Photography for Fly Fishers

September 15th, 2003

Photography for Fly Fishing
By Moose Peterson

Photography is all about being at the right place and the right time with the right gear. Sound suspiciously like fly fishing? Combining the two can be a major challenge. But for most fly fisherman, the photograph is the only tangible trophy we have of our adventure since many of us catch and release. So next to catching that trophy fish (however you want to define trophy) it's the photograph that matters.

While you might not have thought of it, but fish biology has links with photography. Photography is all about light, so is fish coloration and a lot of their feeding habitats. We need to know both and use both to capture on film our great catch. But how do you do that? Here's some simple tips that you can use to improve your fish photography.


The camera is really important. You need a camera I feel that has certain attributes. The first is small and compact. I prefer a pocket camera or small SLR and now days, digital. Next is the lens. You need a range that is wide angle to short telephoto. Last feature is built-in flash.

When it comes to camera bodies, I personally have the Nikon Coolpix 5700 and D2H, but that's not normally what I take fly fishing. I've come to depend the Coolpix 3100 and D100. Both of these cameras are small and compact. Both deliver excellent quality in a small package.

These two cameras have lenses, or the ability to accept lenses, that are perfect for fly fisherman. The 3100 has a range of 38-115mm which is perfect (and the whole camera fits in your pocket). The D100 can accept hundreds of lenses, I prefer Nikon 24-120VR. This combination of small body and lens provides the flexibility plus the VR technology makes getting sharp images when I'm in a boat or float tube really easy.

These two cameras more importantly have a built-in flash. It's that light thing and as you'll see, it can make or break your photo. Whatever camera you get, keep in mind it doesn't like water. No matter the camera, keep it dry. The easiest way of doing this is a Ziplock bag. Just keep the camera inside and you'll have no problems. When you do use the camera, try to have a dry hand. Moisture on your shutter release finger can force water into places it shouldn't go. And if you have any fish slim on your hands, don't touch a camera because it will do it in!

Whatever camera you use, it is important it not get in the way of your fishing but does the job.

The Background

Making the subject 'pop' is one of the keys to a great photograph. While the beauty around you should not be forgotten or left out of your photograph, the subject, typically the fisherman, should visually pop out. If you look at the two photos above, can you tell the difference between them even though it's the same subject? What is it about the image on the right that makes the subject visually pop? It's the background!

Look at the background. The one on the left, the background has the same light falling on it as on the subject. The photo on the right, the background is dark making the subject that is in the sun visually pop. More importantly, the Brown is in front of shade as well, so both the fisherman (my youngest son) and the fish visually pop. This is a very simple principle that can radically improve your images. It also ties in with what makes it all work, light.


Light is what makes or breaks great photographs. Let's start with the two images above. Why is the photo on the left better than the right, light. In this case we've used the built-in flash on the camera to light up the fisherman (me) and his catch. The technique is flash fill and with current cameras is an easy technique to learn. Basically, we're filling in the shadow with light so we can see what the shadow was hiding. If you want to master flash fill, you might want to check out the flash How To on my website

There's nothing wrong with direct sunlight, but...It's like trying to fish with a size 8 when you know size 22 would nail that big fish. Too much sun is not a good thing. I'm sure you've heard that the best photography is at dawn or dusk. The truth of the matter is, the light levels during these hours are typically the mellow light you want for photography. They can occur anytime of the day, you just need to recognize it (and of course, catch the fish when that light is happening).

The two photos above were both taken during those mellow light hours. But if you look at the Brookie and compare it to the Rainbow, you'd see one big difference in the light. The Brookie is backlit and the Rainbow is frontlit. The Brookie has flash fill bringing up the detail in the spots where the Rainbow doesn't need the extra light to see its spots. It's all about light.

Once you have the right camera and you start thinking about backgrounds and light, you can bring drama into your photos. The two images above illustrate my point. Both images were taken minutes apart (two different fish), but I changed my position (I'm in a float tube). The lighting on my son remained the same as far as quality but instead of front lighting like you see in the photo on the right, the lighting is now backlighting in the photo on the left. Coupled with the backlighting is a darker background giving the whole photograph a totally different feel.

This brings us to the images I see most fly fisherman not capturing and that's the grandeur we fish in. This is when that wide angle comes in. When you combine the wide angle with background, light and gorgeous surroundings, you've got a great image. You can shoot frontlit or backlit, subject big or small, flash fill or natural light and be a winner when you just think about all of these elements. It can be a challenge when you're also fishing because typically as soon as you see that great image, that great fish also grabs your attention. I don't know of a way around that problem yet.

These are the bare bone basics of catching the great shot of that great catch. There is obviously a lot more to it than what is here just like there's more than just tying on a fly and casting it. Just as it takes more knowledge than fly and cast to catch that beautiful fish, it takes more than owning a camera to capture that great image. There are lots of resources out there you can read to further your photography. Practicing when you're not fishing is a great first step. Photograph people in different light and backgrounds. Place a soda pop can in water and practice shooting it to learn light. Personally, I have a hard time between fly fishing and photography, photography and fly fishing and hopefully I've helped you get into photography for fly fishing! ~ Moose

About Moose:

Moose Peterson is a professional wildlife photographer, fly fisher and fly tyer, (you will find several of his flies in the Fly of the Week section) who lives in Mammoth Lakes, CA. He has an extensive website to furnish wildlife photographers with information to make the most of their photographic pursuits. You will find it at:

Back to Index

If you would like to comment on this or any other article please feel free to post your views on the FAOL Bulletin Board!

[ HOME ]

[ Search ] [ Contact FAOL ] [ Media Kit ] © Notice