A Fisherman's Guide to Fishing Photography Part 1


Well-known member
Mar 13, 2008
A Fisherman's Guide to
Fishing Photography


Cap'n Fishy & Scratch



This article aims to address some of the common issues relating to digital photography that come up on a regular basis on the Fly Fishing Forums. We are not experts in photography by any means, but we know enough to get us by on a day-to-day basis and hope to be able to answer many of the questions and to dispel some of the common misconceptions. Our hope is that in adding this article to the forum, we can direct people towards it when the same questions keep arising.

It is aimed squarely at folk who have questions, so if you are a photographer, go away, this is not for you!

OK, so if you are still reading, we are assuming you have questions about combining digital photography with your fishing. We should state at the outset that there are dozens of photography magazines that aim to teach amateurs all they need to know about cameras and how to take good photographs. Many of them are available on-line for free. There are photography forums set up like the fishing ones that you can register with and browse away for answers, and ask the experts (and few folk enjoy giving their advice more than photographers!). However, the photography questions keep being asked of us fishermen, so here we go…

Suppose you list among your hobbies photography – on an even footing with fishing – and you are out one day, and you spot the opportunity for a good photograph. You put your rod down. You get the camera out. You size up the light. You size up the scene. You work out the best way to capture the composition – maybe it’s a job for leading diagonals. Maybe it’s a job for rule of thirds. You check your camera’s settings. You decide to go with aperture priority and a middling depth of field of f8, which will also give a nice sharp shot. You decide to go with evaluative metering and check what shutter speed that is going to give you. You decide that it’s fast enough to avoid hand shake and to let you use an optimum ISO of 100. You focus on your chosen focal point and you take the shot using RAW file capture. You check your histogram for clipped highlights and it looks fine.

When you get home you process the RAW file to give you the best white balance, contrast, colour saturation and exposure balance. You then resize for the web and apply the ideal level of sharpness – just between soft and overcooked. You save as a JPEG and post your proud production on the forum. The first admirer posts his reply…

“Nice shot. What camera do you use?"

Apart from being pointless and very annoying, it shows that some folk think that ‘good camera’ = ‘good pictures’, that ‘average camera’ = ‘average pictures’, and that ‘poor camera’ = ‘poor pictures’. Sorry if you are one of them, but that’s just not a good set of associations. A modern camera is a collection of hardware and software, supported by more software in the production and post-production – no more and no less. It needs to be controlled…by you! If you see a stunning image on the forum, or anywhere else for that matter, the chances are that the person who took the photo has put in a deal of effort, backed up by tuition, learning and practice.

If you like, you could ask the poster what settings he used, as they are of interest, as is his composition, and processing. If the camera was an SLR, the choice of lens is certainly an important consideration. What is of least importance is the camera. Besides, cameras are like mobile phones - buy a new one, and 12 months later it will be obsolete. A good lens, on the other hand, will be a friend for life.

The camera is just a tool. Nowadays there are very few duds out there and every camera currently being made is capable of taking good photographs in the right hands and bad photographs in the wrong hands. What will be the perfect choice of camera for the person who posted the photo might be the perfect choice for you too, but it might just as likely be the worst purchase you ever made.

So, please do yourself and the photographer a favour and don’t ask, “What camera?” Go and do a bit of research. Get on the photography forums and ask the guys there for advice. Use the on-line photography magazines, such as this one..

Digital Photography, Digital Cameras & Photographers | Photo Answers .

Get on the photography review sites such as these:

Digital Camera Reviews and News: Digital Photography Review: Forums, Glossary, FAQ

fredmiranda.com: Specialized in Canon - Nikon SLR Cameras, Forum, Photoshop Plugins, Actions, Reviews, Hosting and Digital Darkroom

Digital Camera Reviews, Photography Forums, and Digital Photo Galleries …and check the reviews.

Remember… there is no ‘quick fix’! We cannot stress enough that there is NO substitute for sound basic technique, and a clear understanding of a few basic principles of photography. Once you have a grasp of these, the key to getting good results is knowing when to take control and knowing what settings to program in to your camera. Suppose you were to go to buy a car, and you asked for one that had automatic transmission… and automatic steering… and automatic brakes… and automatic everything else… It’s not going to be much of a driving sensation, is it?

Pay particular attention to the relationships between Shutter speed, Aperture and ISO. These are the cornerstones of recording camera images and they have not changed for almost two hundred years. The principles are the same for a disposable film camera, a compact digital, a dSLR, or a professional studio camera. Light and glass and small black boxes will always be the same. Without a firm grasp on the basics, you’ll always be trusting to luck and relying on the camera to work miracles and to bail you out. However, with a grasp of the basics, you will take fewer duff shots, and produce many more masterpieces.

We are painting with light folks! Light is your medium, the sensor is your canvas, and the camera is your brush. Take control!

“What Camera?”

These days, all but the most very basic of digital cameras have many user-operated controls, so the days of ‘point-and-shoot’ photography really should be a thing of the past, unless you are either the laziest or most inept person on the planet.

If you are looking to buy a digital camera, you have roughly 3 basic groups from which to choose:

Group 1 - Compacts:

Cameras small enough to fit in one of your waistcoat pockets. If you do mostly river fishing, don’t see the need to branch into landscape photography to challenge Charlie Waite et al, and want to cover macros of flies and fly-tying, this is all you’ll need. Brands worth considering include: Canon, Nikon, Samsung, Fuji, Panasonic, Sony, Pentax, Olympus… but these are in no order and are not considered to be exhaustive. You may also want to consider those that are classed waterproof (lest ye fall in), though that will seriously reduce your options, and all you really need do is put it in a grip-seal bag before sticking it in your waistcoat. If you want to be double sure, just invest in an ‘Aquapac’ case.

Things at the top of the wish-list for a compact:

  • An optical viewfinder. If you can get a good composition and a sharp focus outdoors while waving a camera about at arm’s length, all the while trying to see what is displayed in the back LCD panel, you are a better man than us, Gunga Din! Even if you can see to compose, your wavy arms will not hold it as steady as when it is clamped to your eye and so your hand-shake will be worse and you will get blurry images.
    Having said all that, it’s not the be-all and end-all. Unfortunately, cameras are made and pitched at a certain market and a price, not individual users; so there’s no such thing as the perfect camera, no matter how much you pay. Usually at least one or two trade-offs will have to be made when making your choice. You may find, for example, a certain make or model has a particularly good lens, or other alluring feature, but doesn’t have an optical viewfinder. It then boils down to priorities - what can you live with, and what can’t you live without?
  • Manual control (or at least ‘PAS’ on the dial) So you can over-ride the errors the camera makes when it is trusted to auto-everything.
  • RAW file delivery. If you are serious about digital photography, you ought to try getting into processing your own RAWs, but not all compacts are prepared to hand over their RAW files to you. More on RAW later.
  • Good macro capability. For doing flies, insects etc. It should be able to focus at a distance of something like 2-5 cm from the subject. If it can’t do it unaided, make sure you can purchase a close‑up filter to enable it to do so. (A close-up filter is basically like a monocle that fits over the lens and allows it to focus closer to the subject.)
Even if you have a dSLR (addressed below in Group 3), there will be times when only a compact will fit the bill so, really, every one of us should have a wee silver (or black) compact about our person.

Group 2 - Assorted over-grown compacts.

Often called advanced compacts, or ‘bridge cameras’. They have a fixed lens, so it will often try to be all things – a super-zoom (x10 or x12 or possibly greater), but you have to accept that a jack of all trades is a master of none.

They may offer a through-the-lens (TTL) viewfinder, though it will probably be electronic – a mini version of the LCD for your eye. The thing about these cameras is that they are too big for your waistcoat pocket and inferior to an SLR when size is not the issue. They are best suited to being a stepping-stone between compacts, and loaded-for-bear SLR photography.

Group 3 - digital SLRs.

The 2 main protagonists here are the houses of Canon and Nikon (other brands of dSLR are available). This is the group to get into if you want to go beyond the wee silver/black compact. One of the main advantages you will get with an SLR is interchangeable lenses. If you want to capture a sweeping landscape at a high image quality, you’ll want a wide-angle lens, such as a 10-20 mm focal length. When you get home and want to photograph a fly, you’ll want a close-up lens, such as a 100 mm macro. If you want to catch action shots of a fish being played, either by your boat partner, or in a boat 100 yards away, you’ll want a telezoom, such as a 70-300 mm focal length.

There is no way you will get the highest image quality for all the above types of shot with either a compact camera or a bridge camera. You won’t even manage it with an SLR and a single, super-zoom lens. While a super-zoom is a really convenient thing to have, you have to bear in mind that to get such a range, you cannot avoid sacrificing image quality. To get a huge zoom range, you need all manner of lens elements fighting with each other to organise your chosen focal length into sharp focus. To get the highest image quality, you want as little glass as possible playing with the light rays, and that’s a single focal length.

So, when you see a pin-sharp image taken with a single focal length lens (called a prime lens) there is no point asking “What camera?” It is mostly down to the lens. To keep image quality near to premium, about 3x to 4x zoom is about as far as you might want to go (some pros still stick to prime lenses to give them the very highest image quality).

To cover a full range of focal lengths with an SLR, one possible set of lenses might comprise a wide-angle such as a 10-20 mm, a mid-range zoom such as a 17-85 mm and a tele-photo such as a 70-300 mm. For close-ups, you might add a specialist macro lens. Macro is one area where, due to the very short distance between sensor and lens, compact cameras can match SLRs for performance. Some compacts can focus as close as 1-2 cm from the subject – ideal for fly shots. So, if you have a good compact, you could leave out the macro lens.

There are, however, many other reasons to get into SLR photography…

Good reason 1...

It’s a nice big chunk of real estate that fits perfectly into your hand. Think about the difference between holding a big Bosch hammer action drill, and holding a battery-operated screwdriver! You hold it up to your eye, you look through the viewfinder and you see out through the lens towards exactly what you are going to photograph. That lets you focus accurately on it! It also lets you compose the shot so much better than with a compact. You can set all the controls quickly and easily as they are all up on the top deck, rather than down through several layers of sub-menus (as is often the case on compacts – no room on the body!). The wee silver/black compact (bless it) can’t compete on these fronts. Don’t be afraid of SLRs – in many ways they are much easier to use than compacts!

Good reason 2...

SLRs can all shoot in RAW file format. Yet more on RAWs later

Good reason 3…

Shutter lag. Compacts suffer from it (and they don’t even have a shutter!). SLRs don’t. If you are waiting for an action shot, like a fish in play breaking surface, you need the camera to fire, the instant you press the button.

Good reason 4…

As stated above, cameras are being improved all the time – more pixels, faster processing, improved utilities, more user-friendly, longer battery life, etc. If you want to upgrade a compact or a bridge camera, you are forced to throw out the lens (and it may be a topper) along with the camera. With SLRs, you hold on to all your favourite lenses, and you only upgrade the body. If a new lens comes out that is the answer to your prayers, you can buy one without having to buy a camera as well.

Good reason 5…

SLRs have larger sensors than compacts. That gives 2 advantages. The first is that the light coming through the lens of an SLR spreads more and lets you get creative with depth of field (eg, subject in focus, background blurred). Compacts can’t match SLRs in that department. The second advantage is that for any 2 cameras with say, a 10 MP sensor, the size of the pixels on the SLR will be larger than the pixels on the compact. So, each of the SLR pixels captures more light, improving image quality. Taking that issue further, there is a point beyond which the ‘megapixel war’ between manufacturers of compacts starts to become pointless. They can’t increase the sensor size (dictated by distance between lens and sensor), so to increase pixel number they have to make each pixel smaller. Eventually they are so small that each is struggling to capture a useful package of light (due to the wavelength of light). The law of diminishing returns then kicks-in.

While on that point, it is probably worth stating that the megapixels war is of no consequence to us, unless you are looking to sell your photos to an image library or print posters at A1 or A2 size. A 6 MP camera can produce perfectly usable prints at A3 (slightly under 200 pixels per inch). As for display on a PC monitor (usually 72 to 96 pixels per inch), you are talking about accommodating only about 1 MP unless you have a monitor bigger than 20 inches. The forum here displays images at 758 pixels wide, so the (approx) maximum image you can display on here is 0.6 MP. Therefore, think seriously about upgrading your camera if it is just to get more megapixels. There is only ONE reason why the main protagonists in the compact market are engaged in a megapixels war – people actually believe that more pixels mean better pictures. IT DOESN’T.

As mentioned above, a wee silver/black compact is a must for river fishing if you want to fish and take photos as well. If you want to do river fishing and photography at a higher level with an SLR, consider having a day where you leave the fishing tackle at home and just take the photography gear with you, leaving the fishing to others. That way you can take a tripod, remote release, multiple lenses, filters and anything else that would be unthinkable if you were going to try and fish at the same time. You might think you will get bored or twitchy, but it is amazing how quick the day goes by, how little you are bothered about not fishing for once, and how much more you think about the photos as you take them.

There are many new SLRs on the market now that are much smaller than the established ranges, and these may appeal to folk who are more comfy with the size of compacts. However, bear in mind that a neat wee SLR will never fit in your waistcoat with a 70-300 mm lens attached! If you want to take both rod and SLR down the river, consider a waterproof rucksack, such as the dryZone 100 from Lowepro (other brands of rucksack are available). The compartments take lenses and spare reels/fly boxes equally well!

For boat fishing, it is very easy to accommodate a full-sized SLR fitted with a standard zoom lens, plus a telezoom, into a standard tackle box as well as all the usual gear (well, OK, you may need to leave an odd fly box and a spare spool or 2 at home!).

New dSLRs are these days not much pricier than compacts were a few years ago. For sure, you need to add on the cost of 2 or 3 lenses over time, but if you start with the standard kit lens to get you going, you are talking about setting yourself up for the cost of a decent rod/reel/line outfit. As an alternative, you could consider a second-hand dSLR.

The 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation models from Canon and Nikon are now selling on eBay in the order of £100 to £300. This means that a camera such as, for example, a Canon 10D, which had an rrp of £1100 in 2002, can be bought on eBay in 2010 for not much more than £100. In terms of what it can do for you and in terms of the image quality it can give you, it will outperform any compact being produced today. You just need to buy in to the big “brick outhouse” build of such cameras and get away from the fiddly wee plastic compact!

Second-hand lenses on eBay have so far to us, been spot-on. Lenses hold their prices much better, because, for example, a Canon autofocus lens made for film cameras in 1987 will work perfectly on any Canon digital SLR made in 2010. Also, bear in mind that when you look at a blurry, out of focus shot of a fish alongside a Loomis rod and Abel reel, and compare that with a pin-sharp shot of a fish alongside a 20 year old Diawa rod and Leeda reel… you pays your money and you takes your choice with respect to where your hard-earned ends up.


OK, enough about choosing a camera, and on to the principles behind what we are trying to achieve. The first thing to consider is light. Photography is not about capturing subjects. It is about capturing the light being reflected by subjects. If the quality of that light is rubbish, the quality of the photograph will be rubbish. If you are a professional photographer, you can afford to wait a whole day (and they often do) for the 5 minutes when the light is the quality you are looking for, you press the shutter once, and you go home with the shot you were after. Even professionals can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear in poor light. Good light is everything to the photographer.

If you then get presented with that magical photograph, it is all too easy to wonder what special camera was used to take it, when the answer was nothing to do with the camera. It was all about the light.


This shot of Loch Bhac was taken during the only 5 minute spell of the entire day when the light was good for a picture.

If you are an angler, you kind of get the best of both worlds. You can spend the whole day enjoying your fishing, but you need to keep one eye on the fishing and the other on the light, so that when that 5 minute spell comes, you are ready to take advantage of it and get a shot to match those of Charlie Waite, et al. Don’t waste the opportunity by doing a ‘point-and-shoot’. As mentioned above, with the cameras available today, point-and-shoot photography should be consigned to history. You’ve got 5 minutes, so use 2 or 3 of them to think about what it is you are going to try and capture.

The best light for photography often occurs at sunrise and sunset, when long, raking shadows and warm colours prevail, so if you are out on the water early, look to take a few shots before you tackle up – that gets it out the way, and leaves you free to concentrate on the fishing for the rest of the day.

The other main shot you will most often be looking to take is the action or reaction shot, when proceedings dictate when you need to press the shutter. On those occasions, you have to settle for whatever light you have at the time. It might be good, it might be bad. If you get the bad light, and someone else gets the good light, they are going to be more keen than you to post their results, so when you see them there is no point asking “What camera did you use?”

Indoors, when taking photos of flies, make sure you throw some decent quality light on the fly. Plenty shots of flies are let down not by poor tying or poor image quality, but by poor lighting. All you need is to move everything outdoors, or move it to a window, or use a wee angle-poise light. Even just use the flash, but get some decent light on the fly.

Principles of Exposure​

So, if it’s all about light, how does that translate to what’s happening in the camera? A helpful analogy is the ‘bucket of water’ principle of exposure. It goes like this…

A good image is largely about being a good exposure, and the exposure consists of 3 elements…

  • The intensity of the light hitting the sensor (or film)
  • The length of time the light is falling on the sensor (or film)
  • The sensitivity of the sensor (or film) to light

Try thinking of a correct exposure as consisting of the correct ‘volume’ of light being captured. Swap light for water, and think of it as being a correctly-filled bucket of water. You have 2 ways to fill the bucket correctly…

You turn the tap on, full open, for a short time, and when the bucket is full, you turn the tap off
You turn the tap on just a little way, and leave it a long time, and when the bucket is full you turn the tap off

Both methods give you a correctly-filled bucket of water. In method 1, the analogy equates to a wide-open lens aperture (iris diaphragm) coupled with a fast shutter speed. In method 2, the analogy equates to a narrow, closed down lens aperture, coupled with a slow shutter speed.

Of course, both rely on you knowing when to turn the tap off. Too soon and you have less than a bucket of water (under-exposure). Too late and the bucket overflows (over-exposure). Likewise, for a given length of time, turn on the tap insufficiently and the bucket is under-filled; turn it on too much and the bucket overflows. An underexposed shot has not been given enough water/light and so is too dark, while an over-exposed shot has been given too much water/light and is too bright.

The last element to consider is the size of the bucket (this equates to sensitivity to light). A small bucket equates to a high ISO (eg 1600), while a large bucket equates to a low ISO (eg 100). It takes more water to fill a large bucket and so more light to make a good exposure at ISO 100.

The downside of a high ISO shot like 1600 is the signal to noise ratio is flatter, so the image is ‘noisy’ compared to one taken at ISO 100.

And that’s all there is to making a good exposure! Fill your bucket correctly. If you make the shutter speed twice as fast, you need to open your aperture (f-measurement) to twice the area to get the same exposure, or you need to increase your ISO to twice the sensitivity. All 3 are measured in ‘stops’. A shutter speed of 1/500 sec, is one stop faster than 1/250 sec, and is also two stops faster than 1/125 sec, and so on. ISO 400 is 1 stop more sensitive than ISO 200, and is also 2 stops more sensitive than ISO 100.

While shutter speed and ISO work nicely on a doubling/halving scale, the ‘f’ number scale for aperture appears to be more awkward. In stops, it goes:

f1.0, f1.4, f2, f2.8, f4, f5.6, f8, f11, f16, f22, f32…

However, each increase in f number equates to closing the aperture of the lens by one half. In going from f2.8 to f4, the aperture lets half the amount of light through in a given time. So, f4 is one stop more closed down than f2.8. It works exactly the same way.

Putting the 3 variables together…

A shot taken at 1/100 sec, f 2.8, ISO 200 will give you the exact same exposure as all of the following:

1/200 sec, f2.8, ISO 400
1/50 sec, f2.8, ISO 100
1/100 sec, f4, ISO 400
1/50 sec, f4, ISO 200

In practice, you will see f measurements, shutter speeds and ISOs measured in half stops and third stops, so get used to seeing terms like f3.5, f13, ISO 640, 1/’just about anything’ sec, and so-on.

OK, so if all of these examples give you the same exposure, why use one over the others?

The answer is that there are times when shutter speed is an issue, times when aperture is an issue, and times when the only way to get the correct exposure is to hike up the ISO.

Let’s sort out what is happening with aperture. The lower the f number, the more open the aperture is. That’s the iris diaphragm in the lens that controls the size of the hole that the light is squeezing through. As it goes from f4 to f2.8, the size of the hole increases, letting more light through. This larger hole lets the light waves passing through be less organised, so it is less easy for the lens to focus it all. The higher the f number, the smaller the hole that the light has to squeeze through, so the more organised and parallel the light waves have to be and the more easy it is for the lens to pull them into focus.

There is only ever one true plane of focus, but when the hole is small, the more parallel light gives the plane of focus the appearance of being deeper from nearer the camera to further away from the camera. So, objects nearer and further away both look as if they are in focus. As the hole gets larger, the light becomes less parallel and the plane of focus gets nearer to being a single plane, so objects nearer to the camera than the plane and objects further from the camera than the plane both become more ‘out of focus’. The term used for how much or how little the apparent plane of focus is extended from the true plane is ‘depth of field’. To summarise:

* High f number (such as f22) = small hole, restricting light getting through the lens = deep depth of field. Objects near the camera, and in the middle, and in the background, all appear sharp.

* Low f number (such as f2.8) = large hole, letting lots of light through the lens = shallow depth of field. Objects near the camera, and in the distance, both appear blurred, while objects in the middle, on which the camera is focused, appear sharp.

Low f numbers and shallow depth of field are great for isolating a subject from its background, such as in portraits. The subject is sharp and the background blurred. This really makes the subject stand out. However, it suffers when you try to shoot flies. The latter are made worse because bringing the fly close to the camera exaggerates the shallowness of the depth of field. So, if you want the whole fly in focus, you need a high f number, like f16 or f 22. It also helps if you make sure the hook shank is parallel to the camera body, so the distance between fly and sensor is even over the whole length of the fly.





This is one area where compacts out-perform SLRs due to their smaller sensor giving a naturally greater depth of field. Note that the aperture on many compacts ranges from full open at about f2.8 to fully stopped down at about f8.

Getting the correct distance between fly and lens, and choosing the best f‑stop can be a fine balancing act, and can take a fair bit of trial and error to get just right. However, once you’ve sussed the correct aperture to get the whole fly in focus, the shallow depth of field (due to the close proximity of the fly to the camera) will take care of the background and blur it out for you. Just like a pro portrait shot, your eye and your mind are focused on the subject matter: the fly.

Most compacts will do a great job on auto (or macro), in selecting the aperture for you. Once you’ve got to grips with the basics, you can start to get ‘arty’ (and this is all part of the fun of photography) by exploiting shallow depth of field and getting a more impressionistic rendition from your fly.


High f numbers and a deep depth of field are also good for landscapes, where you want the ‘foreground interest’ and the background hills or whatever equally in-focus. However, bear in mind the bucket of water analogy. The high f number means the tap is turned on for a long time before the bucket is filled, ie the shutter is open for along time. The longer the shutter is open, the more chance there is for movement to be registered - whether it is your hand moving or the subject matter moving.

Both of these will cause blurry results. You might actually want the subject moving, such as recording water flowing over a fall, but much of the time you will not. You certainly won’t want blurry results from hand-shake. If you are a professional landscape photographer you simply put your camera on a tripod and eliminate hand shake. If you are photographing flies, you should do likewise – even just putting it on a pile of books will work fine. Alternatively, see below, the ‘ruler and Blu-Tac’ method!

If you are in a boat, a tripod is as much use as an ashtray on a motorbike. In that case, you need to keep an eye on your shutter speed.

As an alternative to a tripod, you may wish to consider a monopod. If you head off into the wilds to fish the hill lochs, it can be used as a thumb-stick. It can even double as a wading stick. It’s about half way in steadiness between hand-holding and a tripod. It’s also much easier to use than a tripod when you are on the hoof, perhaps trying to take shots while others provide the action, or going on a shoot in busy public places – just count all the monopods in use around the edges of football, cricket and tennis matches.

If you have to hand hold, a good rule of thumb for shutter speed is to keep it at least as fast as 1 over your focal length (using the ‘35 mm’ standard scale). We don’t need to go into the principles of the focal lengths of lenses, save to say the shorter the length, the wider the angle of view, and the longer the focal length, the narrower the angle of view. So 10 mm gives a very wide angle and 100 mm gives a very narrow angle. It is considered that around 50 mm equates to human vision, though you have to ignore peripheral vision to go with that. Include peripheral vision and it’s more like 10 mm. However, it’s probably more a case that a 50 mm lens gives a normal perspective; while a wide angle like 10-20 mm gives a distorted impression that distance from foreground to background is further than it is actually…


20 mm​


10 mm

In the 20 mm image, the bankie in the background (just above the rainbow’s tail) was only about 40 yards away.

At telezoom focal lengths like 300 mm, the foreground to background appears much shorter than it is actually. Lengths like 300 mm act like a telescope and bring the subject much closer, so filling the viewfinder with a distant object. Catch in a bit of foreground, and perspective appears foreshortened…


In the shot above, taken at 800 mm, the distance between the building in the foreground and the flats in the background is 6 miles!​

So, to shutter speeds… if your focal length is 100 mm, you risk hand-shake when hand-holding at shutter speeds slower than 1/100 sec. Zoom to 200 mm focal length and you are on dodgy ground when you go slower than 1/200 sec. However, stick a wide-angle lens on and (providing you don’t have a dose of the Hatties) you can get away with hand-holding at 10 mm with 1/10 sec.

If the above does not compute, think of when you try to get a steady view through a pair of binoculars. No binoculars at all equates to our unaided eye example above: approx 10 mm to 50 mm. Look through a pair of x8 magnifying bins and you’ll need to make an effort to keep them steady – the magnified image will tend to wobble. That’s equivalent to using a zoom lens like a 70-300 mm. Use something stronger like a telescope and you will be looking for something to rest the end on to hold your view steady. The higher the magnification, the longer the focal length of the lens and the trickier it is to keep everything from shaking. So, to freeze everything at a similarly long focal length without incurring shake, you need a fast shutter speed…


370 mm, 1/500 sec​

For compact cameras, you need to convert the focal lengths because they operate on various scales, however many give ‘35 mm’ focal length equivalents. (If your compact is giving you focal lengths like 5.7 mm, that is its compact scale, not ‘35 mm’ scale). Even if your compact doesn’t let you change aperture and shutter speed it should be displaying what aperture and shutter speed it uses each time you take a shot, so you can learn from these. If you get a blurry image and you check your shutter speed and it says it was 1/15 sec, there’s every chance it was due to your hand movement while the image was being recorded. Use flash if you are indoors, or increase the ISO if you are outdoors.

For digital SLR users, there is a further complication, as most have what is referred to as a C size sensor, which is smaller than a frame of 35 mm film (our 35 mm standard above). Essentially, what they do is keep focal length perspective the same, but they crop out the centre of the frame that would have been taken if it had been a full ‘35 mm’ shot. It’s a whole extra can of worms and we’ll leave it at that for now. In terms of shutter speed you do need to make an extra allowance for the ‘crop factor’. For example, if your 100 mm lens needs 1/100 sec for a frame of 35 mm film, you’ll need 1/150 sec for the same steadiness with a C-size sensor dSLR.

One of the biggest benefits of the move to digital photography is the instant feedback you get from taking an image, checking the outcome, analysing the settings that gave it and adjusting them to give a better result. It will pay you to have image-editing software that can display the EXIF data. This is all the details of the shot, and they are recorded with it, and so can be pored over in the comfort of your home when you have the time later. It’s a great way to learn…


Note that the date and time that all your shots were taken is recorded, so there is NO need (that’s NO NEED, in big block caps) to turn on the stupid date stamp and plaster it all over your pictures.

It is worth pointing out that EXIF data is preserved in .jpg files, but not when JPEGs are created for web display in some software applications, when minimum file size is given priority.

It’s not uncommon for landscapes to need several seconds at f32, so for such shots a tripod is a must. If you don’t have a tripod, look to put the camera on a fence post, a rock or any stable platform and use the self-timer. You might consider a ‘Gorillapod’ for use with a compact camera. It’s a mini-tripod with bendy legs that can be twisted round branches, fence posts, etc. There is an SLR version available, but we would not recommend it as being able to support a full sized SLR and lens combo.


3 sec exposure @ f22 (ISO 100) with polarising filter (holds back 2 extra stops). Camera sat on a rock and self-timer deployed.

At the other end of the scale, if you want to freeze action shots, you will need something in the order of 1/500 sec or faster to do it....


1/750 sec @ f2.8, ISO 200​

You should appreciate that there are times when it is just too dark to get fast shutter speeds. In other words, your lens is wide open, your ISO is as high as it goes, and your camera tells you that to get the correct exposure, your shutter speed cannot go faster than 1/25 sec! Come back on a brighter day.

There is a new player in all of this. Canon call it IS (Image Stabilisation). Nikon call if VR (Vibration Reduction). Sigma call it OS (Optical Stabilisation). Other manufacturers have their own names for it. It is a marvel of modern technology and is brilliant for us fishermen who can’t carry tripods about with us. It works by monitoring your hand shake and compensating for it by moving the glass elements of the lens to cancel out your movements. The latest versions of it compensate by 4 stops, so you can get as steady a shot hand-holding at 1/20 sec, as you would without it at 1/320 sec.

The following 2 shots illustrate image stabilisation. It’s not the set‑up we would recommend for photographing flies - it’s strictly for demonstrating IS in action. The two shots were taken with identical settings apart from the first having IS switched off and the second with it switched on. Both were taken indoors, hand-holding the camera, at equivalent to 320 mm focal length in ‘35 mm’ terms (ie a long way from the fly with a lot of telephoto zoom):


1/20 sec without IS​


1/20 sec with IS​

Of course, these shots also double up to show how handshake becomes a problem with slow shutter speeds!

Watch out for fake versions of ‘image stabilisation’ being promoted in some compacts. These will claim to have it, but it is operated simply by hiking up the ISO in order to make the shutter speed faster. You can do that yourself if you need to with any camera, at the expense of introducing image noise.

Pentax (and possibly some other makes) build true (optical) image stabilisation into their camera body, so all their lenses work with IS.

Also, note that IS will not help with the action shot. That will still be blurry at 1/25 sec, even with 4 stops of IS, because on that shot it is the subject that is moving, not your hand.

OK, so how do you use one set of shutter speed/aperture settings over the other. If your compact is very basic, you may not be able to, though it is always worth knowing what shutter speed it is using so you can avoid blurry images. If, however, your camera has a set of letters on the dial that goes something like PSAM or PTAM, here’s what you have…

* In P (for Program), the camera chooses both the shutter speed and the aperture to give what it judges to be the correct exposure. It’s a ‘semi-auto’ situation, and usually hands you control of the rest of the settings: things like ISO, white balance, image quality, etc.

* In S or T (for Shutter, or Time priority), you get to choose the shutter speed and the camera matches it with the appropriate aperture to give what it judges to be the correct exposure.

* In A (for Aperture priority), you get to choose the lens aperture and the camera matches it with the appropriate shutter speed to give what it judges to be the correct exposure.

* In M (for Manual) , you get to choose both shutter speed and lens aperture. The camera will give you a little light meter scale to show you what it thinks of your choice and you have the chance to adjust to its recommended reading or to do your own thing. More on that later…

In most every day situations, you can use aperture priority and trust the camera to get the exposure correct. That lets you pick the depth of field for each situation. All you need to do is keep an eye on shutter speed when you stop down the aperture (increase the f number). However, for fishing action shots, a switch to shutter priority to make sure you can get the 1/500 sec needed to freeze action might be a better bet. This often requires going up to ISO 800-1000, as the camera can’t open the lens aperture wide enough to give the correct exposure (auto ISO will do this job for you if you have it as an option).

For fly shots, a switch to manual will give you more control. The indoor environment and still life subject give you the time you need to fiddle about and tweak the settings until you get the effect you want.

You can still use aperture priority to give you a deliberately long exposure. If you want to do the blurry water shot above, all you need do is go to aperture priority and stop the aperture down as small as it goes (highest f number), and that will automatically force the camera to choose the slowest shutter speed that will give a correct exposure. If it is a bright day you might need to put a polarising or neutral density filter on to block even more light so forcing the shutter speed to go slow enough for the blurry effect you are after. (It is generally easier to use aperture priority to control both aperture and shutter speed than to use shutter speed priority. In shutter priority, the camera can quickly run out of aperture options. In aperture priority, there are many more shutter speed options available to it.)

OK, so how does the camera know how much water to put in the bucket?

The camera has a light meter built in to it. The old traditional hand-held light meters measured the light coming from the source. The light meters built in to modern cameras point towards the thing you are photographing, so they have to measure the light being reflected by it. This is both a good thing when it gets it right and a bad thing when it gets it wrong. The problem is that it has to have a benchmark and it can only really have one benchmark. So, they are all calibrated to 18% grey. This effectively means that they are most comfortable when photographing the side of a battleship (for this exercise we can ignore colours).

On a sunny day the battleship will be bright and the camera will read that and so set a fast shutter/narrow aperture exposure. On a dull day the battleship will be dark and the camera will give a slow shutter/wide aperture exposure. In both shots the camera will attempt to give you the same exposure, so the camera is taking it upon itself to keep the battleship looking 18% grey. This is a huge issue. What it means is that the camera is always going for a bland, averaged-out look, no matter what the light levels, shadows, reflections and other lighting effects of the circumstances. ‘Point and shoot’ effectively means ‘point and get the bland, wishy-washy result’. There are more of these on the forum than you could shake a stick at.

If you want the sunny example above to be brighter than the dark example, you will need to make an effort. Intervene and dial in exposure compensation. This will be on your camera somewhere as a +/- EV scale, marked in either ⅓ or ½ stop increments.


-1 EV​

Now, that’s awkward enough. What makes it much more awkward is that we fishermen don’t often photograph the sides of battleships. We insist on photographing water when it’s white, water when it’s black and water at all shades in between. We also photograph snow, silvery reflective fish, and all manner of things that are not 18% grey. And yet folk expect to be able to just ‘point and shoot’ and get a good result every time, regardless of what they are photographing.

It’s not all bad news. Modern digital cameras have a thing called multi-segment, evaluative, pattern or multi-pattern metering, which breaks up the image in the viewfinder into sections. It then reads all these sections and tries to work out what the Hell it is you are photographing. But even after doing that it still bases its final exposure on the 18% grey benchmark. So, suppose you are photographing a white cat in the snow. With little detail to go on, the camera assumes you are photographing the side of a battleship and, getting a very bright reading back from it, uses a fast shutter/narrow aperture.

This gives you an under‑exposure and delivers you a photograph of what looks like a grey cat among ashes. So, don’t be surprised and wonder what has gone wrong when you get this. Nothing is wrong. Point and shoot is a thing of the past, remember! A camera can’t think - that’s your job. What it can do is make some pretty swift calculations (albeit based on 18% grey!) to save you time and brain power, and give you a starting point on which to base your own input. It’s time for you to get off your backside and help out your camera for a change. Get dialling in some +ve EV to make that cat and the snow white.

And yes, we appreciate that a grayling in the snow requires a quick shot before it is returned… “No time to fiddle about with the camera controls”. No there isn’t, so you need to anticipate that this will be required. If you arrive at the water and everything is covered in snow, turn your camera on and dial in +1 stop of EV and put your camera back in your pocket. It will go into sleep mode with the settings ready to be activated when you come to use it.


+1 EV​

It works the same but reversed for a photograph of a black cat on a pile of coal. The camera’s light meter will receive very little reflected light and so assume it is very dark. It will still think it is photographing the side of a battleship and so give it a slow shutter speed/wide aperture and deliver a photo of what looks like a grey cat among ashes… again! So, for shots of black water and such like, you need to dial in –ve EV to keep it black.


-1 EV​

Same goes for trying to capture the dusk. Whenever anyone says of their photography, “I just want to do point-and-shoot.”… sorry, but if you want a shot at dusk to record the dusk you simply cannot do it with a point-and-shoot approach. Again, the camera does not have a brain. The camera will want to make it daylight. It will see that it is nearly dark and compensate by giving it about a 1 or 2 second exposure (giving you a bright, very blurry shot). Or it will tell you it cannot take the shot, or it will take it with flash, which will be useless pointing it out into a wide open scene.

If you have M for Manual on your dial, the above examples are the perfect times to use it. Take total control of the situation. For shots of the dusk, tell your camera it is dusk by making shutter speed faster, until the meter is reading about ‑2 EV on the scale. The faster shutter speed will eliminate hand shake blur, and your shot will look like it is nearly dark (which it is!). If the light is about goosed, you may need to hike up the ISO as well to give you a realistic shutter speed...


'Principles of Exposure' continued in Part II......
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