The basics: fishing photography tips and techniques

When fishing, I am often so focused on trying to catch fish that I forget to take photos. This seems to be a fairly common experience among my friends and we often get home at the end of a memorable day with just that: memories. The best days are often the ones we can all remember, and a few good photos help to capture the essence of an experience. The best days are generally the ones when you catch the most or the biggest fish, and in the heat of the moment it’s easy to forget to pull the camera out. In this post, I’ll explore the fundamentals of fishing photography in the hope that when you do pull the camera out, you’ll end up with some decent shots. I also want to discuss a few different cameras (perhaps with some input from other contributors on this blog) and briefly touch on shooting videos.

Just a quick note: as with any kind of composition or creativity, much of whether is it ‘good’ or not is subjective. Different people will prefer different things, so I need to drill home the message that my suggestions are by no means prescriptive. They won’t work for everyone and you need to find your own style and ideas. I’m certainly no expert, but believe that with a few basic skills and the most basic of cameras, you can produce photos worthy of hanging on the walls. So, before you take the next fishing photo, you should ask yourself a few basic questions.

What is the subject?

This is one of the most important questions in fishing photography, and probably the one that is most often screwed up. Generally the subject is the fish. This sounds simple, but so often the subject is intended to be the fish but ends up being something else, like a caravan park in the background, a huge expanse of ocean, some fishy fingers and so on. In a good fish-shot, where the fish is intended to be the subject, the fish should take up a significant proportion of the frame or at least be in stark contrast to the background. Other things that help ensure the fish is the subject is if you tilt the fishes head slightly towards the camera and always make sure you focus on the eye of the fish. Even if the rest of the fish is out of focus, it will always look good if the eye is in focus. It also helps if the fish is big, as it will be easier to make it the subject. One other thing is to ensure that the fish is clean. Fish covered in blood, sand and dirt don’t look as good as clean fish scales glistening in the sun.

Here’s a fishing photo. The fish is quite small in the total picture and the subject (the fish) shares the limelight with the angler. Additionally, the horizon isn’t straight, which is more difficult than it sounds when you’re trying to think about everything else! The image shows the gear that was used and the fill flash has been used to illuminate the fish. There is also some of the environment being shown. Far from perfect, but not bad.

Do I want to show how the fish was caught?

For fishing magazines, editors seem to prefer photos that show what sort of gear the fish was caught on. It also makes sense from a posterity perspective, as you’ll be able to use the photo as a reference for how you caught that fish. This is generally more applicable to lure fishing than bait fishing. If you can, hold your rod somewhere so the reel is clearly displayed. If practical, leave the lure in the fishes mouth and make sure it’s clearly displayed.

Do I want to show the happy angler?

A grinning angler is nice and can make for a really good shot, but often photographers treat the angler, and not the fish, as the subject. Try to think about whether or not it’s important that the whole angler is displayed in the photo. Once again, if you need to make a trade off between the fish or the angler being in focus, it should almost always be the fish. One other thing: while it’s implicit in most photos of anglers holding fish that they are happy, it does help to smile.

Do I want to show the environment in which the fish was caught?

Showing the environment in which a fish was caught is arguably far more important than showing the grinning angler, depending of course on why you are taking the photo. A great standard fishing photo will show the fish as the main subject, the gear it was caught on, the happy angler and the environment. It can often be pretty tricky to get all four elements, and there are almost always some tradeoffs, but it’s great when they come together.

I really like this shot, taken by Grazza. It shows the fish, angler and gear clearly and has a spectacular backdrop. The fish is well lit up due to the use of the fill flash. However, there are still some elements that could be improved. It would be better had I taken my sunnies off and the fish was held a little straighter. If the shot was portrait oriented, it would be possible to hold the fish so that it filled more of the frame, instead of the fish and angler competing. Nonetheless, if you think about how this fish would have been caught in these conditions and on this gear, you get the feeling it was a lot of fun! The photo tells a story: These big tailor were producing bow-waves behind our lures, fished quickly near the surface. The bow-wave would appear, followed by an audible explosion of whitewater. Fun fishing.

This is a good shot where the fish is the main subject but you can still see how happy the angler is. It shows the lure the fish was caught on. The use of flash has helped illuminate the shadows, for example under the angler’s hat and inside the fish’s mouth. However, the backdrop is a bit messy and it doesn’t show the environment in which this lovely tailor was caught. Added to this, the camera has actually focused on the angler, not the fish.

Just to reiterate, there is no right or wrong way to do it. Some of the best fishing photos won’t even be of fish. The silhouette of the angler standing on the beach at sunset, the sea eagle’s claws dripping with blood as it clasps the mullet in a spray of water, the look of disgust on your mates face after he loses his first jewfish, a seagull eyeing off your pilchards…all of these could make great shots that capture the essence of fishing.

Spend a few sunrises and sunsets fishing and taking photos like this becomes the norm

So far I’ve covered the basics of fishing photo composition, but now it’s important to have a look at some of the other things you need to think about and learn how to use to your advantage.

Light

Light can make or break a photo and is the fundamental ingredient of all photography. In low-light situations, photography is generally more difficult. You can use a flash, but often a flash will only illuminate the immediate vicinity. Bright sun can also present so challenges.

Generally, it’s best to have the sun behind you when taking portraits. This is so that the subject is illuminated and that shadows are minimised. Bright sun causes shadows to appear dark in many photographs, so it can pay to have the angler take off their hat and sunglasses so that you can see their eyes.

Hamish with a nice snapper. Tilting the fish’s head towards the camera can help draw the eye to the fish, which should be the main subject. This shot would be improved if the horizon was straight (not easy on a rocking boat) and possibly if taken in a portrait orientation. Overcast days have more diffuse light, which is why, in the absence of the use of flash, you can see definition in the shadows in this shot.

If getting the sun behind you is impractical due to some of the other factors I’ve talked about already (e.g. wanting to include some of the environment), you can use things around you to reflect or manipulate light. For example, you could use a white esky lid to reflect light, or similarly move onto a patch of sand instead of grass to get more light onto your subject. It will take a while to start noticing these things you can use, but once you start thinking about light, it will come naturally.

Learn about how to manipulate exposure on your camera. Even the most basic of digital cameras these days enable you to semi-depress the button and ‘set’ the exposure of the image on the object the camera is pointing at. So, if you’re getting a nice colourful background and a black silhouette of fish and angler in the foreground, try moving closer to the angler, aiming the camera at them, semi-depressing the shutter button, then returning to your original place. The important thing here is to play around with this. It might not seem useful at first but is a small trick I use often to manipulate light.

Even the most basic point and click digital cameras these days have the ability to manually change the exposure of the photographs you are taking. Look for + and – symbols and you won’t be too far off. Essentially this just gives you the ability to make your shots lighter or darker, so if you think they’re one or the other, try this and see if it helps.

The nicest light of the day is at sunrise and sunset. If you spend enough time fishing and taking photographs at these times, you will invariably get some great shots.

Night shots and very low-light situations will often require the use of a tripod to get clear shots. This will enable you to manually manipulate exposure (i.e. how wide the shutter opens and for how long). Not many fishing shots will neccessiate the use of a tripod; it’s more appropriate for landscapes and sky shots in low light (or night) situations. If you don’t have a tripod, look for objects around you to stabilise the camera. These may include a railing, rock, table, top of a post or simply the ground.

Flash

The use of flash is sometimes poorly understood. Many people only see it as a useful thing at night, but it can be incredibly handy during the day, particularly in overcast and bright situations. It highlights the subject and brings the subject out of the background. On bright sunny days, it can be used very effectively to illuminate shadows, for example under hat brims.

Depth of field

Depth of field is a great thing to be able to manipulate, but is a little more difficult to do with a point and click digital camera as opposed to a DSLR or hybrid. Macro modes don’t need to be used ridiculously close to the subject, and will produce good effects with depth of field. Some top of the range cameras enable you to manipulate depth of field after the image is taken, which is pretty amazing. In a few years this sort of thing may be the norm.

On a DSLR, you will be able to manipulate depth of field easily. Generally a large aperture (or small F-stop number) will blur the background, giving you a shallow depth of field. A small aperture (i.e. large F-stop number) will give you a far deeper depth of field, meaning that your background should all be in focus.

Multi-shot

Different cameras will have different names for this, but the ability to shoot 3 or more shots in quick succession can be useful when you really want to get a top shot. This is particularly handy when taking action shots like birds diving or fish jumping.

Filters

I have recently purchased a polarised filter to fit on the D7000, and would strongly recommend it if you want to take photos of fish in the water. It also seems to bring out definition in clouds and sky and looks great when taking wide angle shots with a fair bit of sky in them.

Other tips

Get the camera out often. Photograph EVERY fish. Also take photos of your environment. Landscapes and macros (close-ups) are also great. Most importantly, take heaps and heaps of photos. You can delete the bad ones later.

Cameras

All of the photos in this post were taken on an Olympus waterproof/shockproof camera I bought about 3 years ago. It’s been excellent in terms of its durability. The ability to take underwater photos and videos and wash it at the end of the day has been fantastic. However, the image quality and lens is not great. Many of the shots are over- or under-exposed, sometimes the camera gets confused about what to focus on and other times it gets a mind of its own and switches between modes, the lens cover doesn’t close and turns itself on and off randomly. Added to this, some of the labels have worn off. Regardless of these downfalls, it has been a cool camera, and I’ll keep using it when I upgrade. If anything, having a camera with an average lens and image quality has forced me to learn how to manipulate features and think about light, so it hasn’t been such a bad thing.

Having a camera that you can keep in your pocket and use with one hand is obviously desirable when fishing, but you simply won’t get the quality and versatility you can get with a DSLR or hybrid. Hamish recently got a great little Panasonic hybrid that produces lovely shots*, with great clarity, colour saturation and depth of field. However, it’s more fragile that something like the utough, so doesn’t come out as much as it should. This is where you need to be dedicated.

At the other end of the scale are some nice DSLRs like the Nikon D7000. This is hopefully what I’m going to get. The lens is probably more important than the camera itself, and I’m hoping to get the 18-200mm lens to give a bit of versatility. It won’t be a tele lens by any stretch of the imagination, but my eyes aren’t that great any more so at least I won’t know what I’m missing! These cameras are basically little computers designed to help even the most uncoordinated amateur take good shots.

*Just an aside here: There’s the old adage that it’s not the camera that takes the photo, it’s the photographer. However, the recent advent of poor quality, cheap digital cameras has turned the tide in the camera’s favour, and a good camera will generally take better photos than a poor quality camera. In saying this, Hamish is a good photographer!

Videos

When shooting videos there are a few important things to remember. Firstly, hold the camera still. Nothing worse than thinking you’ve got a great vid of a trophy fish, then getting sea sick when you’re watching the footage. Secondly, make sure the wind isn’t howling past the microphone on the camera, because it usually creates a loud crackle that overpowers everything else. You can use you hand or your body to create a shield. Apart from that, just try to show a bit of charisma.

Conclusions

I hope this article has given you a few ideas about how to improve your basic fishing photography skills. To reiterate the main points, ask yourself what you are photographing, what do you want to show and what is the light situation. Also think about different ‘types’ of photos – for example portraits, landscapes and macro photography – and then try to mix them together and see the results. But first and foremost, get the camera out and start clicking away. Don’t be afraid to get in close to the subject. Try different angles, settings and modes, experiment with the flash and semi-depress functions and learn what the camera actually does.  In doing so, you’ll not only have some great shots of your time on the water, but might develop a keen interest and skill in another one of the many interesting facets that makes this love of ours so great.

A good fishing photo…the fish is the subject, happy angler, some of the background and a nice straight horizon

Lee, September 2011

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