Banish fish butts from your gallery
All else being equal, patience is the critical factor that separates poor shots from great shots. We can’t make the animals do what we want. We have to wait for the shot to appear.
Stay put. Observe. Is there a detail about the animal that looks interesting?
Test frame your shots: see how they look in your camera’s view finder. Feel free to swim about to find an angle that looks pleasing. Crop while you frame: i.e. get as close to the subject as possible while you’re composing rather than hope to crop it during post-production. This approach ensures that you have the most resolution and image area to work with during post. You don't want to end up with something blurry because you had to zoom in a ridiculous amount just to get the composition you want.
Be open to possibilities. Stare at other people's photographs to learn from them. You can learn a lot from great photos and just as much from bad ones. How to tell good from bad? You'll know because you feel compelled to stare at a good one. For this exercise, I recommend not using your own work: you might just be reliving the moment rather than being really objective.
Focus on the details: the eyes, the gills, the mouth, the pattern on their bodies, etc. Even the most boring reef animal (I'm looking at you, snappers and other nameless fish) can seem interesting if you shoot a particular feature of them. For example, spine cheek anemone fish are named for the the spines on their cheeks, as this shot shows.
Nemo fishes are cute, but the males are super protective of their eggs and young fish, and some of them will nip at you with their teeth if you get too close for their comfort. This shot I took really shows the teeth.
Even this standard issue reef fish became more interesting to me during post-production. Thinking at the time that it might look interesting, I zoomed in tight to capture just to capture a part of the fish. In post-production, I discovered that the fish actually had really startling colours when I brought in all the blacks in the shot.
Just say no to mug shots
Mug shots work for fish ID books, but your underwater photography gallery could be so much more.
Try to capture a behaviour, a look, a feature. Gobies, for example, feed by opening their mouths wide to capture whatever comes their way, but captured in a photo, they look like they're smiling and happy to see you.
No driveby shootings
This is somewhat of a catch-all tip. Getting rid of the driveby shooting mentality will help you banish fish butts and other meh shots.
Stay a while on a spot. Get to know your subject. On a trip to Curaçao, this approach netted me two shooting opportunities. I discovered that there were lots of gobies on the reefs - while hovering over a patch looking for interesting stuff, I noticed the coral blinking: gobies! They live in holes and tend to stay hidden, with just their eyeballs peeking out. On our last dive of the trip, I hovered over a rock patch long enough to notice a little tiny ball bouncing around. That ball turned out to be the juvenile box fish I'd been hoping to see all week. As you can see, I still didn't get a really good shot because it was hard to focus on something about the size of a summer sweet pea. And I was hurried away by a certain dive buddy who shall remain nameless... :p You win some, you lose some.
In the end, the most important reason to avoid driveways is that they look like drivebys. All they say is "I was here" and little else.
Take your time to consider the surroundings. Is it too busy? A busy background can make a photo boring because there's nothing for the eyes to focus on.
I'll be sharing more tips on creating unboring fish portraits in my underwater photography clinic at AquaSub on Feb 16.
PS Yes, I will be explaining what I meant by "brought in all the blacks in the shot."