Tips For Taking Better Fishing Photos

Story and Photos By Pat Ford

This story won't help you catch more fish on your line, but it sure will help you capture them in pictures.

For Point-And-Shoot Digital Cameras

There are many good waterproof point-and-shoot cameras on the market today, which are excellent choices for boaters. Any point-and-shoot camera over six megapixels will make a fine 8x10 print. Here's how to make your pictures pop:

  • Set your camera to the highest resolution/quality JPEG. Set the image to the largest size. You'll get fewer photos, but you'll be able to enlarge them later to any size you like.
  • Set the ISO (which governs the camera's sensitivity to light) to auto, or 400. No need to go below 400.
  • Avoid using the "digital zoom" feature, which decreases picture quality. You can always zoom and crop on your computer later.
  • The fill-in flash makes a big difference in lighting up the boater's face. The hats we wear aboard make dark face shadows. For shots of people or gripand- grin photos of your catch, go to the "portrait" mode on the scene selector and then set the flash to "on."
  • Tell your friends to stay put till they see the flash go off. There's a delay between pressing the shutter release and the shutter actually taking the photo — this is the major drawback to point-and-shoot cameras and makes action shots more difficult to capture.

Photo of a fishing rod and fishIf nothing's happening, be creative with your gear and location. (iso500, 15mm, f14, 1-400)

  • Bracket your shots. Take one without a flash, the same one with a flash, and yet another from a different angle (higher, lower, or from one side), to make sure one of them gives you what you want.
  • Shaking up the expected angle makes for more interesting shots. Instead of the straight-on shot, go up to the bridge and take the photo, with your subjects looking up and smiling.

Photo of a Black Marlin leaping out of the waterBlack Marlin — my favorite species for shooting leaping billfish. (iso800, 24mm, f8, 1-3200)

  • Many waterproof point-and-shoot cameras can take excellent shots in shallow water. Water clarity is the most important element. Hold the camera just below the surface while a friend tries to lead the fish in front of it. Take a lot of photos; hopefully a few will be properly framed. (The underwater bonefish photo on the contents page was taken with a $250 Canon D10.)
  • Don't erase photos from the camera while you're on the scene. You just can't accurately judge the quality of the exposure and focus from the small LCD on the back. Download them into your computer and only then dump the bad ones.

Photo of a fisherman casting his netThe dark sky makes the net visible, adding to the drama of this shot. (iso 400, 70mm, f8, 1-1000)

  • There are a number of "scene" modes that are helpful, such as the "sport" mode on most digital cameras, which will give you the best chance at a decent action shot, and "sunset," which really brings out the colors in the sky.
  • Beautiful scenics, which always look so compelling to the naked eye, can result in disappointingly flat photos. A simple tip is to make sure you have something in the foreground of your shot — for instance, the bow of your boat, or a person gazing at the scene, or the stern of the boat with your flag fluttering.

Photo of holding the fish close to the camera, and focus on the fish's eyeUse a wide-angle lens, hold the fish close to the camera, and focus on the fish's eye. (iso500, 10mm, f16 with flash)

  • When taking a picture of a person with a fresh catch, rather than the flat "person holding up fish" shot, have your subject hold the fish closer to his/her head, point the fish at the camera, and smile. Meanwhile, take the shot by focusing on the fish's eye. Again, experiment with angles to find a more interesting composition.

For Single-Lens-Reflex Cameras

Digital single-lens-reflex (DSLR) cameras will give you the best results when taking photos outside. Prices start at around $600. (All the pictures in this article were taken with a variety of Canon DSLRs.) Here are some tips:

Photo of a fish jumping out of the water at dawnAction shots at dawn are a challenge. (iso1250, 24mm, f4.5, 1-400)

  • Get a padded, waterproof bag to protect your DSLR, then add more padding to the bottom of the bag. A digital camera is a computer. You wouldn't leave your laptop on the bottom of a skiff while bouncing along, right?
  • A stabilized 15-85 mm lens will run $700. It will handle anything in and around the boat. If I had only one lens, it would be this one.

Photo of a small dolphin fish just being caughtSmall dolphin are very difficult to get in focus, which is all done by the camera with continuous focus mode. (iso500, 70mm, f8, 1-2500)

  • If you buy a separate telephoto, don't go beyond 200 mm. If a fish is too far away for the 200, you'd best wait till it gets closer, anyway.
  • If you're after jumping fish, don't use a polarizer; it’s the kiss of death for action shots because it cuts 2.5 f-stops from your exposure level, and will cut your shutter speed if you leave the aperture alone.

Photo of Biscayne Bay sunriseA circular polarizing filter is helpful in reducing glare when taking photos of fish, crew, or boat parts that are underwater, or if you're shooting sunrises or landscapes and want the clouds to stand out. Example, this Biscayne Bay sunrise. (iso800, 24mm, f9, 1-125)

  • Learn your "pro modes." The "P" setting allows you to set the ISO and JPEG quality while the camera balances the aperture and shutter speed. Use this setting if you're using fill-in flash, which is very helpful in grip-and-grin shots or backlit situations. All of my jumping fish shots are taken in "Av" or "A" (aperture priority), which allows me to set the lens aperture and ISO and lets the camera decide the shutter speed. My ISO will usually be at 400 and I'll set the aperture at f-8 which will give me a shutter speed well over 1/1,000th on a normal sunny day. Coincidentally, f-8 is also the sharpest focusing aperture on most zoom lenses.
  • Two modes of auto focus are "single" and "continuous" ("Al servo" for Canon). Action shots require continuous, while single allows you to focus on the main point of interest, such as the face of the person or the fish's eye. Press the shutter halfway down, then recompose your photo for the final shot, holding the original focal point.

Photo of a close-up of a big fishDon't zoom in too much on big fish that jump, or you'll see them jump out of the frame. (iso1600, 88mm, f7, 1-250)

  • Check settings when you pick up the camera, to remind yourself to change the settings if the lighting has changed. Photography is about light or the lack thereof. It's a balancing act to admit the perfect amount of light to give you proper exposure and razor-sharp focus.
  • On the water, your biggest problem is overexposure, when direct sunlight hits a silver fish, which washes out details. An overexposed section will have zero pixels and can't be corrected. It's better to underexpose the photo, then lighten it later in your photo program.

Photo of man holding a large fish he just caughtDon't be afraid to change your perspective. It can give a completely different feeling to an ordinary "grip and grin" shot.

  • To compensate for the light that reflects off silvery fish, I use a "negative exposure compensation" of 2/3 of an f-stop, by moving two clicks off the center of the bracketing gauge at the bottom or the side of the view finder. Press the shutter halfway and move the indicator two bars to the left (negative side) by rotating the wheel on the back of the camera.
  • The more you use your camera and experiment with settings, the better your boating shots will be. Use your longest telephoto lens a lot. Practice by taking bird photos, especially when they're in flight. They're great subjects to practice on, and you can get some spectacular photos in the process. 
Pat Ford has been fishing and taking photos of fish for more than four decades. His photos regularly grace the covers of saltwater fishing magazines.

— Published: June/July 2012

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