Take A Better Fishy Photo!
I’ve got one very good pal who, when he fishes, is completely disinterested in recording his catches in any fashion. He doesn’t take photos or video. He loathes social media, never sends (or reads!) texts, and barely even picks up the phone to report his successes without being prodded to do so.
Honestly? I envy him.
Most of the rest of us live in a world where we feel irresistibly compelled to relive our triumphs and seek that oh-so addictive shot of affirmation from our peers, to prove our claims and provide a sizzle-reel of…well… our sizzling reels!
Ok...so that old trick doesn't always work...
Sometimes, we can be so consumed with grabbing digital memories that we end up viewing the whole event through a small viewfinder or HD screen…forgetting that the ultimate ‘RL’ Ultra-Ultra High Definition version (with additional “4-senses technology”, and recorded on evolution’s best ever bio-hard-drive) is actually happening right on the other side of that phone or camera we’re holding!
Taking it too far...maybe...but its great to get a good shot in the end!
And if you’re going to go to all that effort, juggling kit, desperately trying to find something to wipe your hands on, risking the loss of that fish in the meantime (come on – we’ve all done it), whilst potentially mixing expensive electronics with water, then you at least need to get a decent shot out of it.
So if you’re a master of the headless portrait, the blurred grip-n-grin, or the ‘rods growing out of somebody’s ears’ school of photography, then read on – I might just be able to help you!
Now, I’m not a professional photographer. There’s plenty of people out there who can take incredible shots, with amazing kit, and I’m envious of them. (If you want to see some of the best fishing photography ever, subscribe to Catch Magazine ( www.catchmagazine.net ), edited and curated by Todd Moen; It’s beautiful, evocative, gives me terrible wanderlust, and is worth every penny of the modest annual fee.)
I have however had a decent amount of angling photo’s published; I write articles, and good accompanying images can make the difference between getting published or not. I’ve also had a great many of my images used to illustrate other people’s articles too, and even a couple of cover-shots over the years. It doesn’t make me an expert, but if I can turn out a few shots that make it past the editor’s critical eye, then at least I can pass on a sprinkle of tips that seem to work for me. After all, there’s certainly nothing wrong with the staple ‘grip’n’grin’, but, with a few tweaks, you can elevate your piscatorial Pap-shots into something that’ll attract a whole lot more Likes!
Pictures paint a thousand words... or at least help illustrate them
News-flash: Cameras generally don’t like water! Big surprise…not. I’ve got a half decent Digital SLR and a few lenses…and I have never taken them fishing, because I wish to continue that state of affairs. It’s bad enough exposing them to weather, mud, slime and river water etc, but for at least half the year, my fishing (and wading) is in a saltwater environment, which ups the ante considerably. Salt water and sand really can spell doom to the wrong kit.
Always a risk...My last iphone spent an hour and a half on the bottom of the Test after taking photos, buried in the silt. Only my daughter's eagle eye saved it...and amazingly it still worked!
Most of my fishy-photo needs are therefore met by a waterproof ‘rugged’ compact digital camera. If you can invest in one, my advice is do so. I’ve had a few over the years, and they do (inadvertently) take a bit of a beating – certainly enough accidental abuse to have killed off many less robust cameras for sure. My current go-to is an Olympus Tough TG4 (it’s a few years old now and in fact the TG6 is now out). For fishing, snorkelling, shallow diving etc it’s been absolutely brilliant and has repeatedly captured some great images, especially when wading.
Stalking the flats for mullet on the South Coast
Of course, these days, most people are carrying around pretty capable cameras all-day, every day, in the form of their phones. Do I use mine? Yes…actually I do. With a few caveats – and we’ll get on to that.
There could be much debate on which camera or phone-camera’s best, and one can get lost in a myriad of pixel counts and colour-reproduction arguments, but the fact is all of them can take a good photo. Or not. Because ultimately they’re only ever going to be as good as the operator; a 5-year old phone can end up capturing a way better image than a £500 top-of-the-line rugged compact IF the person taking the shots with the phone gets the principals right, whilst the flashy camera is just pointed …and clicked.
So whilst having a good camera definitely helps (and I’d certainly recommend getting the best you can) it’s not going to magically transform your shots on its own, and shouldn’t dissuade you from having a go with what you’ve got. That’s going to be up to you.
Let there be light…
The very act of Photography itself is capturing an instant of light reflecting off and passing through the world around us, so it’s a pretty important ingredient to getting a decent shot. Fishing photos are invariably taken outside, and have to contend lots of complications; stark changes between light and shade, extremes of brightness (and indeed darkness), reflections and so on.
Photos taken in sunshine will naturally always look so much better than those taken on an overcast day – shadows, colours, reflections - all those add texture to the shot and are enhanced in sunshine. What’s more, those taken in the first half of a sunny morning or later afternoon/evening will always look better than those taken in midday sun, which can look ‘flat’ and harsh. So if you want to take some scenic shots, bear that in mind.
Of course, there’s not much you can do to control when that fish hits your line, but there are a few things you can do to take advantage of the light there is.
If the sun is shining, use it wisely! Try wherever possible to take the photo with the direction of the sunlight coming from behind you; that will illuminate your subject better and if it’s someone holding their trophy bass, try to avoid casting your shadow into the shot (see “Background Knowledge”) or losing the anglers face in deep shadow under a hat or cap-brim.
Use the sun and make the fish the star of the show (Sorry Ade!)
Taking a photo with the sun behind your subject can be very effective if you’re intending to get a silhouette shot, but it can otherwise leave you with a glaring background and a dark, shadowy figure with no discernible detail if you didn’t mean it! You can correct this by using the flash on the camera or phone (what’s called ‘infill’) and this will help eliminate those pesky shadows but can leave the lighting looking a little artificial.
Current generation digital cameras often have a setting called HDR (High Dynamic Range). With this switched on, the camera uses software to ‘even-out’ the differences between the darkest and lightest areas of the shot. It’s pretty good, and will help… but it’s not fool proof.
Using light to create silhouettes can give photos 'mood'
This is when you need to understand a little about how your particular camera works and either adjust the exposure in-shot until you get the right light/dark balance in the picture (which you can visibly do in real-time on most smartphone cameras) or, with a compact camera, you ‘meter’ the exposure and lock it in on the section of the shot that’s important.
This requires picking a setting in the cameras Exposure menu, usually best served by either ‘centre weighted’ or ‘spot’ metering. This means the camera measures the light in the centre portion of the image (or indeed very specific spot in the middle) that you focus the camera on. At this point a half-press of the shutter-button can lock that exposure setting in (usually along with the focus). If you keep the button half-pressed you can then re-frame your shot slightly before pushing it all the way to take the shot and still perfectly expose that grinning-like-a-loon-whilst-clutching-your-first-pacific-Chum-Salmon expression!
People sometimes talk about someone ‘having a bit of an eye’ for taking a good photo. What they really mean is the image in someway stands out, or ‘looks better’. That’s generally more to do with what’s in the shot and where (or it’s ‘composition’) than any technical wizardry, so it’s pretty easy to learn a few basics to improve that. When you’re framing your photo, just before you press that button, take a second or two to draw your eye away from the specific subject of your shot (your beaming fishing pal cradling his personal best Coelacanth) and just take a look at the whole image – a few tweaks here could make a world of difference.
There are some well established rules in photography for composing a better shot and much of it is to do with the way the eye and brain process images. One of the core principals is something called the ‘rule of thirds’.
This is super-simple, but it’s amazing how it can improve the impact of a photo. In essence, take a look at the image in the view-finder or on the screen, and imagine that rectangle like a noughts & crosses game, with two lines splitting it into equal thirds both vertically and horizontally. In fact, most cameras (and smartphones) have a setting which will actually do that for you, superimposing those lines on what you see before you take the shot (don’t worry, they don’t appear on the final photo!). Now, try and align the subject of your photos (or key elements, like face, eye, horizon, standing person, etc) along one or more of those lines. The points where they intersect are the points which will carry most impact in a photo, so placing something with appeal (a setting sun perhaps, or the eye of a fish) at one of those points will greatly emphasise that element. For example, this snap, taken years ago of my god-son catching his first wrasse; It’s not a Pulitzer Prize contender, and it’s at least 13 years old and that makes it an ideal example; it’s following this basic rule and is a simple snap that anyone could take. The key elements of the photo are him, my daughter and the fish. They are all perfectly aligned with those invisible ‘thirds’ lines, with my god-son’s face and the eye of that handsome Ballan Wrasse pretty much bang on the intersections.
A Simple illustration of the 'rule of thirds'
It doesn’t have to be extact, and sometimes you only have to pick just one element of the shot to fall under the rule-of-thirds (perhaps the water surface on the horizontal plane -one or to thirds up from the bottom…never dead in the middle… or perhaps standing angler on the vertical ‘thirds’ line on the left). Essentially just moving away from putting everything dead-centre on a photo will greatly improve how interesting they are to look at.
Get some perspective!
Something else that really helps people to ‘connect’ with a two dimensional image is an element of scale. Let me explain.
I stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon a few years back, and it was so unimaginably huge that I couldn’t really process it. In fact it’s interesting that when the first Spanish Conquistadors to reach the canyon looked down into it, they wrote it off as of little consequence because it was so unbelievably outside their field of experience that they just couldn’t compute it!
From a photography point of view, simply aiming a camera into that vast void in the landscape resulted in a flat, impact-less image. It’s not until you stick something in the foreground (the rim of the canyon, perhaps a gnarled pine tree and a person) that all of a sudden the sense of scale starts to come alive! Add a distant plane flying down the canyon below you and it leaps again into jaw-dropping territory!
Ok, so most of us won’t be fishing in the Grand Canyon (I did have a look – boy was it expensive!) but even a little bit of perspective adds depth – and interest – to your shots. You can do that in a couple of simple ways.
Firstly, ‘something in the foreground, something in the background’ works pretty well. Obviously you’ve got the back-drop to the photo (landscape or waterscape etc) but take advantage of what might sit between your main subject and that back-drop. It could be some dramatic driftwood in the foreground, your mate stood in the middle distance, rod bent double, and behind him, further out, a lighthouse on the horizon.
Secondly, use ‘diagonals’. If you take a photo of a long, dead-straight road, looking directly down it, the edges of the road slant-in diagonally on the photo towards a ‘vanishing point’. That ‘leads the eye’ in to the photo. That principal can work really well in guiding your eye from the foreground into the distance where your subject may be, and again it really enhances the sense of depth in the image.
Diagonals draw the eye in...
The elevation of your shot can make a big difference with perspective too, either increasing or diminishing it’s effect. Experiment a little; take a few shots from different heights.
Get in there!
Perhaps it’s a British thing, but we’re reluctant to get into people’s personal space. Fortunately, as far as we’re aware, fish don’t have any concept of personal space per-se, so get in there! Right in there! Closer!
Go oooon....get in there! If your camera has the option, switch to a wide angle view whilst really close up – the results can be great!
Fish have some beautiful and extraordinary features, and deserve to be the stars of the show. The average grip’n’grin shot doesn’t do them justice…they deserve better! Get the lens right in as close as it will go before it’s unable to focus (use a ‘macro’ setting if your camera has one), and concentrate of the features that really pop – skin colours, lateral lines, scales, dorsal fins, eyes, teeth…whatever. Don’t get stuck on the idea that you have to get the whole fish in, sideways-on all the time, or that all the focus must be on it’s head. Change-up the angles and get creative!
Focus in on the detail - stunning! This was a fin-perfect, 100% wild rainbow from the Derbyshire Wye
Close-ups can be really effective
Get down! (How low can you go)
Most people take photos from a standing position for no other reason than they don’t think about doing anything else. In fact, getting down low can add a really interesting perspective to fishing photos and can often help you get your subject framed fully and in a way more impactful fashion. Getting your camera just above the water can also lend a wonderful sense of both depth and the environment to your photos. So, don’t be afraid to get on your knees or to hold the camera just above the water’s surface for your shots – just be careful not to drop your phone in!
A Thin-Lipped Mullet, cradled before release
Hey, if your camera’s waterproof, go even lower – you paid for that feature, you might as well use it! Underwater shots can be fantastic and pointing the camera back up slightly can be cool too. Just be really sure a. your camera IS fully waterproof and b. you sealed all the little doors on it where the battery and memory card go in!
Clear water certainly helps! These Cuban bonefish were very obliging!
How many times have you or your fishing buddy cued up the shot, only for that slippery little beggar to flip out of the hands at the last second, resulting in a blurred fish-juggling photo? Or you carefully lay the fish out artistically next to your rod when you’re on your own, as quickly as you can so as to get a shot and return it, only for it to energetically somersault backwards out of frame at the instant you press the shutter button! All too common. It’s rare that your catch will be in a compliant mood for the benefit of your Facebook album, so tip the odds of a good shot in your favour – use ‘burst mode’!
All digital cameras and camera phones have a mode that will continuously take shots for as long as you hold the shutter-button. Many will take shots only a fraction of a second apart, so you can end up with 40 or 50 in no time…but the beauty is you just pick the good ones and bin the rest!
It took 30 or 40 burst shots to finally get this bass and mullet perfectly in the frame as they fed in the shallows
It sidesteps that issue of desperately trying to hit the button at exactly the right time. It’s also really good for action shots too – perhaps playing a fish, or casting from rocks as spray ricochets upwards in the foreground as waves crash. Capturing an instant, often too fast for the eye to have even registered, can result in some fantastic and memorable images.
You can also come at this from another angle; take video and lift single frames from it. Generally the resolution won’t be as clear, but for most digital media the images won’t be viewed in a large enough format for that to be an issue. Picking a single frame can result in some priceless ‘natural’ moments and expressions!
Video frame capture - there's the face of a man who's just caught his 'PB' wild 'bow!
Whilst photobombing wildlife or humorously placed fishing tackle might raise a chuckle, it might not be the desired effect you were looking for in that crucial (or even once-in-a-lifetime) shot.
With the focus of your attention being the object of your shot, it’s so, so easy to simply not notice what else is in (or about to come into) the frame. Again, just try to get in the habit of taking that extra moment or two before you commit, to allow your eye to have a quick wander around what you see in the viewfinder or screen, and try to view it as a photo. And just lift your eye away altogether too and take a look about…You may not want the mooning pillock on a jet-ski cannoning into view in the background. Or you may. Who am I to judge!
And a warning too…
One of the things about our predilection for taking endless photos and selfies these days is that, as an angler, you could be inadvertently broadcasting super-sensitive information. Post reams of shots of your awesome catches with no thought to what you’re showing in the background, and you’re running a very serious risk of going to your favourite mark next time and finding that it’s utterly over-run…and possibly ruined forever.
I’ve seen it happen again and again, and the prolific poster often complains bitterly and says they can’t understand it, when they have to look no further than their Instagram page to find the reason.
It’s a sobering warning.
So if you are nonetheless wanting to take photos, but also want to protect that mark you’ve spent so long working out, take great care on what sits in the background! Obvious landmarks, jetties, cliffs, skylines, even moored boat names, can all be an utter giveaway. If you want to take a photo of a pal with his catch, get him to kneel down whilst you take the photo standing. Ok, not as interesting, but by angling the camera downwards, you can remove all the background from the shot.
One other approach, providing there’s nothing too obvious in the background, is to use the Portrait or ‘Bokeh’ mode/setting on your camera. This deliberately blurs the background to emphasise the subject in the foreground – not only useful, but actually a really nice effect too!
The 'Bokeh' effect helps blur out the background
Keep ‘em wet
Finally a word about the handling of fish whilst photographing them. Over the years the respect with which anglers treat fish has improved massively, and continues to do so. The less handling a fish receives the better, and the less time out of water, even more so. In the USA, there’s a movement called ‘Keep ‘Em Wet’, which is trying to educate anglers to keep their fish in the water for that trophy shot. It’s not always possible, especially if you’re on your own, but if you can, try to do so, and whatever you do, treat the fish gently and with care, get the shot as fast as you can and get it back in the water and away.
A stunning, wild Derbyshire Wye rainbow trout
Of course, I speak as a primarily catch & release angler, but if you’re going to keep some of your catch, take the photo quickly either before (or immediately after) dispatching your catch. Don’t distress the fish and don’t take photos of stiff-as-a-board dull, dry fish four hours after you’ve caught them – it’s simply not a good photo.
Its rare that a photo is that bang-on that it doesn't need a tweak or two afterwards. In fact, some simple editing afterwards on your phone, tablet or computer can make a huge difference and you can sometimes salvage a superb photo hidden away within a less impressive (indeed, sometimes awful) one!
The single most effective tool in simple photo editing is 'Cropping'. That's simply trimming the photo to include the bits you want, and exclude the bits you don't. If your composition missed the mark, it's easy to trim and nudge the image about so that your key elements now fall neatly onto those oh-so important 'thirds' lines.
The original shot here was twice as wide - zooming in and cropping away leaves a far better picture, putting all the focus on your subject
Sometimes a picture exists within a picture; try zooming in on sections and see what it reveals. Digital camera resolutions are now high enough to give you the ability to zoom in a fair bit in an image before it starts to become fuzzy. You can then fill the frame with your subject and thats really useful when you weren't able to get physically close enough.
Of course, you can get creative too. Try not to 'over-process' an image (over-boosting contrast or colour can make your photo look 'unreal' and unpleasant) but some of the 'filters' or special effects in editing software can be fun to play with. Monochrome (black & white) can at times be really effective. Have fun with it.
Most editing software retains the original image, so if you go too far, or don't like what you've done, you can simply restore the original image with no harm done. If you're not sure, take a copy of the original and tuck it away on your computer or back it up just in case...better safe than sorry!
That’s it – if your fishing snaps are somewhat sad, follow the above advice and you’ll begin to see shots that could grace the cover of your favourite fishing mag in no time!
Oh…a ‘P.S.’ too:
Attach your camera or phone to you with a lanyard.
I look like a four year-old whose mittens are attached by elastic through his sleeves these days - Everything is attached. Why? I dropped my top of the range iPhone in the Test without realising and spent and hour and a half looking for it. I trod my second compact camera into the bed of an estuary and had to locate and dig it out. My go-pro is still floating around off the coast of Bali somewhere. I lost my wallet forever whilst wading to look at bonefish in Cuba…with a week’s worth of guiding money in it. And I dropped my beloved Leatherman down a well-used chemical toilet. (Thankfully, I got a couple of those things back at least. The last one really wasn’t pleasant though…)