Salmon & Steelhead Photography with Lael Johnson

As part of our 2021 Public Lands and Waters Photo Contest, our judges are offering some tips to improve your photography while out recreating on our public lands and waters. First up is Seattle-based fishing guide and Photographer Lael Johnson Of Fly Gyde.
Life as a fly fishing guide for salmon and steelhead comes with many challenges, and as I have overcome some of these challenges, I became a better photographer as my fly fishing skills progressed. As you grow in your particular craft, your world of taking a photo will also increase. It was always there, but you can't see the many options available to you if you have not had enough time to study your subject.
The great photos we search for are available to anyone who understands what is happening around them, which brings viewers into that moment with a photo. Having the camera ready, paired with the creative mind, is the recipe for capturing stellar images! Here are a few options of lens choices and what I typically focus my attention on when highlighting what life is like as a guide in the rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula and Pacific Northwest.

Fish: Using a process of elimination from the moment a fish is hooked helps capture all aspects of catch and release. Start wide and slowly get closer to your subject, focusing on showing what it is like to be the angler at that moment. The first-person view over the shoulder or close to the angler's body brings your audience into the experience and makes people want to participate in what they see. 

  • Fighting Fish/Rod Bends: 16-35 2.8 Wide Angle Zoom 2.8 or 50 1.4 Portrait
  • Landing Fish/Net Shots: 24-70 2.8 Zoom or 16-35 2.8 Wide Angle Zoom
  • Handling/Grip & Grins: 50 1.4 Portrait
  • Close-Ups/Turned Down Eye: 90 2.8 Macro or 50 1.4 Portrait
  • Tailshot/Release: 90 2.8 Macro or 50 1.4 Portrait
  • Celebration/High Fives: 24-70 2.8 Zoom or 50 1.4 Portrait

Flies: Understanding each step as a fly is tied will help you decide what you would like to focus on while at home, tying flies for yourself or as a bystander watching a master do their work. Your lens choice will depend on the size and sections of your flies, but the most important thing to control in this setting is light. Fly tying benches are usually in a less desirable place in the house, and with that being the case, not always well lit. This setting may require a flash to show the material's brilliance or a stationary light that you can move to different locations in the room. With so many materials and an endless range of colors, this is where your creativity can shine through. 

  • Gathering/Layout of Materials: 16-35 2.8 Wide Angle Zoom 2.8 or 50 1.4 Portrait
  • Materials Preparation/Stripping Feathers: 50 1.4 Portrait
  • Close-ups of Tying: 2.8 90 Macro or 50 1.4 Portrait
  • Tying with Angler and Full View of Tying Table and Vise: 16-35 2.8 Wide Angle Zoom
  • Finished Product: 50 1.4 Portrait 
  • Fly in Water: 50 1.4 Portrait

Casting: Capturing a fly angler casting is more than just knowing where to stand so your hat or ears don't come in contact with the fly. Both double hand and single hand casting have different cast movements, and either of them can present you with an opportunity to get a great shot. Before shooting, I suggest watching the angler cast for a few minutes to understand their casting rhythm. Watching will give you some insight into what to set your camera's shutter speed to and allow you to capture the fly lines' movement while in the air. 

  • Rod Bends: 16-35 2.8 Wide Angle Zoom 2.8 or 50 1.4 Portrait
  • Tight Loops of the Fly Line: 16-35 2.8 Wide Angle Zoom 2.8 or 50 1.4 Portrait
  • Fly Line Cast Toward You: 24-70 2.8 Zoom or 50 1.4 Portrait
  • Fly Line Ripping Off Water: 24-70 2.8 Zoom, 16-35 Wide Angle Zoom, or 50 1.4 Portrait
  • Angler Holding Rod Anticipating the Take: 24-70 2.8 Zoom or 50 1.4 Portrait

Environment: Fly fishing is an amazing sport that allows us to chase our wildest fish dreams, but if it were not for the environment where the technique takes place, it would not draw so much attention. Showing the landscape features lets a viewer move their mind from sitting in the city at lunch to joining you in the far reaches of Patagonia. If it looks as impressive as it was to be there, you will have someone who will want to join you on the next trip! Enjoy the journey while you are on it, and be sure to take your viewers with you through your photos.

  • Walking Through the Rainforest: 24-70 2.8 Zoom, 16-35 Wide Angle Zoom, or 50 1.4 Portrait
  • Flowing Water: 16-35 Wide Angle Zoom
  • Sun, Rain, Clouds & Reflections on the water: 16-35 Wide Angle Zoom or 50 1.4 Portrait
  • Trees, rocks, mountains: 24-70 2.8 Zoom, 16-35 Wide Angle Zoom, or 50 1.4 Portrait
  • Wildlife: Every lens you can get your hands on!

Lifestyle: Enjoying being a fly fisher is a lot more than the grip and grin you get after holding a fish. It's the smiles you get before you arrive at the water, packing lunches for your streamside meal, your dog running around just happy being alive, or the moment when you pick your best friend up for your greatest adventure. These parts of the journey are what make the trip special; the fish are just a bonus. Be sure to capture the special moments that will live with you and your audience forever, and if a fish is caught in the process, that only sweetens the deal.

  • Driving/Road Trip/Airport: 50 1.4 Portrait 1 compact lens is best and easy to travel with
  • Loading Gear: 16-35 Wide Angle Zoom
  • Getting Dressed/Waders, Boots & Jackets: 16-35 Wide Angle Zoom or 24-70 2.8 Zoom
  • Rowing Boat: 16-35 Wide Angle Zoom
  • Camping: 24-70 2.8 Zoom, 16-35 Wide Angle Zoom, or 50 1.4 Portrait

If there is anything you can take away from what I've mentioned above, it is this: KNOW YOUR SUBJECT! Good luck to you in your journey as a photographer; you're one click away from the greatest photo of your life!


BHA member Lael Johnson is a fly fishing guide and photographer who owns and operates Fly Gyde, a Seattle-based salmon and steelhead guide service, online fly shop and destination outfitter.

About Travis Bradford

Travis has been in the outdoors since he was young, but its the fish inhabiting North America's waters that hold his attention throughout the year. When not fly fishing, he can be found with his golden retriever Sal and a camera in-hand chasing stories.

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