Creating “Fish Art” during the Fall Field Campaign

This week during the Fall Field Campaign in Yellowstone National Park fishing the headwaters of the Madison River, I had a chance to capture the best close up photos of migrating Rainbow and Brown Trout that I’ve ever taken.  A good friend of mine (Jim Squyres) who fished with me on Thursday, asked me…  T.O., now that you’ve had considerable practice in taking photos of fish, what were the variables that I took into account when focusing on taking the close up portraits? 

Well, for what it’s worth… Here is the anatomy of an FFP photo shoot.  And by the way, many of the variables that I’ve learned to manage can be applied to help anyone take better photos even with their cell phones.  It just takes practice and lots of shots to become “on-demand quick” and consistent.  Whereas I’ve never taken a photo course or had any coaching, It’s not that difficult if you are willing to experiment.

While I’ve always had a passion (borderline obsession) with fly fishing for spectacular game fish.  My new passion is to capture/document/share with people the special visual experiences of fly fishing in remote scenic locations around the world. This all started when I caught my first fish at age 4 (a yellow perch on Lake Marie in Bedford Hills, NY).  I remember it vividly with its bright contrasting colors of yellow on black.  You might say that it left a lasting impression as I’m now up to 60 species of game fish that I’ve managed to capture close up portraits.


The many variables I’ve learned to manage while taking “Self-Portraits” on the fly:


  1. The setting…  Identifying and then setting up a “field studio” in the vicinity of where you land your fish. In my case (at our secret spot), the studio is in a shallow channel along an island in the middle of the river.  I’m ideally looking for “Gin-Clear” water about 2 to 3 inches deep with a textured river bottom (gravel) and some deep green vegetation.  The water depth is important so that there is a constant flowing film of water over the body of the fish and the proper depth also allows the fish to “recover” from the battle with their gills staying submerged.  The gravel, vegetation and flowing water also gives a moving wavy texture to the photo capturing the fish’s natural river environment.  Sometimes I will include my landing net to add another element to show the fish “swimming out” and to manage positioning the fish without actually handling it with my hands.
  2. The fish…  You ideally should have a superb subject that represents a unique specimen. I’m looking for size, intense spawning colors and a unique individual feature of the fish.  Maybe one out of 10 fish will meet these criteria.  This year, the Brown and Fall Spawning Rainbow trout migrating up the Madison River are the healthiest I’ve ever seen in 17 years of fishing in this location.  Managing the fish when by yourself can be a challenge but if done properly, the fish will cooperate and stay relatively still while recovering in the water.  Think Fish Whisperer here.
  3. The light and angle…  If you can magically order-up a severe clear weather day with “cobalt blue” skies, the best light at this time of year is between 8:30 to 10:00 AM and 3:30 to 5:00 PM (now if you can only catch the best fish during these ideal windows of time – NOT easy).  The angle of the light has to be relatively low to create a shadow of the pectoral fin on the body of the fish as well as prevent light reflecting off the scales of the fish – directly back into the camera lens.  The low light angle also allows for the colors of the fish to be amplified with the natural light or when a flash is used (which I use most of the time – even during the daylight).
  4. The camera and lens…  I have a Nikon D-800 camera with a variable telephoto lens that zooms from 28 mm to 300mm (f 1:3.5 to 5.6).  The reason that I really prefer this lens is that it allows for maximum zoom (in for fish and out for landscape shots) with just one lens.  I also have UV and Polarizing filters that allow me to adjust the lens angle to cut through the water’s glare and have a perfect “window-pane view” through the water.  I virtually always use an automatic setting on the camera because the D-800 is rather large/heavy and trying to manage the settings of the camera with one hand while at the same time – managing the fish and other variables is just too challenging.  I also like to position the fish (considering the light angle) so that the body has about a 30-degree angle across the photo’s landscape orientation.  The focal point of the portrait (towards the leading edge of the fish) should allow for a gradual depth of field change that compliments the unique color features of the fish and the water’s texture.  Finally, I often like to have the crisp focal point on the eye of the fish or the gill plate to give the impression that the fish is looking directly at the camera. The orientation and scale:  My preference is an exaggerated landscape orientation that emphasizes any one of four body areas of the fish.  These include the head and jaw, gill plate, the body scales, fins, and tail section.  With each species and individual fish there is often a unique body element that can really make your photo.  For Trout and Steelhead, it’s the intense colors of the gill plate. The exposure:  I tend to slightly under expose all my photos -.3 because the fish’s scales often reflect the light back into the lens and whereas it’s easier to adjust the lighting up in post-production, it’s really difficult to do much with a photo that’s over exposed.
  5. Post-production work…  I routinely use a simple photo editing software included in the Microsoft Windows program (Microsoft Photo Gallery).  It allows me to edit a high volume of photos with minimal time.  Because the Nikon D-800 features a 36-megapixel processing image, I can crop the photos at virtually any size and still have a high-quality photo.  I usually shot in the highest quality JPEG image format for file management convenience and to quickly adjust for lighting-exposure, contrast, shadows, highlights, color saturation, and detail.  If you follow these guidelines and take great original pictures, there is virtually no need to “photo-shop” the images.  In fact, I have never used photoshop and only do minor editing of all my photos.

Final tip: Take care of your equipment if it’s not waterproof but remember, if you don’t take some calculated risks you will not be able to get really good shots.  I have actually fallen into the river once while wading with my D-800 and have been ejected out of a boat in Alaska with my D-7000 (each time with my camera inside my Gortex shell).  In both cases, the damage was relatively minor but my camera was toast until I could get it serviced by Nikon.

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Now that I’ve outlined the variables I’ve learned to manage while taking “self-portraits,” attached are some of the best shots that I’ve ever taken because all the unique elements came together this week.   I have another 7 days of fishing in the Park left for the season so the best is yet to come.

Enjoy and plan your trips.


PS:  In my next post, I will discuss the elements I’ve learned to manage with taking scenic and panoramic photos.

This entry was posted in Brown Trout, Locations, Montana, News & Current Events, Rainbow Trout, Species and tagged , , , , , .

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