How to Shoot Photos Without Blowing Up Your Spots

Fly fishing, and fishing, in general, is a sport of secrecy. The advent of the internet has rendered the techniques, equipment, and for the most part the flies as common knowledge. However, one aspect of the sport retains an air of secrecy, fishing spots. Every angler has a list of secret streams that they guard closely or share with only trusted friends who have earned that knowledge. I guard my fishing spots like a momma bear guards her cubs. They are sacred to me and as such preserving them is my top priority.

Aside from fly fishing, I am an amateur photographer and I love photographing my adventures on the fly. The marriage of photography and fly fishing can be a wonderful way to preserve your best catches, memories, and experiences on the water. Photographing your trips and catches opens up the opportunity for others to recognize where you are. If done carelessly, photographing your journey can be detrimental to preserving your favorite honey holes. In the interest of saving my own spots, as well as your own, we will examine some tips and techniques of taking photos in a way that will fossilize your favorite memories while still conserving your fishing spots.

For clarification, when talking about photography tips from here on I will be assuming that everyone is a beginner photographer for instructional purposes. If you are a seasoned photographer just hang on for the tips and ideas rather than the technical side of the tutorial. I find most anglers who take photos fall into one of two categories: people who have a camera that can shoot in manual mode (i.e. a mirrorless camera, point and shoot cameras, micro 4/3’s cameras, or full frame DSLR’s) and people who use their smartphones to document their fishing trips. For those less familiar, let’s get some basic photography verbiage out of the way.

Generally speaking, photographers are concerned with the three elements that make up the exposure triangle, which are aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Aperture, which is denoted by an “F” followed by a number, controls how much light is entering your camera. A lower aperture like F1.8 will allow in a lot more light and create more background blur than a larger aperture like F16. Shutter speed is how fast your shutter moves when taking a picture, which is useful in stopping motion or drawing motion out for those sexy waterfall shots. ISO is related to light sensitivity and overall image quality. Finding the balance among these 3 aspects will have a dramatic effect on your photos. I have used both smartphone cameras and traditional cameras and can offer my advice on how to shoot with either setup.

Whether you use a smartphone or a traditional camera my single biggest tip to help mask your location is to use bokeh, or background blur. Blurring out the background will separate your subject and create a greater sense of depth while keeping your background relatively indistinguishable.

Smartphone cameras have come a long way from their early days. In fact, smartphone cameras are so good that most hobby anglers will never upgrade to a dedicated camera because they can achieve decent results with their phone alone. Phone users can also be placed into two categories: Apple users and Droid users. Luckily, both brands use similar software and apps to achieve certain functionality and aesthetic and as such the tips should work for either with a little trial and error.

Portrait mode is a new feature on most phones, and if your phone doesn’t have it you can use the one built into instagram called “Focus” mode. Portrait mode allows your phone to either shoot at a lower aperture or use software in the phone to achieve/simulate bokeh. A blurred out background adds an artistic flair to your photos while maintaining the ambiguity of your location. If you are looking for more control and better photo quality from your smartphone I would suggest using “Pro” or “Manual” mode depending on the phone you have. Either of these modes give you control over aperture, shutter speed, and ISO just like shooting in manual mode on a traditional camera.

To achieve bokeh in manual mode on your smartphone simply select a lower aperture number. If you are in a low light situation you may have to decrease your shutter speed or increase your ISO. Photography, much like fly fishing, is about trial and error and learning to control certain variables. Don’t be afraid to try and fail; we learn best from failure, not success. Soon you will get the hang of it and see a marked difference in your photographs.

Traditional cameras give the user more control and produce a higher quality image than smartphones. Whether you have a entry level camera or a top of the line DSLR the following tips will be applicable. Traditional cameras, and the lens you use, have the actual physical mechanisms that can produce background blur whereas smartphones are generally using software to mimic this effect. Bokeh is my single greatest tool to help keep the anonymity of my fishing spots. Either shoot in manual mode, which is marked by an “M” on most cameras; or shoot in aperture priority mode, which is denoted by an “A” on your mode select dial. I shoot in aperture priority mode most often as I am primarily concerned with my depth of field and producing that background blur. Shooting in aperture priority also allows me to release the fish quicker because I am letting the camera calculate the shutter speed and ISO. However, once you get used to manual mode it does not take much longer to get the settings you want.

General Tips that I consider when taking my own photos:

  • Avoid distinctive man-made structures. Having a man-made structure like a bridge, home, or a wall can be a dead give away of where you are at. Be conscious of your background when taking your photo and position yourself away from the structure in question. Try to include ambiguous things that could be anywhere like rocks, plants, or the stream itself.
  • Crop your photos in tight. Even if you have a unique feature in the photo that could be identified easily you can crop your image to include just the fish, or just you and the fish and exclude most of your background. I use this technique in almost all of my shots. Even the ones that include myself in the image are cropped close and my body coupled with the crop and background blur hides my location while still maintaining an artistic look.
  • Waterfalls can be a sure fire way to blow your spot. If you post a picture of a waterfall try to make sure that it is either unnamed or very obscure. If it is named just know that all someone has to do is reverse image search it on google to figure out where it is. I have done this to figure out where people are in the past.
  • Invest in a waterproof bag of some sort to keep your camera in at all times while fishing. The camera should only be loose when a photo is about to or being taken.
  • Finally, this one is most common sense, but I see it all the time on instagram: never geotag the actual location of your spot or name drop it in your caption.

Technical tips:

  • Use a low aperture number, example F1.8, to get more background blur
  • If your lens does not have a low aperture number try zooming in as far as your can to take your image, this will help produce a moderate amount of blue without actually have a low F number.
  • Use higher F numbers for landscape shots to bring more things into focus.
  • I always have my ISO set at 100 for best image quality. That coupled with shooting in aperture priority mode means that the camera will only be calculating the shutter speed.
  • You can also set a minimum and maximum ISO range in your camera’s settings if you do not want to shoot with a fixed ISO.
  • Use manual mode or shutter priority for long exposure shots of waterfalls or rapids to help achieve the silky texture of the water. Shoot for a half second up to a couple. seconds for your shutter speed along with a higher aperture. If you are using a Neutral Density Filter you can use longer shutter speeds to get an even better effect.
  • When fishing solo, have a dedicated flexible tripod to carry with you. I have owned everything from a cheap $17 dollar one to the more expensive Joby Gorillapods and they all work. Hold the fish in the net, set up your camera on the flexible tripod, use a 2-10 second time delay, press your shutter button, hold the fish in the water until right before the picture takes, raise up and catch all those drippy droplets coming off the fish, then release.
  • Try focusing on the eye of your fish. In my experience, this helps bring out the greatest detail in your shot and emphasizes that the fish is the subject of the photo and not you.
  • Use a circular polarizing filter on your lens to reduce the glare of the water, and the glare on the wet fish to bring out more true colors.

I know there will be some expert photographers out there scoffing at my tips and explanations as well as some people who don’t see a point in guarding your favorite fishing spots. Regardless, these tips have helped me to not only take better photos but simultaneously guard my favorite fisheries. The reality is that there are no true secret spots anymore. Chances are that someone else knows and cherishes the same spot as you. That doesn’t make the spot any less special to you or any less in danger from overfishing and over pressure. If all of the handful of people that love a certain spot go out of their way to protect the spot either by not talking about it or by using some of the photography tips mentioned here to conceal its location, then the fishery will have a longer, healthier life. That is worth doing and your spots are worth protecting. Take your shot, but don’t blow the spot.

Article and photos from Ben Wayne, a fly fishing guide based out Boone, North Carolina. For more of his killer photos check him out on Instagram at @browntroutben or on his website at

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