Manual camera setting, flash made morning fishing image a magazine winner
I’m always looking for the opportunity to capture an image in a new way — especially after more than 20 years of shooting people holding fish. So I work to find better angles and add interesting elements into a scene.
When I hoped aboard Caleb Sumrall’s boat last year and saw a plastic frog tied onto one of his rods, an image was already coming together in my mind. I just needed the New Iberia, La., angler to quickly catch a decent bass. It didn’t take long for Sumrall to tempt a solid fish into pouncing on the artificial lure, and I put the young angler to work as the day’s first light was seeping over the horizon.
My goal was to capture the sun starbursting over a tree line in the background, but I had to work fast.
Accomplishing my goal is fairly straightforward, but you just have to switch your camera settings to manual and use a speedlight (not the pop-up flash many DSLRs come with). Why are these factors so important? You have to be able to set your exposure so the background is a exposed properly, which will render your subject way underexposed without adding some light to the scene.
OK, if that doesn’t make sense, just hang with me.
First, know that using elements in the scene to partially block the sun will help create rays. In this case, I used that tree line to block a portion of the rising sun, and the spillover light created really nice rays. But you also have to use a small aperture to capture those rays (more on that in a minute).
To capture a nice panoramic of the Atchafalaya Basin, I selected a Nikon 20mm f/1.8. That wide-angle lens also allowed me to get very close to the fish so it looked a little larger (but don’t tell anyone that trick).
Then it was just a matter of getting the camera set up properly. All of your settings are determined by the exposure of the background, which in this case included the sun. Pointing the camera toward the sun drives camera meters nuts, and if you use automatic settings you’re guaranteed to shank the shot. So set the camera on manual — and you actually will underexpose a bit to keep the sun from just blowing out and turning white.
So with my ISO locked in at 64 (the lowest my Nikon D810 allows), I set my aperture to f/11, and looked through the viewfinder and found that a shutter speed of 1/250 of a second was about right, underexposing the water and trees just a tad. I shot a couple of test images and chimped the back LCD to ensure there was still nice color to the sky and sun. I used the histogram to ensure I had nice shadows and highlights.
At that point, Sumrall and the fish were silhouettes.
To remedy that, I turned on my flash (a Nikon SB-910) and used the TTL mode, allowing the camera to tell the flash how much power was needed to bring Sumrall and the fish back into proper exposure. NOTE: If you just swivel the flash head to point directly at the subject — especially when getting up close and personal with a wide-angle lens — you’ll absolutely flash out the subject, so I put my flash head at about 45 degrees and pull up my flash card so light bounces off the card and hits the subject with nice, soft light.
At that point, about the only tricky part is adjusting your flash power (yeah, there’s a button for that). I usually have to pull back on the power a stop or so to ensure the angler and the fish don’t get over exposed.
With everything set, I then waited for the sun to begin topping the trees. As Sumrall will attest, I shot a number of frames (and I believe in bracketing, BTW) to ensure I had what I wanted before the sun separated from the trees.
This image was used in the September 2016 issue of Louisiana Sportsman magazine to illustrate why anglers get up insanely early to be on the water for sunrise.