BEHAVIOUR IS NATURE’S WAY of making our images winners, but it can be an intimidating photographic challenge, because many photographers admit to struggling even to find macro critters, let alone catch them doing something photogenic. That’s where cleaning comes in.
If there is one behaviour that is truly widespread and easy to spot, it's cleaning. Symbiotic cleaning is quintessentially aquatic. On land there are very few instances of dedicated cleaning relationships between species, but from freshwater to coral reefs there are countless underwater examples.
Cleaning takes place on every scale, and with so many different species involved the photographic permutations are inexhaustible.
As a spectacle it ranges from a diminutive cleaner shrimp picking parasites from a cardinalfish, to a mighty oceanic manta getting a makeover courtesy of a gang of clarion angelfish.
Furthermore, because the cleaner and client species change from region to region, there are always new twists in the tale to photograph as you travel.
On Caribbean reefs, shrimps and gobies do much of the work, while in the Indo-Pacific wrasse take charge and then, in the East Pacific, butterfly and angelfish are common cleaners.
The basic deal remains the same, however. The client fish get cleaned of parasites, dead skin and loose scales, while the cleaners get a free meal and don’t get eaten.
A curious problem that scientists have is showing that cleaning actually makes any difference to the health of the reef community. Perhaps it doesn’t, or maybe their experiments just can’t resolve it? It's surprisingly hard to tell.
Whatever the case, as soon as we go diving we can see that cleaners and clients are most willing partners.
Even if an Indo-Pacific damselfish is put in an aquarium with a Caribbean goby, they will soon strike up a cleaning relationship.
And we can even persuade cleaner shrimps, cleaning gobies and cleaner wrasse to give us a manicure.
They will even volunteer to hop inside a dive-guide’s mouth – I’m sure you’ve seen pictures.

THE KEY TO getting great natural cleaning photos is to learn that hardest diving skill of all. We don’t need to go deep, dive sidemount or reverse-fin, but we do need to stay still and watch. Behaviours will reveal themselves much more quickly to our lens when our presence is not an intrusion.
Perfect buoyancy control and slow, smooth breathing are essentials.
The good news is that finding cleaning stations is usually simple. The largest stations are typically located on or near a prominent topographic feature, like a coral outcrop.
A queue of client fish is usually the give-away or, if you have sharp eyes, you may also see the bobbing dance of a cleaner wrasse or the beating antennae of a shrimp trying to attract custom.
However, if we rush in, we’ll disturb the behaviour and it will be a long wait for it to start again.
Getting up close and personal with a cleaner usually means distancing ourselves from the noise of group diving.
Loose buddy-team diving is my preference. Then we should approach slowly, settle in, move as little as possible and be relaxed in our breathing.
Dive-site choice can make a difference too. I often plan and shoot behaviour on check-out or training-dive sites.
The resident fish will be used to divers, and if we don’t thrash about we’re accepted quickly. And even if we’re not interested in the behaviour, these cleaning station are the best place to catch fish portraits, because fish are particular approachable there.

CLEANING IMAGES have an interest factor that makes them compelling, especially to non-divers. They also generate a feel-good factor, implying that the photographer was able to closely observe natural behaviour and was not harassing the wildlife. But planning some stand-out compositions will raise them higher still.
The wow factor of cleaning behaviour is the incongruous association between two very different creatures: a crustacean cleaning a fish, a tiny wrasse among the teeth of a moray, or a freshwater sunfish cleaning a manatee. The juxtaposition adds drama to our pictures.
The next rule for jaw-droppers is that the bigger the mouth and the bigger the teeth the better. The more apparently perilous the pose, with a small and vulnerable cleaner happily going about its business between the cavernous jaws and glistening teeth, the more powerful the picture.
For this reason, client fish such as morays and grouper should always get our attention.
With more average reef fish, we should consider other options.
A favourite solution of mine is to find an attractive natural pattern in the scales of the client fish and wait for the cleaner to come into the shot.
These compositions catch the eye because of the pleasing colours or textures of the frame, but they hold the viewers’ attention when they “discover” the cleaner, giving a delayed payoff.
If clients are large and charismatic, such as mantas and sharks, it works best to frame them fully.
A barberfish against the solid grey flank of a shark is not as impressive a photo as one that shows the entire scalloped hammerhead! Wide-angle lenses are best here.
And finally, as with any behaviour shot, we must catch the peak of the action. In most cases it's best to focus literally and figuratively on the cleaner, catching it at moments when it is either actively cleaning or reappearing from the mouth or gill of the client.
Avoid shooting when the cleaner is blocking the eye or other key features of the client.
We should also look to catch client poses that communicate that something is happening: clients do everything from hanging vertical, to yawning, to blushing.
Capturing cleaning requires us to slow down and go beyond looking and really see. Taking time to stop, think and consider your photography is a valuable skill, not just for behaviour shots but one that will benefit all your underwater photography.

A little knowledge goes a long way, but to get started it doesn't have to be yours. Ask a dive-guide to point out a cleaning station, and then try to spot more.
A queue of client fish milling around a coral head is usually the best sign. The best photo opportunities come when you find behaviours yourself, rather than as part of a group.

Once settled in at a cleaning station, stay there and make the most of the opportunity. The hard part is being accepted, so don’t waste it.
Don’t just shoot one interaction and move on. Instead, wait for the client fish to change, and even bag portraits of other species queuing up.

Longer lenses suit behaviour photography, giving subjects a bit more personal space. A long macro lens, such as a 100/105mm or even 150mm, is a great option on an SLR.
Because of the longer shooting distance, you should push the strobes out wider to reduce backscatter, and open the aperture to help the strobe light to carry to the subject.


Frame a pleasing pattern from the client fish and then wait for the cleaner to accent the composition. Taken with a Nikon D4 and Sigma 150mm. Subal housing. 2 x Inon Z240. ISO 200, 1/320th @ f/29.

A cleaner wrasse emerges from the mouth of a sweetlips. Taken with a Nikon D7100 and Nikon 105mm. Subal housing. 2 x Inon Z240. ISO 200, 1/100th @ f/8.

With patience you can approach cleaning very closely. Here I could fill the frame with a fisheye.

Taken with a Nikon D7100 and Tokina 10-17mm. Subal housing. 2 x Inon Z240. ISO 200, 1/30th @ f/16.