Henry Gilbey
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Mongolia fishing photography

MONGOLIA FISHING PHOTOGRAPHY

Camera - Nikon D3

Lens - Nikon 70-300mm f4.5-5.6G AF-S VR at 98mm (this lens is almost like some kind of secret, an “awesome cheapish lens for travel that not enough people know about.” Shoot it from 70-200mm at between f5.6 to f8 and the quality is great. A really good lightweight travel lens, but much above 200mm and I reckon the lens softens up and loses the quality).

Exposure - 1/160th at f8, ISO 400

Filter - Singh-Ray LB warming polarizer

I'm no athlete, indeed I am pretty sure that I looked more like a lame yak than a photographer as I ran from the truck and out across the steppe, but the only thing I had eyes for was lining up that magnificent rainbow over the collection of gers, and that desire required a little bit of running/stumbling to get into the right position. Talk about the perfect start to a fishing trip. A while earlier we had landed at Muron airport and the light is already looking really interesting. Much like the tropical flats, a landscape as vast and seemingly desolate as this needs some good light to lend it a true sense of scale. An hour outside of the airport and we are rattling along the steppe on a rutted track, and in direct contrast to the comparative warmth back in the capital Ulaanbaatar, out here the temperature is already plummeting. I am still wearing a pair of shorts though, sitting in the back of the truck and unzipping my camera bag and attaching a couple of lenses to the SLR bodies. Better to be prepared rather than kick myself later for missing something. One thing I simply can't forgive myself is missing a shot, and as such our driver must think I am some kind of shifty refugee as my eyes dart back and forth over the landscape and up at the sky all the time, and it's not as if we can even share a meaningful conversation as my Mongolian is about as good as my Russian. Non-existent. Not even one word. The light's looking better and better, but I know the drivers are in a rush to get us to the banks of the Delger-Muron river that lies somewhere out here in all this emptiness. And then we all see this rainbow begin to appear close to some threatening looking clouds. Nothing else I can do but bang quickly and insistently on our driver's shoulder, open the truck door, get ready to jump out, and just hope that he gets my meaning and pulls to a stop. The moment the brakes are applied and I’m out of the vehicle and chasing out across the steppe, in a pair of shorts, and looking very much like a mad western tourist with a big camera grasped in his hand. Which of course I am, but I know that if I can just move out across the grass to get the angle I need then the photo I can see in my head is there for the taking. All I need to do know is to catch my breath and line the shot up on a long lens and let that mixture of land and light do its thing. Mongolia. We haven't even reached the river yet. It's going to be a good trip…….


Camera - Nikon D3

Lens - Nikon 70-300mm f4.5-5.6G AF-S VR at 70mm

Exposure - 1/160th at f8, ISO 200

Filter - Singh-Ray LB warming polarizer

 

I don’t like regrets, but I am always going to have a few when it comes to this particular photo. On most levels I guess it works pretty well, but my regrets stem ostensibly from various things that I could just not do or control to make this the exact photo that I felt could be there. Bearing in mind that we rafted, camped and fished down perhaps a mere forty mile section of the Delger-Muron river, it seemed that every bend we came around opened up yet another quite strikingly beautiful stretch of scenery. I have long subscribed to fishing being one of the world’s greatest excuses to visit cool places, but Outer Mongolia is just off the scale special. And in case you were wondering, there really is a part of Mongolia that is known as Outer Mongolia. Fishing photography is what it is, and I would not have my working life any other way, but it’s something that is not at all easy to plan like say photographing food under controlled studio lights. I am not one for moving fishermen around to better suit my needs, for I would rather shoot it as it is and make it look natural, plus I can’t often “push” or “persuade” paying clients around just for a photo. Note the word often though, because sometimes it works. When it all comes together though, those are the moments you live for as a fishing photographer. When the fishermen are in the right places and the light just goes off, or they hook a fish right when you were hoping (and praying) they might, that is what makes is so special. The more you are out there, the more chances you have for everything to come together. Take this photo here. Nearly, but not quite. I was actually photographing a couple of the fishermen about half a mile downriver from these two guys here, but I kept looking back at this section of river with longing in my eyes. Fishing photos though need fishermen in them to make them fishing photos. Sounds kind of obvious, but try covering up those two small dots at the bottom of the frame and see what happens. Lovely scene, but what’s the point in fishing terms ? So when I saw Pete and his brother Alex being rafted around that bend and then stopping to get out and fish, I immediately began walking upstream and looking for a vantage point. I was on the hunt for a photo that would say “Outer Mongolia”, in that I wanted the two visiting fishermen to look like mere dots in such a vast, empty landscape. I needed to gain height to give a sense of scale and perspective, but it is not exactly the easiest thing in the world to get higher when you are carrying a big camera bag full of your working tools, plus I’m wearing chest waders, thermals, fleeces and felt-soled wading boots, and the dry grass and loose rock want to give way beneath your feet and send you crashing somewhat unceremoniously back down to the river’s edge. Still, up I go, until I just can’t seem to get any higher. In a perfect world I would have waited for some soft, evening light, and also I would have framed those annoying tops of the trees out of the extreme bottom right of the photo. But I can hardly ask the fishermen to hang around for me for a few hours when there might be taimen to catch further downstream, and I just could not get away from those tree tops if I wanted to frame the photo like this. Which I did. Don’t get me wrong, I am really pleased with the result, but I lay in my tent that night and knew deep down that it could have been better if more had come together at just the right time. But then that might be considered greedy. Work with what you have, and be very ready to work the hell out of a situation when it all comes together. And only gain height when the rocks are not about to give way……


Camera - Nikon D3

Lens - Nikon 24-70 f2.8G ED AF-S at 56mm

Exposure - 1/400th at f8, ISO 200

Filter - Singh-Ray LB warming polarizer

 

Running again, and by now we’ve established that I’m no natural runner. I can walk fast until the cows come home, but I was not really built for running. I ran for this one though. Always a very tricky decision to decide on which group to track with my cameras, and especially when we have three lots of two with one guide and a raft each. In a perfect world I want to be everywhere all the time, but let’s take a reality check and accept that this is not going to happen. I can’t ask that the groups stay close together, indeed one of the big attractions to this remote taimen fishing is the chance to fish unspoilt waters, but I can work as hard as possible to turn any potential advantages into hardcore photo ops. Believe me, I have spent many evenings mentally beating myself up over a lost photo opportunity, and it’s often not until the flight home that I am able to level with myself and work out if I could have done anything different, or indeed if missing something was completely out of my control. I knew that Pete McLeod and his brother Alex were in the raft ahead of us, but how far I was not quite sure. The guys I were tracking had just begun to fish some fairly fast water before a set of small rapids that led into what looked like a potentially large pool. My head got the better of me this time, and I used the bend of the river to cut out a bit of distance and wander off to see what lay ahead. My fast walk soon turned into an outright run though as I came close to the riverbank once more and saw Alex leaning into a fish on a single-handed fly rod. Taimen take some catching, but even from afar you could sense the buzz around this fish. Call it luck, call it better judgement, but sometimes stuff is just meant to happen. I can usually sense very quickly which fishermen can be “pushed” a bit on camera, in that some are happy for me to work a little more with more creative angles when they are cradling a fish that they have dreamed of for so many years. Some fishermen though are understandably not that comfortable with somebody like me working cameras in their face. But whatever the case, my number one priority all the time is the welfare of the fish. If I beat myself up for missing a shot, imagine what I would do if I caused harm to a fish for nothing more than a few photos. I want to do all I can to show the fish and indeed fishing off in the best way I can, but the need to get this big, tired taimen back in that cold clear water was our priority, and Alex I could tell was not overly comfortable with me asking for all kinds of different angles. So you do the best you can. You think like lightening and think up a way of making the fish and fisherman look their best with the available light and conditions, and you do it fast so that such a magnificent creature can be properly returned. The “grip and grin” or “hero” shot. The one you need to come back with from a trip like this, but often the least creatively-satisfying stuff to actually shoot.


Camera - Nikon D3

Lens - Nikon 70-300mm f4.5-5.6G AF-S VR at 200mm

Exposure - 1/320th at f5.6, ISO 400, -2 stops exposure compensation

Filter - Singh-Ray LB warming polarizer

 

I’m not going to lie to you here. The fact that this photo is in sharp focus is partly down to the wonders of a decent lens vibration reduction/image stabilizing system. I distinctly remember literally shaking with excitement as I framed up and ripped off photo after photo. I am a fishing junkie by nature, but this whole photography thing has crept up on me over the years to the extent that an opportunity to shoot cool photos means as much to me as hooking into a good fish, and perhaps even more when everything very suddenly comes together like you see here. What’s the main subject here ? That’s the vital question. You and I both know that the main subject matter in this photo is of course the fisherman. But as good as modern cameras are, it and its metering system simply don’t understand that we are fishermen. Our eyes are drawn to the fly fishermen who is Czech nymphing for the quite wonderful lenok (hugely abundant, it’s like world class trout fishing all on its own even before you factor in the taimen), but now think about what the camera’s metering system is drawn to as the biggest subject. The camera sees the trees and sheer rock face behind the fisherman as the biggest thing in the frame, which of course it is, and therefore it wants to expose for that. The trick here is to recognise very quickly that your camera is going to mess it up. Imagine that the rock face and trees in the background are instead nice and bright in this photo (but still in shadow), and what you then end up with is the fishermen completely over-exposed and blown out. Loss of impact, hit the delete button back home on the computer. The range of light is so great between the relatively bright foreground (fisherman) and the dark background in shadow (trees/rock face) that the camera simply can’t expose for both. Our eyes can, but a camera sensor can not “see” the huge range of light that we can. Imagine all that rattling around my head as I see the required variables very suddenly coming together to be able to make this photo. For years I have dreamt of being in a situation that allows me to take this kind of photograph, but you can’t make it happen. As I have said already, I prefer to let the fishing happen as it needs to, and then trust that from time to time it is all going to come together perfectly. A number of variables have to come together at just the right time to be able to shoot a photo like this, and I simply had never seen it happen, or been in the right location. Up until now that is. The rock face behind Alex McLeod is huge, and allows me to frame the sky out of the photo. The sun is off at an angle of about 10am on a clock face (midday is straight ahead) and dropping towards dusk. I don’t think Alex even knew that I was there taking photos, but when I first stopped and looked, the whole width of the river was lit up and nothing terribly exciting was happening – apart from Alex hooking a number of hungry lenok. I can’t tell you how glad I am that I did not move off downriver looking for something else to shoot. As that sun dipped some more, that rock and tree background went completely into shade, and the shadow line behind Alex began to creep across the river towards him. But Alex and those rocks in the water remained perfectly and increasingly softly side-lit. At first I will gladly admit that I did not “see” this shot in front of me, but when my eyes, brain and camera all caught up with each other, that’s when I got the shakes. I distinctly remember the proverbial light bulb going off in my head as I suddenly clicked that this was the exact situation I had been dreaming of for so long. Time to ignore the histogram on the big screen on the back of my camera and shoot purely on instinct. Take over and let the camera knows who’s in charge. The way to hold that wonderful side-lighting on Alex and thus allow the background to go nice and dark (impact shot, it’s all about impact here) is to dial in a load of minus exposure compensation and fire away. I have no black and white background, indeed I have never smelt the whiff of processing chemicals in a dark room, but the moment I “saw” this shot, I knew it would work really well as a black and white image as well. I never once asked Alex to move, but within perhaps ten minutes he was also in shadow and the whole experience was over for me as the photographer. Sometimes it’s just meant to be I guess……….


Camera - Nikon D3

Lens - Nikon 24-70 f2.8G ED AF-S at 24mm

Exposure - 1/125th at f10, ISO 200, -0.5 stop exposure compensation

Filter - Singh-Ray LB warming polarizer

 

Much as I love heading back home to my wife and two young girls, I could not help but feel a bit low as we headed for the last river bend of our trip. We were going to spend one last night on the river bank before heading back to the civilisation of the capital Ulaanbaatar and our flights home. From a photography point of view I could not have had a much better trip. The light, the locations, the fish, everything seemed to come together nearly perfectly, and how often can you say that ? I often get asked about getting into this strange world of fishing journalism, but I have never had a day’s training at any of this. One thing though that I do subscribe to completely is that you can’t shoot your best photos if you are fishing. Believe me, the fishing junkie side of me wants to fish all the time, but I have to weigh that desire against me knowing how much I will give myself a personal beating for missing a shot, and I also need to earn a living !! I get a huge thrill from watching other people fish, and yes, I caught a bunch of lenok on this trip after we had lost the light on a few evenings, but in truth I am there as a photographer, and if you are not moved to do your utmost to try and record a fishing trip as special as this via the medium of photography then I would guess that this is not your calling. So I am sitting there in the raft perhaps fifty metres behind the one you can see here, feeling a little down about leaving this little piece of heaven, yet also excited to get back and see my girls. I can see the one last bend we will stop after and spend our last night on the banks of this quite magical river. And then it starts all over again. Hyperventilation, a racing heart, a quickening pulse, you name it, this last bend did it to me. Much as fly fishing especially can be a gloriously peaceful pursuit, let me assure you that I personally spent nearly the whole week in a perpetual state of overexcitement. As we rounded that last bend, this is what I saw. The last bit of sunshine was so lovely and warm and subtle, and it was gloriously illuminating that jagged cliff behind the lead boat. I felt wrong to then wish for more, but how about some fluffy white clouds to lend that intense blue sky some depth and added definition ? There they were. By now the local guides knew that if they were on the raft with me then my wild and sudden gesticulations meant that we needed to head for the bank, and as quickly as possible. This is an easy scene for any half-decent camera to expose for, but I dialled in ½ a stop minus exposure compensation to retain as much contrast and saturation as possible, and my polarizing filter was rotated to the max to really help bring that sky out and try to help give the feeling that those clouds are like a roof to this sheer sense of scale and grandeur. And remember, it’s a fishing photograph, so I simply waited for the lead boat to drift into view and then fired away. Honestly, I can’t tell you what a special place this little piece of Outer Mongolia is, and I so badly want to go back that it hurts.

To visit and fish places like this, talk to the rather excellent and helpful people at Aardvark McLeod right here