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Focusing on fish

How to best capture your prize-winning catch

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BY JAMES SMEDLEY
As a youngster my family took a trip to the east coast of Nova Scotia. My father gave my sister and me each a camera with instructions to take photos of whatever we’d like. My sister’s shots turned out to be a reasonable representation of our trip, but my shots were almost exclusively of fish — piles of dead fish on wharves, fish tangled in nets, fish drying in the sun or fish sloshing about in the bilges of boats.
Although alarming at first, my penchant for photographing fish continued and today my images of fish and sport fishing generate a good deal of my photography income. I am one of the lucky ones who fused a love of photography with a passion for angling and the outdoors into a viable career.
But it’s not easy. Not only can these beautiful and elusive creatures be difficult to entice with a rod and lure, they can also be difficult to photograph. The perpetual change of light and weather conditions can make taking great photographs outdoors a real challenge. Throw in the fact that we’re dealing with live creatures, and it can be easier to take a bad photo than it is a good one. Here are a few basic pointers toward improving our angling photography.
Be prepared
The primary ingredient of a great fishing photo is a particularly large or beautiful fish. Catching such specimens is part of most angling agendas, but we never really know when a photo-worthy fish is going to make an appearance.
Your camera should be accessible at all times. Don’t wait until someone has hooked and landed a prize fish to start rooting around in the bottom of your pack. Waterproof hard plastic camera cases are great because they can rest on boat floors, along the bank of a river or on the ice of a frozen lake, keeping gear protected but ready for action.
Find a partner
It is possible to get decent fish shots alone. I’ve done it using a tripod and I’ve had some success with quick, one-hand lifts and shooting fish submerged or semi-submerged along shorelines. However, if you are serious about getting good fish shots, it’s extremely helpful to have a partner. I usually let my partners know that if we get a decent fish, I intend to photograph it and will enlist their services as a model.
I generally like sunglasses off and the person holding the fish to look like they’re actually enjoying themselves.
Get a grip
Holding a live fish so that it looks good while not harming it is hard. Live fish must be held properly and with authority. This is another instance when getting a great shot depends largely on the experience and skill of your fishing partner.
The best way to hold a fish depends on the species. While we can slide our thumb into the relatively toothless mouth of a bass, this is not a good idea with other species. Sliding our index finger behind the gill plate, being very careful not to touch the gill rakers, is one way to control the head of toothy fish like pike or walleye. Rather than hanging the fish vertically, sliding a hand under its belly allows fish to be held horizontally or diagonally.
Gripping a fish where the body tapers down toward the tail with one hand and supporting the creature under the belly with the other works well. The fish can be lifted out of the water, or better yet, the photographer can get down at water level to photograph the submerged or semi-submerged fish in its element or, once released, swimming away with a thrust of its tail.
When the light is bright
Even on overcast days, keep the sun behind you so it shines on your subject but doesn’t cast a shadow in the image.
On really bright days it’s a good idea to use fill flash. Popping up the camera’s flash, or attaching a flash unit, seems counterintuitive in the bright light of afternoon, but flash is effective in removing harsh shadows. We’ve all seen shots of people wearing ball caps when the mid-afternoon sun is high in the sky and their faces are shrouded in shade. Although the fish may be the subject it’s always good to see who is in the photo.
Another option for bright sunlight is a polarizer — a filter that screws on our lens and removes the sting of harsh light from our image. Like looking through a pair of sunglasses, a polarizer accentuates blue sky and clouds and adds saturation. It also removes glare from the water and makes fish much more visible when submerged during release shots.
When the light is low
Often the best fish are caught in the early morning and late evenings or on dark, stormy days. Low light situations can result in dramatic shots, but getting them can be a bit more challenging. Low light requires a slower shutter speed, which can result in blurry images due to movement of the camera or movement of our subject.
This is when we should consider turning up our ISO setting from say 200 to 800 or more. As darkness increases we can bolster the natural light with flash.
Composition
Rather than placing our piscatorial subject in the middle of the frame, try shifting it slightly away from the center of the image.
A common mistake with fish shots is including way too much background. The result is an image of a tiny angler and tiny fish in huge landscape. There is nothing wrong with including background in a fish shot, but broad expanses of real estate only detract from our prize walleye or brook trout. Don’t be afraid to fill the frame with fish and fisherman or even a tight close-up of just the fish.
Watch the horizon
Tilting our camera at an angle to the horizon can result in disturbing images where the shoreline or water surface appears to be on a slant. Although a tilted horizon can be used to great effect in some situations, on-the-water images of fish are best shot with our camera level to the horizon.
Focus on the fish
When a fish is the subject of our photo, it should be the most sharply focused part of the image. How much of an image is in sharp focus is referred to as the depth of field, which is determined by the aperture setting, or f-stop, of our camera/lens.
In low light situations a larger aperture setting (f-stop of f3.5 for example) is required to let in more light. The result is a low depth of field where other elements of the photograph, like the person holding the fish and the background, will tend to be in softer focus. Conversely, bright days require a smaller aperture setting (f-stop of f22 for example) and result in a high depth of field with more of the image being in sharp focus.
Experimenting with aperture settings and depth of field can be the key to very effective shots depending on whether we want to blur the background to accentuate the subject or we want the background to become more of an active part of the image. Either way, if the fish is the subject, focus on the fish.♦
A version of this article was originally published in the August 2014 issue of Ontario OUT OF DOORS.
James Smedley is an award-winning photographer and writer and is the travel editor with Ontario OUT OF DOORS magazine. He also teaches photography workshops. 
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