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Handling And Photographing The Fish

( Originally Published 1902 )

Fish, having nothing in common with us, as have the birds and animals, are difficult to handle because we do not understand them and their ways, for we have no standard by which to judge them. They do not as a rule appear to be easily frightened, nor indeed do they pay much attention to things about them. Strong light and the restriction of their range affect them more than anything else. Some varieties do not even object to being handled, while others will not allow themselves to be touched. Evidently fish have individuality, and this individuality applies not only to species, but to different fish of the same kind. As a rule we find the chub, carp, and tench are dull and slow and therefore easily photo-graphed, while trout, salmon, and black-bass are nervous and difficult to handle. But occasionally a quiet, well-disposed trout or bass is found; while, on the other hand, we sometimes find an individual trout or carp or tench so nervous and wild that it cannot be used. I mention this because I may allude to certain fish as being difficult to handle, when the reader attempting to photograph the same species may experience not the slightest difficulty.

If the fish to be photographed is a common one, do not waste time and patience with a wild individual ; rather let it go, and try your luck with another and perhaps tamer one. In the end you will not only save time by so doing, but you will secure a better and more satisfactory photograph. Of course it is understood that the aquarium must be placed in a strong light. The better the light the better will be the picture. On the end of a wharf is the best possible place, for there, while having the benefit of uninterrupted sunshine, you have water convenient, and what is not to be despised the advantage of any cool breezes that may happen to blow. It also allows you to keep the fish that you are not actually using in a live-car (a perforated box placed in the water), which should be kept in the shade. It is a good plan to have a small canopy of some sort that will shade the camera and plate-holders. This will save many plates from fogging.

Now that everything is in readiness, the aquarium filled with clear water, and a suitable background arranged, we will commence fish photography. Sup-posing the fish is in the live-car, a small landing-net will remove it to the aquarium. Be careful in doing so not to injure the scales against the edge of the glass. In some cases it is better to take the fish in both hands, holding it firmly but not too tight, and place it carefully in the water between the two glasses. At first probably the fish will swim rapidly from end to end in its efforts to escape, but after a few minutes of useless excitement it will usually calm down and lie on the bottom. Now is your time to focus and arrange your camera. We will say the fish is twelve inches long and the aquarium thirty inches long. It is obvious that if a fairly large image of the fish is wanted, only a part of the aquarium, perhaps eighteen inches, will be covered by the plate. To avoid a lot of unnecessary trouble and an extra chance of failure, place two marks (small pieces of wet paper will answer, don't use paste or mucilage) on the glass at the extreme edges of the part covered by the plate. This much done, set your shutter according to the exposure to be given, and then coax the fish away from the bottom. This may be done either by means of a stick or with the hand. It usually requires a great deal of patience and not a little time before the fish can be induced to go just where one wishes, but as so much depends on its being well posed, it is better not to be in too great a hurry. When focussing on the fish be sure to look down on it through the water, otherwise you cannot tell how far it is from the front glass. In the same way, before you release the shutter be sure the fish is at the same distance from the glass as it was when you focussed the camera. In case you cannot induce the fish to remain clear of the bottom, there are two things to be done: one is to raise it with your hand (holding the bulb of the shutter in the other hand) and make the exposure immediately after releasing the fish, when the hand must, of course, be instantly withdrawn. In this way I have often succeeded in making photographs that I could not otherwise have made. This method, needless to say, requires a very short exposure, as the fish is in motion, whether it sinks rapidly to the bottom or swims.

The other way is to place a stone on the bottom so that a point of it will be up several inches. Then gradually and slowly move the fish with a stick until it rests on the edge of this stone. When exactly in the right position (the head should be slightly below the level of the tail) make the exposure, which need not be so very short, as the movement of the fish would not, in all probability, be nearly so rapid as when actually swimming or sinking. Only a small part of the stone should come in contact with the fish. An important thing to remember is that the dorsal fin be elevated ; not only is this desirable for the identification of the fish, but it adds greatly to its beauty. With the dorsal fin down the fish lacks the appearance of being alive.

While it is quite possible to keep track of undeveloped plates so that you know what each one is when developed, I would advise as the safest and easiest method that a white label, bearing the name of the fish in heavy black letters, be placed on the glass so that it comes on the extreme edge of the plate. Then, when the photograph of the fish is made you have the name on the negative. This prevents any possibility of error. The paper label, if wet, will adhere to the glass, and may be removed without any difficulty.

In photographing fish that are habitually found in swiftly running water, some device might with advantage be used in order to keep the vegetation bending over, all in one direction of course, thus giving the effect of a current. This may be accomplished by attaching a very fine thread to each plant, that they may be drawn over to the proper angle. This is rather a fake " way of doing it, and not altogether satisfactory. A more elaborate method would be to have several large openings at one end of the aquarium through which the water would run freely,. while on the other side an equal quantity of water would have to he admitted. Though I have never tried this, I believe it would give a good effect of swiftly running water, which would not only keep the plants in the desired position, but would force the fish to assume a natural and lively attitude, as though it were in a brook. The rapid movement of the fins would, of course, necessitate a very short exposure.

With surface fish it is a good plan to have the water several inches above the partition glass ; then, at the moment when about to make the exposure, disturb the water's surface with your unemployed hand. It is surprising what a good effect is produced by this trick.

A peculiarity that is most noticeable among the highly coloured tropical fish is the power that they have of changing their colour and their markings. Take, for example, some of the porgies, that large family of fish so abundant around Key West. The same fish might be photographed ten times in as many minutes, and no two photographs look like the same species. The fish is beautifully marked with vertical bars, pink, blue, yellow, green, and brown being the prevailing colours; and yet one photograph will show a plain silver-coloured fish, absolutely lacking in marks of any kind, another will show faint irregular blotches, another slight indications of bars, and yet another will show the fish in all the glory of its full markings. The yellow-fin grouper, still more pronounced in the pattern of its markings, though scarcely so brilliant in colour, will change in an instant from a pale, sickly yellow with the markings only just discernible to a rich green with markings of very dark brown and bright red. Whether these changes are voluntary or not is scarcely known, and anyhow this is not the place to discuss that interesting question ; but the surroundings will usually be found to have some effect on the colour of a fish, even in an aquarium. Yet the effect produced by surroundings of a certain colour is by no means invariable. As a rule, however, when a brightly coloured fish is placed in an aquarium which is lined with white, and has no other colour, the fish will not don his finest colours; he remains, instead, pale and almost transparent, so as to blend in more or less with the immediate surroundings. A few stones added will sometimes cause a fish to resume part of his colouring; but when a quantity of rich vegetation is introduced, he will usually show himself off in his very best markings, perhaps only for a few seconds at a time, but more often for several minutes together.

This colour-changing is one of the most exasperating difficulties to overcome. We have so little control over it, and, according to the perverseness of things, it almost always happens that when a fish assumes exactly the attitude one wishes, it loses its colouring at the same moment. It is quite needless to say that an unlimited supply of patience is almost as necessary as the camera itself if we wish to have any success. I remember, when I began photographing the fish of Key West, having a red nigger-fish brought to me. It was of a beautiful delicate coral red, with tiny specks all over its head and body. I immediately placed it in the aquarium, and, after the usual amount of trouble, succeeded in making two exposures which showed the fish in good positions. These, when developed, proved to be first-rate negatives, and I was quite satisfied until, about a week later, I procured another of the same species. Shortly after it had been placed in the aquarium, and I had commenced making a water-colour drawing of it, I was much surprised to see it suddenly change colour;. dark purplish-brown markings in the form of irregular broad bars had come, changing and at the same time adding much to the beauty of the fish. I only tell this to show how much depends on knowing what to expect from a fish in the way of colour. Da not photograph a fish until you know what it should look like when it is at its best; otherwise the photograph, though true to life, will be misleading.

This colour-changing is not, so far as I know,, noticeable with fresh-water fishes. At least, none that I have photographed has shown it except to a very limited degree. Nor is it to be found among the light-coloured surface fish, such as the mullet, mackerel, pompano, and jacks. These, having colours that are more or less transparent and iridescent, of blue,, green, and silver, colours which render the fish inconspicuous, do not need the variety of colours and markings by which the bottom fish are protected. These bottom fish, whose home is among the brilliantly coloured vegetation, require colours as bright as their surroundings, that they may not be easily discovered by, their innumerable enemies. It seems very difficult for us to realise that the wonderful colouring of the various kinds of angel-fish should be a means of protection, but that such is the case is scarcely to be doubted.

When photographing any fish that "jumps" it will be found necessary to place either a piece of glass or wet cheese-cloth (wet because it is more transparent) on the top of the aquarium ; otherwise they will leap out, even though the sides are several inches above the surface of the water.

In arranging the backgrounds for fish, their beauty may be greatly enhanced and additional interest be given by using such examples of sea life as would be found with the fish if it were in its natural home. Sea-anemones, crabs, urchins, and any of the various shell-fish add life and value to the picture. But do not use any kind that give off coloured liquids, such as the squids, sea-pigeons, etc.

In handling fish of any kind, more particularly the catfish and some of the salt-water species, it is advisable to guard against being cut by the sharp spines of the fins. The Key West fishermen tell of all manner of diseases that come from such cuts. Such stories are gross exaggerations, but it is nevertheless true that the wound caused by a fish's fin is frequently poisoned and proves very troublesome. Any one unused to handling fish will find it difficult to avoid being cut. Therefore I advise watching how the fishermen do it. By so doing and by following their method much unnecessary inconvenience and pain may be avoided.

Should you ever be tempted to photograph the Portuguese man-of-war (Physalia arethusa), be most careful how you handle them. Do not let the tentacles come in contact with your skin unless you wish to enjoy the sensation of being stung by an in-finite number of nettles. In photographing these interesting and beautiful creatures, some difficulty will be experienced. They are so light in colour, resembling as they do a very brightly coloured soap-bubble, that a white background is not desirable, while a dark one has the disadvantage of causing the glass to reflect the camera and everything else about it. Another difficulty is with the creature itself, which insists on coming in contact with the glass (this is probably due to capillary attraction) and when removed leaves a jelly-like scum on the surface of the glass. This, needless to say, must be cleaned off before the photograph can be made. I would suggest that a very thin piece of white silk, or other almost transparent material, be fastened tightly across the length of the aquarium at a distance of two or three inches from the front glass; this would, I think, keep the creature away from the glass without causing it to alter its form. In photographing any of the jellyfish or other floating forms of animal life, the same thing could be done to pre-vent their coming in contact with the glass.

Any of the lower forms of aquatic animal life may be more or less easily photographed, and in every instance it is best that they should be portrayed with accessories that are natural to them. It is astonishing that such an interesting branch of photography should so long have remained untouched. The possibilities are almost unlimited. The exquisite forms of plant life and the long list of animal life offer subjects as novel as they are beautiful; and the ease with which these pictures may be made once the first few difficulties are overcome will astonish any one entering this almost untrodden field.

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