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.
This was a first visit to the Pots of Gartness on the River Endrick to try to photograph leaping salmon and trout. Arrived and no signs initially. It looked a good height for running, but maybe a tad high for jumping. As I watched, I started seeing a few backs swirling around in the foam,…
A visit following heavy rain and the river dropping to below 0.5 m on the Newtonbridge gauge, though that turned out to be still a tad high at Buchanty. Very little until mid-day, after which there was a reasonable amount of activity. A lot of the fish were small. The river was an ideal height…
An early visit, after missing most of them last year when they all seemed to go up in September, and getting good water height following big rain, 2 days previous. Decent numbers leaping. All shot with an 85 mm f1.4 IS lens.
Very few fish on the march, and most were getting straight up, so no repeat chances at them. With so few on the go, concentration levels were way-off, so any odd occasion where one did jump, chances were I missed it, or it was out of focus. Tried further downstream, and there were none at…
Sequences from the shoot at Buchanty, 19 Oct 2016. Click on one to get it moving…
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!