From halcyon childhood summer days spent with siblings fishing a tributary of the river Wharfe, I had always been fascinated by the trout. An elusive and wily fish, it was a rare occasion when we mustered enough patience and skill to catch one. Then we would marvel at its striking beauty before gently slipping the fish back into its stream.
These days I am more interested in catching images of fish and last year I began to think hard about how to catch a river trout on camera. These cautious fish live in rivers that can run clear enough to allow underwater photography, but the fast and shallow water makes the fish difficult to approach. So there seem to be relatively few good images of river trout and I naturally extended the idea to photograph other species like grayling, chub and barbel.
Those childhood days taught me enough about trout behaviour to know that donning a wet suit and trying to attempt this with snorkel or dive gear was a non-starter. It needed a remote camera that could be installed in the right position and a system to activate it when the fish had regained confidence in its surroundings.
I had three candidate designs: a pole-cam set up, using a bicycle brake lever and cable to mechanically trigger a compact camera; a purpose-built housing for a professional DSLR that would allow tethered shooting through a laptop connected by a USB cable; and a small DSLR in a different home-built housing with a wireless trigger. Each had advantages and disadvantages ranging from cost and complexity of build to degree of camera control. In the end I went for broke and build all three by hand.
These kind of projects can take months, even years to complete. This one started with a few sketches that helped firm up my ideas and a trawl of the internet to enhance my (already quite reasonable) engineering skills, with new techniques like chemical welding for perspex sheets. First out of the workshop was the compact set up. The images above and below show what it looks like in and out of water. I used an Olympus XZ-2 with an INON wide angle lens in a PT-054 housing, nested within a perspex framework that allows mechanical triggering of the shutter.
The advantages of this design are simplicity, light weight and mobility. Although you cannot really chase trout around with it, once they become accustomed to it in water, you can move it around gently to optimise the viewpoint. The big disadvantage is that you have to shoot blind using manual mode or a semi-automatic exposure mode (aperture or shutter priority) and you cannot easily review images as you take them. The range of movement is of course limited by the pole, which works out to about 2-3 metres. But this manual triggering of the shutter works well and here is an early result.
Next up was the design that I expected to deliver the best images. I wanted to control all principal camera functions from a laptop with a live view of what was happening underwater to allow stronger compositions. I was willing to anchor the camera in a fixed position using a purpose built frame, albeit with some control over camera height in the water and an ability to pan in the vertical plane (to make best use of natural light throughout the day). The system used a USB cable to allow the camera to talk to the laptop and I also used an independent commercial magnetic trigger (Retra UWT) for a back up remote shutter, as laptop power often ran out in the field. Although I started with a simple perspex box design, I modified it to take the front end of my Nauticam housing in order to take advantage of the port and vacuum systems. The beauty of this is that it needs only one cable coming out of the box to activate all camera controls.
I knew that I would have to use bait to attract the trout close enough to the camera, so I used a trickle feed system, whereby maggots could wriggle through small holes in a box perched above the rig and periodically drop into the water. I also hand fed small trout pellets to get the trout rising in the water column for more dynamic images. This led to one of the initial problems; Mallard ducks on the river soon worked out that Colley offered a free meal service and they started to compete with the trout for food. And yet this had its own advantage, as I captured a few interesting behaviour shots, including a duck photo bomb…
Finally, I wondered whether it would be possible to use a radio frequency trigger through a shallow water column to let me place a small camera on the river bed, but without any external attachments using cables. This design is still in test as I write so I will update you in due course.
Without revealing all of my images at this early stage, and noting that this is still a work in progress, here is the kind of result that I’m now getting. It’s been well worth the effort and this holds great potential to photograph other timid freshwater river species.
Best wishes my dear friends