be right to be able to get a good picture.  First, the water has to be clear, which is actually a greater challenge than you might think.  Freshwater lakes are typically pretty crummy so finding lakes that have the necessary clarity is an ongoing process.  I usually won't even look at a lake if the clarity isn't at least 18 feet.  Water clarity can change from week to week and season to season too, so even though I have my favorite lakes, they’re not always clear enough to work in.  Everything starts with water clarity and if you don’t have that, nothing else matters.  It’s always a challenge to find clear water.

Once I find a clear lake, I have to find fish.  Next I have to find fish of desirable size.  This is easier said than done too.  It's always a problem especially these days when it seems like there’s fewer and fewer really nice fish available.  If I do find a lake that’s clear and it does have a few good fish, another challenge is getting close enough to photograph them.  I like to be 2 or 3 feet away.  Any further and I won’t take a picture at all.  Fish often times have a problem with a diver being that close, so it takes a lot of patience to even get close enough to think about composing a picture.  But once I have clear water, good fish, and get close enough to shoot them, I still have to make the shot.  So even if everything else is right, sometimes I blow it all on the final step because I was moving, or the composition is bad or I forgot to turn on the strobe, etc.….

A lot goes wrong.  Sometimes I feel like it’s truly a miracle to get any good pictures at all because so many things that I can’t control have to be right all at the same time.

Conditions underwater are typically very hostile to a photographer.  The lakes and rivers where I shoot can be very cold.  In rivers, currents can be strong, and visibility is always an issue.  Underwater photography is inherently tricky.  Water is 800 times thicker than air, and there's always particles floating around or algae and things like that, so you've never going to get the really "clean" look you can get shooting through air. The water is often cold, the fish can be elusive, and you've got to always be concerned about your air supply, so there's a lot to think about. The light underwater is very poor too, so often I have to carry underwater strobes to illuminate subjects in deeper water. If you can imagine taking photos on a dark, cold, foggy, windy day… that sort of comes close to the everyday conditions of the environment I work in.  Saltwater environments are infinitely easier.  The water’s 100 times clearer, there’s 100 times more light, and ocean fish are used to seeing very large things swimming around them.  In freshwater, you look like Godzilla to those poor fish.

So, yes-the challenges are many, but as I always say, "If it was easy, everyone would be doing this".