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Photographing California’s Salmon Run
By Matthew Perez, June 8, 2024 @ 06:00 AM (EST)

A monster male “zombified” Chinook salmon slowly cruising the shallows of a river

As a newcomer to underwater photography, I was always mesmerized by close-focus wide-angle (CFWA) images of freshwater fish. I would look at them in awe and wonder how photographers managed to get so close. In my admittedly limited experience, other than the odd sculpin here and there, freshwater fish were impossible to approach. I had photographed newts and turtles quite a few times, but I was ignorant of fish behavior and assumed the photographers had a special trick or were using special equipment to capture these images. As it turns out, spawning events are fantastic opportunities to get closer to fish than you otherwise might be able to. During spawning, most fish will completely ignore the presence of photographers. (However, it’s important to mention that you must be ethical and conscious of how your presence may affect behavior.)

Aside from the ability to get closer to fish for CFWA photography, bringing people closer to wildlife is important for me as a wildlife photographer. Mass migration and mating events are special photographic opportunities in this respect. They give you the opportunity to shoot a prodigious number of a species and create immersive images that provide a unique perspective. Images of special events can make the viewer feel like they are a part of an amazing natural phenomenon. For underwater photographers, salmon are the perfect subject for this sort of photography. They exemplify spectacular mass migration and mating events in areas where their populations are healthy.

A female kokanee salmon—trending towards “zombification”—holding position near her redd (nest). The fish on her far side is her mate

Both of my salmon run experiences took place in California. The first was in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with kokanee salmon. Kokanee are not native to this part of California. They were introduced to landlocked freshwater ecosystems in the Sierras in the first half of the 20th century. The second run I have photographed was with Fall-run Chinook salmon in California’s Central Valley. Unlike the kokanee, Chinook salmon are native to California, though their populations are under serious pressure from humans. I’ll provide an overview of each experience and my techniques sequentially in the following. My gear of choice for both shoots was a Nikon D500 with the Sigma 15mm fisheye lens, Nauticam housing, Nauticam 140mm optical glass fisheye port, and two Retra Flash Pro X strobes.

The Kokanee Salmon Run

Even though kokanee salmon are non-anadromous—remaining their entire lives in fresh water—they still undergo morphological and physiological changes when they breed. Outside of their spawning season, kokanee salmon are silver. However, their body turns a beautiful red color during spawning, while their head and operculum (gill cover) change to bluish-green. They are incredibly eye-catching fish in clear water. The males’ upper jaw becomes hook-like––this is called a kype. Their teeth grow larger and sharper, for defense of their mates and redds (nests) from rival males or other fish species. The morphological changes females undergo are limited to the silver-red color change. (Chinook male and female salmon undergo similar changes, respectively, and while the color changes are generally less striking, the Chinook hook jaw development is spectacular.)

Salmon lead a brutal life and not all of them will survive the journey upriver to spawn. Here, a still healthy female kokanee shelters amongst a deadfall next to a deceased compatriot

I photographed the kokanee over a three-day period. I spent the first two days in a shallow section of the river that mostly had fish migrating through it. Despite the water being relatively shallow, perhaps two feet deep, the current was strong enough that I had to find an area that offered me protection so I could remain stable while shooting and not get swept away. Unfortunately, that limited the variety of my compositions. Once situated in the river, it took nearly two hours for the fish to acclimate to my presence and venture close enough for me to make pictures. I used a slow shutter speed in some of these images for several reasons. The section of the river I had identified as most conducive on the first two days was well shaded, especially late and early in the day. I had to use a slower shutter speed to get enough light to the sensor to illuminate the background. I also used rear-shutter sync in conjunction with the slow shutter to get some of the movement of the fish.

A solo female kokanee, with her mate in the background, hovers near her redd

My flash positioning varied, but I mostly had the strobes facing in towards the housing because of how close the fish were on the first two days, and this strobe position avoids shadows on subjects nearly touching the port. Tiring of the same compositions and wanting to get images of a school of kokanee, I spent the third day in a section of river that held a larger school. The best spot I found was deeper, about five feet, and the school was very wary of me. Five hours in the water didn’t make them comfortable, but it sure made me uncomfortable! I was unable to get any of the images that I had envisioned.

A school of kokanee salmon hold in a deeper pool on their push upriver


Shooting Fall-Run Chinook Salmon

About a month after photographing Kokanee in the Sierra Nevada, I spent an afternoon photographing Fall-run Chinook salmon. I arrived at this run as it was coming to an end, so the riverbank was littered with dead salmon—a wonderful odor that really adds to the experience. However, this is also part of the drama of salmon breeding; shortly after spawning the fish die. Before dying, their body begins decomposing, resulting in what are colloquially known as “zombie” salmon. The fish are literally rotting away while still alive. Zombie salmon make fascinating, and at times, unsettling subjects.

Up close and personal with a large male Chinook salmon. This picture gives a fantastic view of the morphological changes these fish go through during breeding season

After putting my rig together and suiting up, I searched for an entry point that had live salmon nearby. I spotted an area that looked promising, but when I entered the water deeper than about a foot, I was immediately swept away by the current. I had to ditch my hopes of photographing the spawning and instead looked for fish within about five feet of the bank. The first few fish that ventured close to the bank were tearing past me, but after a short while I noticed a really striking zombie male moving leisurely. I spent about an hour-and-a-half only photographing this one fish. He allowed me to get so close to him that I have numerous images where he nearly or entirely occupies the entire frame. Again, because of how close I was to the fish, my strobes were pointed in toward the housing. This particular river featured a much wider bank, so ambient light was plentiful. Again, I used some slow shutter speeds to incorporate the fish’s movement.

Way beyond the point that most other animals would’ve just given up, salmon just don’t have quit in them. This male Chinook will keep swimming until his body rots away around him


Final Thoughts

Salmon runs are one of nature’s great migrations and for wildlife aficionados and underwater photographers, it is one that should not be missed. My best advice to those wishing to photograph salmon underwater is to scope out the area in advance so you can identify the best spots to photograph the fish. Some considerations are lighting, fish concentration, and scenery for composition. You will probably need more weight than you think, so come prepared with extra. I generally use 20 pounds in my weight belt, but this was not enough for either salmon run. It limited my ability to get the images I really wanted.

Be cognizant of the size of your subject. Salmon are big fish, and I was unprepared for how big Chinook salmon are. Despite only owning an underwater setup for a cropped-sensor camera and a 15mm fisheye at the time, I probably would have rented a wider fisheye lens, like Nikon’s 8–15mm fisheye, so I could get a wider field of view. Lastly, be careful. Many rivers that salmon spawn in are extremely powerful. Know your limits, do not underestimate the strength of the river, and pay attention to changing conditions. With good planning and a bit of luck, you will bear witness to one of nature’s great spectacles.

Even on his last legs (fins?), a beautiful and impressive—albeit creepy—Chinook salmon

For more images by Matthew Perez, check out our DPG Photographer of the Week feature.


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