Pro Tips: How to Get a Great Photo and Still Take Care of the Fish

Written and Photographed by: John R. McMillan

Taking care of the fish means leaving it in the water, supporting its body, and then sending it back.

Since most of us practice catch-and-release with wild fish, one might argue that the most important part of a fishing trip–other than actually catching something–is the photograph. And it ensures my wife believes that I actually catch something, rather than wading around aimlessly with a graphite stick in my hand. In fact, when we were initially dating, she suffered through endless shots of fish, as I tried to show her why I loved fishing so much. The photograph has become our generation’s way of bringing a fish home to the family, so to say.

With the advent of smartphones and GoPros, essentially any angler has access to a camera. We are literally a nation of photographers. A quick browse through any social-media platform simultaneously produces a nearly endless stream of amazing fish shots and to a lesser extent, reveals the pitfalls of folks paying too much attention to the shot and not enough attention to the fish. For instance, almost daily some poor soul posts a shot of a fish being squeezed like a Super Bowl fumble or held out of the water, dry as a bone. Within minutes, an angry mob of anglers descends upon the offender’s cyber doorstep, ranting, raving and meming until another poor gopher pops his head up with a more egregious shot.  

Honestly, there are times we’ve all been guilty of being too focused on getting the right photograph. I know I have. Learning how to handle fish and take a good photograph is a skill, something acquired though experience and trial-and-error. 

Make sure that the photographer is ready before you strike a pose with the fish.

So how do we ensure the health of a fish and a great photo? And avoid being flamed online?

In my experience, the first lesson in getting a great photo and taking care of the fish is preparation. You’ve heard it before: Success is 90% preparation, 10% action. It’s true. Identify places where a fish can be easily landed and that offers a safe spot for both angler and photographer. If he or she is not using the net, have the photographer get the camera ready before you land the fish. Sounds simple, and it is, but sometimes it’s the simple things that give us the biggest problems.

Once you have a plan and hook a fish, fight it as quickly as possible. The longer the fight, the more stress the fish experiences, and elevated levels of stress hormones lengthen recovery time and increase chances that the fish may be impaired. This is especially true when water temperatures are warmer. You want a photo, but you don’t want it to cost the fish its health. For example, if you are fishing for cold-water species like salmon, trout or steelhead, they are generally fine when water temperatures are 65°F and lower, but once temperatures get up to 68°F, I usually stop taking photographs unless I can do it quickly and keep the fish wet. At 70°F, I stop fishing until things are cooler. When I’m fishing for char–such as bull trout or Dolly Varden–I pay even more attention to temperature because they prefer very cold water and generally don’t fare well once the temperature reaches 60°F. This is one reason I always carry a thermometer because it helps me develop a sense of when things are getting too warm for a photo.

Point the fish’s head at the photographer, who shoot maintain a low angle.

Ideally, land the fish using a rubber, knotless net in shin to knee deep water. Allow the fish to rest there until the photographer is ready. This helps minimize handling and keeps the fish wet as possible. Air exposure can have negative effects and decrease chances of survival, though some species are more sensitive than others. For instance, try to minimize handling with salmon that have just entered freshwater or are in nearshore areas in the marine environment. During those periods, the adults are experiencing physiological stress as their bodies transform from being in the ocean to freshwater. Further, their scales are loose and easily lost at that time. Due to this combination of factors, the mortality rates, especially of coho salmon, are often highest when the fish are moving into freshwater. So, it pays to be extra careful with such fish. 

To get the shot, I prefer to slightly elevate the fish while keeping its belly wet, which allows water to support some of the fish’s weight. If you must though, lift it gently from the water for no more than 10 seconds or so. And, don’t let your fingers slip into the gills or squeeze the fish too hard. Finally, have the angler gently lift the fish–no Super Bowl fumbles–and snap away.  With the ease and speed of modern cameras, it takes but five to ten seconds to get the necessary shots.

It’s more difficult to get a shot when you’re fishing solo. First, watch the handling time. After hooking location, poor handling is the number two cause of mortality.  If the fish is small, like trout, I use a net or hold the fish in one hand and take a shot with the other. It won’t be perfect, but it’s better than nothing. 

To land a fish solo, grab your leader and then the “wrist” in front of the fish’s tail.

For larger fish, like salmon and steelhead, however, it’s usually not possible to net them solo. In those cases, I either grab the leader or tail them. If you practice, you can get a shot of the fish while you are tailing it, and then let it swim away.

However, tailing big salmon and steelhead and controlling them in deeper water is nearly impossible.  The caudal peduncle or “wrist” is simply too large, and once they feel the warmth of a human hand, they’ll likely dart away. I’ve broken a couple rod tips this way. However, for other species with smaller wrists and larger tails, grabbing them can actually be quite simple. Still, in most cases, when landing the largest fish, I wait until they are sufficiently tired and roll over onto their side, at which point I grab their wrist and guide them into a shallower place where there is submerged grass or small, rounded gravel. Something that allows the fish to rest in the water and remain calm. I then remove the hook. If the fish takes off after that, so be it. That is what happens 85% of the time. Other times, the fish remains on its side for a few seconds, and I snap a few shots before I grab the wrist and lead the fish back into deeper water. Be careful using this method, however, because you don’t want to fight the fish too long, nor do you want to have it thrashing in the shallows. Over time, it is easier for an angler to recognize when this is possible.

Getting the great shot comes down to more than handling; it’s also about composition. For example, when shooting a grip-and-grin, I like the angler to hold the fish slightly angled toward the camera, with the belly and bottom of the head still slightly submerged in the water. I get low to the water and shoot at a slightly upward angle with focus on the head of the fish. The combination helps draw attention to the fish and improves depth of field among it, the angler, and the background.

Submerged grass makes a nice background for a solo fish shot.

As important as composition is, great light is what makes a shot pop. Inevitably, my best shots come during the soft, filtered light of morning and early evening. During those times, I like to experiment. I often zoom in to just focus on the fish, its head or eye or dorsal fin. Perhaps even the scales. The point is: look beyond the normal shot and take advantage of the best light, because it can make a difference between an okay shot and a great one.

Lastly, I love using underwater cameras and follow the same approach as I do above water. I want the light to my back and the angler holding the fish angled toward the camera. While I use a mirrorless camera in a housing, the same can be accomplished with a GoPro.  I’ll take a short video clip and then go back and grab a few of the best looking frames. The shot won’t usually be as crisp and clear as with a normal still photo, but they are pretty cool and offer a truly different perspective. Plus, the fish doesn’t have to leave the water – which is a win-win in my book.

John R. McMillan is the Science Director for TU’s Wild Steelhead Initiative. He is also an Orvis ambassador and product field-tester.

2 thoughts on “Pro Tips: How to Get a Great Photo and Still Take Care of the Fish”

  1. Excellent advice; simple, elegant photography.
    Take note of the unwritten advice in these photos: no fly rod in your teeth or on your shoulder to prove how you caught the fish.

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