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Underwater Fly Fishing Photography

Saturday, 19 June 2010 10:06



Here are a few pointers that came to us the hard way – trial and error experiences over the last five years in the field. We began taking underwater fly fishing work pretty seriously back in November 2004 and we’ve been at it ever since. It’s been a long, hard road and my pals Billy de Jong, Darryl Lampert, Leonard Flemming and Chris Bladen have come with me all the way.


       Billy de Jong  ace photographer - Witels River                              Chris Bladen - Karnemelk Stream Eastern Cape

  LEONARD_FLEMMING_11   Darryl_Lampert_on_Bernards_Dam


  Leonard Flemming - Holsloot River Western Cape                              Darryl Lampert - Highland Lodge Eastern Cape

Compact or SLR camera?

Wider angle of view- more apparent than real in SLRs vs compacts

SLRs, particularly full-frame sensor SLRs, have some advantages over compacts, but when you look at the functionality of high-end modern compacts, and the quality images they give, it is a shrinking advantage. One area where an SLR still has an advantage is in the ultra-wide angle range the SLR lenses can bring, often right down to 10 mm-20mm zooms. Wide-angle and close-in focusing ability are vital tools for this kind of work because most of your shots will be taken inside a metre of the camera.

Many compacts theoretically don’t offer as wide an angle of view. The best is around 24 mm but most are above 28mm. But remember that a 28 mm compact is as good as a non-full frame sensor SLR with a zoom lens set at say 17 mm because of the crop factor! What’s that? Well, back in the film days, the rectangle that captured the image on a standard SLR camera (the film) was just one size: 24mm x 36mm. Then the digital age came along and in some models of camera the size of the sensor (which equates to the film in old terms) changed; they either got minutely smaller (we call these full-frame digital SLRs), or significantly smaller, depending on the camera and model. We call these non-full-frame digital SLRs and of course all compacts also have smaller sensors.

People usually refer to a sensor’s size by its crop factor. That’s the number you use to find the 35mm film equivalent of a lens. If a sensor is roughly 24mm x 36mm, then there is no crop factor, since it covers the same area as 35mm film. (Full-frame sensor digital cameras are as near as 24mm X 36mm as makes no difference.) So different cameras have different sensor sizes varying from full frame (more expensive naturally) to SLRs that are anything from 1.3x to 1.6x smaller depending on the camera and model.

In practical terms if the crop factor on a non-full frame SLR is say 1.6x, then, in effect, a 17 mm lens actually becomes a 27.2 mm lens once it’s on your camera. Similarly, if you are using say a 10-22mm lens on a non-full frame sensor SLR, you are effectively using a 16-35 mm lens. With compacts what you see is what you get, so if a compact is advertised as having a lens range from 28 to 100 mm, say, that’s what you actually get.

The practical application is as follows: most people use non-full frame SLRs because of the high cost of full-frame equivalents. Add a 10 – 22 mm lens to your non-full frame SLRs and you are shooting at an effective 16 to 35.2 mm. But, and it’s a big but, once that camera is in a housing you can’t use the 10 mm widest setting because the camera will pick up the rim of the port housing! 17 mm is about as wide as you can get – as we said, an equivalent of 27.2 mm and very close to your average compact. If you have the money and can afford a full-frame SLR, then a 16-35 mm lens is bringing you an advantage, but in a housing it’s a small advantage because catching the rim in the frame of the port is still a problem.


Using too wide an angle catches the housing port's rim all around this picture. The horizon is also not straight

Bear this all in mind because I will touch on it later and bring you a trick Billy and I learned to overcome this.


High ISO setting capability

Because there is reduced light coming into the camera when it’s under water, the ability to perform well at a high ISO setting is important.

Most modern SLRs handle high ISO settings very well, meaning they don’t show much noise at high settings, even up to a massive ISO 6400. The same cannot be said for compacts, so noise can be an issue. Noise is a mottled graininess in your image. (See the picture on ‘blow out’ and ‘noise’ further into this article.)

Macro capability

One clear advantage compacts have over SLRs is most now have incredible macro capability which you can’t match with SLRs. With some compacts you can get within a few centimetres of a fish.


Canon G 9 in macro action - notice how close this compact is and that it is shooting into the sun


SLRS are more versatile in terms of the settings you can use. But today many high-end compacts, like the Canon G 11 (image stabilised), for example, have versatility and performance that is simply amazing and matches that of most SLRs.

Weight and space

Compacts make wonderful backup cameras, especially for close in underwater work, but they are invaluable for long hikes where you want to reduce on weight and space.

What lens for an SLR?

What you are after is good wide angle capability. Exceptionally light and compact for its focal length range, the Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM also has a close minimum focusing distance of just 24cm.  Nikon make an equivalent lens (10-24 mm), as does Sigma (10-20 mm) and I have no doubt that they are just as good.

The value, below, of good wide-angle capability - Tom Lewin fishing the Berg River Western Cape


Underwater housings for SLRs

We all use SLRs in a purpose made, Ewa Marine clear a plastic housing. This is a soft housing, but it is robust. Just be careful if you decide to order one that you get the right model. This comes down to the U-B 100 with an 82 mm glass front port and I’ll explain. The 82 mm means that you can use wide angle lenses with a 77 mm lens diameter. Designed specifically for 35mm SLR cameras, the Ewa Marine model U-B housing is manufactured from double laminated PVC and has an integrated, optically neutral flat glass port. It has a pair of non-corrosive and seawater resistant clamping rails which fit together for perfect sealing. They tighten by means of three screw knobs. It is supplied in a handy yellow carry-case which has a water-proof interior and zippered side-pocket.

Have a look at the housing on this link

The Ewa Marine comes with an 82 mm adaptor ring that screws onto your lens and then fits snugly inside the port. We used it faithfully until Billy de Jong and I found that it was ok to leave it off. All we had to do was push the front of the lens directly up against the glass of the port. Doing this allowed us to use the full 10 mm wide angle capability of the lens without catching the edge of the port in the frame. So far we haven’t noticed any damage to the inside of the port.

I have no experience of the solid housings, but understand they are pretty expensive. Anyway, the Ewa Marine does it all for us as far as lakes and streams are concerned.

Compact camera housings

Just about all compact digital camera models offer a plastic housing. But there are some generics on the market for these cameras and again Ewa Marine has a range on offer. Follow this link for help .

What settings should I use?

There is room for debate here, but let me make an assumption and give some suggestions. The assumption is the fish will not stay dead still unless it is hand held, so because there is movement going on set a high ISO and shutter speed. I use shutter priority and set the camera at 1/500th with an ISO between 400 and 600 and naturally set the focus on 'hunting, or servo, auto focus. Stick with Auto white balance and set the camera to shoot multiple frames.  You won’t need flash and it’s wiser to take off your polarising filter because you are going to need all the light you can find. I now shoot all my underwater shots in JPEG and leave out shooting RAW images.

What problems am I going to run into and how do I avoid them?



An all to common problem - an amputated tail! Notice the lovely surface colours and mirror reflection of the trout in the surface

The biggest problem is that you are mostly shooting ‘blind’, i.e. holding the camera under the water and pointing it to where you imagine you will get the whole fish in the frame. With the problems of refraction, and to some extent parallax, objects under water viewed from on top aren’t necessarily where we think they are. The result can vary from missing the fish completely (rare) to cutting part of it off (common). I tend to chop off the tail, so I purposefully now aim slightly behind the fish.

Some of the best pictures I have seen taken under water were shot by Billy de Jong using a Ewa Marine housing on an SLR, but where he braved it out and got submerged so he could actually look through the camera’s viewfinder!


How to use a Ewa Marine if you are tough enough - Billy 'Royal Marine' de Jong

Blow out

This is by far the commonest problem in all underwater photography for exactly the same reasons I gave in my first article in this series on fly fishing photography. We find it best to shoot fish into the sun, or at an angle to it, but even then as a fish bends parts of it can blow out. Answer? Live with it and avoid shooting fish with the sun shining directly onto them.


Blow out in the tail of the fish and noise in the green areas - see noise below in enlargement



On hot days when your camera is submerged in cold water the port glass can frost up. We have tried everything over the years to prevent or minimise this, including wiping the glass with cut apple or potato, rubbing spittle on the inside of the port and using various scuba diving sprays. Nothing ever really impressed me. Darryl Lampert always packs his camera into the housing at home before an outing and he definitely gets less frosting. The rubber sealing ring in compact housings has a layer of silicone paste applied to it. That attracts dirt which can cause a minute break in the seal. Clean the seal regularly but only use a lint free cloth. If you get serious frosting on stream, open the housing and leave it on a convenient rock to dry out in the sun.

Tilted horizon

For some reason it is hard to know when a camera in a housing is level even though you are looking right down at the camera body. A level camera is especially essential for the half-in half-out shots we take.


Crooked horizon


Straightened, but see how angler and part of fish are lost


What helps with SLRs in a Ewa Marine housing is to slot a small spirit level into the flash hot shoe on top of the camera. Follow this link to see an example:

Just on this point it is also difficult when you are doing half-in half-out shots to know when the port is submerged to just the right level. For most shots this should be midway down the port. Because it’s so difficult we’ve learned to help each other with this. For example, if I am the angler posing with a fish I watch my pal’s camera for levelness and port depth and shout warning corrections to him. Finally, in half-in, half-out shots, it helps to wipe the front of the port with spittle. this helps prevent unwanted drops of water from clinging to the glass.


A nicely straight horizon in a half-in, half-out shot - Phil Hills fishing the Smalblaar River Western Cape


Special effects

Shower glass anglers

Billy de Jong was the pioneer on this and took a memorable, 'defining moment' shot on the Witels River that got us all going.


Billy de Jong's 'defining moment' picture of an angler and brown trout on the Witels River, Western Cape

The trick to it is to get the camera really deep, at least arm’s length, and then to shoot with the lens pointing almost directly upwards. There must be a small angle of inclination to the water surface of course, but believe me it will always be less than you imagine. I’d guess it about 15 to 20°.

Surface mirror reflections and riverbed mirror effect


Riverbed and trout in a mirror effect - brown trout, upper Itchen, Hampshire

If a fish is at, or just below, the surface, its reflection will often be caught nicely in the surface mirror. It’s something to remember when an angler is positioning a fish for you. ask him - or her - to bring the fish to a point just under the surface. Equally, in shallow streams where the bottom is brightly coloured, the colours of the river bed will reflect in the surface mirror.


Multicoloured water surface

 The greens of bank side vegetation, or the blues and whites of pretty skies, are often trapped in lovely tapestries of colour when you shoot a fish in broken water from slightly below it.


Multi-coloured sky and clouds through the surface of broken water

Macro effects

These are always worth a try, especially where the fly is bright and the fish is well coloured. I never shoot macro on multi frame settings, or on fast shutter speeds. Once you turn the macro function on using a compact it will often set the best aperture. This will usually result in a slower shutter speed so concentrate on holding your camera very still when shooting macro. (Some more sophisticate compacts allow you to change settings in Macro-mode.)


Macro picture where the fly adds colour and interest

Adding a net or a fly rod adds interest

As in photographing fish above the water, any structure adds interest. But be careful of really bubbly water. The picture can end up looking very fussy because bubbles light up like a Christmas tree under water. But if done discretely, bubbles can add interest, atmosphere and a sense of movement to a picture.


Poor use of bubbles (above)


The right effect of bubbles - keep them understated



Bringing in a landing net to add interest and persecpctive - Darryl Lampert photo


Good use of natural structure

The rule about holding the fish in a swimming position also holds, as does the position of the angler’s hand. The fish should be cradled in the hand without the angler's fingers wrapped around it. This is always a tough call in fast water, believe me.


Ouch! This trout looks 'squeezed'!!


More natural looking hand on fish position best taken as the angler releases the fish


Hand held stillwater shots are relatively easy to take

What do I need starting out?

I would suggest you get a versatile compact and purpose-made, or Ewa Marine, housing.

What facts are important?

You need to be shooting in bright overhead sunlight in clear water. Poor light just does not work and any turbidity in the water will be magnified.

Set your settings carefully before putting the camera into the housing (see above for settings).

You need a buddy to help you position the fish. The more patient he or she is, and the better experienced they become, the better your shots will get. I cannot emphasise this point enough. You can’t do underwater fly fishing photography alone.


Billy de Jong (brave man!) works the buddy system with Leon Theron

and, below, with Mark Krige on the Holsloot River, Western Cape


Here is a link to my underwater photographs

Tom Sutcliffe

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