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The River Tweed is renowned for its salmon fishing, so it seemed like the perfect place for wildlife photographer Linda Pitkin to shoot images of these magnificent fish - until she got there. Then it turned out to be just a starting point for an quest fraught with trials, failures and some eventual success.
iWitness/ Personal Assignment: River Tweed, Atlantic Salmon underwater
Locations: River Tweed, rivers in Cumbria, River Itchen
Photographer: Linda Pitkin
If you want to photograph salmon you need to think like a fisherman, a fisherman with so many years of experience that he thinks like a salmon.
I arrived at Coldstream on the River Tweed in October, when the salmon were returning up river from the sea to their old spawning grounds. To my dismay recent rain had turned the Tweed into a fast-flowing expanse that was strongly “coloured” (fisherman-speak for brown and murky).
Brian (my husband) and I drove around the Scottish borders and Northumberland on a series of wild goose chases, trying out different approaches here and there in various tributaries.
I submerged in full scuba-gear in one shallow river and caught only a fleeting glimpse of a salmon.
Then I spent the best part of a day sitting in cold water at the bottom of a weir, where salmon and sea trout were leaping, until I could hardly move my legs.
Never give up
It was a week of adventures, but not productive for salmon photos – still, the game wasn’t up yet.
We headed into the Lake District in November, when spawning was due, and recruited the support of the Environment Agency (EA). But still no luck!
Mild weather held the salmon back - apparently they don’t get going while leaves remain on the trees. And more rain hadn’t helped either.
Then, the EA reported a few salmon at Carlisle in their fish trap. This is a salmon ladder, and the only way that the fish can get over the weir there on their migration up river.
It was daunting climbing down the ladder into a gloomy, semi-flooded, dungeon-like structure, but once I was there no one could persuade me to surface.
I lay in my mask and snorkel peering through the cloudy water at the salmon.
They were hens (female fish) and I was determined to get shots of cock fish in breeding colours, but wet and wintry weather set in, dashing my hopes of anything more in Cumbria.
Down south, though, the salmon breeding season was later, and in January my quest was back on, this time in the River Itchen.
Here, we were permitted to join the EA as they were catching a few pairs of salmon for a breeding programme.
As they released the fish back into the river at last I was able to get some very close and colourful underwater photos, which I wouldn’t have been able to get any other way.
Top photography tip:
Get close! Water is a very different medium to air to photograph in, and underwater photographers know that even in clear water results can look hazy.
If you can get your lens very close to your subject, sometimes just inches away, images will be crisp and colourful. For my salmon shots I used a 17-70 mm lens, mostly at the wide-angle end of the zoom.
Getting close to wildlife in water is easier than on land, if you are underwater with the fish or other animal, and provided you take care how you approach it, so as not to appear as a threat to it.
I have had many years of experience at this while scuba diving in the sea, but my freshwater work, for 2020VISION, has been experimental.
Rivers are often too shallow to submerge in, and though I’ve sometimes managed to get the shots by myself; other times, as with the salmon, I’ve relied on help from field experts such as the EA. In general though, persistence and perseverance pays off.
2020VISION is a multimedia project that highlights the link between people's wellbeing and the restoration of natural systems.
Uniquely, it pairs the talents of 20 of the UK's most skilled outdoor photographers with writers, editors, videographers, sound artists and scientists to make a compelling case for rewilding landscapes - for wildlife and for people.
To see some of the best images taken on 2020VISION assignments so far, click here.
To find out more about 2020VISION, click here.