Freshwater Fishing Photography

Andrew Harding shares his tips for freshwater fishing photography...

Fishing photography is unique; it’s unlike any other sports-orientated photography and has its own set of challenges. The first challenge: trying to keep your expensive investment dry in what is generally a wet and high-risk environment. Photography on the water lends itself well to creating amazing visuals – if you are prepared to put in a little effort and investment. That investment can be as little as $300 for a decent ‘point-and-shoot’ camera, or as much as $10,000 for a dedicated setup, which will mean you never miss a single bit of action and can print billboard-sized images. We’re not talking GoPros here either; GoPro photos are decidedly average, and usually horrendously distorted. They do video well, but photography? Nope. It’s like trying to do a courier run with a Porsche – just don’t do it.

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You’ll often hear the saying, “the best camera you can have is the one you have on you.” There is a lot of truth to this. We all carry smartphones these days, and the image quality just keeps getting better every year. However, smartphone cameras, with their tiny sensors and simplified lens configurations, do have serious limitations. That tiny sensor is fine in bright, sunny conditions, but add any low light, zoom, or fast-moving action (like a fish jumping) and you will struggle to get anything remotely useable. Mobile phone sensors also lack detail, and the overly-aggressive JPEG sharpening produces pixelated, mushy images. Couple this with a lack of ‘real’ depth of field (the soft, blurry backgrounds that make your subject ‘pop’), and you’ll find your mobile images are very ‘meh’. While many phones these days have an artificial depth of field function – usually called ‘portrait mode’ – the tech so often misses the mark, often leaving in-focus gaps in the image when the rest of the background is blurred.

If you want to capture magazine-quality images that will remain precious memories for generations, you’ll need to step into a system a little more dedicated. There are so many camera and lens combinations out there, it can make the selection process rather daunting. I’m not going to delve into brands, models, and lenses, but rather tips for capturing the moment; after all, it’s the person behind the camera that makes the magic – not the camera itself. It’s about getting creative and capturing shots others don’t. Think outside the box a little... get high, get low, get close, and get weird. Learn about foreground and background and how to make each work in harmony. It’s about capturing the emotion: that face when your mate has just busted off a double-figure brown, lost a 20lb snapper at the net, or skidded down the ramp while trying to launch their boat. They’re the memories you’ll always want to remember.

Fly fishing is my primary passion these days, and it’s an incredibly visual form of fishing that lends itself well to photography. The scenery, the colours, the wildlife, and the lush, green NZ bush just don’t get any better. My photographic journey started using small-sensor, point-and-shoot cameras, progressing through to the larger sensor, mid-range cameras, and then eventually on to the high-end full-frame cameras that I use today. I fell into photography accidentally, after many years of making fishing videos. However, being extremely time-poor (raising a young family) meant that many hours of video editing were simply not in the cards for me anymore. Photography is simply more straightforward and accessible, and for me personally, more rewarding.

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Every day on the river, ocean, or lake brings new surprises. It’s hidden in the way the water moves; a raging campfire; a close-up of a fish’s spots, with their magical hues; a favourite lure in the mouth of your quarry; the swooping birds; or that smile on your mate’s face as they slide a big fish back into the depths. One of my favourites is to utilise the reflections in water, or sunglasses – always an interesting shot! This is about telling a story… and it’s great to look back upon those memories in subsequent years. Not just endless grip-and-grins that, let’s face it, all look the same.

Grip-and-grins do have their place, however, and although sometimes controversial, I do love seeing other people’s fish in their entirety. However, try to refrain from what seems to be the latest trend in social media circles these days: thrusting your catch head-first into a wide-angle camera lens, arms at full extension to make the fish look enormous! There is no need to exaggerate a fish’s size in such a dramatic fashion. Also, don’t hold the fish out of the water for more than a few seconds; some of the coolest shots you’ll capture will feature water droplets coming off the fish, especially if backlit by a low-setting sun. Such a shot tells those paying attention that the fish has just been lifted for a quick snap and sent on its way. It screams ‘handled with care’, and, in my opinion, all fish deserve to be treated with the utmost respect, regardless of species. We must become ambassadors for this sport and for our fish, especially in the public eye.

One of my favourite fishing compositions requires leaving a fish in the water, with just half of the fish visible, and then, as the fish powers away in a flurry of spray, I start snapping! Then there is the jump shot (assuming your target species likes to jump). With Aotearoa’s magnificent kahawai and various trout species, it’s nearly a given. But it’s just not going to happen for some species no matter how patiently you wait for that snapper or hāpuku to launch itself a meter into the air!

Now, herein lies one of the biggest challenges: capturing a jump! Most modern cameras are capable of shooting seriously-high frame rates. Frame rates are the number of shots the camera can fire in any given second, the higher the frame rate, or burst shots, the better for capturing action. Some camera manufacturers incorporate what’s termed a ‘pre-record’ feature. Each manufacturer has its own name for it; Olympus calls it ‘pro-capture’, and they do it so well – better than any other manufacturer, in my opinion! Pro-capture is an excellent feature for action shots on the water. When you aim your camera at your intended subject – for example, an angler playing a fish – as long as you are holding the shutter button down halfway, the camera is recording hundreds of frames in the background but not saving them to the SD card in the camera. Say a fish jumps in a flurry of spray, then you simply press the shutter button all the way down, and the camera will magically record the previous three seconds (or more) before you pressed the shutter button all the way down, and will continue to do so until released. Bingo! You will have captured dozens of amazing jump shots. Then you simply choose the best one in the series and the rest is history. You’ll never miss a shot – it’s brilliant.

One of the most significant frustrations anglers face with fishing photography is where to focus. You are usually showcasing the fish, so that means focusing on a point that will draw you into your subject. For grip-and-grin shots, this means dialling in the focus to be precisely on the eye of the fish, the angler is subtly blurred as a secondary subject, but still totally recognisable. Conversely, putting the point of focus on the angler’s eye means you will have a lovely sharp face… and a blurry fish in the centre of the frame, which just looks bizarre! With a mobile phone, everything is generally in focus, resulting in a relatively flat, dull image with no specific focal point on the subject, and without the background being isolated.

Always present your fish to show it off with respect: raise it gently; firmly support the belly and tail; never put your fingers or hands anywhere near the gill area; and never hold a fish up by the tail for a photo as this can cause damage to the spine of the fish. Admire its beauty, and smile! I also love to see photos with the fly or lure still in the fish’s mouth; it’s an integral part of the story and adds a really interesting element to your photos.

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Avoid being in the shade for photos, let the available natural light illuminate your subject, and – going against all photography norms – sun flares can look amazing in fishing-related images! Especially those early morning shots through trees, a windscreen with water drops on it, or the interesting vertical lines of a mass of rods glistening in the late afternoon sun.

There are two formats you can shoot with using most cameras: RAW and JPEG. JPEGs do all the work for you (it’s the automatic car of the camera world and what mobile phones typically use) but they will leave you with average images as the camera is doing all the guesswork for you exposing the image. Sometimes this is a good thing, but shooting in RAW (while adding additional time to edit and requiring an editing program) allows you complete control over your image – the light, the colours, the details, the mood, etc. RAW is the way to go if you’re serious about capturing excellent images that stand out from the crowd.

Capturing excellent fishing-related images is a journey that involves a lot of trial and error. Can you make money from capturing your fishing photos? Absolutely! There is always a demand for quality images across all forms of media, be it print, social media, advertising, or websites. However, many media outlets will not accept images from mobile phones, so investing in a decent camera is the only way to do it. You’ll also be capturing amazing memories for life, and take it from me, being able to share high-quality images with your family and friends is priceless.

February 2023 - Andrew Harding
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
Copyright: NZ Fishing Media Ltd.
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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