Sunday, August 3, 2008


Probably the most difficult fish to photograph during its courtship display, the blue flasher wrasse (Paracheilinus cyaneus). Photo by Scott W. Michael.

Sorry folks. One more wrasse entry and then I will talk about another group of fishes. You have to realize I am still glowing in the aftermath of Volume 5, which is about 380 pages of wrasses. So, here goes another labrid topic…..

I was recently flipping through a book by Michael Aw when the name “Roger Steene” jumped off the page. Roger and I are good friends and I am always curious to see what people write about him, as he is truly a one-of-a-kind character (if you have ever been with Roger in the field, than you know what I mean!)! I started at the beginning of the paragraph that contained the Steene moniker and read on. This section of Michael’s book was talking about challenging photo subjects. He was quoting Roger, who has long said that the most difficult fish species to photograph are the flasher wrasses (genus Paracheilinus). Michael took up Roger’s challenge and presented the results at the top of the page – there was a good photo of a McCosker’s flasher (Paracheilinus mccoskeri) .

I love flasher wrasses and have been trying to take photos of them in the field for over a decade now. I have been somewhat successful after spending hours attempting to snap shots of Paracheilinus in full “flash” (definition: when fish has all fish spread and its colors flashing). Much of this is simply being lucky, but I have also learned a few techniques that I thought I would share.

One a recent trip to West Papua (the Raja Ampat Islands) as a guest of Max Ammer and Sorido Bay Resort, I had the opportunity to once again hone my flasher photography skills. Roger and I found a small group of blue flasher wrasse (Paracheilinus cyaneus) on the fringing house reef. I hate to tell you this Michael, but even within the genus, there are some species that are more difficult to shoot than others. The Paracheilinus in Michael’s book is one of the easier flashers to photograph. Roger, Gerry Allen and myself, all agree that the blue flasher and a newly described species from Triton Bay, West Papua (Paracheilinus nursalim), are the most demanding fishes to nail. This has to do with their behavior. Some flashers will hesitate momentarily when in full flash, so if you are ready, it is possible to get stellar shots with relatively little effort. But the blue flasher is not that kind of “cat!” It is always dashing about, dashing through the water like a kite in a hurricane!

Here is how I was able to get some good shots of P. cyaneus:

Reconnoiter Flasher Habitat . You will need to be prepared to scuttle around the seafloor like a nervous fiddler crab. Fortunately, flashers are most often found on rubble slopes so you don’t have to be as concerned about fins and hands damaging coral colonies. Before I go into flasher photo mode I scour the area for scorpionfish (at least big, none cryptic varieties) as it is very easy to accidentally get stung when you are moving with your eye pressed up to the viewfinder. Most of the flasher’s activities are usually limited to a relatively small area so it is possible to survey the location before getting into hunting mode. So get the lay of the land before you begin stalking your quarry.

Go flasher stalking in the late afternoon. Timing is everything! Male flashing tends to reach its apex at dusk, when these fishes spawn. Males begin courting females around an hour before the sun goes down, although less frequent flashing may occur at any time of the day.

Observe before attempting to photograph. If you watch the fish long enough, they normally have a fairly consistent routine. They may dash down to one section of rubble where some females are hanging out and flash at them for several minutes. Then they may leave this area and dash to another location where potential mates lurk near rubble recesses. It is often best to wait in one location (where there are females) and wait for the male to come soaring through.

Pre-focus and “swim the fish into focus.” Forget about using auto focus! The fish moves too quickly and the light levels are often too low to use it effectively. Instead, pre-focus the camera on something that is similar in size to the male flasher. It may be a piece of rubble or coral. Pretend that this non-moving object is the flasher wrasse and preset the focus so that the fish fills the appropriate amount of frame. (The more fish in the frame, the more difficult the shot will be to get.) I try and fill at least ½ the length of the frame with the fish, but you can back off if you want too (it is easier to shot them from a slightly greater distance). When the fish frenetically parades past, find him in the viewfinder and begin to follow his movements through the lens. When he comes into focus, quickly squeeze off a shot. The key is to keep following him with the camera and keep firing away anytime he appears to be in focus. The more shots you take, the more likelihood that you will get a real winner.

While it may sound difficult (and it is!), the more you practice it, the more likely you are to have real success. Roger and I were both very confident that we had nailed the fish you see above (we both use film so we had to wait and see our results when we got home). You can just tell when everything is right – at least when the fish and the focus are spot on. Exposure and potential flashback (back scatter) is another matter. Roger always underexposes his flasher shots by about ½ stop (using exposure compensation) to prevent possible overexposure by the flashes TTL. I don’t, but instead always shoot at smaller apertures (usually just at the limit of the TTL capacity). Of course, not only does more light to the film plan mean more likelihood of overexposing the subject, it also means more backscatter in the picture.

©2008 Scott W. Michael

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