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The Art and Science of Photography

IGFA Article: How I Manage the Process of Taking "Self Portraits"

One of the challenges we’ve all experienced while fishing is capturing a beautiful photo of a special fish we plan on releasing.  I’ve spent the past twelve years fine tuning my photography skills while fishing and have created a process that works well for me and may help you memorialize an unforgettable fishing experience or possibly document a potential IGFA World Record.  After all, if you have a great photo of your catch of a lifetime, you’ve got evidence.  If there is no photo, all you have is a fish story! When I plan my fishing outing, I use the following outline to prepare me for capturing an incredible photo. Here are the “Top 10” most important variables you will need to manage to photograph that fish of a lifetime.

The Best Cameras: Small point-and-shoot vs. Large SLR's

I began taking self-portraits with a very compact, high-quality point-and-shoot waterproof camera that was easy to manage and hold and focus with one hand. I recommend a camera that has high megapixel performance (12 megapixels or higher) with easy auto aperture and focus capabilities.  After doing this for one year, I graduated to a professional Digital Single Reflex Lens (DSLR) or mirrorless camera (Nikon D 7000) with a versatile 28-300 millimeter lens that gives me incredible range to shoot a variety of shots from scenic panoramas to close up portraits. A high-quality point-and-shoot camera that is waterproof and shockproof provides a good start to taking fish portraits. A professional Digital Single Reflex Lens (DSLR) or mirrorless camera with a versatile 28-300 millimeter lens is much more cumbersome to carry on the river but it can provide far more creative freedom with taking fish portraits and scenic shots. I now use a mirrorless camera (Nikon Z-7) that allows for extraordinary image quality (45.7 MP), close-up detail and cropping capability for post processing versatility. In the past three years, I've actually taken a higher percentage of photos with my i-Phone. What it lacks in image quality, it makes up for with ease of management and speed.

Location: Setting up a Field Studio

In this case, let’s assume you are fishing in a river or stream. When I arrive at a location, I take inventory of my surroundings and assess where I’m fishing, where I’m going to fight and land a fish and the most aesthetic location nearby to capture that special moment. Take note of your surroundings and isolate the most aesthetic and manageable location for your photo shoot. If you don’t take some calculated risks you will not be able to get exceptional shots, but you still need to exercise caution.  I have fallen in the river once while wading with my expensive SLR and lens and have been ejected out of a boat in Alaska, each time with my camera inside my GORE-TEX shell.  In both cases, I wasn’t personally injured but my camera was toast until I could get it serviced by the camera company.

The Fish: The most Difficult Thing to Manage

The fish is the most important variable because you will need to take care of the fish so that it can be released quickly and unharmed.  Depending upon the water temperature and how long it took to fight/land the fish, the fish’s condition may restrict the time available for a photograph and to be able to release it healthy with the least amount of fatigue.  In my opinion, there really is no need to remove the fish from the water and I prefer using the "keep em wet philosophy."  Most of the time with trout fishing in streams I will use the most aesthetic landing net I can buy to safely manage the fish, get prepared for my photos and have it also serve as a background prop. Use the natural backdrop of the river bottom, vegetation, water elements or the landing net itself to enhance the aesthetics of your photo. 

One more thing about the health of the fish... The eye of the fish (which incidentally is the go-to focal point for my close up photos) serves as the best indicator of the relative recovery level of the fish. If the eye is looking down or around with an ability to focus, the fish is in a good recovery state. If the eye appears lifeless without the ability to focus, the fish is stressed too much and probably needs more resuscitation. Also, when the fish is recovering, it can sometimes be in somewhat of a "hypnotic state" when you can get a lot of quality photos - both inside and outside of the net.

Weather: The Uncontrollable Variable

With a point and shoot camera, it can easily fit in your jacket or fly-vest pocket and protect it from harmful elements.  Many people also opt for a waterproof housing to reduce the potential for damage if it is accidently dropped in the water. My SLR camera is rather large and heavy. Although I will sometimes have it hung around my neck inside of my GORE-TEX rain shell, I will more often keep it close at hand along the riverbank in a waterproof bag or case. Some of the best I've ever had the privilidge of catching and some of the best "portraits" that I've ever taken have occurred during the worst weather conditions (rain, snow, heavy cloud cover, etc.). You have to do the best you can given the hand that mother nature will deal you on any given day.

Light and Camera Angle:

Even though you may not have ideal low-angle light, you should be able to get more desirable lighting by adjusting the orientation of the fish and incorporating other background elements.  I prefer early morning or late afternoon light that I can use to accentuate the brilliant colors and scale textures of the fish, as well as create shadow effects with the fins. In many cases, under adverse weather conditions, I will use my built-in flash to fill in the dark areas of the fish.  I also prefer to use a polarized filter to cut through glare on the water’s surface, accent the river bottom and minimize the reflection of the flash reflecting from the fish’s body. You should be able to create better, more desirable, lighting with your orientation of the fish and incorporation of other background elements. A polarizing filter is often a must to be able to cut through glare on the water surface and minimize the reflection of the flash off silvery fish like a Striped bass, Bonefish, Snook, Steelhead, Coho Salmon or Tarpon.

Background: Seeking the Ideal Contrast

Depending upon your fishing location and water clarity, it is often possible to have a great background with river bottom features such as rocks, gravel, logs, and vegetation.  For my signature shot, I like to have a thin layer of water cover the fish to accent the look of the fish and to have something unique in the background provide a sense of scale, contrast or compliment in color and texture. I really like to have a thin layer of water covering the fish. When in a boat or deeper water, I often like to have the background appear green or dark to really make the features of the fish stand out.

Orientation and Scale: Each Species Offers a Unique Feature

My preference is an exaggerated landscape orientation that emphasizes any one of four body areas of the fish.  These include the head, 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, steelhead, and peacock bass it’s the intense colors of the eye, gill plate or side of the body. For redfish, it’s the massive head, large golden scales and unique spot on the tail.  For toothy predators like northern pike, barracuda and golden dorado, it is the powerful jaws and teeth.  For trout and peacock bass I frame the intense colors of the gill plate or side of the body. For Roosterfish, it's the dorsal fin comb, massive head and body stripes.

Focal Point and Depth of Field:

I really like to focus on the fish’s eye and allow the depth of field to grade out along the body of the fish.  It creates a great effect where the fish appears to come to life in the the photo as if it is looking right at you. I really like to focus on the fish’s eye and allow the depth of field to grade out along the body of the fish. When I focus on the eye it helps the fish seem to come to life in the photo as if it is looking right at you.

Exposure: Manipulate Auto-Focus and Exposure

I tend to slightly under-expose all my photos because the fish’s scales often reflect the light back into the lens and because it’s also easier to adjust the lighting in post-processing. If you take a photo that’s over-exposed, it’s really difficult to do much to improve it. Underexposing your shot allows you to retain the color, texture and depth. With highly reflective, silver fish like Chinook Salmon, Bonefish and Tarpon underexposing the photo lessens "blown-out" shots where the scales become bleached by excessive light.

Large Fish: Getting an Assist from your Guide or Fishing partner

Taking exceptional photos of fish when by yourself is clearly something that everyone can learn with reasonable practice. Capturing pictures of extremely large fish can be a significant challenge and to get the best shot, you will often need an assist. About half the time I'm fishing (depending upon the fishery), I'm fortunate to be with one of my favorite guides. Not only do they possess intimate knowledge of the fish, water/habitat conditions and best tactics to be successful but they are also very good at taking "grip and grin" photos or helping pose the fish for really good "angler neutral" shots. By angler neutral - I'm referring to photos that feature just the fish itself. These are the photos that I specialize in where the audience is not distracted by the angler and can focus on the beauty of the fish. As a general practice, I tend to take ten times more photos of other people with exceptional fish than having my photo taken with them. Thant's because I'm more skilled to help them position the fish with the proper angle, light etc., to capture the best photo. When taking "angler" photos of special fish that exceed 40 pounds (my limit to hold them), you will need to position the fish on your lap for both your safety as well as for the fish.

Final note: The guides have been an essential element for me to be able to capture the unique portfolio of photos over the past 20 years. More on the guides that I work with and the appreciation that I have for them later in another section of this web site.


Tom Olivo with a 60 Pound Roosterfish and a 80 Pound Yellowfin Tuna (Costa Rica 2021)

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