Sequences from the shoot at Buchanty, 19 Oct 2016. Click on one to get it moving…
Photographing leaping salmon is a good challenge in so many ways. The river has to be one that gets a salmon run, and it has to be one that has falls that are negotiable by the salmon and accessible by the photographer. Timing has to be right. There are a few weeks centred on late October that give the best chance, but the river levels have to be right – after a flush of rain is a good bet. Positioning is an issue – where to get the best perspective on the leaps? Patience is required – the ability to sit on a cold rock for 2 or 3 hours, if required. Then there is the equpiment and setting it up to best effect. Do you try to pan with the fish, or do you fix your position and try to press the shutter button as the fish arrives, centre-frame?
One of the top spots for photographing leaping salmon is Buchanty Spout on the Perthshire River Almond. I visited it in 2012 and 2013. To get a different perspective, I went further down the Almond in 2014.
I looked for a chance after the first decent rain of autumn – it was just over 0.4 m on the gauge. This seemed an ideal height – and the water was very clear. There weren’t big numbers of fish jumping, but for the first time I was seeing them get all the way up! …
A later visit than usual, due to difficulty in getting a window with a decent height of water on the Almond at Buchanty. One previous attempt on 29 October was a non-starter, when I arrived to find the river at about 3 feet and the salmon swimming forward, taking one look and thinking better of it.
This day wasn’t a lot better. The water was a tad high, but OK. Met up with John Kaye at the spot. John’s been visiting regularly and didn’t think there were many fish left still to go. That semed to be the case. They were coming in little bursts of 2 or 3, and then nothing for ten minutes. The tendency to see 2 or three start to come, before getting set, finger on button, eye to viewfinder, was a dead-loss. Having got set, there were no more for the next ten minutes!
To make matters worse, the forecast of decent weather was way-off. Rain showers turned to heavy rain by early afternoon, resulting in a short session. Light was very poor, resulting in ISO levels of 4000 at times (in order to get a fast shutter speed). My best bet was to sit on a stool, camera on the monopod (when it wasn’t raining), pre-focused to a guess, distance-wise, and then just watch for them and fire the shutter when any jumped. A ‘hit and hope’ job. I got a few – not too bad, all things considered. I kept the focal length fairly wide (most at 70 mm), so as to catch anything jumping in the field of view.
Shutter speed mostly 1/1500 sec (a few at 1/1000s when light was really bad), ISO 320 (light OK) to 4000 (light awful), aperture f5.6 (light OK) to f2.8 (light awful).
Went to a different spot this year – much more of a challenge than Buchanty. Main problem was the light, as I was on the north bank, and down a gorge, so the fish were rather back-lit and silhouetted.
I tried different settings, going with manual, dialling in 1/1000s and stopping down a bit to help with sharpness when focus wasn’t 100% on target. I ended up mostly at f4.5 to f5.6. I needed to take ISO off auto to try and dial-in a bit of +ve EV to combat the bright water background. That gave me mostly around ISO 640. I tried to keep it at +1 EV, but while I was shooting away I missed spotting the light dropping and pushing the meter down to 0 to -1 EV. Spotted it after about 100 or so underexposed shots. Did my best to rescue exposure in ACR.
A good way to get comfy when doing one of these sessions (couple of hours sitting on a rock) is to set the camera up on a monoopod with a tiltable head attached. Leave the head loose, then you can tilt quickly in any direction to track a fish. I keep my thumb on the servo focus button the whole time. I actually flattened a battery (in fairness it was only half charged at the start) running the servo focus and IS motors for 2 hours! I could probably have switched off IS.
AF centre group is the best approach – if all points are active, it picks up the water and misses the fish too much. Even then, a lot of the crispest shots are actually ‘late’ shots. I set the camera to get on with it and not wait until focus is achieved. If you wait, the fish is gone too often before the camera ever fires a shot. However, the first shot with the AF points on the fish is often soft, as AF hasn’t got there yet. About the time AF hits target, the fish drops down, and my old reflexes aren’t quick enough to follow it half the time. However, the next shot fires before AF tries to refocus on the river behind it, and the result is sharp. Oh well, whatever works.
After last year’s first attempt at photographing leaping salmon and 12 months of getting more familiar with the 5DIII and its autofocus system, I thought it was worth another go. This time I took the 135 mm prime lens instead of the 200 mm (too long for the close-up shots).
There was more water coming down this time, which made the whole thing a little trickier, but it added to the drama of the backdrop to the shots. Last year I gave up trying to autofocus on the fish in mid leap and went for pre-focusing on a point in space, hoping that a fish filled it the correct distance from the camera. That resulted in too many shots just slightly off-focus. This time I bit the bullet and concentrated on trying to pan with the fish as it jumped and hoping the camera’s autofocus could lock on to the fish before it disappeared beneath the foam. To give the camera a running start, I sat with my thumb on the servo focus button so that I was effectively keeping the motor running the entire time – 2 hours of it! This tactic paid off, giving me many more sharp shots than last year. I shot the close-ups with the 135 mm f2 lens, and the wider shots with the 24-105 mm f4 in the 50-100 mm range. For both, I set up the AF to give priority to objects suddenly appearing in the focus point(s). For the 135 mm I made the centre group of 9 AF points active, while for the 24-105, I used just the centre AF point, assisted by the 8 surrounding points.
As last year, I used evaluative metering, but added some +EV compensation to allow for the bright background with dark fish (+0.5 or +0.67 stops). On reflection, even +1 stop may have been better. Shutter speed was 1/1500s for the 135 mm and 1/1000 or 1/1250s with the 24-105 mm. The light was quite good at the start, but was failing fast later, causing the ISO to hike its way up from 100 at the start to around 3200 and even 4000 by the end of the shoot. I didn’t auto-ISO, but kept pushing it up to give me at least a little depth of field – for example, f4 to f5.6 with the 135 mm. It wasn’t much, but at least it wasn’t f2!
First attempt at doing the leaping salmon shot. I headed to Buchanty Spout on the Almond in Perthshire, which was featured on the BBC Autumn Watch in 2011. I didn’t appreciate quite how close you are to the fish – I had taken the 200 mm f2.8 lens for the close-up work and it was really too close! I did a few with it, but mostly used the good old Jack-of-all-trades 24-105 mm f4 IS.
The other problem with being so close to the fish is that you have so little warning to get ready for the shot. You have a split second to react and get the shot before the fish has passed on up, or fallen back down. I gave up trying to focus – 61 AF points on the camera, and I didn’t use any of them! I set the camera so it didn’t wait for focus to be achieved and just went for the shot. I went for pre-focusing on a point in mid-air and waited for a salmon to fill the spot. Of course you can’t focus on mid-air, so I had to make a mental fix on the spot and turn my head until I saw a bit of the river at what I reckoned to be the same distance away. I focused on that spot and then turned back into position, and waited for a chance. I set the camera to try to focus (in servo AF on the centre group of points) after the first shot in case it helped, but I don’t know if it did much, to be honest. So, focusing was very hit-miss. The answer is to have a fully charged battery, plenty memory cards and to take plenty shots. I took 585 shots in an hour and 40 minutes. If some of the shots below look like I applied a bit of extra sharpening to compensate for the focusing being off, that’s because I did!
Drive was hi-speed at 6 fps. Metering was ‘evaluative’. I did some at 0 EV and some at +0.5 EV in case it helped the salmon not to be silhouetted against the white water – but I didn’t go any higher, as I didn’t want to ‘blow out’ the highlights in the water.
It was quite shaded, so light levels were low. I use shutter priority at 1/1500s for these sorts of action shots, so I really had to go to auto ISO and needless to say the camera chose wide-open aperture all the time. That meant the usual wafer-thin depth of field when doing 105 mm or 200 mm shots. On the way back down the road I remembered I can set this camera to manual shutter speed and aperture, and allow auto ISO to line up the needle on the centre of the meter. I could therefore have bought a couple of stops of aperture to help depth of field at the expense of even higher ISO. I’ll try that next time. As it is, most of the shots weighed-in between ISO 500 and ISO 2000.
There were plenty salmon coming up, or at least attempting to. I was sat there for over an hour and a half, and I recognise some of the fish in the shots taken at both ends of the shoot – that big old tartan cock fish showed up about half a dozen times – and I never got him in focus yet. Hope he made it up eventually!
With the exception of the 2 landscape shots at the end, all the shots below were taken from the exact same vantage point – only the focal length of the lens changed.