I never used to take photography that seriously. Up until a couple of years ago, like most sea anglers, the only photographic tool I took fishing was my smartphone and I was perfectly happy. The only reason I started using dedicated camera equipment was to produce better images for publication, then the photography bug bit hard and I started finding myself enjoying taking photos almost as much as fishing. Since then I’ve spent a lot of time behind the lens, learning by doing and enjoying the process (you can check out some of my recent images at Ben Conway’s instagram.).
Although, these days, I never go fishing without at least some camera kit, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the same approach to other anglers unless they are seriously interested in taking certain types of images. Even compact mirrorless camera gear adds considerable weight and you end up compromising on the amount of fishing equipment you carry to accommodate it. I would suggest that for most anglers, a modern smartphone with a decent camera is more than good enough to take great catch shots and scenics.
It wasn’t until I started learning more about photography that I realised how much of a challenge we anglers routinely place on our phones to produce decent images. Often when we catch a fish, the first things we think about when it comes to the trophy shot aren’t to do with lighting and angles, they’re to do with getting the pictures done quickly so we can return the fish or making sure that there is nothing in the frame that will give away the mark. There’s nothing wrong with this and quality phones will use some of their more advanced features to make a reasonable image, regardless of the lighting situation.
What you may find, however, is that when you look back on some of your photos, some have a far more powerful effect on you than others, even though the fish they feature may be smaller or the sessions not as significant.
When you look at those images, you are mentally transported back to the day they were taken and you might remember a few little details about the session that you’d not thought about for a long time. It’s a good feeling and you may wish that a greater proportion of your photos gave you the same satisfaction.
You might feel like you don’t have much control over how the images of your captures come out at the moment but I’d like to at least try and change your mind on that. Being aware of a few basic things about your phone and taking a look at your environment before taking your photo should help you to get better, more meaningful images more consistently. After all, if your photo shows loads of identifying features, you can alway crop it right down or take another to share on social media and keep the original for trusted eyes only.
An important thing to say, I think, is that an image doesn’t have to be technically ‘good’ to be meaningful and I don’t think it would be productive to talk too much about technical elements that you can get away with not being aware of. What are significant points, however, are the field of view that the main camera on your smartphone sees and the size of the aperture the light passes through on its way to the sensor.
Most of the rear-facing ‘wide angle’ camera lenses on smartphones see a field of view that equates to around 30mm on a full frame camera. This is somewhat wider than the field of view your eye sees and means that you don’t have to be far away from your phone at all to get you and the fish in the frame. It also means that if you want to include more of your surroundings in your image, you can easily do this and your phone will still be able to keep a lot of the scene in focus.
Aperture is measured along a gradient of ‘stops’ – the wider the aperture, the smaller the number. Wider apertures let in more light than narrower ones. Smartphones are typically fitted with a camera that has a fixed aperture of between 1.8 and 2.8. This means that a lot of light reaches the sensor and enables your phone to take images in dull conditions without having to use the flash. This is a good thing as phone flashes (and any fixed flashes pointing straight at a subject) tend to cause nasty reflections off shiny surfaces (such as fish).
Most phones come out the box with a default image setting of medium quality. If you want better images, make sure that you set your phone to capture the highest image quality it is capable of and don’t forget to make sure that the lens of your camera is clean before taking any shots. Most phones will come with some sort of basic photo editing app also, giving you options to adjust elements like brightness and colour saturation, as well as cropping your shots.
If you are fishing with friends, getting a decent photo of your fish shouldn’t be a problem. You have far more control over your composition and the quality of your shot when someone else is focusing the camera and pressing the shutter button. The most useful kind of friends have a clue about how to make nice images themselves or, if they don’t, will follow your instructions. Occasionally, however, you will encounter someone who is alarmingly inconsistent behind the lens and you may end up thinking that you’d be better off struggling through the process by yourself.
For those of us who like to fish alone (or for others with mates who are useless at photography) taking a selfie with a fish can be a challenging and frustrating experience. I grew to hate the experience so much that for a couple of years, I only bothered if the fish was something special. For everyday captures, I’d just lay the fish on the rocks next to my rod and take a shot from a slight angle above. This can make a nice image and is a style that reminds me of the pictures in trout fishing books I used to read as a youngster.
Nonetheless, a selfie with a particularly good fish or a PB caught solo is an absolute must and is best approached by securing your phone to something sturdy. For some time, I used a miniature tripod that held the phone with a spring loaded contraption and had bendy legs that I could wrap around the leg of my rod stand. Once this was in place, it was a matter of making sure the horizon was straight and focusing on something in the scene at the same distance from the lens as the fish and myself would be. I’d then set a 10 second timer, scamper into the scene, pose while trying to stay as still as possible and hope for the best. Usually this would take a few repeats to get a decent outcome and I’d definitely suggest making sure you make sure you have a sizeable rockpool or at least a bucket of water nearby to give the fish a breather (assuming you are going to release it).
For the most part, I would not be tempted to use the front facing ‘selfie’ camera on your phone for your fish shots. Although you’ll be able to see yourself and it might seemingly make life easier, front facing cameras are almost always of lower resolution than rear facing on phones and not as capable of producing a quality image. Having said that, some newer phones have high resolution selfie cameras and if you have such a device, this could work well and save you considerable time and effort.
To make a photograph, you need light. Reflected light is what your camera’s sensor is capturing, forming an image made up of dark areas without much reflected light (shadows) and light areas with lots of it (highlights). Problems arise when the subject of your photograph (i.e. you and the fish) are in shaded areas when the rest of the scene is brightly illuminated by, for example, harsh sunlight. Having the light source directly behind you produces a similarly dim effect. Almost as problematic can be direct harsh sunlight on you and your fish, particularly if it is something silver and highly reflective like a bass or mullet. Nevertheless, the fish don’t care what the light conditions are like when they take your offering so often you’ll have to put a bit of thought in if you want a good picture of them.
Modern phones come with HDR (high dynamic range) modes. Dynamic range in an image refers to the gulf between the depths of the shadows and the intensity of the brightest highlights. In a scene lit by harsh sunlight, this gulf can be massive and impossible to capture in one shot while retaining good detail.
The solution is simple, take a bunch of shots at a range of exposure values and mix them together to produce a more balanced image. Your phone can do this automatically and you may even have some control over how wide a range it covers. HDR photography has a very distinctive (some would say unnatural) look and it’s not to everybody’s taste but there’s no doubt that it can help you get a reasonable shot out of a terrible lighting situation.
Light to medium cloud cover is your friend when taking a fish shot. Clouds naturally diffuse the light from the sun and give you nice even illumination. Heavy cloud cover can make your shots appear dull and mute the colours of bright fish but, on the other hand, can also give your images mood and atmosphere. Rain is just a pain to take photographs in for the most part but rocks can look very cool in photos if they are wet and glistening. A fish laid down on them and snapped from an angle can make a tidy photo.
Taking a good photo of a fish at night is extremely challenging, even with dedicated camera gear. Your phone will have a comparatively weak LED flash and will struggle to produce enough illumination to make a clean shot in very dark situations. Your phone will compensate for this lack of light by upping the ISO (sensitivity to light) and lengthening the exposure time (time the camera shutter is open for). This will have the effect of introducing blur (as the exposure time is too long to ‘freeze’ any movement of the subject or the camera itself) and graininess (higher ISO values generally have a ‘bitty’ texture) to your image. You can help your phone produce a better image by using off-camera light sources like headlamps (preferably at an angle) or even car headlights to light you and your catch. Your phone will see a brighter scene, not see a need to raise the ISO too high and slow down the shutter time too much, and be able to focus better.
If you must use your phone’s flash as the only light source, try putting something like a piece of a white carrier bag over the flash LED as a diffuser. This will diffuse the flash effect and make a more flattering image. My old bridge camera used to have a piece of a Tesco’s bag permanently bound to the pop up flash with a piece of powergum.
Next month I’ll talk more about different ways to compose an image and some ideas on how to make more of your phone’s capabilities work in your favour. Until then!