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How to Photograph a Commercial Fishing Expedition

Chris Miller becomes one with Alaska's sockeye salmon, aided by his arsenal of new Tamron SP Series lenses and his longtime experience on the water.

By Jenn Gidman
Images by Chris Miller

Located about halfway between Alaska's most populous city of Anchorage and the beginning of the Aleutian Islands lies Bristol Bay, home to six major rivers that produce almost half of the world's commercially caught sockeye salmon. The fleet of fishermen who work these rivers is made up of roughly 1,500 boats restricted by regulation to 32 feet in length, and typically manned by crews of between two to four people.

Chris Miller—a freelance photographer based in Juneau who’s worked as an AP stringer and seen his work appear everywhere from the New York Times to Newsweek—has lived in Alaska since he moved there at the age of 3, and he's often one of those crew members who can be found casting a net and hauling in the day's catch.

"I started commercial fishing when I was about 18, and I've been doing it in Bristol Bay for about the last 10 years," he says, adding he also photographs other local pursuits, including backcountry skiing and snowboarding. "Working as a crew member and having that experience has opened up a lot of doors for me with clients and in gaining access to boats in the region."

Although Chris has been a fan of Tamron lenses for years, it's the newest SP series—including the SP 35mm VC, SP 45mm VC, SP 85mm VC, SP 90mm VC, and SP 150-600mm VC—that's met his needs on the water. "The moisture-resistant construction of these lenses has brought the gear to the level where I can trust it in the wet, cold environments I'm working in," he says.

Plus he says he's been "extremely impressed" with the image quality and focusing range of the lenses, which allows him to get in close for detail work. And the Vibration Compensation (VC) feature comes in handy when he's shooting handheld on a boat that's constantly pitching to and fro in 10-foot waters. "Every little bit helps to minimize camera shake so I can get a sharp image," he says.

Chris especially appreciates the ergonomically pleasing button for the autofocus and manual focus on the 35mm, 45mm, and 90mm lenses, a larger button more easily managed when he's wearing "slimy, wet gloves." "Trying to fidget with an itty-bitty switch, as I've had to in the past, is very complicated," he says. "And when I recently used the 35mm to shoot in the Canadian Arctic for a New York Times story, we had to wear these enormous heavy mittens to endure the subzero temperatures. Because I don't have to take my mittens off to handle these well-designed lenses, I can shoot longer in cold, inclement environments."

And those environments, especially on the fishing boats, are challenging ones to shoot in. "When we go out, we sometimes don't come off the boat for four weeks, and we're in the remotest locations," Chris says. "During peak season, we work 20 hours a day. So beyond dealing with the weather, which can be harsh in its own right, sometimes the hardest thing we work against is the physical exhaustion of long days and long stretches with very little sleep."

There are other logistical issues that affect the way Chris works. "The small size of many of the vessels I'm on makes the number of angles very limited: Getting far enough away so you're safe but still able to get a decent shot of the action can be difficult," he says. "The weather is also pretty wet—not just from rain and other precipitation, but from the spray as well. You're constantly trying to keep your front elements dry and your cameras away from salt water, which is the absolute worst, because it dissolves metal."

Luckily, Chris' experience helps him navigate each boat he finds himself on, as well as the crew as they're being photographed. "Because of my background in commercial fishing, it makes it easier for me to figure out what's going on and where the safe places are on the boat," he explains. "It also helps me get along with the crew much easier—they see me more as one of them rather than as an outsider coming in."

Leaning on his early photojournalism background, Chris' goal when taking photos is to find a decisive moment or moments that tell the entire story in an image or two. "Sometimes you can spend a week's worth of time on a boat or backcountry skiing, discovering just a couple of moments that transcend the everyday and encapsulate the entire experience," he says. "Much of what I photograph happens to gravitate toward action, since I'm so heavily involved with commercial fishing, skiing, and activities that are similar."

Combining a foreground element with a complementary background—either a subject that's in action with a quieter background, or a spectacular background with a more staid subject—can complete the image. "That elevates the image to the next level," Chris says.

That was his M.O. when he photographed a fishing boat on the open water against a stunning background. "This image works because of that foreground-background approach" he says. "Fishing boats by themselves can be somewhat interesting if they're photographed in decent light, but it's the volcano in the background that really makes this image. It offers a sense of place—you can just barely make out the village of Pilot Point along the shoreline. It also gives you a feel for the boat itself and where it's at in relation to the landscape."

© Chris Miller
200mm (using 150-600mm lens), F/11, 1/500th sec., ISO 400

Showing off details on his fishing boats is another way Chris can tell the story of his days at sea. "I see myself as a sketcher of sorts," Chris says. "I see something, look at it from one angle, then work my way around the scene until I distill it down to the essence of the story I'm trying to tell," he says. "In an image I took of the lines and fishing nets, I eventually realized I wanted to show the detail and the textures of the different types of lines, as well as the contrast between the red buoy and the green net."

© Chris Miller
35mm, F/4, 1/320th sec., ISO 200

Although many of Chris' photos are of the more spontaneous variety, a request for a staged photo occasionally comes in. "As I fish, I do a photo diary for a fishing organization that represents the fishery and fishermen in Bristol Bay," he says. "They were looking to set up a shot of fish on ice to feature the high-quality fish that are caught and to highlight the fact that we use refrigerated seawater on the boat—we chill the water down to 34 degrees and immerse the fish in it once we catch them to keep them fresh."

Showing how fresh fish are can prove difficult in a visual, however. "How do you show that water is cold?" Chris notes. That's how this photo came about, with the client requesting a few images of the fish on ice. "It's a little different from the more organic photos I'm used to taking, but it was an effective way to show exactly what the client needed to show," he adds.

In effect, the photo became a portrait not unlike that taken of a person. "You still want to establish a relationship between the viewer and the subject, and the eye is always going to gravitate toward the subjects' faces and eyes," Chris says. "That's why, once you have the linear aspect set up in a photo like this, you need to be careful that those faces and eyes are in focus."

© Chris Miller
45mm, F/10, 1/160th sec., ISO 250

A similarly planned image: a night shot with light painting. "This photo was a re-creation of a photo I did years ago," Chris says. "I wanted to redo it for a client. I placed my camera with the 35mm lens on a tripod and used sparklers to write 'Bristol Bay.' The image is actually flipped horizontally, so I didn't have to write backwards—as it was, it took 15 to 20 tries to get one good take."

© Chris Miller
35mm, F/11, 30 sec., ISO 50

To capture a photo of some of the prime action—nabbing fish in the nets—Chris positioned himself in the fish catcher at the back of the boat, close to the waterline. "Because I've been photographing this type of stuff for 10 years, I'm always trying to get different perspectives," he says. "I have a harness and ropes and will rig myself so I can hang outside the boat. In this case, I was able to grab the perspective of the net stretching off into the distance and tell the story of the fish as they came aboard. There weren't a lot of fish coming into the net that day, so I was focusing on individual fish instead."

© Chris Miller
35mm, F/5, 1/1000th sec., ISO 125

Knowing what to emphasize and what to tone down is critical in creating an eye-catching photo. "In the landscape photo I took with the volcano in the background, it was the volcano and the clouds and the textures, as well as the crosslight on the volcano, that I wanted to focus on. I made sure to make the water a more subtle element by cropping it as a standard rule-of-thirds photo so the water serves as a slight element along the bottom of the frame," Chris explains.

The 150-600 that Chris used for this image proved an ideal tool from his seafaring perch. "On land you can move around, and you have a greater ability to get closer or further away from your subject," he says. "On a boat, though, I'm stuck with whatever perspective I have. The 150-600 allows me to create a variety of images from one position by zooming in and out, and the compression of the lens is also invaluable: The boat you see directly ahead is about a mile away, and the volcano is about 40 miles away—but with the compression of that lens, it makes it appear as if the boat is fishing directly underneath the volcano."

© Chris Miller
460mm (using 150-600mm lens), F/11, 1/500th sec., ISO 250

For Chris, taking pictures in the commercial fishing world feels almost like "cheating," he says. "Most of the action on the boat is repetitive: Other than the lighting changing, as well as the position of the people on the boat, it's often the same thing over and over again," he says. "I'm lucky enough to be able to look at a scene, and if the light isn't perfect or my position isn't working, I can come back to that scene and wait for all of those elements to align later on. All photography is like that, more or less—creating a mental image about how you want your photo to look, then simply setting yourself up so you can get the image you envisioned."

To see more of Chris Miller's work, go to www.csmphotos.com or follow him on Instagram @csmphotos.