Angling Photography: A Basic Guide to Taking Better Shots

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I want to start by saying I am by no means an expert in the world of photography, I guess you might call me a keen amateur. My interest in photography stemmed from wanting to take great catch shots and from being around anglers who really knew their stuff, seeing their pictures not only inspired me to learn how to do it myself but also gave me the confidence to take shots of other people’s captures. As a result, my interest in photography increased and during quiet moments in a session, I will often grab the camera to fill the time.

There are a great number of detailed articles and videos on the web explaining in detail how to take good photographs. What I will do in this piece is give you a good base knowledge of common terminology and a working understanding of how to take the types of pictures you are likely to whilst angling.

Hardware

I have had several cameras over the years as my father has always had a strong interest, so I inherited a couple when I was younger (35mm film cameras). When you exclude brand, there are 3 groups of camera you are likely to consider:

1. Compact

These are small bodied cameras with a fixed lens that usually offers a zoom, they are good all-rounders, cheap and compact. My experience with compact cameras limited as I have not owned one for a number of years but at the right price, they offer a cost effective, if slightly limited entry point.

2. Bridge

These are small in body size but have the ability to be used with different lenses. Changing the lens allows you to significantly alter the photographs that you take, simply by carrying multiple lenses and using the same body. Bridge cameras have a digital display or view finder which will give a true representation of what you’re shooting (as opposed to a DSLR, see next point). Some of these bridge cameras are extremely good, I own a Lumix GF3 which takes excellent shots and is very easy to use. This is a real benefit, as an angler you will often be passing your camera to someone else to take your pictures, so being easy to use is a big plus!

Taken on a cold morning with my GF3

3. DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex – I had to google that!)

This is the top tier of camera, defined by its mirrored viewfinder showing an un-altered image but shooting according to how the camera is set up. All current DSLR cameras also have a digital display to review images or shoot with. As with the bridge, you can change out the lens for different types of shot, it is common to spend more on lenses than the body of the camera itself.

To confuse the above there are an increasing number of mirrorless cameras entering the market which boast DSLR features and prices and could be considered as good if not better than many DSLRs.

There are three main camps when looking at a DSLR, traditionally Cannon and Nikon; Cannon is favoured for its colour range and quality while Nikon is associated with a slightly lower cost but comparable results. More recently Sony has grown in popularity, liked by videographers, their range of mirrorless cameras have a strong following.

There are many features that separate different models of DSLRs but the most important is probably the sensor, this is the component which registers the image inside the camera. You will find ‘crop sensors’ and ‘full frame sensors’, with full frame being the more expensive option. Full frame takes a 35mm image, the same as old film, whilst a crop sensor will trim the edges. This affects many aspects of the images you can take but the most noticeable is the impact on focal length which is multiplied by 1.5. Essentially, this means you have to be further away from your subject to frame the same image with the same lens when using a crop sensor.

Currently I use a Cannon 80D which is a high end crop sensor body, I carry 2 lenses, one for portraits and one for scenic shots which is a wider angle general purpose (I’ll cover this in more detail in the next section). If you looking to start out I would suggest looking at one of the entry level bodies, lenses are generally interchangeable within brand so you can always upgrade the body and keep your lenses.

A favourite sunrise of mine taken on my Canon DSLR

Lenses

This can a be very confusing subject and you’ll need to understand some of the basic terminology to know what you want. There are 2 key figures when looking at lenses, the first is the focal length, this determines how close or far away you may be from a subject. A 300mm telephoto lens will allow you to take images of a something far away, whilst a 20mm would be suitable for something very close.

The second is the “F Stop”. This refers to the aperture or opening inside the lens and controls the achievable depth of field (see basic principles). As a rule of thumb, the lower the number the shallower the depth of field and the higher the cost.

You will find you need multiple lenses to photograph everything you may wish to, I’ll just cover the 3 types you might carry for angling:

1. Portrait

I find this is the one that gets the most use, as a catch shot is basically just a portrait of you (and a fish). This lens is designed for shooting a stationary subject with quite a shallow depth of field. I currently use a 50mm F1.4 as a portrait lens which does an excellent job, it gives crisp images and a nice blurred background to the images, making the subject really stand out. The large aperture also lends itself nicely to low light photography. This lens is a prime which means the focal length is fixed, you cannot zoom in our out, so must move backwards and forwards to frame the shot.

2. Scenic

The setting sun or a passing swan might inspire you to grab the camera. Here your portrait lens will be no use as you are usually too far away or need a wider angle. I carry a 17-55mm F2.8, which I use for general purpose and scenery images. It is able to achieve F2.8 right through its focal range, which means you can take great images in low light or with a shallow depth. It also has a wide angle to give good vistas but is limited by zoom.

A sunrise captured with my 17-55mm lens

3. Wildlife

To capture beautiful images you need to be able to make your subject fill the frame, there is no point trying to photograph something too far away as the image will lack impact. For photography wildlife a good zoom is essential, this is the lens I am missing at the moment. For a Marlin fishing trip a few years back we hired a 200-400mm F.4.0 cannon lens, this was phenomenal but pricey to buy and heavy to carry. For both of the above, the kit lens option offered with most cameras would be a decent starting point.

Even a small subject can be interesting if well framed

Basic Principals

There are only three key terms you need to grasp to understand how a camera operates (well enough to influence it anyway), these make up what is referred to as the pyramid of light. I’ll explain these in the order I adjust them to try and simplify:

1. ISO

This is the sensitivity of the sensor used inside the camera to light. It can be adjusted to compensate for poor light but be warned; increasing the ISO to lighten the shot reduces the image quality and causes a grainy affect in the darker areas of the image. I would usually try to keep the ISO as low as possible, 100-200 where able. The sensor quality will also affect the point at which you start to see an impact on your image quality.

2. Aperture

As mentioned, the aperture is the size of the hole in the lens and is limited by the lens itself. A larger hole allows more light through so you can shoot with a lower ISO and higher shutter speed, but you also have a shallower depth of field. To understand depth of field, consider the image through your view finder as being sliced into thin layers moving away from you, the aperture or F-stop determines how many of those layers will be in focus. When it comes to angling, this means you need to ensure your aperture is small enough to have both the fish and captor in sharp focus. This blurred background effect is referred to as BOKEH.

Sharp focus on the reels as subject and blurred background (BOKEH). This was shot with my 50mm F1.4 lens.

3. Shutter Speed

This is the amount of time that the shutter is open for, which in turn determines how much light reaches the sensor. Too long and the image will be too bright, or over exposed. Too short and it will be too dark or under exposed. The other thing to consider is what you’re shooting, for a portrait you can use quite a slow shutter speed, but if you go too slow the image may be a little blurred or have a ‘soft focus’, at this point you could increase the aperture or raise the ISO slightly if necessary. It is usually a case of starting where you think and then using a trial and error approach to get the shot you want.

By leaving the shutter open for a long time even a dark night will appear bright, note the cars blurred as they pass in the background.

Composition

This is really the delineator between photographers. I often look at other people’s images, which can be of fairly inane subjects but they have something special which makes them appealing. This is composition, the way an image is structured; a great photographer has an eye for this and will capture the image when it is pleasing to their eye.

I’m not sure this is something I can explain really as I don’t profess to have it but there are some basic ‘rules’ you can choose to follow:

1. Framing

For a portrait this is easy enough, above the head, to the knee and get the fish centered and in at each side, but we have all seen someone fail at this. I usually shoot along a path to give a blurred background and sharp focus on the subject. Direct light is okay, but if it’s too bright it will cause glare, dappled light is problematic generally you can adjust for any consistent light. Shoot with the sun behind you or to your side at least.

You will enjoy a great catch shot for years to come, and it shouldn’t be hard to achieve.

Hint

Always ensure there is no tackle in the shot! If you’re taking a water shot you need to be in the water shooting back toward the bank or along the margin. Shooting out to the water from the bank will usually overexpose the background or cause the camera to darken the subject as it compensates for the contrast.

For other subjects like a landscape this might be different, consider the whole image and what is around you. Sometimes I like to centre the main feature and other times it could be off centre, just see what you like as you view it. Consider the back and foreground, I like to play with depth of field so a subject could be in sharp focus in the centre of shot while some other elements are out of focus around the edge of the shot.

Here the shot is framed by the foreground but the subject is in focus in the background.

2. Rules of thirds

This principle suggests you should divide your image into 3 horizontally and vertically (a 9 box grid) and place your main intersections on these lines, it is a rough guide can be played with. I have some instances where a central positioning feels better. The one thing I would say here is I always keep my horizons level, this is a bug bear for me.

Sometimes central feels best, there are no fixed rules.

Consider

Keep in mind your leading lines, whether a line from your rod, horizon or far bank this will guide your eye through the image. Consider where these are and how they dissect the image when framing your picture.

Horizon and rods draw you through image.

Shooting modes

There are many different options for setting up most cameras; I generally use three of them. I’ll explain briefly.

1. Auto, or Intelligent Auto

This is when the camera is fully automatic, you only adjust the framing of the shot and the camera will apply the settings it believes are best for the conditions. This is fine at times but will limit what results you are going to get, plus it won’t always give you the best results.

2. Manual

This is the polar opposite of auto; the user has full control over the set-up of the camera. This is great for testing the different functions I have described and learning how to use your camera.

3. AV or aperture priority

AV or aperture priority is a great setting; this will adjust the other camera settings according to your defined aperture. So you just need to make sure your depth of field is okay and the camera does the rest. This is great for portraits when the person taking the photo is not familiar with your equipment, as it means if the sun goes behind a cloud for a moment, your images will be automatically adjusted.

Self takes, this is something worth getting set up for and means you don’t have to explain to someone else what you want. I use a light tripod (although you can buy adaptors for bankstick) with an infrared remote and flip screen on the camera. By framing the image before getting the fish out and setting the focus to a central point on the screen, it is quite easy to achieve great shots.

Another option is to use an intervelometer. This allows you to set the camera up to take a number of images at a defined interval so you can forget about the camera and just admire your prize.

With a bit of practice, self takes can be effective and easy.

Finally I would say, take lots of images and only use the best ones, now images are digital you’re free to take as many images as your card will hold, play with settings and framing until your happy and delete the rest.

Hopefully this has been useful, on reflection it seems a lot but in practice it is not that complicated. The best approach is to get out and give it a go.

Common mistakes

I wanted to include a couple of things I have learnt in my time which are easily done and also easily avoided.

Soft focus

This is really irritating as often images will appear sharp on the small screen behind the camera, then when you look on your laptop you see they aren’t sharp. This can be for a number of reasons, shutter speed, depth of field or focal point. The key is to check your image in the moment, zoom right in to check they are pin sharp before being satisfied.

Depth of field

This is something I have been guilty of, I tend to hold fish close to my chest which means if I am in focus, so is the fish (and vice versa) if you hold a fish further out it is possible to have only one in focus. To counter this reduce the F stop and check the image after taking it.

Night shots

These can be tricky. I tend to shoot in auto but setting up the shot with a background illuminated with a secondary light source (head torch or similar), the camera will illuminate the fish. I would avoid illuminating the subject directly, the flash will do this sufficiently and direct light from a torch may cause the image to burn.

Using head torch for back lighting on a night self take.