How to Massively Improve Your Fly Tying Photography

Fly tying macro photo of a red spinner against a grey background

During the pandemic I have been doing more fly tying than usual, and I have had the time to take some photos of the flies I’ve tied.

In the early phase, the results of this were terrible. I was shooting pics with my iPhone, with no additional light sources and getting dreadful results. Hardly a surprise!

So I did a bit of research and came with the following system to take presentable macro photos of my flies. I surprised myself by both the outcome and how enjoyable it is.

I will preface this piece by saying:

  • I am not a skilled photographer by any means
  • It did involve the purchase of some gear
  • While I am happy with the results, these images are not professional quality

I think it is worth sharing this method, though, as it generated massive improvement for me (albeit off a low base) and it may be beneficial to readers (see below for before and after comparison).

My 5-step DIY method for taking solid fly shots

1. I made sure I had enough lights

I could see early enough that taking pictures of the flies inside without additional light sources was going to hold me back. I tried using natural light by shooting near windows and during the day, but the results were poor. So I went and bought some relatively bright LED lights with the global mounted on a flexible next to aid with repositioning. You should position these lights so they shine straight through the baking paper towards the centre of the lightbox. I use two as I do my shooting under a down light which shines through the top. If you don’t have that, consider a third to shine directly down. The other advantage of having adequate lights is your can shoot at night, when I do a lot of my fly tying.


fly tying photography tips

2. I made a lightbox

The lights helped a lot, but the images were still not what I wanted. The light was quite harsh and sometimes reflections off the eye of the hook or bright materials would cause some flare in the images.

So the next step was to use a lightbox. I made the lightbox by taking a wine carton and cutting panels out of the right-hand and left-hand sides, as well as the top, and covering these with baking paper. I also lined the interior with white copy paper (you can equally buy a lightbox for a relatively modest outlay).

The lightbox solved the issues I had had with lighting – it ensures the fly as the focus of the image – is bathed in a soft, diffused light emanating from a range of angles. The resulting images have the potential to be crystal clear as well as smooth and balanced.


3. I chose an appropriate color and tone backdrop

I had been using blue and green backdrops as they are relatively common when you look through images of flies. I’d done this by inserting cardboard in these colors to rest against the back of the lightbox. But I wasn’t happy with the results.

I found the brighter the green or blue, the more it distracted the eye from the fly, and the real pastel shades looked anaemic. The answer for me was to use granular grey cardboard as the backdrop. I preferred this to pure white or any other color.

4. I bought a good camera (optional)

While my results were improving, I had hit up against the limits of my “camera”. I’d been using the trusty iPhone camera – not the greatest piece of kit, particularly in the iPhone 8.

So I did some research on cameras, looking at models with good macro capacity. However, all these involved expensive lenses and lacked versatility. If I am going to spend a significant amount on a camera, I am going to want it to come fishing with me and take good medium and long-range shots as well as close-ups.

After lots of back and forth on this, I settled on the Canon G1X Mark III. I don’t want to turn this into an article for camera nerds as that’s not my point, and I lack the expertise. Rather I’ll just list the features I needed from this camera:

– it is compact
– it has a decent zoom range with a single non-detachable lens (24-72mm)
– it shoots video, and allows you to record videos of yourself with the flip-out fully articulating LCD
– you can mount an external flash and screw filters on to the lens

The only feature that I really want and it doesn’t have is an external mic socket, but I find for video recording the built-in mic is good in quiet areas and you can always use a lapel mic and your iPhone for recording separate audio and splicing the tracks together afterwards.

Using this camera took things up a notch, but off the bat, the results were not good. I was still getting dull images that were slightly out of focus even with this great bit of kit. There was one more crucial step…

5. I bought a cheap filter/lens set for macro images


This set of three filters allows you to apply magnification of between 2 and 4 times to make the camera work more effectively for macro work. I use the 4X filter, which screws on to the front of the retractable lens replacing the protective filter. That allows me to get much closer to the fly without affecting the focus or the lighting of the image.

Taking photos with this DIY macro set-up


Standard fly in vise shot: 

With the filter fitted, I usually position the camera on the tripod at the mouth of the light box and the fly sits in the vice towards the back of the light box. The distance between the lens and the fly is maybe 20cm. With the lens zoomed out, the image of the fly fills the screen and the focus remains pin sharp and the colours look beautiful in front of the grey backdrop.

More creative images:


With the basic method sorted, I have been experimenting with more artistic images of flies with the grey backdrop sitting on the bottom of the lightbox and the flies sitting on it.

Usually I have used some sort of prop – either one of the spare filters, a bobbin, hair stacker or something else to make a pleasing visual arrangement.

Then I have used aperture mode to reduce the depth of field and blur the background. The result can be really eye-catching images that are a bit different to the standard pictures of flies.

With some flies I have found the way they sit naturally on the backdrop means a plain image with no props is more eye catching. It is very early days and I am still experimenting, but I am already thrilled with the improvement in image quality I am getting.

For those looking to improve the shots they take of their flies, I’d really recommend this set up. If you already have a good camera this set up can be put together very cheaply with an outlay of $100 or so if you build the lightbox yourself.
It is not always necessary to buy a camera either. With more modern smart phones having far more capable cameras than my old iPhone,  you may be able to avoid the outlay of a new camera by using your phone’s camera with some sort of tripod. Really the magic is in the lighting and provided your phone can maintain focus with an image of the fly that fills the screen, you will still get great results.

Author

  • Rick Wallace is a passionate angler and fly fisher whose work has appeared in fishing publications including FlyLife. He is a regular on fly fishing podcasts and appeared in the international fly fishing film Predator.

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