Snorkeling and Photographing Reef Fish

I’ve noticed a couple trends among snorkelers with cameras. The first is that just about all of them want to photograph the wonderful reef fish we encounter our snorkel-ventures to show their friends later on. The second is that after a few snorkel session photographing reef fish, many guests will come to me and ask me how to take better photos of reef fish because all their getting are blurry shots of a fish’s bum. So, here’s a few tips I’ve found helpful in photographing reef fish. 

Tip 1: Stop Photographing Reef Fish

The main reason why reef fish photos typically come back as a blurry fish bum is because reef fish are one of the hardest subjects to photograph well. If you stop and watch a butterfly fish or any one of the billion species of wrass you’ll quickly understand why. They never stop moving and their movement is never in one direction—it’s chaotic and all over the place. Not to mention most of the species people really what to photograph are smaller than your hand, and when you’re duck diving down or bobbing along on the surface their movement mixed with yours creates a really non-ideal shooting scenario. So, if your goal is to come back with a collection of awesome photos to show to your friends—reef fish may not be your most ideal subject to focus on. 

Tip 2: Focus on the Big Picture

Rather than focus on getting individual reef fish in a single frame, I suggest focusing more on the big picture with a variety of fish included in the photo along with the reef and everything else. These types of photos are not only easier to achieve, but also tend to be a bit more impressive to the viewer. I love to look for patches where the reef is particularly impressive and also hosts quite a variety of fish as well. On our snorkel tours reef scenes like this are not in short supply. 

Tip 3: If you Absolutely Must…

If you can not live without your fish photos, then what I would suggest is picking an individual fish and follow it. Though their movement may seem a bit erratic, it’s all part of their daily routine and a lot of times you’ll be able to anticipate what they are going to do next if you start to study their behavior. For example, most anemone fish will actually come out to ‘greet’ you as you come close their anemone but then suddenly dark back into the protection of their anemone only to come back out again. Try to anticipate this in and out movement and time it with the moment you press the shutter. Just about every species of fish will have a more or less repetitive pattern of movement and if you spend a bit of time observing this you can time it with your photos. Not to mention, the the longer you spend calmly watching a particular fish it’s more likely that it will perceive you a a non-threat and you’ll be able to move a bit closer for a better photos. 

Cow fish looking into the camera with snorkeler behind

Reef fish photos are considerably harder to get right, but with a bit of patience and understanding they are by no means impossible. My personal recommendation would be to not spend the entirety of your time photographing them, and instead divide it up between big picture photos which include the reef as well as the fish with some time also devoted to individual species. 

About Author

Alex Lindbloom
Alex is a Snorkel Venture guide as well as one of the video and photo pros for the company. Prior to joining Snorkel Venture in 2018 Alex lived and worked all over the world as an underwater cameraman, including five years on a boat in Indonesia. Alex's images and videos have garnered many international awards and can be seen on NatGeo, Disvocery Channel, the UN Building, and various magazines.