Catching a great fish in a beautiful location is one of the joys of fly fishing. Looking back over a lifetime and remembering those moments spent with friends and family can enhance the experience. And there is no better way to jog the memory than a great photograph.
But too often that photo of a big fish or a great moment falls flat. The fish looks less impressive than your memory or your buddy’s pose looks awkward, and you’re left wondering what you could have done differently. When it comes to fly-fishing photography, there are a few simple concepts to understand that will really improve your images. Capturing that shot of a great fish or a memorable moment on the water in attainable and each trip to the river offers another chance to perfect your vision.
Understand Bokeh and Depth of Field
Bokeh is the term used to describe the out-of-focus areas of an image caused by depth of field. Depth of field is the portion of the distance between camera and subject that is in focus. Depth of field and bokeh can give an image an intangible quality of greatness. It’s hard to put a finger on, but you know it when you see it. Each lens exhibits different bokeh characteristics depending on a variety of factors including the glass it is constructed with and the number of aperture blades it possesses. While each lens possesses unique bokeh characteristics, creating bokeh in an image is universally possible with the proper approach.
To enhance bokeh in an image you need to increase the visible distance between the foreground and your subject, the background and your subject, or both. In addition, you will achieve greater bokeh effects by shooting at wider apertures. While the science of photography is outside the bounds of this article, opt for your lens’ widest aperture to enhance bokeh. While bokeh and depth of field can seem a bit technical and confusing the goal is quite simple – to isolate your subject visually in your image. By employing depth of field, you can blur the foreground and background of an image. In doing so, you’ll draw the viewer’s eye to your subject, in this case hopefully a trophy fish. Combining the effects of bokeh with the presence of light and a compelling subject is the secret sauce behind many a great fishing photo.
Lenses and Focal Lengths
Now that you’ve got the basics of bokeh and depth of field, you can go about employing that knowledge to improve your fly-fishing photographs. While distance is an important variable to consider regarding bokeh, perspective and composition is equally critical. And that leads us to lenses and focal lengths.
Every photographer dreams of a lens that can capture a wide shot and telephoto shot equally well. Alas, the physics of lens design largely prohibit manufactures from producing such a lens with the wide apertures desired by most photographers. Mid-range zooms are the compromise with the 24mm-70mm f/2.8 being the choice of most professional photographers. Fortunately, it’s not the lens that matters so much as how you use it.
Wide angle lenses are typically used to shoot landscapes and architectural images. Generally, use your wide-angle lens to capture images of the angler in the environment. Set your angler against a dramatic backdrop of soaring peaks or a stunning sunset and you’ll have an image to be proud of. And don’t be afraid to get close to your subject with a wide-angle lens. In close quarters, a wide-angle perspective can put the viewer right in the moment. At wide-open apertures, a wide-angle lens with a close subject can produce the creamy bokeh effects usually reserved for longer lenses.
Telephoto lenses are often used for portraiture and wildlife. They can be used to isolate a fish or angler from the background. One surefire way to get a great shot of a fish is to get down along the water level to generate distance between the camera, the fish and background. Capturing the visual difference in front of and behind the subject helps to isolate it in space and increases the visual appeal of the image.
Break Free of the "Grip and Grin"
There are innumerable ways to photograph anglers with fish, but a quick tour through your Instagram feed will probably be loaded with copious “grip and grin” shots from every far-flung fishing destination on the planet. You probably know the “grip and grin” already, but for the sake of discussion let’s define in. A “grip and grin” photograph is an angler holding their catch, usually at chest level, often with their arms fully extended toward the camera, a prideful smile beaming from their face.
“Grip and grin” photographs maximize the effects of perspective to make fish appear large in the image, but in doing so they create a cadre of photographic faux pas. The most egregious problem with the tradition “grip and grin” shot is that the angler is often looking directly into the camera. A shot of an angler admiring a fish they’ve brought to net will always trump one of the same angler mugging for the camera.
Another issue with “grip and grin” shots is that the angler and fish are most often placed dead center in the middle of the frame. This approach lacks visual appeal and balance. It almost always results in a less-than-noteworthy photograph. Worst case, in the event you or a friend do catch the fish of a lifetime, the “grip and grin” will reduce the photograph of your trophy catch to another ho-hum shot destined for the recycle bin.
So, what to do?
The answer is to get creative with the angles at which you shoot your images and to ask your subject to be creative with the ways they hold fish. Try to depict not just the fish, but also the angler and the moment. Consider the landscape and the environment you are shooting in. Is there something unique about this place you can incorporate into the image that will help tell the story of the moment?
Getting down at water level and focusing on the fish, finding an elevated perspective, or shooting over the shoulder to capture the fish from above can create compelling images. GoPro cameras and waterproof housings allow photographers to capture underwater or split-level shots at the water’s surface that create a unique perspective. Drones offer an elevated viewpoint that can be dramatic.
With practice and a bit of knowledge, you can produce fly-fishing photos to be proud of. Consider each trip to the river an opportunity to improve and explore new angles on our favorite sport.