This May found me joining the crew at Zup’s Fishing Resort and Canoe Outfitters on Lac La Croix in Ontario, Canada. Fishing and the outdoors was what it was all about. Today’s gallery is a little teaser of what that was like.
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.
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.
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.
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:
– 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
A decent photo remains the best way to record a particular moment. Trouble is, for those of us who like to go it alone into the backblocks in search of these moments, a decent photo can take a bit of imagination and skill. If you are trying to get your story across to folk when you get back, it’s hard to keep anyone’s attention for long if you are just flicking through scenic shots and close-ups of fish lying on the ground or dead animals. Enter the world of the ghost cameraman.
There are a few things you can do to boost your self-shooting picture taking skills and come up with some better than average shots while out alone. In this series of short articles I’m going to outline some of the tricks I’ve learned along the way while playing about with cameras; including some key ideas regarding camera setup, self-shooting techniques and other considerations that will need to be taken into account. First thing first though: what gear are you going to need to get that shot you were hoping for and make people guess just who was with you to take such a good shot.
You don’t necessarily need the top end of camera technology to get good photos; and the setup you go for totally depends on what you want to do with your shots anyway. If you are only interested in keeping a record of a few fish, animals, scenic or action shots for yourself or to show friends then a point-and-shoot camera will do the job fine. If, on the other hand, you want to get a bit more tricky and move beyond some of the basic in-camera settings, a digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex) may be the choice for you. You might want to note that I’m referring only to digital cameras here – I can’t say I’ve had a lot of experience with film cameras and will leave that to those in the know.
I started out with a simple point-and-shoot and still use one for particular situations. Considering the capabilities of some of these cameras in regards to image size (measured in megapixels) and corresponding photo quality, some point-and-shoot cameras are pretty capable machines these days.
They are also really handy simply due to their small size and weight. The most recent one I bought, a Sony Cyber Shot, is tiny (smaller than an iPhone) but still produces 16 megapixel images. This thing is great for keeping in a pocket or backpack where it is ready for use at any time.
Most camera manufacturers provide really good cameras that are waterproof and shockproof, which is a great option if you are planning on being on the water and/or clumsy for extended periods. Dick has an Olympus Tough Series and it produces solid images at 14 megapixels. The newer models have higher megapixel settings too.
Point-and-shoot cameras are generally pretty easy to set up and use, particularly for the beginner. As a first step, ALWAYS set your image size to its highest setting. You may as well get the best photo quality the camera can produce. While this will take up more space on your memory card, high capacity cards are cheap enough these days.
Find the self-timer and get ready to use it. Some cameras will have a button that you just press to turn the timer on; others may require you to go through a menu to get there. If you have a choice when buying a camera, one with an actual self-timer button is good because it is much quicker to use; this is important if you are catch and release fishing, for example.
There will also be a menu (or button) that will allow you to change flash settings. Get to know where this is and change the settings if required. Setting the flash to AUTO is generally fine, but remember that in some instances (particularly when taking photos in overhead sunlight) you might want to have the flash go off for every shot in order to light up any shadows and even out the brightness of a picture.
Most point-and-shoot cameras have a fairly high aperture setting when set to AUTO shooting mode. This is good because the camera will have a deeper depth of field, rendering more of the image in focus. This is forgiving of slight miscalculations when composing your shot – a common problem when self-shooting. The downside here is that too much of an image can be in focus, making it appear cluttered (particularly if there is a lot going on in the background) and flat, or two dimensional. You will not get that smooth blur of foreground/background with a point-and-shoot, which really makes the subject the centre of attention in a photo. While setting your camera to MACRO shooting mode may give slightly less depth of field, this type of shot is not the realm of this camera type.
If you want to go all out or are interested in some more advanced photography, you are probably going to be better off with a digital SLR camera. What these cameras lose in the size and weight department, they more than make up for in capability, versatility and picture quality.
I started out with a Nikon D40 which was outdated even when I bought it, yet it has put up with a lot of rough work over the years and produced some shots I’m really happy with, even though it only produces 6 megapixel images. The camera is so easy to use, as an entry level SLR, that it is hard to go wrong.
I’ve recently upgraded to a Nikon D5200, which is still an entry level camera (but a quite capable one at that) and it produces fantastic images at a whopping 24 megapixels. If you are in the market for an SLR, it’s worth doing the research and finding what suits your intended use most. While I like my Nikons, Canon is of course a great make also.
SLR’s will take a bit more time to understand if you want to get the most out of them. The higher up the model rungs, the more capable the camera. This does not mean that you will get better photos from the top of the range cameras if you don’t know how to use them! Whatever camera you choose, take time to read the manual and play with the settings. You need to.
As for point-and-shoot cameras, make sure that your image size is on the highest setting; and work out how to use the self-timer. The in-built flash on your camera should be fine for most work that the beginner will do, and this is operated either automatically in low light when the camera is set to AUTO or P mode; or manually when set on Shutter priority (S), Aperture priority (A) or Manual (M) shooting modes. A button will pop the flash up.
As a start, I usually shoot in Aperture Priority mode so that I can quickly adjust my depth of field to suit the shot (other camera settings will adjust automatically to get the shot right in this mode). For most self-shooting I will keep the aperture between 8 to 10 which gives enough flexibility to compensate for slight composition errors and keep the subject in focus. If you are looking for the sharp focus on the subject offset by a smoothly blurred foreground/background, turn the aperture down (5.6) to achieve the effect.
Another consideration (particularly for low light situations) is the ISO sensitivity setting of the camera. Cranking this up will make your camera more sensitive to available light, which means faster shutter speeds and sharper images. The downside of this is that higher ISO settings will render images more ‘grainy’ due to increased sensitivity to digital ‘noise’ within the camera. It’s always a trade-off. Remember that using the flash will freeze any motion and give sharp images, if a flash suits the situation.
Self-shooting doesn’t need much in the way of accessories, but one thing you should have is something to rest the camera on the take a photo. I’ve used logs, sticks, rocks, hats, camera cases and backpacks to sit the camera on over the years; but things are definitely easier with either a beanbag or a tripod. You will have to consider weight of your camera rest if you have to cart all your gear around by yourself, so go for sturdy but light if you can.
A small beanbag is a versatile rest for a camera that provides a solid base regardless of the topography of what it’s sitting on. The downside is that it doesn’t sit very high off the ground. There is usually something in reach that you can sit that on though.
A tripod, while a little more cumbersome, is fantastic for playing about with shot angles (from low down to high up, and switching from portrait to landscape shots) and is really good if things could get a little unstable as the camera is actually attached to the tripod. Remember, if in a boat or canoe, SECURE THE TRIPOD! I’ve never learned that lesson and can’t believe the close saves I’ve made as an SLR and tripod toppled over the edge. I haven’t lost one yet, but I’m playing with fire.
As with anything, you get what you pay for when it comes to tripods. With that in mind, for self-shooting you don’t really need a top line tripod as most photos will be taken in slightly haphazard ways anyway. Also, lighting probably isn’t going to be that bad that you need a rock solid platform to get a sharp image. Choose what you like to have.
Another great option is the flexible tripod such as the Joby GorillaPod. I used one of these quite a lot with a point-and-shoot before giving it to my dad (which hasn’t made his self-shots any better) and they are really handy. They are relatively small and light and can be adjusted to cope with many situations. You can also wrap the legs around suitable things (such as tree limbs etc.) in order to achieve the shot you are after. These tripods are also made in sizes suitable to cope with SLR’s. They are well worth consideration if you are in the market.
When it comes to choosing a camera setup for self-shooting, you have to consider what you want to achieve with it. As well as this, buy only what you can afford and what you are going to get use from. There is plenty of good gear out there that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg while fully capable of producing quality images. There is also top of the line technology that is so confusing to master that the amateur never gets their money’s worth. Do your research and choose what works best for you.
Stay tuned for further discussion of self-shooting tips and techniques!