Digital Photography for Anglers
I’ve never had any formal training in photography but people seem to think that I have a knack for it. They also think that my being able to do anything with a computer is another sign of the Apocalypse. Nevertheless I have somehow become proficient with this digital photography thing and I’m pleased to pass on what I consider to be the basics to anyone willing to listen. If you own a digital camera and like to take photos on your fishing trips, the following information hopefully will be helpful.
Cameras, lenses, etc.
There are many excellent ‘point and shoot’ cameras on the market today, several of which are actually waterproof up to 30 feet or so. Any camera over 6 megapixels will make a fine 8x10 print but the ‘point and shoots’ do have some serious limitations as far as fishing goes. The biggest drawback is the delay between pressing the shutter and taking the picture. Action shots are next to impossible. If you plan on taking photos of anything ‘moving’, you really need a digital SLR (single lens reflex) camera. Most of the good photographers I know use either Canon or Nikon, but these days many other brands have crept into the market with excellent products. All you have to do is go to Amazon.com and pull up ‘digital SLR cameras’ and every camera on the planet will be presented to you with features, lens selections and prices. I personally use Canon and I know a little bit about Nikon so most of the discussion to follow will be based on my experiences with one or the other of these brands.
Consumer level cameras run between $600 and $1700. The Canon low end would be the Rebel series and the higher end would be the 50D ($1300) and the 7D ($1700). The Nikons would be the D90 and the D300. The next step up is the professional level cameras which range from $3000 to $7000, body only. Obviously the better camera you buy, the better the photos it will produce…but you still have to figure out how to use it.
Once you have selected a camera body, you have to start thinking about lenses. If you are fishing, you will need to shoot close-up photos of people and fish, wide angle landscapes, and telephoto shots. Most of the cameras recommended above are sole in ‘kits’ with a zoom lens designed specifically for digital cameras – Canon calls them EF lenses and they are very reasonably priced. The most practical are the EFS - 17-85, 28-135 and the 18-200. There is also an EFS 15-85 which is excellent. On a boat you will need a wide angle range and a telephoto range up to 200mm. There’s not much need to go beyond 200 mm. If a fish is too far away for the 200, you best wait till it gets closer. Both Canon and Nikon make an 18-200 with internal stabilization which is a good all around ‘starter’ lens. If they have a downside, it’s that they are a bit slow to focus at maximum zoom, which is a problem with jumping fish. The EFS-15-85 will handle everything in and around the boat very well and can be supplemented by a 70-200 or 70-300 in time. Unfortunately there is no one lens that does everything perfectly. My recommendation is to start out with the EFS-15-85 and learn to use it effectively before you move on to the next level.
The next level gets expensive, but the better the lens, the sharper your photos will be. I carry two cameras and several lenses on most of my trips – one with a 24-105 and the other with a 70-200 (if I’m after jump shots). Both are ‘L’ lenses with an aperture of f4. There are a number of f2.8 lenses that are great for low light situations but they are much more expensive and you will rarely every need to go below f4. The money you’ll save with the f4 lenses will be more than enough for you to pick up a ‘super wide angle’ lens like the Tokina Fisheye 10-17. If you’re looking for a wildlife lens, you’ll need the 100-400 which is the maximum range that you can use without a tripod. The bottom line is get the best quality lens that you can comfortably afford, but where ever you begin, you can count on your collection of lenses expanding over the years much like your collection of fishing rods.
Let’s assume that you start out with the Canon 50D or the Nikon D90 and a zoom lens. Both of these cameras have built in flash features. The only other accessory that you might need is a CIRCULAR polarizing filter, which is helpful if you want to take photos of a fish under the water or if you’re shooting sunrises or landscapes and you want the clouds to stand out. It’s the same theory as your polarized glasses – it cuts out glare and helps you see fish in the water. However it is the kiss of death for action shots. A polarizing filter cuts out something like 2.5 f stops from your exposure level stay the same, it will cut your shutter speed from 1/1000 to under 1/500. If you are after jumping fish, do not use a polarizer…..the fast shutter speed is far more important than reducing glare. People sometimes look at me like I’m crazy, but the worst thing you can do is try to get jump shots with a polarizing filter.
You bought it, protect it
Once you’ve purchased a digital SLR, your next priority should be to protect it. A digital camera is basically a computer – it does not do well bouncing around on a boat and it really doesn’t like water. If you are on foot, there are a number of excellent back packs designed for cameras. If you are on a boat, you will need a padded case that is both waterproof and easily accessible. If you have one camera and lens, a Pelican case provides the most protection because the camera is encased in foam. However Pelicans are either open or shut and if you change lenses, your camera will no longer fit into its ‘cut out’ space and it will take a bit of rearranging to get everything closed up. I always have two cameras and an extra lens or two so I use tither the Orvis Safe Passage Water Tite Kit bag or the Patagonia Great Divider, but only after adding two inches of foam padding to the bottom. They are waterproof when zipped up, but the covers close tightly enough without being zipped to provide protection from salt spray while still allowing easy in and out access. Do not underestimate the importance of padding the bottom of whatever bag you use. You wouldn’t leave your laptop on the bottom of a flats skiff while you’re bouncing through a two foot chop….same applies to your camera.
Digital cameras have several automatic settings such as portraits, sports and landscapes which actually work quite well, but it won’t be long before you’ll want to control the camera yourself. A good trick for all novice photographers is to actually read the camera’s owners manual. I know that hardly anyone really ever does that, but the manual actually does have some useful information. Unfortunately, it has so much technical information that your mind usually blows a fuse around page 7. Here’s a condensed version of the important stuff.
Your camera can shoot several levels of jpeg and/or raw images. Set your camera to the highest level/quality jpeg. Eventually, you may decide to move up to raw, but it requires special software for processing and can be very frustrating. Jpegs are simple and can be stored and edited in programs such as Mac’s IPhoto until you move up to Adobe elements or Photoshop, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Hundreds of magazine covers have been shot in jpeg format. Just be sure you’re using the highest quality.
Next you should set your ISO, formerly known as ‘film speed’, to 400. There is really no reason to go below 400 but you may need to go higher in low light conditions. For normal daylight shooting, 400 is perfect. Set your ‘auto focus’ to Al-Servo if you plan to have moving subjects (which is usually the case) or to ‘one shot’ if everything will be stationary. The advantage of ‘one shot’ for grip and grin photos is that you can focus on the main point of interest such as the face of the person or the fish’s eye, push the shutter half way down, the recompose your photo for the final shot. You can’t do that in Al-Servo. Just to add to the confusion, your camera will have a number of ‘focus points’ that can be adjusted. If your subject is going to be somewhat stationary you might want to set a single focus point, usually in the center. However most of the time it will be safer to use the ‘all points’ setting. Digital cameras have anywhere between 10 and 45 focus points and if they are all active you have a better chance of a few of them locking in on a fish that’s jumping all over the place. Your camera will also have a ‘high speed motor drive’ which will allow you to take up to 5 frames a second. This is a big help if you’re shooting action of any kind. Now you’re ready to move into the real ‘photographer’s’ areas.
There are three ‘pro’ modes that you need to understand if you want the best quality photos possible. There is a “P’ setting which is pretty much automatic. “P” allows you to set the ISO and jpeg quality while the camera balances the aperture and shutter speed. You need this setting if you are going to use the flash, which is usually helpful in ‘grip and grin’ shots or back lit situations. Most of my boat shots and literally all of my jumping fish shots are taken in ‘Av’ (aperture priority) which allows me to set the lens aperture and let the camera decide the shutter speed. My ISO will usually be at 400 and I will set the aperture at f 8 which will give me a shutter speed well over 1/1000 on a normal sunny day. Coincidently f 8 is also the sharpest focusing aperture on most zoom lenses. If you are shooting a landscape, you might want to go to f 16 for a greater depth of field or to f 4 if you want the background to be blurred or if you are in low light conditions. In any event f 8 is the best place to start. The same theory holds for the ‘Tv’ setting which makes the shutter speed the priority, but I seldom use this mode.
Accordingly my basic setting are as follows: Action shots – Aperture priority at F 8, Al-Servo focus, ISO 400; Grip&Grins – “P”, One shot focus, ISO 400, possibly with fill in flash.
Shoot the Light
Photography is all about light or the lack thereof. For example on a typical day, you’ll be heading out at dawn and will want some sunrise shots that require a high ISO, a large depth of field, and consequently a slow shutter speed. An hour later the sun will be up and you’ll need my basic aperture priority settings. When your buddy catches that fish of a lifetime, you’ll need to go to the “P” mode and fill in flash. In the afternoon clouds may blow in and your light will decrease dramatically forcing you to open the aperture to f 4 and increase your ISO. This is a continuing balancing act designed to admit the perfect amount of light to give you a proper exposure and razor sharp focus. Always check your settings when you pick up the camera just to remind yourself to change the settings if your lighting has changed. It’s a good theory but things can happen pretty quickly when the bite turns on and I often find myself trying to take jump shots in “P” mode at 1000 ISO. If you are calm enough, you should snap a sample shot and check you exposure through the histogram.
What’s a Histogram?
A histogram is a graph that appears in the ‘info-playback’ thumbnail in the screen on the back of your camera. Take a practice shot, push the playback to display the photo. Then push the ‘info’ button and a split screen will appear with your photo on the left and the histogram on the right. The left side of the graph indicates the dark areas and the right side deals with the bright areas. Ideally neither side of the histogram graph should touch the side of the display frame. On the water your biggest problem will be with overexposure and this happens a lot when a silver fish hits direct sunlight. A severely overexposed section will have zero pixels and can’t be corrected in photoshop. If you have a choice it’s better to under expose the photo and there’s a way to do that .
We all have to rely on the camera’s automatic light meter. However as you point the camera at the spot in the water where you expect your fish to jump, the light meter will be taking a reading from the water which can range from light green to deep blue to dark brown. Suddenly you have six feet of silver fish exploding into the sunlight which its scales reflect like a giant mirror. You want the fish to be properly exposed but your camera doesn’t know that and will usually keeps the exposure on the darker water. No matter how good you are or how much you spent on your camera, its auto-exposure system will not be able to adjust quickly enough to prevent ‘hot spots’. I try to compensate for this by subtracting light from the automatic reading. I usually put in a “negative exposure compensation” of 2/3 of an f stop, ie, two clicks off the center of the bracketing gauge you see at the bottom or the side of your view finder. In the Canon D50 this is done by pressing the shutter half way down and moving the indicator two bars to the left (negative side) by rotating the wheel on the back of the camera. If the water is really dark, you might have to go three clicks, but it’s a lot safer to underexpose the fish than have half of it washed out.
Setting up the Shot
The problem with fishing photography is that it’s hard to have a camera in one hand and a rod in the other. Don’t wait for something exciting to happen and then start looking for your camera. Anticipating events is very important and if you are in ‘camera mode’, have you camera in hand with settings double checked and be ready. It also helps to have a prearranged plan with your buddies to set ups some shots. There’s not much you can do with a redfish or grouper but jumping fish are a different story, especially tarpon and billfish. My standard phrase to the angler is “make it jump” which usually gets me that “are you nuts” look if not a stream of profanity. Nevertheless Capt Rick Murphy and I have a trick we use on tarpon to set up jump shots.
As soon as a tarpon feel the sting of the hook it takes to the air. This first flurry is pretty intense and it’s hard to predict just where the tarpon will exit the water, so don’t be disappointed if you miss that first series of jumps. As soon as a big tarpon stops jumping, it decides that a trip to the next county is in order and takes off. This is about the time that the guides starts up the motor to chase down the fish while the angler frantically tries to regain line. If the angler puts minimal pressure on the tarpon during this time frame, it will usually stay calm and you can creep up pretty close to it. When the bow gets 30 or 40 feet from the fish, the photographer can set his zoom range and pre-focus by pressing the shutter half way down. When everybody’s set, the angler puts maximum pressure on the rod and the tarpon’s first reaction is to jump. He’ll be close to the boat, a bit tired and hopefully down sun. It always pays to have your shadow pointing at the fish when taking pictures. The position of the sun isn’t always possible to control, but if you can bribe the captain to keep the sun at your back, the quality of your photos will improve immensely.
Sailfish are another great fish for jumping shot, but they have just as many complications as tarpon, maybe more. Pacific sails are the most photogenic because they are bigger, dumber, and more easily teased to the back of the boat than their Atlantic cousins. In Florida sailfish are usually hooked on live baits slow trolled or drifted off kites. When a sail takes the bait, the angler drops’ back quite a bit before setting a circle hook, so when the sail starts jumping, he can be almost 100 yards astern and way out of camera range. It has to be fought all the way back into that 50 foot optimal photo range and by the time it gets there, it’s often too tired to jump. Pacifics however are easily teased right up to the stern with a hookless bait so the hook-up is usually 30 feet away. As soon as they discover that there is a problem, they start jumping and pretty much stay on the surface throughout the fight. They are a great photo fish on a fly rod and the boat captain can usually keep them pretty close. If there’s a problem, it’s that most of their body is dark while small sections are silver sun reflectors. This wrecks havoc on your exposure because if the sun is lighting the body properly, it’s probably washing out the lightest areas on the face and belly. I use my minus two clicks of exposure compensation and hope for the best.
Shoot a LOT
The best thing about digital photography is that it doesn’t cost a thing to shoot hundreds of photos on a day’s trip. When you get home, download them into your computer and dump the bad ones. It’s always safer not to erase photos from the camera because you can’t accurately judge the quality of the exposure and focus from the small LCD on the back of the camera. Wait till you get home and can view them on the computer screen. Cropping can change the quality of the image greatly so don’t be too quick to dump shots on the boat. A 2 gig flash card will give you over 500 high resolution jpeg images which should be more than enough for most days on the water. It also helps to have a program where you can review all your photos quickly. I use Photo Mechanic which allows me to select all the bad shots and delete them all at once.
Don’t hesitate to dump a bad photo. Programs like IPhoto can display all your jpegs, save them as a screen saver, make slide shows, and even put them into a bound book for you. Most of my photos are out of focus, over exposed, of someone’s feet or simply horrible for any number of reasons. Get rid of them. They take up memory in your computer and drive viewers crazy….it’s like watching unedited home movies. If you only show people your best photos, they will think you are a pro. If you make them suffer through all the bad shots, that’s all they will remember.
Practice on the Birds
All the settings I’ve been discussing are difficult to grasp at first but they really need to be second nature when you get in a boat. You will be working with a zoom lens that you need to adjust instinctively. You can’t be zoomed in too close or back too far. I’ve had many a photo ruined when a perfectly exposed and focused tarpon jumps out of the frame because I was zoomed in too close. You need to practice with you camera as much as you can and fortunately that’s as easy as stepping into your back yard. Spend a half hour or so a day taking photos of your wife, kids, dog, squires, whatever strikes your fancy. Then go to a park or bird sanctuary and take lots of bird photos. Use your longest telephoto lens. Birds are great subjects to practice on and you can get some spectacular photos in the process. You can run out any time you have some free time and play with your camera in a wide variety of lighting conditions. It’s a fun way to find out what works and what doesn’t. The more you use your camera and experiment with settings, the better your fishing shots will be. Go to Birdsasart.com and sign up for Arthur Morris’ free newsletter if you want to see some spectacular photos and excellent shooting tips.
Once you get comfortable with the mechanics of your camera, the subject matter of the photos becomes important. When you are not up on the casting platform, you should have your camera out and ready for that spectacular series of jumps that is only a bite away…….good plan, but how many tarpon bites can you expect to get a day? Not many! Look around and use your imagination. Sunrises, close-ups of reels, fly boxes, shots of other boats….almost anything can turn into a photo op if you pay attention.
There’s one more thing that you should consider if you’re shooting in a tropical climate – condensation. If your camera spends the night in air conditioning. It is going to fog up as soon as you take it out into the early morning heat and humidity. Wiping the lens with a cloth doesn’t really help. The only thing you can do is wait until the sun warms the glass and metal up and hope that the condensation isn’t internal. The solution is to warm up the camera and especially the lens with a hair dryer before leaving your room. Just open your camera bag and blow the hot air on everything till you feel the chill disappear. Take the lens caps off to warm up the glass then try to seal up the bag while everything is still toasty. The alternative is to leave your camera outside or in your car at night. This little trick can save you a lot of photo ops in the early morning hours and sometimes serious damage to your equipment.
I use a Mac computer which is why I keep referencing the ease of IPhoto. I also use Aperture and Photoshop CS4, but post production editing is an endless stream of information that is way too complicated for me to even try to explain even if I was remotely qualified to do so. I have friends who can literally take my face and put it on the fish. There is no limit to what you can do in photoshop but the basic owners manual is two inches thick. IPhoto allows you to crop, enhance and sharpen your jpeg photos quite nicely. I usually follow this sequence no matter which program I’m using. First , straighten the horizon, then crop the photos till you get the best possible composition. You can change the emotion and impact of a photo by cropping it properly. No photo is ever complete without some cropping. You can make it darker or lighter by adjusting exposure and you can darken light areas and lighten dark areas with the highlights/shadows tool. Finally, don’t hesitate to use the sharpening filter, just don’t get too carried away. Also be aware that when you edit a jpeg image, you may lose access to the original. The solution is to burn the originals on a cd for storage so you can always find the original if needed. If there’s a Mac store near you, they will have a ‘one to one’ instructional program which has been of great benefit to me over the years. If you can find someone to teach you photoshop, by all means take a few lessens. Eventually you will move out of IPhoto into Aperture but that’s another subject best left to Apple’s One to One program.
There is an endless learning curve in digital photography and I’m probably just approaching the middle. Hopefully this chapter will get you started and give you enough basic confidence not to be overwhelmed at the beginning. Eventually you may find that catching fish in a photo is just as satisfying as catching it on a hook. Photos allow you to keep your best trips with you forever and relive them over and over again. It’s a lot like fly casting. You just need some decent instruction at the beginning and then you need to practice. A camera just adds another dimension to fishing ….and it’s all fun.