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by Andrew Mayo, 20 January 2020

Fly fishing for Atlantic Salmon, Iceland, 2015 Josh Hutchins
Fly fishing for Atlantic Salmon, Iceland, 2015 Josh Hutchins

Well-executed photography is compelling and captivating, regardless of the genre. The best exponents of the craft have the ability to create pictures that consistently pique interest, engaging viewers who have no direct link or attachment to the images or subject matter.

Josh Hutchins and Matt Jones, two of the world’s finest fly fishing photographers, are a case in point. The pair specialise in documenting the angling adventure – the faces, fish, moments and places – in creative, striking fashion. Their work graces magazine covers, catalogues and travel brochures around the globe, and they both have a considerable following on social media.

Hutchins, from Australia, and Jones, from the United States, have also helped drive a significant shift in the quality and direction of fishing photography in recent years. Often overlooked as clichéd and lacking creativity, or falsely perceived as glorifying a ‘blood’ sport, today’s imagery is refined, insightful and spectacular. The best work typically blends environmental portraiture, photojournalism, underwater photography and landscape imagery to document one of the most popular recreational activities in the world – in essence, to create a textured portrait of the pursuit.

From the outside looking in, fishing photography looks like a dream gig – especially for keen anglers – but there are challenges that belie the romantic veneer. ‘All my friends hate me!’ laughs Jones, 36. ‘I’m always going off to some crazy place that most people would never get to see.’ Hutchins, 34, travels extensively too. When I spoke to him in August, he’d just returned from Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula and was preparing for trips to Greenland, Mongolia, Papua New Guinea and French Polynesia in the following weeks and months. For this pair, a dog-eared passport goes with the job.

However, despite the perennial popularity of recreational fishing, the photography side of things is far from lucrative. ‘It’s very difficult to make a living solely from fishing photography, especially in a niche market like fly fishing’, explains Jones. As a result, he supplements his commissioned fishing imagery with commercial work in the travel, agriculture and car industries. Meanwhile, Hutchins runs a successful guided fly fishing business, which allows him to focus heavily on photography – for articles, social media, brands and fishing operations around the world.

In addition to the commercial challenges, fishing photography presents a host of logistical hurdles. While overseas adventures are exciting, transporting heavy, expensive camera gear inevitably adds a layer of stress for photographers, as does the ever-present risk of drowning equipment when shooting around water. The time spent processing images is a killer, too. Hutchins and Jones generate thousands of pictures over the course of a week-long trip and spend hours, often days, culling and editing their work. It’s a hidden, yet significant part of every image-maker’s workload.

Then there’s the fishing itself – a central factor in the equation that photographers have little control over. But for accomplished anglers and guides like Hutchins and Jones, who usually forego fishing for photography, it’s all part of the fun, regardless of how things play out. Besides, their preferred imagery isn’t based around pictures of people holding up a big fish. In fact, they tend to avoid the stereotypical ‘grip ‘n grin’ fare many non-anglers associate with the genre, instead exploring alternative angles with the goal of creating a layered visual narrative.

‘I want to capture a story I’m proud to show people’, Hutchins enthuses. ‘And not just because there’s a big fish … I want them to be amazed because there’s a lit-up tent under the Milky Way, and there’s a beautiful river and an amazing valley, and it’s captured nicely. Sure, we take the “hero” shot of an angler with a special or unique fish, but the challenge for me is trying to capture the moments that tell more of the story … and doing it in a creative way.’

Jones agrees: ‘I’m always trying to tell a story … showcasing the adventure and capturing everything along the way … and hopefully showing people something they haven’t seen before.’

Both photographers do this exceptionally well, through images that reveal a diverse range of styles and approaches. There’s a strong focus on documentary imagery – the moments between moments, the action, the travel, the irreverence and adventure. Landscape photography features prominently too, often with an angler or boat in frame for context. And post-processing style plays an important role: Hutchins and Jones achieve a subtle, yet distinctive, film-like quality in their finished images, largely through a light processing touch and a clean, reserved colour palette.

Portraiture is also a common theme in the pair’s work, whether in the form of images of anglers and fishing guides, or of fish themselves. When I mention this to Hutchins, he pauses for a moment, contemplating his response. ‘What draws us to a portrait?’ he muses. ‘For me, it’s something of interest … that’s striking, or different or beautiful, or we’re intrigued by. And I feel fish have a lot of that. There are so many amazing looking fish out there. Sometimes people get caught up in the size, but mostly I don’t care. A lot of them are absolute masterpieces … the teeth, the colours and markings can be spectacular.’

Unsurprisingly, the techniques employed by Hutchins and Jones are equally diverse. They both like using telephoto lenses, which compress and isolate the subject, especially when combined with a shallow depth of field. Negative space also features regularly in their expansive ‘fishingscape’ compositions, and is often combined with clever use of foreground shapes, objects or colours. And they frequently shoot from directly above, using a drone to open up alternative angles and to put an innovative twist on scenes more commonly viewed from water or ground level.

Hutchins is also a fan of using slow shutter speeds for creative effect. ‘I like shots where, even in a still moment, there’s movement – whether it’s from water swirling around a person or colourful flowers blowing in the wind.’ And he does this by using a slow shutter speed to create motion blur and a sense of movement. Take his image of a fly fisherman crouched on the edge of a beautiful New Zealand backcountry river. Photographed from a ridge line high above the water using a slow shutter, it’s as much a portrait of trout fishing as it is a landscape image, and encapsulates Hutchins’ concept of creating movement in a still moment.

Other times it’s about freezing movement. Hutchins’ portrait of a fly-caught giant trevally in the surf is a perfect example. Taken in the Seychelles in 2016, the breaking wave is frozen in time, the cresting lip and water droplets framing the fish, effectively delivering a moment of stillness and calm amidst chaos and energy. It remains one of the photographer’s favourite pictures.

Inventive underwater imagery is another calling card of modern fishing photographers like Hutchins and Jones. In particular, the pair is renowned for their ‘split-shots’ – images that capture elements from above and beneath the water. These pictures require a waterproof housing for the camera, with a large dome port accommodating a wide-angle lens. It’s an expensive, cumbersome bit of kit, but in creative hands it can produce spectacular images.

Split-shot images often work so well because they provide context to the angling experience – the location, the fish or the moment – in a dynamic and novel way. Jones frequently uses the water line, where it cuts across the frame, as a compositional tool to help provide this context.

‘In calm water, sometimes I move my housing left-to-right to fabricate waves, so there’s not a straight line across the [lens] port … and part of the wave can wrap around [and frame] somebody. Other times you get a cut in the water that reveals the angler … with a fish below.’ Hutchins’ underwater images are equally dynamic and almost always form a key element of his documentary work.

Coming up with new ideas and approaches is a perpetual challenge for photographers, particularly in an online world saturated with visual content. ‘It’s a continuous battle trying to do something different’, explains Jones. ‘I follow a lot of advertising photographers [for inspiration]. It’s not fishing-related, but I look at how their images are composed and lit. I’ve been toying with the idea of bringing studio lighting out onto location … and I’d love to start playing with super long lenses in underwater shots too.’  
Hutchins also acknowledges the challenges. ‘You have to be more creative than ever to stand out ... I’m always looking for a different angle.’ And like Jones, his sources of inspiration often aren’t fishing-specific. ‘I skim through other magazines – a mountain bike magazine or even a fashion magazine … Life presents images to you all the time, whether it’s a billboard, a magazine or Instagram, and I try to be open to all different things.’

Through their imagery, Hutchins and Jones have also shaped the way many anglers think about how fish should be handled and photographed. The pair has an unwavering commitment to conservation – respecting fish and the environment – and focus primarily on catch-and-release angling. These messages shine through in their work.

‘Anglers are passionate’, explains Hutchins. ‘They’re passionate about conservation. They’re passionate about the health of the fish and the fishery, and they’re passionate about the people they work with and the places they go. I think that leads people to want to capture it and tell the story … Passion can bring out great moments and photographs.’

He’s right, of course. The best fishing photography is almost always underpinned by enthusiasm and energy. It’s about creating a visual narrative of that passionate pursuit – with images that evoke its beauty, exhilaration and adventure – presented in revelatory ways. And few photographers do it better than Matt Jones and Josh Hutchins.

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