A few years ago, a friend suggested that I go to Cancun to photograph sailfish. As one of the ocean’s fastest, most agile predators chances of getting up and close with sailfish have traditionally been few and far between.
However, off the Mexican island Isla Mujeres, photographers have the oppertunity to get right in the action when the predators gather every spring to feast on sardines. My first attempt at capturing these amazing predators two years ago was a flop—let’s just say 12-foot high swells and a bad taco the night before made for a rough outing. But I was determined to get the shot…
Last year, I got a second chance to nail the shot: The seas were calmer and I made sure to avoid any tacos. A friend of mine took me out to the same offshore location, about 40 miles from Cancun, where the sailfish gather.
The trick is to look to the sky rather than the sea: Frigate birds are a good indication that a bait ball is near by. After hours of motoring around in search, we spotted several bait balls all being hunted by the 200-plus-pund predators.
Sailfish are among the fastest fish in the sea, reaching upwards of 70 miles per hour. I ditched the tank in favor of free diving to keep up and make getting back in the boat a simpler task. We slipped into the water and snorkeled, swimming as fast as we could to keep up with the bait ball and sardine pack, trying to position ourselves to get the best photo.
But that’s no an easy task. Hours of swimming with these underwater rockets is physically challenging and exhausting. Because of this, I made sure to streamline my camera setup as much as possible, using only one strobe and a small dome port with my Nikon D300 in Aquatica housing.
Many photographers when shooting agile subjects like the sailfish where you have to swim non-stop to keep up and get in and out of the boat many times prefer just to leave the strobes out of it for simplicity. However with such fast subjects having even just one strobe set on minimal power is useful for adding some fill light and even slightly freezing the frame more than just natural light.
Photographing the sailfish is all about composition and being confident in your settings. After some “test” type shots, I stuck with the max shutter flash sync speed of a 250th of a second, and adjusted my aperture to f9 and ISO to 640. All that was left was to wait for just the perfect moment when the sailfish turned in the hunt of the baitfish—and it finally happened.