A striking head-on portrait of a magnificent hairy frogfish, Lembeh Strait, Indonesia (Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 100mm Macro, f/16, 1/200s, ISO 100)
A good friend and fellow underwater photographer recently asked me what my favorite underwater creature was to photograph. I mulled it over for a moment, then proceeded to send her 40 different photos of frogfish. When I looked a little deeper into it, I realized I have photographed at least 100 different specimens from tropical seas all over the world! Dive spots that have become famous for their frogfishiness include Anilao and Dumaguete in the Philippines, Bonaire and St. Vincent in the Caribbean, South Australia, Blue Heron Bridge in Florida, and the king of them all, Lembeh Strait, Indonesia. In fact, every image in this article was made in Lembeh.
Whenever my guide gives the anglerfish signal underwater, my heart skips a little, even after seeing so many. The variety of colors, shapes, sizes and species means every single frogfish is exciting. They have such expressive faces, they exhibit a whole range of interesting behaviors, and they barely move—all of which combine to make them a phenomenal photo subject.
When most people think of anglerfish, what comes to mind are usually the black, freakish, fanged, light-producing deep-sea variety. However, the cuddly, cute, wacky frogfish also belong to the anglerfish family, as do their close relatives, the equally weird batfish. Frogfish’s foremost dorsal spine has evolved over time into a lure that they have full, independent control over. Each frogfish species has a lure unique to that species, and they vary from a little knob to worm-like to shrimp-like. And a few select species actually lack a lure.
A large painted frogfish fishing in the darkness, Lembeh Strait, Indonesia (Sony a7RV, Sony 90mm macro, f/9, 1/160s, ISO 100)
Frogfish are ambush predators, most frequently found lying motionless on the seabed or blending into a sponge or rock. When prey is nearby or the fish gets hungry, they’ll “fish” or “angle.” The lure gets tossed out and wiggled around to entice an unfortunate fish close to their cavernous mouth. With frogfish having the fastest feeding strike of any animal on Earth, it is a rare occasion that a prey item gets lucky enough to escape. The speed of the strike creates a vacuum that sucks fish right down into the monster mouth. After feeding, or even an unsuccessful strike, frogfish will often perform a little shake and a burp, kicking out a few random scales from its victim and any debris that may have been engulfed, stretch its jaws, and settle back down to begin the whole process over again.
Perhaps the two most sought after frogfish images are the luring shot and the “yawn.” Let’s begin with the luring shot. As mentioned in the introduction, frogfish actually go fishing. They are one of the few fish to employ this tactic. Why go look for your food when you can bring your food right to you? Unfortunately, frogfish do not cast their lure on demand and often you can spend an entire dive (or several) waiting for them to dangle it around. The more comfortable the frogfish is, the more likely it is to go fishing. Once the lure is out, the objective for a photographer is to capture this behavior in an interesting way. More on that later…
Capturing the luring action of frogfish is one of the most sought-after anglerfish images; the photographer’s patience and the comfort level of the fish ultimately determines success (Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 100mm Macro, Nauticam SMC-1, f/16, 1/250s, ISO 100)
The second frogfish behavior that is sought after by photographers is the much coveted “yawn.” The actual feeding strike of frogfish is blisteringly fast—much too fast to react to and photograph. Frogfish yawn for several reasons: They’re feeling stressed or threatened, they’re keeping their jaws limber, as a territorial display, and to reset their jaws after a strike. The last one is the easiest to get pictures of, as, without fail, after a strike, successful or not, they will reset their jaw in a long, slow extension. It is a fantastic opportunity to capture an awesome moment!
A picture of a hairy frogfish doing the coveted “yawn,” Lembeh Strait, Indonesia (Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 100mm Macro, f/16, 1/250s, ISO 100)
Frogfish can become annoyed by a photographer’s presence. I avoid using any focus or continuous light if possible while photographing them. A photographer must be keen not to stress any animal when shooting. Not only is it unfair to the animal, but a stressed animal does not make for good images. As soon as a frogfish shows signs that it is going to move from a selected perch or it turns its back, it is time for me to move on and leave it be and let the critter enjoy the rest of its day in peace.
Excluding big species like the giant frogfish found in the tropical Pacific, most frogfish are between 2cm (0.8in) and 20cm (8in). While some individuals can be photographed with fisheye lenses or specialized lenses like the Nauticam EMWL, we are going to focus on macro shooting for the purposes of this article.
Every camera brand has high-quality macro lenses that are conducive to frogfish photography. The images in this article were all photographed with either the Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 macro on a full-frame Sony a7RV, or the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L macro on a full-frame Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. Depending on the system you are invested in, 60mm, 50mm or 30mm macros are all good options as well.
A stunning painted frogfish, selectively illuminated with a snoot, while slow shutter camera movement eliminates the surroundings and creates a painterly feel, Lembeh Strait, Indonesia (Sony a7RV, Sony 90mm Macro, f/14, 0.4s, ISO 100)
While I generally use longer macro lenses, the shorter focal lenghts have their place. Especially on full frame, a 60mm, for example, will allow a photographer to capture full body shots of bigger individuals, or to leave the frogfish smaller in the frame to show off surroundings. The shorter length lenses also focus closer, meaning you can have less water between you and your subject while maintaining a wider field of view. This gives better detail and sharpness, less backscatter, and better color.
Perhaps the most sought-after image style for all macro shooting, not only frogfish, is the coveted black background image. Frogfish especially often choose unattractive habitats, so eliminating those surroundings can make for a much more aesthetically pleasing picture while showing off the subject quite well. Tools like snoots can help this, but black backgrounds are easy to achieve without fancy gear.
The easiest way to get a black background is to keep your ISO low and your shutter speed fast, and use a narrow aperture. You can choose your settings and shoot a frame. If you have an all-black frame, perfect! Now you can add in your lighting. The idea is to contol exactly where the strobe light falls. For black backgrounds you want it to fall only on your subject, and eliminate any extraneous light from falling on the background. If your subject is framed against open water, you can realistically have your strobes in any position and if your settings are correct, the background will be black. However, inward lighting, cross lighting, snoots, side lighting, reduction rings, and so on are all techniques that will increase your chances of having a perfectly black background and really making your frogfish pop!
No fancy tools needed to create the black background for this painted frogfish—just settings and strobe positioning, Lembeh Strait, Indonesia (Sony a7RV, Sony 90mm Macro, f/11, 1/200s, ISO 100)
One of the most important tools to consider with regards to frogfish photography is a snoot. A snoot is simply a tube or beam restrictor that fits on the front of a light source and shapes the light into a much more focused beam. Generally, the further from your subject you have your snoot, the wider and softer the beam will be. Therefore, as you move a snoot closer, the beam becomes tighter and the light edge will be harsher.
There is a seemingly endless variety of snoots on the market today: optical, fiber optic, laser guided, or the Backscatter Mini Flash and Optical Snoot combination, to name a few. I use the Retra LSD, which stands for Light Shaping Device. It pairs perfectly with my Retra Pro strobes and has high-quality optical elements inside to provide the best beam quality. The LSD also allows the focus light of the strobe to shine through, showing exactly where the light is going to fall and its shape.
A painted frogfish in the muck: Using a snoot to selectively light just the fish, the surroundings disappear, Lembeh Strait, Indonesia (Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 100mm Macro, f/20, 1/200s, ISO 100)
In use, snoots can be an exercise in frustration to get used to, but they can open up endless imaging opportunities. They can, of course, allow a photographer to create the well-known spotlight effect. But their versatility cannot be overstated: They can also be used to bring out texture and contrast, eliminate unattractive surroundings, draw the eye to a specific part of the frame, and so on. One of my favorite uses for a snoot is to freeze a frogfish during a long exposure pan. The flash freezes the frogfish while the camera motion lets the rest of the frame melt away into a painterly aesthetic.
A painted frogfish on an ugly mud bottom: Using a snoot and slow shutter, the background melts away and we are left with an artistic impression of habitat around the fish, Lembeh Strait, Indonesia (Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 50mm Macro, f/7.1, 1/4s, ISO 100)
Speaking of slow shutter shooting, many people might consider this technique to be used best with fast-moving subjects like sharks if you are trying to convey the movement of the animal. Frogfish are generally the antithesis of movement. They rely on camouflage and even when they do move, they are not exactly speed demons. For me, it is less about showing motion for the sake of motion and more about creating a dynamic picture and interesting background in a boring or unappealing setting. The goal here is to make an image that trends more towards art than reality or simply capturing motion.
For this type of image, I will typically set my camera to front curtain sync so the flash fires at the beginning of the exposure. I begin experimenting with a shutter speed of around 1/4s. I compose the image, press the shutter, and the flash goes off, freezing the frogfish, and then I jerk the camera parallel to the frogfish, blurring out the background, while leaving the frogfish nice and sharp. A sneaky tip for this type of image is to use an neutral density (ND) filter to further cut out light. This is helpful to allow for longer exposures as well as making these images possible in shallower, bright water.
A hairy frogfish photographed using slow shutter drag and a snoot, Lembeh Strait, Indonesia (Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 50mm Macro, f/11, 0.4s, ISO 100)
Artificial Backgrounds and Shallow Depth of Field
Many of the most intriguing and eye-catching frogfish images are those with black backgrounds. However, artificial backgrounds have become a more popular technique in recent years and can add some new flare and style to your frogfish portfolio. I have found the most effective artificial backgrounds to be those that are reflective and shiny. I once went to a dollar store and bought a whole selection of shiny and reflective items, from pipe cleaners to marbles and holographic paper. I have tried them all, some with great success and others with less than great success—reminiscent of something that would give a child nightmares.
The most popular artificial background tool these days is steel wool. It is easy to bring on a dive and gives a great bokeh effect, as it is so textured. To make a compelling image using steel wool as a background, position the wool anywhere from a few inches to a foot or so behind your frogfish. Shallow depths of field work best with this technique, as it allows the bokeh bubbles to expand pleasingly and the actual steel won’t be in focus and distracting. I prefer to use a snoot to light the frogfish and a second strobe—with or without colored filters—to light the steel wool in the background.
A beautiful painted frogfish, photographed with a shallow depth of field and steel wool to create the blue bubbles in the background, Lembeh Strait, Indonesia (Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 100mm Macro, f/2.8, 1/250s, ISO 100)
Diopters provide extra magnification and can be an invaluable tool for underwater macro photography, including for miniscule frogfish. In Lembeh, for example, I saw several frogfish smaller than a pinky nail. But just because they are tiny doesn’t mean they can’t be fantastic subjects. Certain high-quality diopters like those from Nauticam, Kraken, or AOI can actually increase image quality. I personally use a Nauticam SMC-1 and have just picked up a Kraken KRL08S.
It is important to remember that diopters reduce the minimum working distance and eliminate focusing to infinity. You will be photographing very close to your subject. The shorter working distance can make creative lighting techniques more difficult, so I prefer to keep it basic for the most part when photographing tiny frogfish. I generally will just shoot them with strobes pointed straight at the fish or pointed across at each other for inward lighting. Depth of field will also be reduced with a diopter, so it is critical to make sure your focus is spot on so that the eye of your subject is razor sharp. High-quality diopters like those mentioned above will help with this.
A miniscule painted frogfish photographed with a high-powered diopter and standard lighting, Lembeh Strait, Indonesia (Sony a7RV, Sony 90mm Macro, Nauticam SMC-1, f/6.3, 1/200s, ISO 100)
Once you have tried each of these techniques and mastered them, it is time to combine them all! I love to bring different techniques together to create really eye-catching frogfish pictures. I use diopters with artificial backgrounds, for example, or slow shutter speeds with colorful artificial backgrounds. At the end of the day, though, remember the frogfish is the star of the show. They are incredibly special as is, so sometimes simply showing off the fish for the sake of the fish is all that is needed for a compelling image.
A lumpy, bumpy juvenile clown frogfish, Lembeh Strait, Indonesia (Sony a7RV, Sony 90mm Macro, f/5.6, 1/250s, ISO 100)
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