October 11, 2022 5 min read

My buddy just showed me another “grip and grin” fish photo!  You know, those shots of a smiling fisherman holding a just caught fish as far from his body as possible to make the fish look bigger!  I’ve seen so many of them that I realize I could just take any one of those photos and put the face of whatever angler I choose onto the body, and no one would know.  Well, it’s a boring shot, to everyone but the fisherman with the fish.  So enough of taking that same shot.... Instead I think I’ll try asking one of the greatest fly fishing photographers of all time how he’s able to get fabulous photos like this!  

So I put a call in to Val Atkinson, to ask how he got to be fly fishing’s Michelangelo with a camera.  We met at his beautiful refurbished ranch house near the Fall River in California, and I’ve distilled the main points of the interview for all you Cheeky readers. 

When did you start taking fly fishing photos?

Been fishing since the age of 5, but in my early twenties I went fishing with some friends and took my Leica camera along. I had a whole set of 2 or 3 days of them catching fish and camping outdoors and having fun.  On a whim I decided to send some of the best photos into “Fly Fishing Magazine”.  At that time John Randolph was the editor and he said “Wow, these are great young man.  We’d like to publish them as a photo essay.  How about $500 for them?”  That was the most money I’d ever made for my photography.  Then and there I decided I wanted to be a fly fishing photographer - combining the 2 things that I loved:  photography and fishing!

So what do you think are the elements that go into a great photo?

I came up with this little creative photography mantra for that- it’s called L.C.M. That stands for Light, Composition and Moment.   Light is everything – and there’s so many different kinds of light – early, late, morning fog, twilight haze, moonlight - all kinds of light.  Photographers need to look for and recognize good light and make full use of it.  And then there’s composition, the way you structure your photo.  Use the rule of thirds by dividing your shot into three sections, and don’t always put your subject directly in the center, make the viewers eye go into your chosen areas of the picture. And then Moment - which is, if you see something that’s really unusual happening, forget about the composition and the light and just take the shot.  Your buddy caught a giant fish and he’s ready to bring it into the boat, so you don’t worry about anything else, just get that moment.  

How important is your equipment in taking a great photo?

The right camera equipment is very important, but not critical.  One of the legendary fishermen over the last 50 years was Lefty Kreh.  He never went anywhere without a ton of camera gear.   The first time I met Lefty was at Casablanca Fishing Lodge in the Yucatan and he didn’t really know me but I knew him.  We went out in his boat and I had my little camera around my neck, black & white film, and he had a big pelican box full of like 3 or 4 different camera bodies & lenses.  So he’s talking and telling jokes and all of a sudden we see some kind of fish.  It was something like a tarpon or snook, something we really needed to photograph.  So I jumped out of the boat since it was shallow water.   I had my one camera and I’m photographing the fish and I got some pretty cool pictures of what was in the water.  When I came back to the boat Lefty was still in his seat trying to pair up the right lens with the right camera body.  And I said to myself, Lefty you missed the shot.  And I came away realizing that less is more. Lefty had so many things, so many knots, so many reels, so many cameras - he was a plethora of stuff.  To his credit, he was really good at all that.  He could write articles from now til when the cows came home. But sometimes there’s an advantage to less is more.  I just had one camera and one lens, but I was ready and I was there you know?  

Even today, you still take photos in both color and black and white.  Why do you still like to shoot in black and white?

Because there are different kinds of light, and different kinds of light will help you decide on either black and white or color.  Some things look better in black and white and some things look better in color.  You can’t just use color for the sake of color.  It’s gotta have substance so that sort of goes a little bit to our earlier L.C.M. mantra.  The right light is important in your composition, but maybe more important for color - and I think black and white is not maybe as critical.  Because light does great things, you know. Light can make things more beautiful, but with black and white it’s more for contrast & texture & subject matter.   I had a photographer friend who used to say find good light, recognize good light and then find something to photograph it in.  

You had an 18 year relationship with a magazine company, which is where you built your international reputation.  How did that come about?

When I was in my early twenties I heard through a fishing show in California about this travel agency that was just starting up in Pennsylvania.  They were looking for a photographer and I thought that sounded like a great opportunity. So I flew to Pennsylvania at my own expense and interviewed Mike and Suzie Fitzgerald who started Frontiers Int’l Travel and this was early on when they were just getting started.  They said “Yeah we definitely need a photographer, would you go to Christmas Island and we’ll try you out.”  I had never heard of Christmas Island, I didn’t even have a passport. So I got a passport and I went to Christmas Island.  And when I got there I said “what do you want me to photograph?”  And they said “everything” - dinners, people having fun, eating lobsters, fishing from the pongas and more.  So that’s what I did and they loved it!  They said “These are great, we’ll sign you up. We want to sign a contract with you and would you go to Norway next month?” So for 18 great years after that I went to different places for them about every other month or so and all I had to do was take great photos! 


What do you personally look for in a photo?

Ernest Hemmingway said a good story is one you can feel.  So it’s feeling a good story, feeling a poem, feeling a painting or a photograph - you can just feel it!  And that’s the way I try to make my pictures, because I love the outdoors so much -  it’s everything to me.  I want to take a photo that makes YOU want to be there. I want you to want to be in that picture and feel it!


Meet the Author: Willard Simms has been fly fishing since the age of five, and always relishes an opportunity to write about fishing!  He is an award winning journalist and playwright,  who has written for a number of print and online publications over a decades long career and loves interviewing outstanding characters.