Text and images by: Matthew Sullivan
Often when we decide to shoot pictures underwater we fly off to far flung tropical places for spectacular reefs, or mucky paradises, or adventures with sharks or whales. Recently I’ve found myself drawn to a different pursuit. Take the salt out of the water, ditch the scuba gear, and focus on the usually overlooked world of freshwater photography.
Pink Salmon- Vancouver Island, BC, Canada. Nikon D500, Nikonos 13mm RS, Nauticam Housing, 1/10, f9, ISO160. Healthy pink salmon surrounding a male that is beginning to rot. It is remarkable what these fish live through before they die and the worse the fish look, often the more interesting subjects they make.
My obsession started in Alaska in 2018. We got skunked on Salmon Sharks which were the main target of the trip. To salvage our time, we went to explore a small mountain creek that was holding a decent sized school of huge Chum Salmon. This was my first experience photographing a salmon run and I was hooked right away. It is hard work holding yourself in position in the fast flowing, frigid water. But it is so much fun! The fish mostly ignore you, they surround you, and once in a while they’ll take a chomp at you or your gear in the heat of their hormonal rages.
Chum Salmon- Prince William Sound, AK, USA. Nikon D4, Nikonos 13mm RS, Nauticam Housing, 1/40, f13, ISO250. A male Chum Salmon turning his aggression towards my lens. He wasn’t going specifically at me. They’ll attack anything that is even remotely close to their mouths. He bit another male, a rock, my leg, and my port in the span of 3 seconds.
Since then I’ve been lucky enough to experience the Pink Salmon run in Vancouver, Brook Trout in North Carolina, and Kokanee Salmon in Connecticut. Each of these shoots has its own challenges but each provides some unique imaging opportunities. So few people ignore freshwater environments despite often having to travel far less to access them.
Brook Trout- Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC, USA. Nikon D500, Nikonos 13mm RS, Nauticam Housing 1/10, f10, ISO100. More skittish than salmon, but no less photogenic. Trout are spectacular fish and during breeding season they develop spectacular colors.
I used either a Nikon D4 in an NA-D4s housing, or a Nikon D500 in an NA-D500 Housing. Two factors really come into play when shooting salmon. With salmon, the action comes fast so taking your eye from the viewfinder wastes time and image opportunities so having intuitive ergonomics is crucial so you don’t have to look away and fumble around with housing functions. The LED Flash trigger (separate for the D4, built in for the D500) is also crucial for allowing rapid fire triggering of your strobes to make sure you don’t miss time waiting for strobes to recycle.
For freshwater shooting I found a small port to be most conducive. Often you are in quite shallow water and don’t have a lot of space to move around so a large dome would hinder image making. That said, if you have the right spot, a large dome would be great for split level pictures. For all these shoots I used either the Nikon 10.5mm Fisheye behind the Nauticam 140mm Dome, or my Nikonos 13mm which works flawlessly with Nauticam with the proper adapter. The WWL-1 is the optic I think may be best suited for most freshwater shooting and I look forward to trying it in that environment at some point.
I encourage people to go check out their local creeks, lakes, or rivers. There are some amazing things down there to shoot. Just because there isn’t any salt doesn’t mean there aren’t worthwhile subjects. Perhaps that will also lead to protection of special freshwater areas that would otherwise be degraded or destroyed.