Better Catfish Photos
Digital cameras have dramatically improved our odds of taking good fish photographs. Whether you use a pocket-size point-and-shoot or a digital single lens reflex (DSLR), digital versions allow you to instantly check your work. If you're not satisfied, delete it, and keep pushing the shutter button until you capture a keeper — there's no film cost. With a little practice, most people can learn to take good, if not a great, fish photos.
Today's top-end DSLR cameras can capture 21.1 megapixels of image information, while others can shoot as fast as 10 fps (frames per second) — plenty of stop-action speed to capture water dripping off a giant flathead. In the point-and-shoot arena, pocket-sized cameras now are fast, affordable, and packed with megapixels (often 10.1 or more). Some point-and-shoot cameras can crank out images at 10 fps without sacrificing photo quality.
No doubt camera phones are handy. In a pinch, you capture the moment, but most take very low-resolution photos. If you'd like to have a photo published in a magazine, most publications request images shot with 6.3 megapixels or higher.
As technology continues to evolve, future developments may enable a cover shot taken with a camera phone. Phones like the iPhone 4, for instance, have a built-in 5 megapixel camera, even an LED flash, and they take nice photos and video.
You also need an adequate-sized memory card. The higher the megapixel, the more bytes of digital storage you need. Today you can purchase an 8 GB flash memory card for around $13 or less — about the price of two rolls of film, and the card may last for years.
Shoot multiple photos of the same subject. People who've had to pay for film throughout their lives have a hard time shooting more than a few photos per subject (an angler and a fish, for example). But remember, there's no film cost. Break the habit of shooting conservatively. On average, I shoot a minimum of 25 frames to get the one photo I want, maybe more (of course, my camera takes close to 9 frames per second). It's not that the other photos are bad, but often there's something better about one particular image.
But you shouldn't need to take 50 shots of the same subject to get a good one, but four, five, maybe even 10 images of the same subject isn't out of the question. Suppose you take three photos of your angling partner holding a fish and then, just for kicks, click one more and it happens to be the best shot. That last shot — which didn't cost a penny — becomes your number-one photo, an image you wouldn't have captured if you hadn't persisted.
Before you head into the field, practice at home. Get a mounted fish and a fishing partner or spouse to pose as your subject while you hone your skills. The more familiar you are with your camera's features and changing its settings (like turning the flash on and off), the better your pictures become.
Fill Flash: Under many weather conditions — sunny, cloudy, or at night, using the built-in fill flash often produces good if not better results when taking fish-hold photos. On bright sunny days, the fill flash helps eliminate shadow under caps and any other hard shadow areas created by facial features — nose, eye sockets, and cheeks. Most point-and-shoots offer three flash settings — auto, off, and on. Auto basically tells the camera to figure out whether or not there's enough light to capture the image. The best way to learn what your fill flash can do for you is to take two photos of the same subject, one with the flash set to "On," and one with it "Off."
Holding Fish: Sometimes everything about a photo is right, except the angler's holding a catfish like it's a skunk. There are several easy ways to hold fish to ensure both you and the fish look natural and comfortable.
When holding a fish vertically with your right hand, place your fingers behind the fish's right gill plate. This positions your hand behind the fish, with the front gill plate (facing the camera) flat against the fish. Lift the fish so its eye is just slightly above your eye level, and hold it naturally, away from your body. Avoid holding the fish too far away from the body; the old trick of holding fish way out toward the camera to make it look bigger appears unnatural. In most instances, the photographer should hold the camera vertically to take a picture of a fish being held vertically or semi-vertically.
After you get a vertical shot, try a few horizontal photos, holding the camera horizontally. Instruct the fish-holder to reach with the left hand to gently support the fish just in front of or behind the anal fin, holding it horizontally or semi-horizontally.
Straight Horizon: One of the most difficult things to do, particularly in a boat bouncing on waves, is to take a photo with a straight horizon as background. First, frame up the subject. Next, get into a rhythm with the waves, so you can time when the horizon is straight before you push the shutter button. Shooting up- or downstream in rivers also is tricky. River bends give the illusion that the horizon isn't straight. And the further you can see downstream, the smaller the trees appear, which creates a slanted line in the horizon. A good rule is to first frame up your subject, then, double-check the horizon and make it as straight as possible. Finally, check your subject again to make sure everything is still in frame before pushing the button.
Composition: Visually setting up the scene inside the camera viewfinder is the hardest thing to teach. The main reason is that many great photographers see things differently through the viewfinder — it's a natural gift, like drawing. It's true, too, that some people rarely take good photos — their brain is apparently wired differently, and they're gifted in other areas.
Start by looking through your viewfinder as you point the camera at a subject. Look at all four corners to make sure you can see your subject (the fish and the angler). Now, look to see how much space is around your subject. You don't need to see the entire lake scene (if you're on a lake), or the interior of the boat, or much of anything else — the primary focus is the angler and the fish.
You have two options for framing your subject. First, keep your feet planted in the same spot and use the camera's zoom to fill the frame with your subject, without cropping (cutting off) the angler's head or cap or the fish's head, fins, or tail. The other option is to physically move farther from, or closer to, your subject to fill the viewfinder with the angler and fish.
Perfectly framed? Okay, now hold steady and again quickly study all four corners of your viewfinder. Everything in the frame? Not too far away and not too close? Horizon straight? Press the shutter button. Take another. And another. And one more just for kicks. Check your work — review the images with a quick scroll through your last few shots. Make sure the angler didn't accidentally blink and is smiling naturally. Got the shot? Release the fish.
With every photo you take, get into the habit of double-checking what you're doing before you take a photo, and then examining your digital image after you push the button. Learn from your mistakes. Analyze each image and note what you didn't do right, and think about what you could do better next time.
Good luck. And when you take a great photo of a big fish, send it to us! We just might be able to use it in one of our publications — maybe even on the cover of next year's Catfish In-Sider Guide.