How To Shoot Yourself While Standing In A River:

Taking the selfie to the next level…

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The last sliver of sunlight on the canyon’s walls. Deschutes River Canyon, Oregon. (Click on any image to see it larger)

I have made dozens of pilgrimages to this sacred, riverine wilderness over the past twenty years. And within the delicious, unfolding hours that those magical days have afforded me, I have found myself, again and again, knee deep, balanced upon some submerged rock, fly rod in hand, asking for two simple gifts: trout willing to dance and a healing swirl of currents to pull and prod, and tug at the edges of my soul until, finally, I can release my grip on all those perceived slights and frets I have carefully gathered and kept score with during the months prior. This is big work. Thankfully, the river is even bigger.

Last summer I managed several consecutive days alone here, wading and fishing, harvesting wild currants and mint, making pictures of the river’s changing moods and falling into ever deeper states of calm with first-light awakenings and mid-afternoon naps beneath rustling trees. Slowly the chattering monkeys in my head quieted and I found myself thinking about a somewhat different kind of picture, one that might explain what a fly fisherman feels while lost utterly within ‘the pregnant moment’ of fishing. I haven’t had words to explain that experience, so profoundly moving to me and others, but I’ve longed to be able to share it,  to explain the strange, calming effect of the water and light, and the dances with fish to those who inquire.

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And so, five full days into my solo adventure, after an early dinner in camp I packed my heavy tripod and camera gear, grabbed my fly rod and donned my fishing vest, then headed off through heavy brush and a tangled thicket of trees toward a particularly picturesque and braided stretch of river.

In my mind I had begun to form an image that flowed with motion, with the hush of fading, midsummer light and with a fisherman’s calm, purposeful concentration. I was not envisioning a picture about catching a fish, but rather a picture about the search for fish. Anyone experienced with a fly rod knows that far more moments are spent searching for fish than playing fish, that it is the search that is the real gift, the meditation, the repeated koan. But how? How would one manage to record the beauty inherent within that lonely quest while standing there at the edge of the river all alone?

I had an idea.

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One of the coolest new features of the new Canon 6D, at least to this photographer’s mind is the built-in wi-fi capability its thoughtful makers have embedded within it, and those subsequent conversations now possible between a high quality, full frame SLR camera and an iPhone. Here, another dusk practice session, this one two days before standing in the river to shoot. I was intent on learning to make all the pieces work together seamlessly, but hadn’t even begun to imagine the fishing shot yet.

I had not attempted anything quite like what I was imagining nor did I know of anyone who had, but it occurred to me that maybe I could use Canon’s groovy new EOS Remote iPhone app to visualize and position myself perfectly within a framed-up image, then trigger the camera to capture my photograph, a selfie if you will, of the only possible fisherman in the vicinity intently exploring a stretch of pocket water in search of rainbow trout, at dusk. Undoubtedly, this was going to be more complicated than a simple, eyes-to-camera selfie, but figuring out how to do even that remotely was something I needed to master before attempting additional layers of complexity.

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iPhone screen captures, pictured side by side, showing how the app interface appears to the viewer as the phone and camera find one another.

As you can imagine, I was apprehensive about placing my brand new camera and L series wide-angle lens on a tripod in the river and then walking away from it, no matter how carefully I’d situated the tripod’s feet among those slippery rocks in shin-deep water. I could just imagine the setup slowly tipping over and disappearing beneath the surface as I walked away, or accidentally kicking it over as I tried to move around from behind it. I double and then triple-checked my setup for stability, carefully attached and leveled my camera, zooming out and framing up my shot in a way that would allow the viewer’s eye to move naturally through the scene from watery foreground to silhouetted fisherman, to eventually, pastel-colored dusky sky. Ever so slowly then I moved away from the camera itself and into the camera’s frame. When I was approximately where I thought I needed to be as the focal point of the shot, I activated the EOS Remote app on my phone’s screen and ‘looked’ through the camera’s viewfinder to see exactly what the camera was seeing.

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Obviously, I was still too close. And my back was turned too much to the camera. I moved two steps further toward the river’s center and a step to my right, tucking in behind a few leafy branches within the frame, then turned my body slightly more profile to the camera. I checked the screen again to see how the camera was seeing it. Much better.

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From the phone’s touchscreen then I manipulated my camera’s controls, dialing the shutter speed way down to allow the water in the foreground to blur out as it flowed through the scene during a long exposure, but discovered that there was still far too much light in the sky to slow my shutter speed suitably, even when shooting at low ISO and tiny apertures. I fired off a few frames, experimenting with the way I should hold my fly rod and where I should point it, but couldn’t yet manage the moody image I wanted. Even though the sun had dipped below the canyon rim on the far horizon, it was still too high and the sky far too bright, so guessing the light would probably be problematic for at least another half hour, I decided to go fishing.

Once my iPhone 5 was safely sealed back into its ziplock bag and tucked it into a pocket I carefully made my way back to the Canon 6D on the tripod, switched it off to save battery power and worked my way upstream. Hello there, fishies.

Between 7:58 and 8:39PM, as the light faded and the skies colored up, I caught and released three eager rainbow trout that were feeding in the “pocket water” upstream from my photo setup, then carefully worked my way back down to that sheltered stretch where my camera sat unattended within the swirling river. Whew! Still there. And dry. After switching the  Canon 6D back on and reconnecting with my iPhone via it’s internal wifi network, I waded back out to that picture-perfect little spot I’d earlier identified as ideal and began refining my position.

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The first shot in this trio shows me before I moved farther away from the camera and tucked in behind those leafy branches. In the second I’ve moved and turned a bit more sideways to the camera, but my posture feels too upright. In the third I’m in an attentive, low crouch, minimizing the chances that a nearby fish will spy me and spook.

The light levels had dropped substantially so I was now able to underexpose for mood while managing full, one second long exposures at f-20 rather than those 1/5 second exposures I’d needed earlier. In practical terms that allowed both for immense depth of focus and for that blurred, watery foreground, with literally five times as much movement as before, which certainly would add to the dreamy effect I was after.

With tripoded camera set on self-timer mode, shutter speed set to one second and exposure set to about one and a half stops underexposed, via the iPhone, I began to shoot in earnest, triggering the camera’s self-timer, then carefully pocketing my iPhone, assuming the position, flyrod extended and holding very still. I knew the camera would probably record some wiggle motion in me and my extended fly rod during such long exposures but also believed this might add to the integrity of the shot. (Imagine the fisherman in such a photograph frozen, perfectly still while the water moved all around him. It would  seem inauthentic and psychologically diminish the ‘truth’ of the shot.)

Each time I triggered the self-timer, I counted it down in my head, then waited in position for several more seconds, just to be sure. I did this fifteen times, selecting and zooming into each newly recorded image via my iPhone’s screen immediately after each capture, refining slightly as I went. With an aperture of f-20 on a 16mm lens, which I’d manually focused at about four feet distance, I knew the image would be sharp from the near foreground to a distance of infinity, so depth of field was not going to be an issue. And by viewing what my remotely triggered camera had recorded each time, via my phone, I knew my exposure was on target for the mood I was after and that my fisherman’s positions were improving aesthetically, bit by bit.

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The series of shots I made using the EOS Remote app that evening, as seen in a screen capture of my desktop computer’s Adobe Lightroom workspace.

Finally, confident I had a handful of images that worked as intended, I waded carefully back toward my camera, along the way pausing to prop my beloved fly rod ever so carefully on a rock in the foreground. With a simple swing of the camera to the left (upstream), I was able then to frame up another simpler shot, this time without the silhouetted fisherman.

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Selfies, digital self-portraits are boon to some minds and narcissistic bane to others. And regardless your opinion of their value to, or drag upon our collective psyche, they have been around in some form for as long as human beings have been curious and self-aware. Having once seen our reflections in the mirrored surface of a river at sunset, we could not help but wonder about the hidden depths of those fascinating persons reflected in the water. Our hungry imaginations demanded we ponder the implications of those eyes looking back at us, and that we try to see further into them. As we learned to draw, to carve, to rhyme, to paint, our explorations took on ever more elaborate and lasting dimensions. And so we artists of every age and medium since have found ways to explore the worlds we live in by examining  and picturing those unique physical vessels within which we breathe and move.

Self-portraits are an ancient and time-tested art form, and are without question here to stay.

This is the humble story of just one of them.

If you have questions about any aspect of this little project that I haven’t adequately covered here, please leave a comment and ask away. I’ll tell ya’ whatever I know. And once again, without you I’d just be standing here talking to myself, so my thanks once again for following along…

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18 thoughts on “How To Shoot Yourself While Standing In A River:

  1. I love the brilliance of your idea, the audacity of the setup, the poetry of the winning moment in the river. (I skipped over the technical phone-geeky-stuff, it’s not my brain side and, as you know, I don’t own a cellphone). But having done the odd selfie, I know the challenges on terra firma, never mind a rushing river. And just a little part of me wondered: What if the big trout got away, had a quick look downstream, worked up some resolve in its little trout brain and swam straight for that tripod leg? Lucky it didn’t….

    1. Janet, I am continually awed by your generosity and playful soul. Thank you. And as for the trout’s retribution, part of our deal is that they try to steal my fly and I try to tempt them. We dance for a brief few moments and then I carefully release each dance partner that does not manage to throw the hook or break my gossamer leader before reaching the net. I bow to each in namasté as they swim away and they in turn do not attack my cameras. So far this deal has worked swimmingly…

  2. Fascinating! I don’t fish, but the rhythm of the water, the gentle light…the search for that perfect moment, this is what it’s really all about. How brave to set your tripod & new camera in the water…you’ve inspired us all to stretch our imaginations and take better pictures.

  3. “My brother and I would have preferred to start learning how to fish by going out and catching a few, omitting entirely anything difficult or technical in the way of preparation that would take away from the fun. But it wasn’t by way of fun that we were introduced to our father’s art. If our father had had his say, nobody who did not know how to fish would be allowed to disgrace a fish by catching him.” A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean

  4. Beats the heck out of setting the shot, setting the self timer, then running into position before the 10 second countdown is finished. And then walking back to wind the film for the next variation. All the creative vision you bring to the image is the same, just made a whole lot easier by some new technology. Nice work, as usual, David. Thanks for sharing the details.

    1. Mark, you know as well as anyone how this process of exploration works. Yes, the technology makes some shots easier and yes, a self-portrait is still just a combination of camera and photographer picturing that photographer. But in this case, I don’t think I could have done this picture all by myself even a couple of years ago. Much too slippery and treacherous to get that far away and then into position before the self-timer would have run out of time, even at 30 seconds. Being able to see through the camera for precise positioning and then trigger it while standing thirty feet in front of it is something completely new, allowing things completely new… at least it is for me.

  5. Now for the voice command version. I never realized that fishermen ‘stalk’ their prey but it clearly shows in the photos. Thank you for another brilliant lesson.

    1. Layanee, thank you. Yes, fishing with a fly is much more of a moving, observing, seeking thing than sitting on the banks of a pond with a worm and a bobber, waiting for the fish to come to you. I was so happy to do just that as a kid, and can see myself doing more of that again when I am too creaky and unstable to wade fast currents and slippery rocks. As for the voice command version, yes, probably before we know it. The technology will keep changing for certain, but it will still require a childlike imagination to ‘see’ the picture that asks to be made.

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