Fly Fishing Photography - A Pro Offers Tips For Great Photos
By Frank Wood
There is a symbiotic relationship between fly-fishing and photography. I suspect that as long as cameras have been around, someone has been taking pictures of their catch. And yet if all you take is 'fin and grin' shots, you're missing out. Photography gives us the chance to document what our sport is all about, and then share the experience with others. As a writer, it is often difficult to explain my passion for fly-fishing to those that don't do it. Pictures are able to portray it in a way that a thousand words can't. And isn't that what it's all about?
Film vs. Digital
The argument over film versus digital has been simmering since digital cameras burst onto the scene in 1991. To say that the digital camera has revolutionized photography is an understatement. One only has to briefly visit such popular sites as Facebook or YouTube to experience the proliferation of digital images into mainstream culture.
To state it simply, there really is no reason to shoot film anymore. As little as 8 years ago, digital cameras could not match film cameras in resolution, contrast, and saturation. This is no longer the case. In fact, digital cameras are now able to exceed the capabilities of their film counterparts. If you want to have the most flexibility for photography, don't consider anything less than a DSLR.
Lenses and Accessories
Just like in fly-fishing, there is no shortage of accessories available for the photographer. You took the first step by purchasing your camera. Now you need to get those items that will not only protect your investment, but also increase its capabilities.
If your camera does come with a memory card, chances are it will only be able to hold a dozen images at your camera's highest resolution. 1 or 2 GB cards are nice for starting out. If your camera has an 8 mega pixel sensor, you'll be able to get approximately 250 jpeg images on a 1 GB card. If you routinely shoot in RAW format, you'll only be able to hold around 150.
Although NiMH and lithium-ion batteries deliver excellent performance and work well under varying conditions, it is not reasonable to expect that one set will do. At the very minimum, you should carry 2 sets. Purchasing a third battery will allow you to have 1 in the camera, 1 fully charged ready to go, and 1 in the charger at any given time.
A camera bag is one of the best investments you'll make. The issue is in finding one that compliments your fly-fishing gear. A fanny-pack style of bag will often work well with a full sized fly-fishing vest or vest pack. The drawbacks to this type of bag are that you are limited in the amount of gear that you can carry, and that you need to be constantly aware of the depth of water you're in.
A backpack style of camera bag is ideal for the photographer, but often won't be compatible with your fly-fishing vest. However, if you use a chest pack, you can effectively combine the two. A third style of bag that is enjoying some popularity is the torso pack. It keeps the camera in a 'quick draw' position in front of you, and with some adjustments can work successfully with a vest pack.
You might as well face it, if you're going to get serious about you're photography you're going to need more than one lens. The second thing is that it's going to cost you to get them. Good quality lenses will take your pictures to the next level. If you can't afford the 'prime' lenses that Canon and Nikon make, you might want to look at other manufacturers such as Tamron and Sigma - which offer lenses at a lower price point.
You can cover most of your fly-fishing photography with three lens choices. They would be:
- Wide-angle zoom - 18mm to 55mm. Good for landscape shots
- Telephoto zoom – 55mm to 250mm. Good for people and most wildlife shots.
- Macro lens – 50mm. Although you can get them in other focal lengths, this lens can work both as a normal lens, and one with close-up focal qualities.
Filters give you the opportunity to produce better pictures in tough situations. There are really only two that I use regularly, they are: Circular polarizer. This filter is used to reduce glare and reflections, as well as helping to saturate colours. Graduated neutral-density filter. If you are going to shoot any landscapes at all – this is your secret weapon. Its main use is to bring the extreme contrasts in a scene under control – allowing you to maintain detail in both the shadows and highlights.
A tripod is the single most important accessory that you will own. They will keep your camera steady, thereby allowing you to compose your shots more effectively. Tripods also give you the ability to take pictures in low light conditions. As in lenses, good tripods are expensive – but well worth it. Typically they are made of either aluminium or carbon fibre. Aluminium tripods are heavier, but generally cheaper, less adjustable, and less stable. Those made of carbon fibre are usually more expensive, but are solid, and more adjustable.
Also keep in mind that the better tripods are just that – a tripod. You will also have to buy a head to go with it. Good brands for tripods to consider are Manfrotto and Gitzo.
Light is the basis of all photography. It is so important that professional photographers are constantly striving to control and manipulate it to suit their needs. This is because the different types of lighting and its associated qualities can drastically affect the character and mood in a picture. Knowing the effect that light has on a subject allows the photographer to get the best results.
- Bright sunlight
Bright sunlight is not ideal for most photographic situations. It is an unflattering light that creates pictures with high contrast, harsh shadows, and unwanted reflections. If you must shoot in this type of light, use a polarizing filter to add saturation, and cut down on the reflections. Also, the use of fill flash during these conditions will help fill in the shadows.
- Overcast light
Overcast light is good for creating moody and dramatic pictures. The light is soft and even, making it much easier to determine the correct exposure. This type of light is best used for close-up work, as opposed to grand sweeping landscapes. If you must include the sky in your pictures, limit it as much as possible.
- Front light
Front light is good for illuminating your subject, but on the flip-side it also reduces texture, contrast and form. Use this type of light when your subject has strong tones, or colour such as yellow sunflowers against a blue sky.
Sidelighting illuminates your subject while also adding texture and form. It is a good light to use, because it adds volume and depth to the subject. Strongly textured subjects, such as mountain landscapes show depth and detail best when using this lighting.
Backlighting is one of the most dramatic and exciting lights to work with. It can be used to silhouette, or at the other extreme - show the translucency of the subject. This is a type of light that can lend a mythical and unearthly feel to your pictures, but is difficult to expose properly.
Getting the proper exposure was always an issue for film photographers. The metering systems on most modern cameras offer several modes that are designed to get the best exposure for differing conditions. Typically these are:
- Center Weighted Average metering
In this mode, the camera measures light primarily from the center of the frame, and then averages it out for the rest of the picture. For most picture taking this will work well, but for subjects with strong backlighting (think person in front of a brightly lit window), the meter can often be tricked into thinking that there is too much light. This will result in the subject being underexposed.
- Matrix or Evaluative metering
This is the default metering mode on most DSLR's. In matrix or evaluative metering, the camera divides the viewfinder up into several segments, and then analyzes the lighting requirements for each segment. It then determines the proper exposure for the scene by comparing these requirements with a comprehensive database contained in the cameras own microchip.
- Spot or Partial metering
Is the most effective mode when the background is much brighter than the subject due to conditions such as strong backlighting. This mode uses a reading taken from a small circle in the center of the viewfinder.
Simply put, composition is an arrangement of elements within the picture. To be a successful photographer however, there is more to it than this. Our eyes are able to interpret a particular scene any way we wish, but a camera will only capture whatever is in the viewfinder at the point that the shutter is released. This means that we need to train ourselves to see as the camera does, and then present the elements in a way that captures this interpretation. This can be accomplished in several ways:
- Fill the Frame
The best way to remove distracting and unrelated elements is to isolate the subject and fill the frame with it. This focuses attention on the subject and makes for a stronger picture.
- The Rule of Thirds
The Rule of thirds is a formula for determining subject placement. Essentially, you divide the picture into three sections vertically and horizontally. The resulting lines and intersections become the places to position the important visual elements.
- Placing the Horizon
A frequent element in landscape pictures is the horizon line. The most common mistake is to place it in the middle of the frame. This leads to a static and boring picture that does little to engage the viewer. Instead place the horizon in either higher or lower in the frame. This can be used in conjunction with the rule of thirds. If the sky is more important, place the horizon in the bottom third. If the ground is more important, place the horizon in the upper third.
- Go Vertical
Most non-professional photographers shoot horizontally. By simply rotating the camera ninety degrees, you dramatically alter the feel of the picture. If you have any hopes of getting published one day, you'll need to take pictures vertically. This doesn't mean you need to abandon the horizontal shot. Some pictures such as landscapes and especially panoramas are better suited to this format.
- Angle of View
The angle at which you take your picture will influence how the subject is perceived by the viewer. Taking the picture from a high angle looking down often imparts a feeling of superiority over the subject. The effect is especially noticeable when photographing small animals. Instead, the photographer should try to take the picture from the subject's level. This usually leads to the most pleasing results. Don't overlook taking pictures from a low angle looking up. This makes the subject more dominant, and in some cases like photographing wildflowers – can lead to new perspectives.
- Using Lines
We find lines in practically all of our images. They are important design elements, as we can use them to lead the viewer though the picture. Curved lines, such as those found in wandering streams and roads can be effective in leading the eye through the whole picture. Leading Lines are those that draw the viewer's eye into the frame towards the subject. Converging lines, such as railway tracks, provide perspective.
Now that we've covered some of the principles of photography, it's time to consider what we should take pictures of. The short answer is – everything. To be practical however, we are trying to augment the fly fishing experience, not replace it. Some popular subjects include:
The fish shot makes up the majority of all fishing pictures taken. And yet, we are often disappointed with the way they turn out. This is because it isn't easy to reproduce the natural beauty of the fish, and the range of emotions you felt when you caught it.
There are several things you can do to improve your shots without placing undue stress on the fish while you take them. First off, have someone else take the picture. It is extremely difficult to hold the fish (without injuring it), while also taking the picture. With this in mind, after you've landed the fish keep it in the net and in the water until the photographer is ready to make the shot. When you get the word, lift the fish out of the net and allow the photographer to take a few shots. While the photographer is previewing his pictures, return the fish to the net. If necessary, repeat the process.
If you are the photographer taking the picture, there are a few things you need to do to prepare for the shot. First set up your tripod. Check to make sure that your auto focus is on, and that any custom settings from previous shots have been turned off. If at all possible, get the angler into a kneeling position in front of you. Have them take off their sunglasses, and tip up their hat ever so slightly. When you say ready, have the angler lift the fish and point its head slightly towards you. Fill the frame with the shot and take several pictures. Have the angler return the fish to the net and check your histogram. If shadows show up, repeat the shots only this time use fill flash.
Wildlife is an often overlooked photographic opportunity for fly-fishermen. To be a truly skilled wildlife photographer takes knowledge, skill, time, and commitment. That said you don't need to abandon your fly rod and spend your time in a blind to get more and better wildlife pictures. I am only suggesting that you be ready with your camera when the opportunity presents itself.
Wildlife photography is all about composition, and portraying them in their natural habitat. One thing to remember is to always respect the animal and its space. If the animal is moving away from you, don't chase it down for the shot. If it is stomping its feet, or showing other threatening signs – back off. With a little patience and some luck, you will be able to add this type of picture to your repertoire.
Sure, it's nice to see pictures of the fish I've caught over the years, but to me it is the people that I share the experience with, that are more important. It wasn't until I lost my mentor and fishing buddy that I came to realise this. Now I take pictures of my buds whenever possible. Successful people shots are a lot like wildlife shots. It's all about capturing the natural moment. Try to keep the camera at eye level, and capture as much of the face as possible. Taking truly candid shots is hard to do – and so there is always an element of posing required. Having said that, make sure your subject is engaged in an activity instead of thinking about holding a pose – and the picture will look more natural.
Action shots of people are some of the best, but they require that the photographer be prepared. Prior to taking the shot, the photographer should explore the various vantage points, check exposure and composition, prefocus, set the drive mode to continuous, and be ready when the action starts. Often timing is critical, and by doing all the preliminary work beforehand – you increase your chances of getting ‘the shot'.
If you plan to add landscape photography to your portfolio, there are really only two times of day to do this – Dawn and Dusk. Pros refer to these times as the Golden Light. That is because these are the times of day when you get soft, warm light without harsh shadows. Other than those two times, forget about shooting landscapes – and go fishing.
Landscape photography is all about composition. If you examine the work of the masters, you will see three common elements in their pictures: 1. a foreground. 2. A middle ground. 3. A background. When combined, these three elements balance the shot, and make it truly compelling. Also don't forget to add an angler into the picture. This not only provides a sense of scale to the picture, it also tells a story of why you were there in the first place.
When taking pictures with waterfalls in the background, an old trick for getting that silky smooth look to the water is to set the shutter speed for 1 to 2 seconds. In the resulting picture, the water will show movement, but everything else will look frozen in time.
Getting Sharper Pictures
As you get more serious about your photography, you'll find yourself studying the work of professionals. One of the first things you're likely to notice, is how sharply in focus their pictures are. The pros refer to this as tack sharp, and there is a combination of things that can be done to attain this. The most important of these, is using that tripod you bought previously. And not just in low light conditions, but all of the time. A tripod has one and only one purpose – to keep the camera steady.
Another tip for taking sharper photos is to use a remote or cable shutter release. This allows you to trip the camera's shutter without physically pressing the button yourself. This might seem a little lazy, but in truth – even pushing down the shutter release is enough to cause camera movement – which will result in picture with less sharpness. If you don't have a cable release, an option is to use the camera's self-timer. A timer keeps the camera from moving – which results in sharper pictures.
Use a good quality lens. Camera kits generally contain lenses of low to average quality. This is necessary in order to keep costs down. Good quality lenses are costly, but they are not only an investment, they also are that one step closer to the tack sharp image.
Use the zoom function on you camera to check for picture sharpness. At standard viewing, it is difficult to judge the sharpness of a picture on a 2" LCD screen, and most everything will look in focus. Also don't wait until you're out of the field before checking. Right after you've taken the shot, zoom in and check for any blur, that way you still have the chance to retake the shot.
Article and images © 2011 Frank Wood. Used with permission.