Jonny Armstrong Photography » Specializing in camera trapping, underwater, and conservation science photography

Char and salmon in Cool Green Science

My friends’ and I had a recent paper featured in The Nature Conservancy’s Cool Green Science Blog. We found that Dolly Varden migrations from the ocean to freshwater track the highly variable timing of salmon runs, even in the face of climate change. You can read about it here.

For the blog post I provided images of char following schools of sockeye salmon up a small spawning tributary in Bristol Bay, Alaska. These trout-like fish can be seen darting around streams, dodging territorial salmon as they target their energy-rich eggs. The eggs that char eat tend to be those that have escaped the redd (nest) and would not have survived. My friend Morgan and I found that char can actually ramp up their gut size  to help them eat as many eggs as possible before salmon finish spawning. A good bout of egg-gorging is important because char need a lot of stored energy to spawn in the fall and then survive the lean times of winter. I’ve argued that the decline of wild salmon runs has likely been an under-appreciated factor in the decline of bull trout, a char native to the Pacific Northwest.



Getting a good picture of char and salmon is surprisingly difficult.  In this watersheds where I work, salmon populations only spawn for about three weeks. In small streams, that leaves 49 weeks with no opportunities to shoot fish larger than a sculpin. While a salmon population may spawn for 20-30 days, the scene pictured above is quite fleeting, and occurs only as the first wave of fish push into the stream and hold in pools.  Within a week fish are typically spread out on redds and many are starting to look beat up. Soon after that, the stream is scattered with carcasses and the swimming dead–the zombie-like fish that have burned through all their energy stores and are nearing the end.


Not only is the salmon run ephemeral, but its timing (phenology) varies year to year. To find fresh salmon to photograph, you’ll need to track this moving target just like the Dollies in our paper. The small Dolly pictured below, under the sockeye, likely followed a wave of salmon as it passed through Lake Nerka, located downstream.


If you are lucky enough to time your arrival with the first waves of fresh salmon you’ll have some more challenges to deal with. First, you’ll need to bring a buddy along to shout “hey bear” now and then. The clear streams that facilitate underwater photography also tend to be cold, so they incubate embryos at slower rates and require salmon to spawn earlier. This means the handful of streams where you can effectively photograph salmon are the same handful of streams where bears go to find their first high quality meal after hibernating all winter and going vegan all spring (except those that get lucky and catch a moose calf). The salmon pictured below, in the bear’s mouth, was the first fish to enter any spawning tributary in 2011. It had been injured by a gill net and entered the stream a week ahead of its peers, dying shortly afterward. I set a camera on its carcass and this bear arrived 30 minutes later; two more bears came during the night to sniff the gravel bar. When the salmon show up, the bears are there within minutes.


That means you’ll want at least one person to stay above water and make sure that you don’t surprise any bears as they walk the stream. Several times I’ve had freshly killed salmon drift in front of my snorkel mask. These are often males with a single bite mark in the back of their head, from a bear plucking out their energy-dense brain, leaving the rest of their carcass for the gulls and caddis flies.




The grizzly bears are easy to deal with. It’s actually the other end of the food chain where you’ll find the biggest threat to underwater photography. Before salmon spawn, rocks are covered with a slimy cocktail of algae, microbes, and detritus known as periphyton. As salmon swim upstream and dig in the gravel, they scrub these rocks clean and the periphyton, along with sediments and benthic invertebrates, mix into the water column.


This is great if you’re a young-of-the-year fish looking to snack on mayfly nymphs, but it’s bad news if you’re a photographer hoping for sharp images. The best way to deal with murky water is to get rid of it, by getting closer to the subject and reducing the volume of water that you have to shoot through. How close? Probably about one foot. That means you need an ultra-wide lens if you want photograph fishes, rather than parts of a fish. My favorite lens for this application is a Tokina 10-17 mm fisheye,  usually zoomed all the way out.

The smartest way to get within a foot of a school of fish is to set up an underwater tripod and shoot remotely. However, that also takes 90% of the fun out of it and requires some specialty gear. I’d much rather swim with fish than sit in a lawn chair with a wired shutter release. Luckily in smaller streams with distinct pools, the fish are fairly tolerant of a 6 ft. long monster in a camo dry suit. I think once they see how clumsy you are, they realize you are not a jumbo river otter, plus they don’t want to risk darting across a shallow riffle to find the next pool.


So you nailed the run timing and got close to the fish; you’re good-to-go right? Not quite, it’s coastal Alaska in July, so there’s a good chance it’s dark and cloudy. The good news is that you’ll have soft light that won’t illuminate the fine sediments in the water. The bad news is you won’t have much light to work with, the fish are moving, and you’ll be shooting them with your arm extended into moving water. That’s not a good recipe for sharp images, as you’ll be using slower shutter speeds with shaky hands and erratic subjects. Freezing action will require a mix of luck and ISO. You can try adding flash, as in the photo below, but its often impossible to avoid substantial backscatter and you’ll hate that extra weight and drag as you try whip your camera around at the surface. On my 7D I’ll shoot in manual mode at ISO 1600, f/5.6, and a shutter speed around 1/60 to 1/250. I’ll often use the “all points” or zone autofocus mode. When shooting without looking through the viewfinder, using a single autofocus point is risky. I also shoot in rapid-fire mode to increase the odds of a keeper and frequently check the LCD screen to calibrate my aim.



If you can deal with the challenges and inevitable frustrations, shooting salmon in small streams can be extremely rewarding. Even if you don’t get the image you’re after, it’s hard not to have a blast when hanging out underwater with fish. If you don’t have a housing for your SLR, you’ll probably do nearly as well with a GoPro on a pole. If the salmon don’t cooperate, you can always throw on a macro lens and look for sculpin in the rocks.


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