Dive after dive, I find myself obsessed with one thing: capturing fish yawns.
I'm quite obsessed with it actually. Whether it’s a fang blenny whipping out those scary teeth, or a friendly goby taking a yawn on a whip coral, there’s nothing quite like capturing that moment.
Fish yawns can a simple image an extra “wow” factor, turning a good image into a great one. And whether you hope capturing the yawn will nab you a top prize in a competition, cover shot of your local magazine or just complete your trip portfolio, one thing is for certain—whoever views your photos will have the same jaw-dropping experience as the fish in them.
Why Fish Yawn
There are a few theories on why fish yawn. One such explanation asserts that the yawn is in fact an act of aggression towards other fish. So when they feel threatened by the presence of your macro port, they perform they yawn right back at you.
Others argue that the yawn is just simple stretching to suck more water into the mouth and out through the gills. Because this is how fish breathe, it seems likely that yawning helps flush extra water through their gills, oxygenating and cleaning the fillaments. This allows them to breathe harder without swimming faster.
Photographing Fish Yawns
Capturing these moments can be difficult and requires a lot of patience. It sometimes requires committing a whole or multiple dives with a single subject, but when captured these efforts are well worth it. Many times, I have gripped my fist waving and shouting underwater after capturing a yawn; and the odd diver passing by looks at me like I'm crazy.
Being in the right place at the right time may play a part in capturing rarer species, but for capturing fish yawns of blennies and gobies, it’s best to just find a less mobile subject. Look for blennies in their homes, gobbies on whip coral, or still frogfish—these sedentary subjects dramatically increase your chances of nabbing a fish yawn picture.
Once you have found your subject and are satisfied with your framing and settings, it’s just a matter of waiting...
Each subject is different. You can do three dives with a blenny just to see one yawn, and just a single encounter with another that yawns every two minutes. So you never know what you’re going to be up against. The best technique is to set your camera on burst mode and really concentrate on his mouth movements, waiting for a series of mini-yawns as a sign that the big one is coming.
As soon as you see movement, fire away as most of these yawns are super-fast and your chances of capturing a yawn will be higher using this method.
With more practice and confidence, you can also try to capture the yawn at the exact moment it’s fully extended. The important thing is not to lose focus—as fish always seem to yawn right during your mental break.
Accessories like buoyancy floats are really helpful for this style of shooting, where you may be sitting for long periods of time.
Composition and Lighting of Fish Yawn Photography
There are two main ways to compose yawning shots: from the front and from the side. Shooting from the side gives the viewer the best possible angle to see the yawn, but often lacks the emotion of seeing the subject’s eyes like shooting from head-on. In either case, getting eye contact from the subject is critical to establishing a link from the image to the subject.
Yawning shots also present great opportunities to push your lighting creativity. Since blennies and gobies are both semi-translucent, backlighting can be used to create distinctive mood to the shot. You can also use snoots to control light from the side and front of the subject.
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