Photographing fish: Tips for in front of the lens

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The blog I run with Steven Brutger, Stalking the Seam, has published 148 photographs of fish, some better than others. (Read some taken by Steven, others by me). For every shot that’s made the cut though, a half dozen or more pics were made unusable by simple mistakes. Their Achilles’ heels were sometimes technical, but as often as not, the fatal errors happened in front of the lens, where they’re easiest to avoid.
When it comes time to document your next catch, keep the following handful of ideas in mind. If hard-won experience is any guide, they should help you dodge some all-too-common pitfalls and end up with more brag-worthy images.
The grip .“Nice fish… at least I assume so from what I can see of it between your hairy knuckles.”
You know the shot I’m talking about, right? A fish head — eyes bulging and mouth gaping — followed by two fists and maybe a glimpse of tail fin. It may be the fish of your life, but such a hamhanded grip disqualifies it from the highlight reel every time- and it’s even worse for the fish.
Try this instead. Wet your hands in the river. (ALWAYS wet your hands before touching a fish.) Hold both hands so that your palms face away from you, your finger-tips point down, and your thumbs are to the outside. Use the thumb and index finger of one hand to encircle and secure the fish’s tail, just above the tail fin. It’ll look kind of like an upside-down “Okay” sign. Then form a shallow litter by gently curving your remaining fingers side-by-side under the fish. The fish’s belly should rest on the second and third segments of your fingers. The flank opposite the camera can rest against your palms, while only your finger tips peak through on the camera side.
It’ll feel a little awkward the first few times, but it’ll keep your hands out of the shot. More importantly, this technique also minimizes two of the big threats fish face from handling– desliming by skin to fish contact and squeezing pressure.
The grin. “Whoa, hey there fella! This ain’t that kind of photoshoot!” 
Everybody knows how to mug for the camera. But between smiling with your eyes, being sexy on the inside and handling fish, the finer points of body language and positioning often fall by the wayside. Awkward bends, pained looking contortions and wrestling matches with streamside foliage are regular offenders. The classic goof though, the self-deployed photo-bomb that ruins more shots than any other, is the crotch shot. It’s perfectly understandable, of course. You want your butt low, head high and knees apart when crouching on slippery, uneven terrain. But that doesn’t make it ok. Nobody wants to see that. Trust me.
Luckily there are two easy fixes. Instead of squatting, you can stand in deeper water, or, if you’ve landed a fish in the shallows, kneel .
Pick your place. “Give me a place to stand, and I’ll move the  Earth” — Archimedes.
Luckily you don’t need to go that far. You just have to move yourself, and a fish, to a manageable spot… which can be a tall enough order in its own right.
Things happen fast when the line goes tight. But a few quick, well considered decisions can go a long way. If you’re hoping for a picture, try to avoid ending the fight on that slippery mid-stream boulder, or straddling the mossy log. Getting the shot is exponentially harder when you’re unsure of your footing, high-stepping through poison ivy, or improvising riparian yoga just to reach the fish.
Keep ‘em wet. Used figuratively, “looks like a fish out of water” is rarely a compliment. That’s because an actual fish out of water is a sad sight indeed. In their natural element though, fish posses a breathtaking beauty. That’s what you want to capture. Minimize the amount of time fish spend above the surface and you’ll kill fewer fish and snap more killer photos.
If you decide to lift a fish for the shot, keep it close to the surface. Once the water has stopped streaming off of it (3-5 seconds) it’s time to put ‘em back in. Better yet, take an underwater or partially submerged shot.
Be quick about it. I kill and eat the occasional fish. I find it’s a helpful, perhaps even important means of remembering what the exercise is ultimately all about. Killing a fish for a picture though is unconscionable. And let’s be clear. When you hook a fish, the clock starts ticking. With each passing second, its chance of survival ebbs away.
When possible, have the camera ready, the plan made and everything in position before the fish is landed. Then get your shot and turn ‘em loose. When that’s not possible, do the right thing and forego the pictures. You can think of it as just one more that got away ♦
Matthew Copeland served a six year corporate sentence in Major Metro USA before finding his way home to Wyoming. Today he writes for assorted magazines and helps clients tell their stories more effectively… when he’s not off playing in the mountains that is. Read his blog

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