About my photography - Salmonography.com

Tom Kline Imaging

Alaska based underwater photographer with expertise in salmonid fishes

Welcome to my photography website!

Through photography I combine art with science. Photography has been my primary creative outlet since a teenager when I began developing film and making prints in the darkroom. My education culminated in 1991 when I received a Ph.D. in Oceanography from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Underwater photography augmented my dissertation research on salmon ecology. I have spent much of the last decade expanding on this by developing techniques to capture various aspects of salmon ecology and behavior. The images you see on this website are the result of this effort.

Why salmon? I find salmon to be a very compelling subject. I first came to Alaska in 1979 to work on salmon research at Iliamna Lake while a student at the University of Washington. That year turned out to be a peak year in the that system's five-year cycle of Sockeye Salmon abundance. One of the tasks that I performed was to count fish swimming upstream in the Newhalen River, one of the major tributaries. There were so many salmon that it was necessary to count them by fives in order to keep up with a hand tally. I was drawn to the spectacle of the salmon spawning migration, returning to Iliamna at each given opportunity. I did much of my Ph. D. research there.

Snorkeling with a Hydro 35 underwater housing in Iliamna Lake, Alaska while working on my Ph.D. The light grey objects surrounding me are carcasses of spawned-out salmon lying on the bottom. They drifted from other parts of the lake before sinking here.

After 1991 I led numerous freshwater and marine research projects in Alaska, much of it related to the Exxon Valdez oil spill that took place while I was in graduate school. Photography continued during this time. I made numerous scuba diving trips around the world with my Nikonos RS underwater cameras. About a decade ago I switched to digital photography. Digital photography enables me to assess my photography in near real-time rather than having to wait for film to be developed (a multi-week delay where there are no photo labs!). As well, I am no longer limited to 36 pictures (the length of a roll of film). Instead I am limited by battery endurance. I typically place a housed camera in a stream and leave it there for many hours watching and photographing all the while.

My most frequented Sockeye Salmon stream is adjacent to a public road. It has many other visitors that I have spoken with on salmon. This included an opportunity to point out an actual spawning event to a retired commercial fisherman who had never seen one before although having observed many salmon in streams over the years. An actual spawning event takes place in less than ten seconds and often lasts for less than five seconds. The event is very easy to miss.

Salmon spend much of the time on spawning grounds in competition. Most people see this as just a lot of splashing. Whereas most are aware that salmon are in the stream to spawn, they have no idea of anything else. Many are not even certain of the salmon species they are looking at. I sometimes feel like a sportscaster giving a play-by-play pointing out to visitors the individual fish, their sex, and the activity unfolding before their eyes.

Through the images posted on salmongraphy.com I hope to educate a much greater audience on the nuances of salmon. The submerged camera provides an intimate perspective that few can experience directly.

One of the first things one will notice is the competition, often directed at the same sex. Male salmon like with many other animals compete with other males in order to reproduce. Often it is the larger males that succeed in being the alpha male. The alpha male will stand by and guard his position while the female excavates the nest (or redd in salmon jargon). The excavation is far from random. My images reveal that females move stream gravel with the result having larger pebbles comprising the pocket where eggs will be laid. A female will make numerous probes with her anal fin assessing the state of her progress. Probing may involve contorting her body so she can touch the bottom of the interstitial spaces. This body position is similar to that made when spawning commences. This can fool the alpha male and other males into spawning prematurely. This is referred to as false spawning. True spawning events can be identified because the female will begin covering her redd within seconds after spawning. Whereas touch is used for redd assessment, vision is used for observing other salmon especially other females and the unwanted, such as the wrong species and early maturing males (smaller salmon known as jacks). The female will seem to go out of her way to chase jacks away.  Successful jacks are those that stay behind the female and out of her sight.

Whereas large males often dominate, smaller sneaker males will also succeed in spawning alongside. In order to successfully spawn, sneaker males need to be quick. Those getting closer to the female will more likely deposit sperm that will fertilize eggs. Also observable is digging behavior by males. Biologists call this displacement activity. Digging by males does not help the female. Instead, it is believed to reflect his frustrations at not being able to spawn. I have seen and photographed males digging when there are other males competing for the same female and when the female takes off to chase an unwanted fish away. The male digging action appears more similar to the female’s digging action when covering the redd and can have the same result.

Competition between females is for spawning territory. A female Pacific salmon will guard her space before and after she has spawned. If another female excavates another redd within a few meters of her spot she will attack it quite viciously. I have seen a few head-on attacks that resulted in jaws being locked together long enough for me to place a camera to take a picture of the situation.

Males make threat postures more frequently than actually attacking. Postures include gaping and tilting the head so that the snout is held high. Males as well as females will attempt to draw a competitor away by coming alongside it often with a threat posture and then swim a fair distance, often more than ten meters. The swim will sometimes end with one biting the other. When aggression or combat takes place near or on a redd construction site the female will move out of the way to avoid being caught in the “crossfire”. Males will also gape while positioned on the redd with or without the female being present as a signal to the female to commence spawning. 

I also photograph salmonid fishes other than salmon! This includes Pacific trout species, which are now placed in the genus Oncorhynchus, the same as the Pacific salmon. In my home waters there are about one thousand times more salmon so trout are more challenging especially as they often favor water that is not particularly clear. A salmonid commonly seen in Alaska, also much less abundant than salmon, is the Dolly Varden. The Dolly Varden is a Charr, a member of the genus Salvelinus. Charrs can be distinguished from salmon and trout by their light colored spots. Salmon and trout have dark spots. A significant difference in Dolly Varden spawning compared to salmon is the female will wave her body over the redd for several minutes after spawning. Covering digs may alternate with additional waves. One can see in some of my images that Dolly Varden eggs are almost white suggesting less iron-based oxygen binding pigments.

My photographs show the similarity in salmonid spawning behavior across species. In particular are the movements made by females during redd construction. Digging activity by the female of one species may attract the males of another. For example, a male Sockeye Salmon attempted to spawn with a female Dolly Varden that I was photographing. I had already photographed the spawning, the female was in the process of covering the redd. The male signaled his interest by quivering. The quivering can be seen by the ripples spreading from the male’s dorsal fin on the water’s surface. Proximity of different species spawning in the same area can result in hybrids. For example, Pink and Chum salmon have partial spawning overlap in space and time. Viable sperm may fertilize eggs from a different species spawning simultaneously downstream a short distance. I have an image showing a putative “chumpy”, a Chum-Pink salmon hybrid.

Salmon spawning activities drive many of my most spectacular images. One must not forget, however, that life of the next generation is beginning as a result. Accordingly I also photograph early life history freshwater stages. 

Other photography, underwater and otherwise

I do not exclusively photograph salmon and their close relatives! I also photograph coral reef fishes and other underwater creatures.  As well, there is a lot of spectacular scenery as well as other forms of life that have attracted my photographic attention. Other subjects can also be found on this site. 

Equipment and technique

Many people, especially other photographers, are curious about what equipment I use. I made all the underwater photographs on salmonography.com using 35mm film-format-based digital single lens reflex (SLR) cameras placed inside of Seacam underwater housings. SLR cameras are presently the most “evolved” cameras available. Particularly important is the availability of lenses needed specifically for my photographic subjects, sophisticated automatic focusing, environmental sealing, and battery management.

I use fisheye lenses for most of my salmon photography. Extreme wide-angle non-fisheye lenses are my second most important lens category. These lenses enable me to work at very close range, which partially alleviates water clarity challenges. At such close range focus is critical, even for fisheye lenses.

I favor cameras that can autofocus quickly (salmon movement is quick) and have a near-focus priority from among a collection of autofocus points. The exact position of a salmon within the frame can change very rapidly. It is thus important to be able to shift focus from various spots as quickly as possible. Autofocus algorithms that select the nearest point to focus work the best for me.

Because it is inevitable that drops of water will end up on camera equipment when working around water environmental sealing is better than none. I place cameras under water for hours with the camera power turned on. As well, the ambient temperatures can be very low (< 5 degrees C, < 40 degrees F). Large capacity batteries with accurate battery level indicators are therefore essential.

Not surprising then is that the lens and camera combinations I most frequently use consist of the Canon EF 8-15mm fisheye lens mounted on EOS-1Ds Mark II or III camera bodies. The focusing ovals of these camera models is similar and is a good compromise between extensive coverage while avoiding the stream bottom or water’s surface that can act as false focusing targets.

Whereas I use autofocus for focusing I most often set camera exposure manually (shutter speed, f-stop, and flash (when used) power level). This is due to the relatively fixed and close-focus distances I typically work in. I use auto-exposure only when not using flash. Unfortunately light levels under water in Alaska are very low. For example, I use relatively high ISO sensitivity levels of 1000 to 1600 on sunny days during the early part of the spawning period (July) and only where there is no forest canopy and water is very shallow (barely covering the fish) in order to be able to have a reasonable shutter speed (shorter times than 1/100 of a second) and an aperture compatible with dome port optics (f/8). Fisheye and other wide-angle lenses are adapted for underwater use with dome ports. A dome port’s in-focus field is shaped like the inside of a bowl whereas lenses are designed to focus on a plane. The upshot of this is that small lens apertures, f/8 or smaller, must be used to increase depth of field.

Underwater housing selection is as important as camera and lens selection. During the “film era” I used Nikonos RS as well as medium format cameras under water. These cameras had viewfinders that lent themselves well to underwater viewing. Seacam is the only housing manufacturer that builds underwater housings with comparable quality viewfinders. As well, these viewfinders can be easily exchanged by the user in the field. They make a 45-degree viewfinder that I have use in shallow water in such a way that the eyepiece is not submerged. This enables viewing the underwater scene from above.

I took this “selfie” as a by-product while preparing and testing a Seacam underwater housing in my hotel room prior to diving in Hawaii. It is important to make sure everything is working by doing some test shots before diving! I was looking through the 45-degree viewfinder to make sure the camera controls (focus and exposure) were functioning when pushing the shutter release.

Seacam builds a comprehensive remote control system. The Nikonos RS had a remote control but the release cord was just 1.5m long. This was far too short except for certain polecam applications. The Seacam system includes the option for cords of any length. As well, one can activate the autofocus and trigger the shutter with one button with an action that is very similar to a camera’s shutter release button.

I took this remote controlled “selfie” for my 2010 electronic Christmas card with a Seacam housing prior to commencing salmon photography for the day. It shows some of the equipment used to take underwater photos of Coho Salmon during November at which time the ground is already covered by snow. The wire on the left side of the photo is connecting the remote control in my right hand with the camera used to take the picture.

I have barely touched on underwater photography technique. For those looking for more information I suggest visiting Wetpixel.com. Wetpixel has been an inspiration and a source of knowledge for me.

Support this site

Please support this site by buying a print. A print of a spectacular image will make a great conservation piece on the wall of your place of work or home. Use the larger sized watermarked proofs to see details that will become apparent when images are enlarged in prints. Prints are made to order by Bay Photo, which one of the foremost labs in the U.S. The following section explains aspect ratio, which is an important consideration when deciding what size print to select for a specific image.

One of the first things I recall learning about printing when a teenager is that photographic negatives and standard photographic paper sizes do not conform. For example, the standard 35mm negative size of 24 by 36mm has a 2 to 3 aspect ratio. This does not match the aspect ratio of the commonly used (in the U.S) 8 by 10 and 11 by 14 inch paper sizes. One has to choose between cropping off part of image to fill a sheet of paper or use less than the full sheet to print the entire negative. Aspect ratio confers a certain aesthetic effect to images. It is up to the photographer to find an aesthetic match. For example, I find that semi-panoramic aspect ratios more clearly reflect the near two-dimensional aspect of shallow stream habitat where salmon spawn. Many photographers, however, do not agree with me. They arbitrarily conform their images to the aspect ratio of their cameras. In a more perfect world I would use free-form aspect ratios but this is impracticable for those needing to order prints from labs that offer prints in standard sizes, which is the case here. Prints can be ordered on a range of media but in certain standard sizes. The images as seen on this site are cropped to what I think is the best aesthetic match to a selection of standard aspect ratios. Nonetheless, it may be possible to alter some images to other aspect ratios at a customer request. To make things easier for prospective print buyers, I have indicated the aspect ratio I used for each image in each image caption. Use the adjacent table to match aspect ratios and print dimensions that would work best for each image you select to have printed. Thank you!

Powered by SmugMug Log In