Opening-day photos, first-buck photos, and fishing-trip photos usually have two things in common: They have dead fish or animals in them, and they’re bad. They’re usually an afterthought. They’re usually taken with a point-and-shoot camera that lives in the glove compartment, and with no thought given to light, composition, or clarity.
After a lifetime of posing for and taking photos of dead fish and animals, and two years of guiding in Alaska where we sold future trips based on the photographs in our brochures, I’ve learned there are a handful of easily corrected mistakes that everyone makes. And there is no such thing as a guidebook on how to photograph dead animals and fish. So here goes.
You Be the Judge
I like to divide the photo into three parts: the fish or animal, the person, and everything else. You decide which is the most important. If it’s a 30-pound muskie, focus on the fish. If your buddy catches a minnow, focus on the look of embarrassment on his face. If you get skunked, concentrate on other stuff, like the landscape.
Once you’ve done that, you need to think about getting the correct exposure, composing the shot, and holding your camera steady. With that in mind, let’s go through the most common errors and how to correct them.
Standing too far away is the leading cause of poor photos. Having 10 yards of empty space in the foreground of your photo doesn’t do anything but make your fish look smaller and people more unrecognizable. You don’t need a zoom lens to correct this; just walk closer. The best piece of advice on photography anyone has ever given me is to get as close as you possibly can-then get two steps closer.
Work With the Sun
The sun can be your great ally or your worst enemy. Too often it’s the latter. The rule of thumb is this: Keep the sun at your back. Put another way, keep it in the face of the person holding the fish. They’ll complain, but it’s worth it. If you don’t want them to be squinting when you take the photo, have them keep their eyes closed until the moment you shoot. It works.
Other than baseball players, no one wears baseball caps as much as hunters and fishermen. These allow us to advertise our favorite brands of fishing line or tractors, but ruin many otherwise good photos because they cast a shadow onto the face. Two seconds before you shoot, say, “Lift up the bill of your cap a little.” An inch or two can make all the difference.
Or you can use a fill-flash. Most point-and-shoot cameras have a switch that allows you to set the flash manually. Turn it on if in doubt. Even if it’s light out, the flash can fill in shadows that would otherwise appear harsh.
And even if you think it’s too dark, the flash will probably give you enough light to get the job done. Or you can augment it with a flashlight or car headlights. The key, again, is to get close.
A frequent problem with dead fish photos is that people tend to hold the fish vertically in front of their bodies. The solution is simple: Tell the subject to hold the fish off to the side. Make sure there’s some daylight between the fish and the fisherman’s body. The same goes for birds and deer.
The standard buck photo is of a guy kneeling behind the deer’s head, grabbing the antlers. This works with elk, but not with deer. Instead, the hunter should kneel behind the buck’s body and, with one hand, reach over and hold the antlers up.
For a fish that is held horizontally, the posing angler can separate body from fish by extending both arms. Not only does this divide the two elements, but it makes the fish look bigger.
Composition means using your imagination. Don’t put the dead critter smack-dab in the middle of the photo; try it off to one side. If you’re pheasant hunting and you see an old fence that might lend aan interesting element to your photos, use it. If you’ve been hammering largemouths on yellow poppers, try spreading a few of them on the floor of your boat and use them as a background.
Get the Blood Out!
When you kill a fish or animal, it bleeds; and when I’m cleaning a fish or deer, I don’t mind the blood. But I don’t want to see it in a photo, and neither does anyone else. (The same goes for beer cans.)
For animals, the solution is simple: Take the photo before you gut the deer or the birds. If there’s blood from a bullet hole, wipe it off. For fish, simply dip the fish in the water and clean it off. A wet fish always looks better than a dry, scaly one.
Take a Rest
Although point-and-shoot cameras are improving, clear photos still manage to elude some people. That is usually caused by two factors, the first of which is not holding the camera steady. Just like your rifle aim can be improved by shooting with a rest, so can your photo clarity. Try using a car door, a tree limb, a fence post, or whatever you can find. You may even want to buy a small tripod.
The other problem is that most point-and-shoot models automatically focus on whatever is in the center of the viewfinder. If the person’s face or the dead deer is at the center, it works out fine. When you put the subject off to one side, you need to first point the center of the viewfinder at the subject and hold the shutter-release button halfway down. Your camera’s “brain” will lock onto that distance. Then move the camera to where you want to frame the subject, and press the shutter button all the way.
Remember that the more you enlarge a photo, the blurrier it becomes, so if you’re planning to enlarge a shot, pay extra attention to clarity.
Practice, Practice, Practice
The easiest way to improve your dead fish and animal photos is by always keeping your camera with you and by not being scared to use it.
Although a camera sits naturally in the horizontal position, don’t forget the vertical, especially if you’re holding a fish vertically. Try different angles, poses, and backgrounds. Your hunting and fishing buddies may complain, but they will be the first ones begging you for extra prints when they see the results.