The Ghost Cameraman – Taking the Shot: Part 1

So you’re set up with a camera that suits your needs and it’s time to get snapping. Welcome to the long haul learning curve of photography. But you don’t want to make things too easy for yourself; you’re out alone and you’ve just brought a cracking fish into the net where it’s resting in the water. Excitement is high after gaining control of the fish, your hands are wet and slimy from removing the hooks, and a gentle breeze is pushing your canoe into shore. It’s time to take the shot.

Be Prepared

First and foremost, preparedness is the name of the game in this, and all, types of photography. After all, it’s no use having all the gear if it’s packed away when the shot you’ve been looking for presents itself.

I can’t stress this enough when it comes to fishing photography. This is because, generally, to take a good photo of a fish it should be alive. Dead fish are quick to lose their unique colouration and just look dead. Unless you are trying to tell that side of a story with a photo, dead fish shouldn’t be photographed. For this reason, you MUST be prepared to take a photo as soon as possible on landing a fish, whether you are releasing the specimen or not.

The camera and tripod/ beanbag should be in an easily accessible location (if it is insensible to have this gear set up at all times) so that you can put it up and be ready to go in seconds. Even if your camera needs to be stowed between photos, there is no reason not to have the tripod or beanbag set up so that you know that composition is half-way ready.

A fish friendly landing net is worth its weight in gold when it comes to taking fishing photos. With one of these you can keep the fish in the water and moving under its own steam while you take hooks out, turn cameras on and compose the shot. When the timer is going, you simply cradle the fish, lift it into frame and smile, then put the fish back in the net to revive and make sure that the photo is suitable.

Minimise the time a fish is kept out of the water during handling to maximise the likelihood of survival
Minimise the time a fish is kept out of the water during handling to maximise the likelihood of survival

Another good option, if space is limited, is to keep the net part of a fish friendly landing net (the plastic large mesh types are best here) and a small length of rope. If fishing from a boat or canoe, this can be placed over the side and the fish guided into it, then the rope can be threaded through the top of the mesh and pulled through to close the net and contain the fish while things are readied.

Animal welfare is paramount and should take precedence over all other considerations. The best approach of course is to leave the fish in the water, but it is very difficult to take a photo with yourself in it if the fish is in the water and you are by yourself. A rule of thumb is to keep a fish out of the water only as long as you can comfortably hold your own breath. That is not a very long time, so be ready to go BEFORE you hook a fish.

The same approach should be followed if you are going to keep the fish, both in terms of animal welfare and ethical considerations. After all, it is unethical to cause undue harm and stress to a living creature merely to satisfy your desire to get a nice picture. Be ready to take a photo, get the fish out of the water and snap it; then humanely dispatch your meal. It’s that simple.

You’re going to have to know where the functions on your camera are located before starting out. As with fishing, photos taken while hunting are commonly associated with adrenalin highs and you need to be able to press the right button for a self-timer, flash, or other adjustment as second nature. This leaves your mind to focus on getting other aspects of the shot right. I mentioned in the previous article that you should read the camera manual before starting out and I stand by this. Knowing how to use your camera makes taking good photos a hell of a lot easier.

Composition

Composing a photo well is the real sign of a half-way decent photographer. In the heat of the moment, it can be easy to overlook simple things that might leave you with only average photos. As a starter, there are six key considerations to composing a photo well. Think about:

– Light;
– Focus point;
– Shot angles;
– Background and foreground;
– Leading lines; and
– Filling the frame.

In this article I’m going to run through the first three composition considerations listed above, and I’ll flesh out the latter three in the next instalment.

Light

Getting the lighting right for solo photography should go back to basics. It can be extremely time consuming to get tricky lighting right when you aren’t behind the lens, so as a rule try to avoid those situations. Rule number one is to, where possible, compose the shot with any available light coming from behind the camera and illuminating the subject. This can be fraught with pitfalls as well, as the camera will meter itself (make a light reading and adjust accordingly) to whatever is in front of it when you start the timer, so if you aren’t in front of it you might find that the exposure is too low or too high, depending on light intensity and background.

For example, you are taking a photo on a sunny day with green woodland in the background of the shot. When you activate the camera timer, the camera meters exposure to be correct for the green woodland. When you move into the frame, sunlight is reflected off anything lighter than the woodland (your face, or light coloured clothing, or a silver fish) and these elements of the shot become overexposed in the final result.

Metering was the issue here - a darker background caused the camera to overexpose lighter parts of the image once I got in frame
Metering was the issue here – a darker background caused the camera to overexpose lighter parts of the image once I got in frame

This can be a difficult thing to judge and I still forget about it at times. When possible, keeping the light coloured elements of the shot in frame while activating the camera helps to alleviate the problem.

If light is low, or midday sun is casting harsh shadows, you are going to need to use a fill flash to liven up the photo and get rid of those shadows. If you can get away with it, a flash is good for most situations in order to freeze any movement and get crisp images. But remember that a flash will affect how background and foreground appears in a photo, so use with consideration of your intended image.

Midday sun causes harsh shadows that ruin a photo - a flash can be used in these situations
Midday sun causes harsh shadows that ruin a photo – a flash can be used in these situations
Getting available light illuminating the subject works too, but shadows cast by hat brims are still apparent
Getting available light illuminating the subject works too, but shadows cast by hat brims are still apparent

Focus Point

Focus is a fickle thing and can be tricky when taking shots on your lonesome. Typically, if you are taking a photo of a fish or animal, the focus point should be on the subject’s eye, which is what draws a viewer’s attention. Of course, while dead animals are easy enough to focus on, if you are setting your camera to go before lifting a fish into frame you are going to have to plan ahead. I will generally set my camera to focus on the closest point to the lens; hold my hand in the position I intend to hold the fish and focus the camera on that, press the shutter button, then lift the fish into frame. With practice it isn’t too bad.

Focus - the curse of the 'selfie' while trying to minimally handle a fish
Focus – the curse of the ‘selfie’ while trying to minimally handle a fish. In this case I opted to settle for a blurry image and get the fish back into the water

While point-and-shoot cameras are generally good for focus due to their depth of field, SLR’s can be set up to be more or less accommodating, depending on the intended image. Using the camera in Aperture Priority mode and setting to an aperture between 8 and 10 is good as it means that a greater depth of field is in focus and slight miscalculations won’t be noticed. These aperture settings also work well for including yourself in frame with your subject as you are more likely to be in closer focus also.

While tricky (especially with fish), a low aperture setting (for example 5.6) will really show off your subject, as the shallow depth of field will render the foreground and background blurry, meaning that your subject stands out by itself. These shots can look great and are worth trying out. It is easiest to achieve this effect and get the right things in focus by keeping everything close to the camera and filling the frame.

Some cameras are fitted with a hinged viewfinder screen that you can swing out and rotate (my Nikon D5200 has this feature). These can make focus a lot easier as you can flip the screen to see it from in front of the camera, and make sure the focus point is correct before activating the camera.

Shot Angles

The angle from which you take a photo from can make a big difference to how an image looks. Basically, you can take a photo from a low, straight on or high angle; and with wide angle, straight on and zoom lens settings.

Low camera angles (having the camera low down or below the subject) can make the subject ‘impressive’ – especially when combined with a wide lens angle. The low positioning and wide angle shot should be taken from quite close to the subject in order to keep the frame filled and exaggerate the wide angle distortion to best effect.

Lower shot angles are good for these type of photos, but remember to check what else may be in front of the lens - in this case grass was overlooked
Lower shot angles are good for these type of photos, but remember to check what else may be in front of the lens – in this case grass was overlooked

Straight on shooting is a solid all-rounder that is fairly easy to get right and gives a clean straightforward image. The camera should be on a level with the subject and, if you are in the image, you should be too; bearing in mind to keep most of your face in view and not hidden behind the subject – having you appear to be creepin’ in the background.

Shots taken looking down on the subject are tough to get right and commonly produce a rather ‘flat’ looking image. Generally speaking, this shot angle is best avoided unless you are trying to show particular things in the image.

Looking down on a subject is generally best avoided. While this shot demonstrates the size of the pig, it isn't the nicest looking image
Looking down on a subject is generally best avoided. While this shot demonstrates the size of the pig, it isn’t the nicest looking image

The use of wide angle close-ups can be a good way of portraying impressive size and distorting an image in a good way (take fish-eye lenses as an extreme example of this technique). These shots can be great for showing off fish, filling the frame with the subject and exaggerating its size. Keep the aperture fairly low to really bring out the focus point – which generally should be the eye of the subject.

The use of zoom lens settings (particularly telephoto lenses) will give another end result. Telephoto lenses have a small field of view and emphasise the photo subject, while at the same time ‘cropping’ (for want of a better description) and exaggerating what is in the background. I can’t say that I have really experimented with telephoto lenses while self-shooting, simply due to the fact that you have to be further away from the camera to fit into frame. This is an issue when you are taking a photo of yourself! If you are feeling energetic, feel free to give them a go and report back.

A zoom lens produces tightly cropped images
A zoom lens produces tightly cropped images
The same shot taken using a wider shot angle
The same shot taken using a wider shot angle

A Parting Shot

As with everything, practice makes perfect. Get out there and start playing about with the gear you have and start testing its capabilities.

In the next instalment of The Ghost Cameraman, I’ll continue discussing aspects of solo photo composition as well as some ideas for getting better once you start getting decent photos. I’ll also touch on a few more ethical considerations when dealing with live animals, and tips for keeping shots tasteful when photographing dead ones.

What happened to the fish?
What happened to the fish?
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