A Fisherman's Guide to Fishing Photography Part 2


Well-known member
Mar 13, 2008
'Principles of Exposure' continued....

All digital cameras let you review your shots after taking them, so you can check whether your exposure is OK (and re-shoot if it needs some EV compensation dialled-in). The image on the LCD on its own is a bit hit/miss, as checking a small display outdoors can give you a false impression of your exposure. It’s much better if your camera can display the histogram along with the shot. The histogram shows all the pixels in your image displayed as a graph, plotted from black on the left-hand side to white on the right-hand side. A good exposure should look roughly something like this…


What it shows is a full dynamic range from blacks on the left to whites on the right, but crucially without going off the scale and losing detail as a result (called clipping).

If it looks like this…


… there are many pixels that have run off on the left hand side to black and it has lost detail in the shadows. It is also lacking in pixels that extend to the right hand side, so there are no highlights. It is (potentially) an under-exposed image.

If it looks like this…


… there are many pixels that have run off on the right hand side to white and it has lost detail in the highlights. It is also lacking in pixels that extend to the left hand side, so there are no shadows. It is (potentially) an over-exposed image.

The histograms above are only potentially under and over exposed, as it depends on what the subject was -- black cat in the coal, white cat in the snow?

It is worth noting that erring slightly on the side of under-exposure usually gives a more presentable result than erring on the side of over-exposure. Clipped highlights nearly always look bad, and they are a common occurrence among fishing photos (typical example below). Many cameras have a highlight clipping warning available, so if you switch it on after taking a shot, any clipped highlights on the LCD review panel will flash to warn you the shot is erring on the over-exposed side.

As mentioned, erring slightly on the underexposed side tends to give much more presentable results, and almost every photograph benefits from having at least a few black or almost black shadows in it somewhere. Absolutely loads of forum photos suffer from lack of black/nearly black pixels, so they are just grey and muddy and flat. Sorry, but that’s how it is when you trust to auto-everything.


The shot above shows the limitations of digital photos. Use of partial metering (see below) has allowed the meter reading to be based on what is going on in the foreground, and there is not too much wrong so far. However, the light is bright and coming from in front and to the right of the camera, so the sky in the top right quadrant is over-exposed and many pixels are ‘blown-out’ to pure white. With the highlight clipping warning turned on, the software displays all the blown-out pixels in red. It’s an important issue in processing images, as there is nothing that can be done to rescue blown-out pixels.

The problem here is caused by the limited dynamic range that digital cameras have (number of stops between pure black and pure white). It is less than human sight by at least a couple of stops, and digital images are prone to running off both ends of the histogram at once.

Most of the time blown-out highlights can be avoided with careful composition and good metering practice, but they remain (perhaps equally with poor focusing) the most common fault in photos posted on the forum.

Beware too, the low contrast shot, as fishermen get plenty of them. That’s when all the pixels are clumped in the centre, with no highlights, or shadows. The resulting shot looks muddy and flat. A good way to fight low contrast in your shots is to get a hood for your lens. It has the same effect as using your hand to shield your eyes while straining to focus on something distant on a bright day. Low contrast is often simply a result of the light and weather. However, it is one shot that can be easily rescued with image processing software and ‘Levels’ or ‘Curves’ adjustment.





Note that the above example has not required a massive change to what fell out the camera. It’s mostly a case of ensuring that the brightest pixels reach the white end and the darkest pixels reach the black end.

If your camera has auto-bracketing, you might want to consider setting it to take 3 shots at -1, 0 and +1 EV. That way, it takes away the guesswork and you can wait until you get home and see the results on the computer before deciding which exposure gave you the best results. It does fill the memory card 3 times as quickly, and it is a bit lazy and a bit ‘point-and-shoot-ish’. It is also no use when you are taking sequences of action shots, but it has its part to play and is really useful as a fail-safe a lot of the time. If you do a lot of boat fishing with the camera on stand-by, ready for when something suddenly comes up that cries, “Photo now!”, the less time spent thinking about settings the better, and one thing that can be eliminated from the list is exposure compensation, if your camera automatically shoots at -1, 0 and +1 EV as a default.

We mentioned multi-pattern metering. Your camera may have other metering modes available. These include the likes of centre-weighted average, partial and spot metering. Essentially they all allow you to use only part of the scene from which to take the light reading, so that you get the exposure you are after.


In the shot above, the camera metered using the light coming from only the fish (so the fish is correctly exposed) and ignored the black water (so keeping it nice and black). If the camera had used the whole scene for a reading the fish would be over-exposed and the water would be a muddy grey.


Focusing is an area where the forum posters really could do with brushing up on their technique, as there are many photos on here that just are not in focus. The main thing you should make sure of is that you can identify where your camera is trying to focus. That is to say… what part of the scene you are shooting is your camera’s focusing system looking at? And, how does it confirm with you when it has found a good focus and has locked-on?

These days, all compacts and all but a few specialist lenses have some system of autofocus. Most autofocus systems rely on some way of using contrast in the target material on which to hunt back and forth until contrast is at its steepest. It then recognises that point as being in focus, stops trying, and often goes “beep” to tell you it is ready to take a photo and/or flashes the focusing point. Or, it may give you a green light on the LCD or viewfinder. It should do something anyway, and if it is not doing it, and you take the photo, it will be blurred and out of focus.

Whatever it does, make sure you recognise when it has focused and what it has focused on. It may have a fixed area – often the centre of the viewfinder, however many advanced cameras have multiple focusing points so you can set the camera on a tripod and still use autofocus on something that is not in the centre of the viewfinder. If using these, you need to remember when you have left it set to an outside point, as the next time you try to do a quick grab shot using dead centre, it will not focus on your subject!

The camera may hunt for whatever is providing the best contrast and lock on that. It may not be the thing you want to focus on though. It may have some sort of face-recognition system, which may fool it into focusing on something that is not the thing you want.

Many of the fly shots posted on the forum have been taken when the camera simply did not have a focus lock on the fly. One sure way to get a sharp focus is to sit the camera on a tripod or even just on a pile of books – anything to keep it rock steady. If it is a compact, set it to macro and make sure it is trying to focus at its minimum focusing distance. Then move the fly back and forth while watching the fly in the viewfinder/LCD until you see it is in sharp focus. Take the shot. Using the self-timer or a remote shutter release is great for fly shots, so you don’t introduce movement in the act of pressing the shutter. You must ensure, however, that the camera does not try to refocus when it takes the shot, or it will ruin all your fine positioning work. The easiest way is to turn off autofocus if you can.

When relying on autofocus, the perfect thing to focus on is something like a black and white chequered flag. The worst things to focus on are the likes of the middle of a refrigerator door, the centre of a black shadow, and so on – things where the camera will hunt back and forth without finding any contrasting tonal edges to lock onto. So, be aware that if you are photographing the surface of smooth water, the camera may struggle to find focus. There may be situations where you are better to switch to manual focus if your camera lets you and trust your own eye to get a good focus.


In the above shot, if the camera was set up to use a single focusing spot in the centre corresponding to the highlighted red area, it would be unable to autofocus on the fly and would hunt back and forth without finding a lock. Either pick a decentralised focusing point in line with part of the fly, or move the fly so part of it is dead centre, or use a manual means – simply moving the camera or the fly until you see it is in focus works well, but you must be sure the camera will not try to refocus! Again, it is a case of taking control and not trusting to point-and-shoot.

More advanced cameras will give you more than one focusing system. The basic option is to lock focus with the shutter button on the half-press point. However, when the subject is moving about such that its distance from the camera varies, you have the option to switch to ‘servo’ focus. In servo mode, keeping the shutter button on the half-press point keeps the autofocus active (servo might be on a dedicated button), so it can track a moving object while you wait for the moment to press the shutter. This mode is particularly useful for trying to capture action shots of fish in play, though keeping it focused on the water surface while waiting for the fish to break can be tricky, as already mentioned.

A good tip when focusing is to concentrate on your subject’s eye (if it has at least one!) eg, if it is a person or a fish. If you have the eye nearest the camera in focus, everything else can be out of focus and it will look right. If everything else is in focus but the eyes are out of focus, it will look wrong.


The eyes have it.​

When photographing flies, if limited depth of field is an issue, try experimenting with using the head, the hook eye or the hook-point as your focusing point. As already mentioned, keeping the hook shank parallel with the sensor will let you get the point, the body, the head and the eye all in focus at once.

Most lenses give their sharpest results when the aperture is set to approx one stop less than full open. For example, if a lens is f4 fully open, it will be at its sharpest at f5.6. You must bear in mind however, that at wide apertures, the focal plane is at its thinnest, so your focusing needs to be spot-on to get that razor-sharp shot.

The Shutter Button​

It is hard to generalise on the way the shutter button works, as there are so many different set-ups out there in digicam world. However, you should be aware of the way your camera is set up to allow you to meter for the exposure on one part of the image, focus on a different part, and then allow you to compose the shot without either of those things being in the centre.

An example might go something like this… With metering and focusing both assigned to the centre area of the viewfinder, you point the centre towards the part you want to meter on, for example, a part of the scene that equates to mid tones (doesn’t need to be grey – grass will do fine). You then press the ’exposure lock’ button so the camera will hold the shutter speed and aperture it decided on after taking the meter reading for you. Now swing to point the centre over the part of the scene on which you want to focus. Half-press the shutter button until it meets the point of resistance and hold it there. The camera should beep or flash a light in the viewfinder or LCD panel to confirm it has found a focus lock. Without letting your finger up, move the camera again to give you the composition you want.

When happy, press all the way down to fire the shutter. (Most compacts don’t have a real shutter, but they will make a noise like one to tell you they have taken the shot.)

In practice, a lot of the time you will want to meter on the same thing as you are focusing on, in which case simply point at it, half press to lock both, recompose, then fully press. Just be aware that you are carrying your meter reading with you when you do that, so if you want an evaluative reading based on the final composition, you will need to use some other method, eg manual focus, off-centre focus point, etc. Alternatively, go to the final composition and engage exposure lock, then swing to your subject and half press to focus on it, hold the half press, and swing back to the composition and press all the way down to shoot.

White Balance​

An important control on all digital cameras is white balance. The first thing you need to get on board is that the white light we see most of the time isn’t actually white… and it has a temperature… measured in degrees Kelvin (K). Our brains are fantastically good at compensating for the temperature of light. If we look at something that our brain convinces us should be white, we see it as white, no matter what temperature the light is that’s being reflected from it. Cameras have to take a guess based on the light coming in through the lens. Set on auto white balance, they usually make a good job, but occasionally they get it hopelessly wrong. For example, there are a lot of photos about this winter that feature blue snow...


Blue snow… underexposed blue snow!

By far the best way to deal with white balance is to shoot in RAW file format if your camera has the option. Then you don’t need to decide on the white balance setting until after you have the image on your PC. Then you can choose it to taste, or use the white balance tool to click on a neutral tone and the RAW software will balance the image for you perfectly. Blue snow becomes white in an instant.

Why was the snow blue?

As mentioned above, light has a temperature. If you take a black cast iron cauldron and start to heat it, at first it does not give off any light. As it heats, it starts to glow red. Heat it more and it glows orange, then yellow, then when it is really hot, it glows white, and eventually blue hot.

So, red light is the coldest and blue light is the hottest. This is tricky to get your head round, because to us red is a warm colour and blue is a cold colour.

The temperature of the ambient light bouncing around can vary from red sunsets when the temperature might be only 2,000 K, up to clear skies of more than 10,000 K.

Some pre-sets from Adobe RAW converter:

Tungsten bulb: 2850 K
Fluorescent tube: 3800 K
Daylight/flash: 5500 K
Cloudy: 6500 K
Shade: 7500 K

It is important to match the white balance of your shots to that of the ambient light. White balance temperatures operate on a blue/yellow scale, which is compensated for by a magenta/green scale. If the 2 differ such that the camera records a temperature higher than the ambient, the shot will look yellow. The classic case here is when you shoot flies indoors with tungsten light, but the camera mis-reads it or it is defaulting to ‘daylight’. You can use such a shift to your advantage. If you shoot down the river on a typical day in April, when everything looks a bit cold and it’s all blues and greens, and the light is flat and uninviting, you can warm up the look of the shot by setting white balance to ‘cloudy’, when really it was more like ‘daylight’. Hey presto, you introduce warm reds and yellows and the shot looks much warmer!


Daylight white balance (5500K)



Likewise, be careful with sunsets. You want to capture that warm red glow in the sky (about 3000K). Your camera however, set to auto white balance, will think is has a colour cast to correct and will try to neutralise it, so destroying the effect you are trying to capture. Set to daylight (5500K) instead of auto, you will keep hold of the glorious red glow.

Why was the snow blue then?

Snow is a common cause of fooling the camera’s measurement of the white balance into setting it lower than it should be. So, the colour shifts the other way… to the blue end. The degrees Kelvin of snow shots can be as high as 10,000 or more. It may be that some compacts struggle to get up to that sort of temperature – don’t know, but it’s a high temperature for any camera to find as an auto reading. If so, it’s not surprising so many shots of snow have a blue cast on them.

Try shifting white balance to a low temperature to make it blue and create something out of nothing…


OK, Let’s Shoot Something!

Hopefully by now we have an idea of what’s going on in the silver/black box in our hands and we are ready to take a photograph. A few pointers…

You have to think about what it is you are taking a photograph of. If you don’t, it will just be a snap and it will not stand comparison with a composition that someone else has put some thought into.

Try to have a focal point. It’s not essential, and sometimes it’s difficult to find one, but if you have something that the viewer’s eye can arrive at as being the point of the photograph, it makes it a composition, rather than a snap. Every picture tells a story, and all that sort of thing…

Once you have identified what your focal point is, it’s good if you can find a way to lead the viewer’s eye into the photograph and on to the focal point. Study the work of pro photographers, and look at the paintings of (proper) artists. Look at the shots winning the competitions in the photo magazines. There will usually be a focal point and a way to lead the eye to it. Rivers make for good lead‑ins. Look to start the river in the bottom corner and have it come diagonally up and into the image and to lead the eye towards the focal point, which could be a bridge, a building, an angler, a tree... Again, not essential, but it often works best if you don’t stick the focal point plumb in the centre of the image (especially when it is a tree!). Look up “The rule of thirds”.


While we are on about compositional guides, check out the others, like ‘3 elements’, ‘odd numbers’, triangles, natural frames, L‑shapes, the colour wheel, and all the rest.

Lead-ins should help to create a 3-D effect. That’s one of the main objectives of photography – to create a 3-D effect from a 2-D image. So, you either need things to start wide in the foreground and become small in the background, or you need some other deception, such as a contrast effect – misty mornings are good for those, so the foreground is dark and sharp, while subsequent layers become mistier and softer, receding to the background.


Another important tool of composition is to put something in the foreground to act as a perspective anchor. Although it is called ‘foreground interest’, it doesn’t actually need to be interesting – a rock is often enough – it’s just there to anchor the composition and create the all-important 3D effect…


Always have a look around you for some 'foreground attraction' - it's often right under your feet...


You can even do it with colours. Red or yellow in the foreground, with green or blue in the background creates a 3-D effect. The shot below has a bit of the reds/yellows foreground & blues/greens background coupled with the autumn leaves providing the foreground anchor.


The biggest fly in the ointment when it comes to looking for compositions rather than snaps, is boat fishing. It’s the time when you can afford to drag the SLR and the big lenses along with you but, out on the water, there are few options. One is to turn inwards and shoot your boat partner (!). The problem there is that he is invariably sitting on the other side of assorted clutter, dog-eared seat‑boxes, wayward rods and landing-net handles, juice bottles, Coke cans, plastic bags... And it’s not as if you are likely to be in an aesthetically pleasing boat, like a lovingly cared-for, hand-crafted, beautifully varnished, clinker-built, Irish drifter… More often than not, you will find yourself in a tatty old green fibreglass tub.

So, save for close-ups of boat partner with fish, it’s a case of pointing the lens out the boat. What have we got there?

The most usual situation is to be faced with a strip of water across the bottom, a strip of land across the middle, and a strip of sky across the top. Just hope to get some useful light to do something with it.


The water–land-sky shot. It’s OK, but it’s very 2-dimensional

The water–land–sky scene can be perked-up no end by catching another boat in the foreground. If you can also include the shore-line, you can completely eliminate the 2-D aspect…


Getting a series of boats lined up between foreground and background is a good way to create the 3-D effect…


When photographing anglers in boats, it is (apparently) almost essential (we are told), that they should be wearing a lifejacket and be sitting down. The first is a bit hit-miss, while the second is (particularly if you live in Scotland) nigh-on impossible. Shots like the one above from the Lake of Menteith are like hens’ teeth! Here’s the more usual scene…


A good shot ruined! A message to everyone out there who fishes standing up in a boat… “Sit the **** down!” The above is another example of the foreshortened perspective of long focal lengths, having been taken at 400 mm. The trees are not giant redwoods – see the panorama shot below, taken from the same viewpoint later in the year.

One alternative to apply to the water-land-sky scenario is to concentrate on the land and eliminate most of the sky and water. That gives you a very wide, very low shot – a panorama. They don’t lend themselves to viewing at the forum size of 758 pixels wide, but if you can present them at a larger size, or print them on panoramic paper, they give good results. The best way to produce a panorama with digital photography is to take 3, 4 or more shots while you pan across the scene, and then stitch them together on the PC with suitable software. These days the software is so good, you really cannot see the joins. A couple of important tips when taking the shots…

Make substantial overlaps – about one third of the frame – between each shot, so the software can find plenty common ground on which to base its stitching. Do not use any auto settings. If you do, the camera will make changes between frames, which will create differing exposures and then even when the physical joins are OK, the colours and tones will not merge smoothly. Take a meter reading from the centre of the scene. To do this, simply point at it, half press the shutter and note the shutter speed and aperture the camera was about to use. Then dial those settings in when set to manual, or use exposure lock if your camera can carry it from frame to frame. Keep the same white balance, zoom, ISO, etc between frames.


Three frames, ‘stitched’ together

Panoramas give the best results if you have the light fairly straight square behind you. If it is at either side, the finished assembly will be underexposed at one end, and over-exposed at the other. The more frames you go for, the more this effect will be exaggerated.

The other main situation that crops up afloat is when you see something happening in another boat. It might be 100 yards away, so you really need some zoom power to capture it…


380 mm

If you want to be able to cover shots that include the whole of your own boat and boat partner, and be able to get shots of action taking place in other boats, we are talking about having to hand a focal length range of ca 18 mm to ca 300 mm. As mentioned above, this can be covered by two 4x zooms, and these days quite possibly by one whopping great super-zoom SLR lens, or even a compact, though neither of these will give you the same image quality as the two 4x lenses.

Other shooting situations in boats include close-ups of fish in play, either caught by your boat partner or by yourself. You might find it is actually a little easier to photograph your own fish. When it’s your boat partner’s, you’ve got to try and anticipate when it is going to breach and to be focused on the spot and press the shutter in a split second. Not easy, and even less easy with the shutter lag of a compact.

When it’s your own fish, you’ve got a much better feel for when it’s on its way up to break surface and where it is going to surface. On the downside, you’ve got to play the fish in one hand and operate the camera with the other hand. It is important to emphasise that you should never delay the landing of the fish in order to take a photo of it in play. Only take a photo in the natural course of events as it comes to the net. As all cameras are right-handed, and both of us fish left-handed, it may be that this job is easier for us to manage than for right-handers. (Call it recompense for scissors, bread knives, watches, ink, ring-bound note books, and about a million other things!)


Who’s the bright spark who came up with the right-handed cup?​

For action shots, try servo focusing, shutter priority at 1/500 sec, auto ISO, continuous shooting mode, and centre-weighted metering.


Inevitably, we arrive at trophy shots of fish landed. This is obviously a sensitive issue and there will be those who say there is no time to take photos of fish that are being returned. OK, point taken. If you reckon you can get in a quick shot between net and release, that is your decision. Even if you just get a shot of the release…


If you are going to take a shot of a fish being held up for the camera before being released, you can be getting the camera ready while the fish is being landed and unhooked, so there is no delay while you fiddle with settings. Try aperture priority with a wide-ish aperture to defocus the background, ISO 100 or 200, centre-weighted metering. And remember to focus on the eye of the fish…


If you are including both angler and fish in the shot, you are probably best to have the captor hold the fish in such a way that the fish’s eyes and the angler’s eyes are the same distance from the camera. You can then focus on either, and still keep a wide aperture to defocus the background. The most important thing though is to get the angler to SMILE!! There is nothing worse than a photo of a nice fish being held by an angler who looks like he has lost a tenner and found 5 p. It is your job as the photographer to get the angler to smile – he will not do it unless you get him to do it. It might be forced, but it will still look so much better than a soor coupon. All non-smiling faces look dour when photographed, and it’s the first thing the viewer looks at.


Say Cheese!

Try to make your fish shots something different – something that hasn’t been posted 1000 times before. If you’ve just caught a stockie rainbow, and you’ve killed it, and you want to record its capture, have a wee think about whether the folk on the forum are really interested in seeing just another dead stockie rainbow lying on the grass with a rod alongside it. Give it a think. Try to come up with something a bit different…


If you really must photograph a dead stockie rainbow, for goodness sakes, at least make it a decent composition. GET IT IN FOCUS! Don’t have your left shoe protruding into the bottom of the shot. Don’t cut off its tail with the left or right margin. Come on guys, it’s not rocket surgery! There are lots of shots on the forum that are in all honesty only fit for the recycle-bin!

Regardless of how much zoom you have at your disposal, there is no substitute for the old photographer’s adage: “Get in close, and when you are in close… get in closer.” There are far too many shots posted where the photographer appears to have taken 3 steps back from the subject, apparently because it was essential to make the subject occupy only a small area in the centre and/or show all the interesting grass or water that lay all around them both!


In the shot above, the only thing of any interest is the angler posing with the fish. Everything outside the black rectangle is ‘dead space’. For sure, you can crop it out afterwards, but you are throwing away most of the pixels and effectively making the dreaded ‘digital zoom’, which inevitably reduces the quality.


This is the shot as it should have been taken

Get close, zoom in if needed, and get rid of all that dead space. The other thing you’ll notice is that the shot has gone from landscape (wider than tall) to portrait (taller than wide). Many folk seem to be totally unaware that cameras work equally well when you turn them on their side. If the subject is taller than it is wide (like the average angler, though admittedly not all!), turning the camera on its side to take the shot will minimise the 2 strips of dead space on either side and give you a much better composition.

Continued in Part 3
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