Photography Protocol

Photography Protocol

My photography of fish has been an evolutionary process with my skills having been refined over the last 15 years.  Early on I was not very good but with a lot of trial and error and very strong support from two of my fish mentors – Gene Kira and Dr. Ross Robertson – I have gotten better.

My basic protocol is as follows:

Equipment:  I use “point and shoot” Olympus cameras that are in the $60 range and at least 7.0 MP.  I do not use a tripod or external lighting. My objective is to produce shadow-free photos with resolutions between 2.0 and 4.0 MB.

Fish Handling:  Fish rapidly lose color upon collection and photos should be taken as quickly as possible. Fish placed in coolers in direct contact with ice will develop white patches that are not acceptable. A bath towel placed between the fish and the ice in a cooler will avoid this problem. Ideally avoid freezing a fish if at all possible.  If, for whatever reason, the fish to be photographed is frozen, then it needs to be placed in a bucket of room temperature water for about 30 minutes to make sure the pupils of the eyes lose their glassy whitish appearance.  Next I wash off the fish with tap water and dry it well with a paper towel.  Then I dry it again with a fresh paper towel.  I use (recommended!) a simple fish hook with a line to fully extend the dorsal fin of larger fish.  A couple of clean bath towels close-by are always of value to keep ones paws clean.  Note:  a word about blown out eyes – fish hauled up from great depths have a tendency to become “bug eyed” which is attributed to body gasses escaping into their eyes.  I have been advised that this air can be removed by insertion of a pin and the eyes will return to normal for an enhanced photo opportunity.  However, I personally have not had a lot of success with this approach.

Background:  Obtaining a quality background for the photography of a fish is essential.

Cutting Board – some of my friends have used a white cutting board at the catch site with good success.  The majority of the photos generated are very good with exceptional colors, however, the photos are plagued with shadows. They also normally lack an adequate finnage display that hinders the ability to count all of the fin spines and rays accurately .These steps are essential for the correct identification of many species.  A positive: most of these fish are handled as “catch and release,” and are returned to the ocean unharmed. Note that the fish below is swimming right and should be swimming left!

Photography - Cutting Board

Ocean – At sea one option is to use the ocean itself keeping the sun at ones back, being mindful that obtaining acceptable finnage displays is difficult.

Photography - Ocean

Beach – On the beach the sand itself can be used as an excellent background keeping in mind that obtaining a good finnage display is difficult and the photo should be taken in shade if at all possible.

Photography - Beach

Cement Sidewalk – Larger fish (i.e. longer than 30 inches) are a challenge.  Laying them out on a cement sidewalk is an option.

Photography - Cement

Special Platform – For small fish (i.e. shorter than 30 inches), which are the majority of fish I photgraph, I use a photo platform.  The bottom layer is made of cardboard – Dr. Robertson suggests a Yoga Mat (easy to transport and easy to pin to).  On top of the cardboard I lay out an off-white/gray closely knit T-shirt material (minimal texture purchased at a USA Yardage Store) and make sure to pull it tight to remove as many wrinkles as possible.  I have found that a blue background is a good option for silvery or red fish.  Next I pin out the fish as illustrated below.  I use common pins.  Dr. Robertson suggests stainless steel insect pins available from  For smaller fish I do these pin-outs aided by a high intensity light.  I then look at the fish in all four directions and make minor adjustments.  I always check to see if the fish is linear and that the fins are fully extended without spines or rays overlapping.  The fins in the fish below should have been extended further – specifically the first dorsal fin, the pelvic fins and perhaps the anal fin.

Photography - Finnage

Location, location, location! Next I transport my fish to an outdoor shaded photo location. I never take a photo in direct sunlight. I have two locations that I use routinely, one for the morning and one for late afternoon. Both are well-shaded areas that are away from reflections from nearby windows.

Actual Photography and Work Up. I take five or six photos of each subject matter. I pay special attention to getting the camera directly over the subject matter and normally move the camera closer to and further away from the subject matter as I take a series of photos for each subject matter. I transfer the photos to a computer, look at each photo, and select the best one. Then I copy the final selection and put that copy of the original photo in a cloud storage facility.  Next I tweak the original photo via a “Photo-Shop” type program – I use the lower priced Corel PaintShop Pro.  Photo tweaking is an art and takes a lot of practice.  I use only the Straightening Tool, the Cropping Tool, the Cloning Tool and on some rare occasions when the background is really “messed up”, the Paint Brush Tool.  It is important to crop to correct margins around the fish, remove fish goo and the subtitle shadowing caused by light variations in the background material and the areas just below the anal, pelvic and caudal fins which always have subtitle shadows.  After “tweaking” each photograph I use the Adjust Tool but normally reduce the suggested brightness and saturation enhancements significantly (by at least 75%).

“Out of the Camera” Original
Small Fish – “Out of the Camera” Original
Small Fish – “Ready for Prime Time” Final
Same Small Fish – “Ready for Prime Time” Final.

Small Fish. The question came up fairly recently “How Do I Take A Photo of a Small Fish?”  The answer is “same protocol as above” just place the camera closer to the subject.  These new low end cameras are really intelligent.  Below is a photo of a 2.0 inch fish.