Engbretson Underwater Photography

Search The Fish Photos

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

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

What Makes A Captivating Image?


Imagine you’ve invited some friends over for dinner. You spend all afternoon preparing and cooking a well-planned meal. After your guests finish eating, they enthusiastically proclaim it be one of the best meals they’ve ever eaten. Then they ask “What kind of stove did you use?”  In this context, it would be a nonsensical question that no one would ever ask.  But as a photographer, I’m very frequently asked what kind of camera I use when well-meaning admirers view my underwater images.

The implication is that all the magic happens inside the camera, and the photographer is merely the lever puller who simply manipulates the marvelous technology that’s really responsible for creating the magical images.  To ask photographers what kind of camera equipment they use is as meaningless as asking a chef what kind of stove he uses.  The question usually comes from novice photographers who are looking for a shortcut to propel their own photography to a higher level. It may seem like an innocent and not irrelevant question, but it fails to identify the secret that’s the real foundation of stunning images.

Thirty years ago when I first began taking underwater pictures, I was consumed by the same quest. If I could just find a great underwater camera, I’d be able to take pictures for National Geographic just like the pros did. Every few years I would buy a better camera, a faster lens or a more durable housing.  While that did make a difference in the quality of the pictures I took, something was missing that took me years to detect. In my case, with underwater photography, I had some of the best equipment I could afford, but what was lacking was sufficient knowledge of my subjects.

This wasn’t something I was aware of decades ago. Instead, it was a shortcoming that has only revealed itself in retrospect. Over time, as I learned more about the lives of the fish I was photographing, my images of them became more appealing and more penetrating. I began to study their behavior and their body language and I began to notice how my own body language, movements, and behavior affected them. In time, a kind of communication developed. I became able to recognize subtle cues from timid fish and learned how to approach them in non-threatening ways. I also learned how to send out my own signals which fish could decipher that would put them at ease.

My office bookshelves that were once filled with photography books began to be populated with books about fish and fish biology. As I learned more and more about my subjects, not only did my appreciation and knowledge for them grow, but my photography of them improved dramatically.  

Reading about fish was invaluable, but my real education came from the fish themselves. As I spent more and more time underwater observing and interacting with them, they divulged more and more about themselves. Over time and one by one, all their habits, routines, and individualities that weren’t discussed in fish books were revealed like a cascade of unmasked secrets. I make no apologies for anthropomorphizing fish when I talk about their personalities. When you’ve spent as much time with them in their underwater habitats as I have, these conclusions feel not only justified but undeniable.

Today, when young photographers ask me what kind of camera I use, I ignore the question entirely and instead encourage them to learn all they can about their subjects.  In all areas of wildlife photography, if you fall in love with your subjects and let them teach you, it will be impossible for your images to not mirror that love and appreciation. And I think that single element, one that admittedly can’t be quantified precisely, is what makes a captivating image.   

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

2022 Underwater Fish Calendar from Engbretson Underwater Photography

Looking for a cool wall calendar for 2022?  Check out the 2022 Fishing Calendar from the Koozie Group featuring 13 underwater images from the Engbretson Underwater Photography team. Bass, salmon, walleye, trout, panfish, and others are all represented in vibrant color expertly photographed underwater in their natural habitats. 

Click here to order from Amazon.com  Only $7.98!

Engbretson Underwater Fishing Calendar Cover

Interior of Engbretson Underwater Fishing Calendar
2022 Engbretson Underwater Fishing Calendar Images

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Underwater Photography of Reptiles and Amphibians

At Engbretson Underwater Photography we're best known for our exceptional underwater images of freshwater fishes of North America. But because our photographers spend so much time under the surface of lakes and rivers, they also often observe and photograph a variety of aquatic non-fish species. Over the years, we've accumulated many underwater images of turtles, snakes, and salamanders. We've added them to our online galleries because they represent a segment of the underwater ecosystem that helps make these freshwater environments both interesting and diverse.  

Today we've added some new Eastern Hellbender Salamander images from our ace photographer Isaac Szabo.  Because Eastern Hellbenders are largely reclusive creatures whose range is shrinking, they're not easy to locate and photograph. Isaac's done a great job of traveling to remote areas in North Carolina and other places where they can still be found in significant numbers. His hellbender images are striking.  

To view all of Isaac's underwater material, see our Isaac Szabo Gallery here, or visit our gallery solely devoted to underwater images of reptiles and amphibians

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Noted Conservation Photographer Joins Our Team


One of the best parts of operating a stock photo agency is acquiring exciting, new photographers to represent. Our newest contributor is Fernando Lessa, one of the country's most talented Salmon photographers.  Fernando's amazing images of salmon, taken underwater in the iconic streams of the American Pacific Northwest and Canada are among the most stunning ever made. 

Based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Lessa has both a biology degree and a master’s degree in photography and specializes in documenting the relationship between humans and mother nature.  He's spent a great deal of time in the field, having worked on projects in a wide variety of areas, including the untouched Amazon Rainforest of Brazil, the unique Brazilian Savannah, and the Pacific Northwest.  He's a book author, filmmaker, and superb underwater photographer. 

Fernando joins Patrick Clayton, Jennifer Idol, Sean Landsman, Victor Vrbovsky, Garold Sneegas, Bryce Gibson, Todd Pearsons, Christopher Morey, Isaac Szabo, Paul Vecsei, and Roger Peterson on our "dream team" of the USA's best freshwater fish photographers.  His work can be licensed for commercial and editorial purposes by contacting us here at Engbretson Underwater Photography. To view more of Fernando's work, check out our Fernando Lessa Gallery here.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Ambassadors from an Underwater Realm

I’m often asked what my favorite fish is. That’s an impossible question because I love them all. While they’re all so wonderful in their own special ways, I do enjoy spending time with my Smallmouth Bass friends. They’re always friendly and curious and will eagerly pose for my cameras. They wait patiently while I fumble with the camera and strobe settings all while demonstrating my lack of swimming skills. To the fish, I’m a tourist visiting their world-largely ignorant and out of place despite my best efforts to fit in. Smallmouth Bass always make me feel welcome. Because they’re tirelessly cordial, friendly, and uncritical they are one of the best ambassadors of the piscine world. It’s a privilege to spend time with them and photograph them in their watery homes. 

Thursday, June 24, 2021

How Bio-Manipulation Saved the Walleyes of Wisconsin's Lake Metonga

My underwater images and my article about Lake Metonga's walleye recovery is the cover story of the July/August issue of Badger Sportsman Magazine.

I was in contact with Mike Pruel today to see how things are going this year on Lake Metonga. "Unfortunately, the bullheads have risen again, so we will do our best to knock them back in next few years", reports Pruel. Mike's crew has removed an additional 12,000 bullheads in the spring of 2021. "We're working closely with the Lake Metonga Association to organize and support efforts to remove baby bullheads this year and beyond. This is their part in the project, and a key for long-term management of bullheads in Metonga."

Despite the recent uptick in bullhead numbers, walleye recruitment remains robust. Spring walleye surveys continue to show young walleyes from the previous years are thriving and growing quickly, indicating that the walleye population is in great shape.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

The Pros and Cons of Early Season Scuba Diving

The 2021 season is underway. Water temperatures finally broke the 60-degree mark here in northern Wisconsin, which moved fish out of deep water and into the shallows for spawning.  At this time of year, I don't see many panfish, but the muskies are in the littoral zone completing their spawning rituals. I'm focusing on them now and getting some excellent pictures of post-spawn fish. In the next few weeks, I'll be switching my attention to the bass and crappie that will be spawning next and providing some excellent photo opportunities. Bluegills and pumpkinseed will be the last to spawn, with many bluegills still on nests well into July.

At this time of year, water clarity varies widely. Some lakes have excellent clarity very early in the year that degrades very quickly and never clears up. Other lakes are murky in spring and gradually clear up by mid-summer. Quickly rising temperatures also cause the water to stratify. A barrier can be formed that's difficult to see through. As long as you're looking straight ahead in a horizontal column of water that's the same temperature, you can see well. However, if you look up or down, even a few feet, you won't be able to see far because of this thermal barrier. This can make finding fish difficult. Once the water temperature warms enough, this layer will fall dramatically and form the thermocline, which is typically 20-30 feet deep.

One of the best things about diving Wisconsin's lakes in May is that boat traffic is still very limited. Kids are still in school, summer visitors haven't arrived and many cottages have yet to open for the year. This usually means that during the week, I have the lakes all to myself. After Memorial Day, things get busier. The increased boating traffic always drives the fish away from the shallows to deeper stretches where they're not as easy to find and photograph. Right now, even walleyes are in untypically shallow water and I've seen a few of them near shoreline cover in less than 10 feet of water.  

If you've always wanted to see our native fish in their natural habitat, pick up a snorkel and some swim fins and jump into the closest lake near you. You'll be surprised what you can see this time of year. 

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Making Fish Look Their Very Best


I once read an article about how fashion photographers for Vogue and Cosmo never shoot a super-model from below unless she has a terrific jaw-line.  It occurred to me that fish, with their gills, all have 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.

2021 will be the start of my 28th year of photographing native North American freshwater fish underwater in their natural habitat. I can't wait to get back in the water with my super-models!

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

A Critical Look At Artificial Fish Habitat:

When considering fish habitat, I think we need to discuss the role artificial fish habitat can serve. They're being used more and more, especially in large southern reservoirs devoid of important structure fish need.  Fish managers have traditionally placed bundles of Christmas or cedar trees on the lake bottom to provide cover for fish.  Because the lifespan of tree bundles and brush piles is limited, replenishing them has always been an ongoing and expensive process.  One advantage of artificial habitat structures that help explain their growing popularity is that they don't decay or deteriorate.

But can “anything” man-made be placed in our waters and be called fish habitat? If we throw a rusty wheelbarrow into a lake today and catch a fish on it next week, can we genuinely say we’ve added fish habitat and therefore improved the lake? Are we unknowingly turning our lakes into landfills or the equivalent of the town dump under the guise of creating fish habitat? Is it really true that any structure of any kind is better than nothing?  If you’ve ever wondered if there’s any discernible line between “junk” and authentic fish habitat, you wouldn’t be alone.

If there’s any hope of understanding the potential benefits using artificial fish habitat might offer, I think we need to uncouple two terms: Fish habitat and fishing. Effective fish habitat needs to protect young fish too small to be of interest to anglers. The metric to evaluate how useful fish habitat is must be re-calibrated. The question shouldn’t be how many trophy bass did you catch this year on the habitat, but how many young-of-the year bass survived the brutal gauntlet of their first year of life because of the protection that habitat provided. 

It could be argued that the most successful fish habitat would be one that only attracted age 0 fish and was a lousy fishing spot. As anglers, we need to modify our point of view. Fish habitat should be regarded as an investment in the hope of a better day’s fishing in the future, not something with instant payoffs today. If fish habitat isn’t a vehicle for fish recruitment, what good is it?

Today, there isn’t a single designer of any artificial fish habitat that doesn’t promise their product or design will protect young fish. These are merely assertions that haven’t met their burden of proof. These claims must be demonstrated before we have warrant to accept them as true. Where is the evidence that any assemblage of man-made parts and scrap material does anything to help even a single fish survive its first year, let alone to adulthood? So far, Fishiding is the only design that has continuously and consistently documented in hundreds of underwater pictures and videos over the years the efficacy of their product.

If you work in the fish management sector, you should absolutely demand evidence that whatever artificial habitat you’re considering spending resources on legitimately works. As condescending as it may sound, intuition or gut feeling is not evidence. If we’re not more careful about scrutinizing and properly evaluating artificial fish habitat, we run the risk of unknowingly crossing what should be a distinct line between what authentic habitat is and what’s simply junk.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

What we Can Learn From Fish When We Spend Time With Them:

Do fish have individual personalities? I'm often asked this question and I have some definite thoughts about it. For me, the answer is unequivocally yes. I’ve been photographing fish underwater in their natural habitat for over 25 years. In that time, there are long stretches when I’ve worked with the same individual fish for years at a time. I think most would agree that just like the personality distinctions one could make between say poodles and collies, distinctions between different types of fish certainly exist. Northern pike have different personality traits than largemouth bass and bluegills. Each species possess their own “group personality identity”.  But I would also suggest that it goes further than that. Individual fish behave differently from their cohorts and exhibit what can only be regarded as unique personalities with as much depth and richness as those of our own pets. 

Epiphanies about fish like this one can easily escape the casual observer and are only possible when one spends an extended amount of time observing and interacting with them. But because fish live in a world separate from ours, it’s difficult to do this in the same way birdwatchers can for example.  To observe fish in their natural habitat, we have to go under the surface with masks & snorkels or diving equipment. 

On warm summer days, our lakes are filled with swimmers and boaters, but they’re largely unaware of the diversity of life that swims just below them. We’re deaf to a grand symphony in concert under the surface. In recent years kayaking has become a very popular way to enjoy our waters. I’d love to see snorkeling gain that same kind of popularity in our inland lakes and become something you do every weekend, and not just when you’re in Hawaii on vacation. 

I’d encourage anyone interested in animals, and especially those interested in fish specifically to explore snorkeling as a way to observe and enjoy fish. They’re so fascinating to watch and there’s much we can learn about them.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

What are the Clearest Inland Lakes in Wisconsin? The 2020 Report:

For the best underwater photography, finding clear water with high transparency is essential. So 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 Secchi 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.  Ordinarily, I rank the lakes that recorded the highest average water clarity for the previous year. This year, I'm looking at lakes that recorded the single highest Secchi disc reading in 2020. Because of Covid-19, not all the usual lakes were sampled at their usual intervals, so we have only the data that was collected. With that in mind, here are Wisconsin's clearest inland lakes and their highest single-day water clarity readings taken in 2020:

1)   Upper Eau Claire Lake, Bayfield Co. 39.5 feet

2)   White Lake, Marquette Co. 36 feet

3)   Middle Eau Claire Lake, Bayfield Co. 35.75 feet

4)   Whitefish Lake, Douglas Co. 35 feet

5)   Blue Lake, Oneida Co. 32 feet

6)   Lee Lake, Oneida Co. 31.5 feet

7)   Black Oak Lake, Vilas Co. 30.5 feet

8)   Forest Lake, Vilas Co. 30.5 feet

9)   Stone Lake, Washburn Co. 30 feet

10) Pearl Lake, Waushara Co. 30 feet

11) Lower Eau Claire Lake, Bayfield Co. 29.75 feet

12) Bass Lake, Oconto Co. 29 feet

13) Smoky Lake, Vilas Co. 29 feet

14) Sugar Camp Lake, Oneida Co. 28.5 feet

15) Upper Nemahbin Lake, Waukesha Co. 28 feet

To see the lake list from 2019, click here

Monday, January 25, 2021

Why Underwater Photography in Freshwater?

I'm often asked why I'm interested in freshwater fish like bass and walleye.  Well, 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.

I think there’s always room for more good photographers, and I think interest in freshwater fish will continue.  I’d encourage beginners to learn about their subjects.  Become an expert on the life and behavior of these fish.  Become a steward of their habitat.  Whether it's a musky, a largemouth bass or a bluegill, think of yourself as a PR person for that particular fish.  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 or videos.  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.