While most of what makes a good photo is a matter of opinion, there are some things that are better for the image and the fish.
A little creative cropping and Instagram filters can go a long way, but achieving a photo that does the fish justice is a display of respect for the resource.
First and foremost, wild fish intended for release must be shown additional respect in order to lower their release mortality rate. Simply by fishing, you're putting these fish at risk of injury. By handling them, you are increasing that risk, and by excessively handling them for grip and grins, you're increasing their risks even more.
In all honesty, it's best to simply take a mental picture and let them swim. It's a display of confidence that you know you'll just catch more that you can look at, and you don't need the approval of the Internet to feel good about the accomplishments of your catches.
However, when you get that fish of a lifetime that you want to immortalize in a photo, or you had an exciting adventure you wanted to document, or whatever your justifications may be, sometimes we all just want to capture that moment in an image. Here's a few ways to increase the quality of the photo while decreasing the risks of harm caused to the fish.
When on the bank...
Get in the water and get your hands wet! Don't drag the fish up on the bank for a photo. Nobody will be impressed, and the Internet trolls will light you up! You can avoid this by gearing up to get into the water. Don't go to the river in your sneakers and blue jeans. Act like you've been there before and you're prepared for landing some fish today.
Don't lay them on the ground. If you're beaching a fish, running it into sand will damage their protective slime layer. In the instance you make this mistake, don't wipe it off with your hands. Hold the fish slightly above the surface of the water and splash more water on it to wash away the dirt and debris. Don't lay your fish anywhere near a rock or hard surfaces where it can slap it's head against them and knock itself out.
When in a boat...
If the situation calls for it, pull over! Get out of the boat, get into the water, and get your hands wet! This is the best possible way to handle the fish. Standing in a boat with a fish you intend to release is a risk that the fish will flop into the floor, collecting whatever you have laying in your boat on it's slime layer and banging it's head against everything else. If you're going to do a grip and grin from inside the boat, hold the fish over the water.
Use a net with fine mesh or rubber. The stiff, rough nylon netting is abrasive, removes the natural slime coat of the fish and often tears their fins. The larger holes catch everything from smaller fins to jaws, increasing the risk of injury to the fish. Buying a net with a more supple mesh will be easier on the fish.
While keeping the fish wet is helpful, keeping it bowed like a horseshoe in the net while holding it over the side of the boat in the current is not. Take the fish out of the net as quickly as possible, securing it by the tail and cradling its stomach, then hold it over the side of the boat with it's nose facing upstream until you're ready for the photo.
Keep your hands out of the gills! This can't be stressed enough, but unless you plan to kill the fish, don't do it! If you do it, plan on the fish dying! Salmon and steelhead are resilient creatures that endure a great deal of adversity, but while this may be common when it comes to warmwater species, salmonids respond differently to being handled by their gills.
Minimize the fight. This may be easier said then done, but if you know it's a wild fish and you've been at it a while, consider how bad you need the photo vs. the life of the fish. They build up lactic acid while in that state of panic, and sometimes they don't always recover after being released. You can reduce this risk by minimizing their time out of the water, which leads into the next point.
Keep 'em wet! Leave them in the water! If at all possible, leave their mouths and gills in the water so they can continue to breathe while you're snapping photos. This will also give them a moment to catch their breath before you release them in an area where they can recover. When you're holding them in the water, either do it in an area without strong currents, or point the nose of the fish upstream so the current forces water through it's gills. DO NOT hold the fish with its gills facing upstream.
Release them in an area where they can regain their feel for their surroundings. Avoid releasing fish at the top of a tailout, above rapids, or somewhere that will make their re-entry into the river an obstacle.
Keep a tight firm grip on the tail and a loose grip on it's stomach. The heart of the fish is in the same vicinity of its pectoral fins, so if you squeeze the fish, you're essentially squeezing its heart.
Hatchery fish on the other hand are a little easier to hold for a pose, although there's some do's and don'ts to that as well.
I see a lot of guides posting photos of fish at the end of the day with all their clients lined up at the ramp, holding up their catch. Rigamortis has set in, the fish are stiff, and while the box might be full, the areas where fish are touching each other as opposed to being exposed to air will develop discoloration. If you're okay with that, then so be it. However, while those photos might be popular on guide service Facebook pages, they're not exactly magazine cover or centerfold photo material.
Even if you're harvesting the fish, the best photo you can take of it will be while it's still alive. If you catch a fish that is not as cooperative posing for the camera, take the photo immediately after you bonk it. If you've already pulled the gills, finish the job and don't let them dangle. Wash the blood from your fish, as rinsing it with water will help bleed it better anyway. While some of these photos might be "cool" or "metal," they're not likely to be magazine material either.
When holding your harvested hatchery fish for a photo, avoid putting your hands inside the gills that face the camera. The subject of the photo should be your fish, not your hands.
There's an endless number of poses that you can try with your catches, and you should experiment with them to see what you like best. Here's a few of my own personal favorite poses and techniques that I feel do the fish the most justice.
For wild fish...
While you can't see the face of the fish in this photo, and angler Sara Dodd isn't looking at the camera, you can see the admiration of the fish on her face as she gets down to the water level and holds the fish where it can breathe before releasing it back into the wild. A firm grip on the tail and a loose grip behind the pectoral fins secure the fish for the photo.
The quick grip and grin. Guide Grant Rilette has mastered this pose. Notice how he's squatting down to keep the fish from having a long fall in the case it breaks free, while holding a net beneath it to break it's fall, which of course is a fine mesh net, as they're standing outside of the boat. Rilette's grip and grins only have the fish out of water long enough to snap the photo. Oregon's laws allow for this, while some states do not.
In this photo, Lonny Brooks has the fish tilted on it's side to show how broad it is and to highlight the ocean fresh color phase of it's stomach. Notice how his right hand is merely cradling the fish, rather than gripping it. He also has a Rushton Landing Net, which you can learn more about here on Wide Open Spaces.
Marlin LeFever has this fish tilted up and laid on its side to show its brute size. Notice how the mouth of the fish is still in the water, as is its right gill. Fish can still pass water through their gills and regain their strength for release while snapping photos this way.
While some would argue that a little forced perspective is "long-arming" a fish, this photo of trophy steelhead guide Joseph Princen emphasizes the profile of the fish by extending it's head into the foreground, making the fish the subject of the photo, and the smiling face admiring the catch merely a compliment to the fish.
Northwest Connection Sportfishing guide Nolan Davis exhibits how to properly hold a fish from a boat in the photos above and below. Notice how he's holding the fish with the proper grip, as well as over the bow of the boat. The net is just below the fish because the fish is only out of the net and the water long enough to snap the photos.
He's also squatting down so the distance between the fish and its potential fall is decreased. Any guide that consistently shows this amount of respect for the resource and the river will have the respect of clients as well.
For hatchery fish...
Angler Shane Nichols has mastered this pose that displays the full profile of a spring chinook. While holding the inside gill so as not to puff out the gills on the outside and highlight his hands rather than the fish, he's also just cradling the fish at a slight angle behind the pelvic fin. The fish is held flat towards the camera to show the full contrast of color without an oblong perspective.
While hatchery bucks might cut well with quality meat after being in freshwater a little while, they're a lot more photogenic when you snap a photo of them while they're still alive. This one had an interesting paint job on it, and the photo of it still alive does it more justice. Fish will lose color within seconds of being bled out, turning pale and displaying dull colors.
This hatchery spring chinook was bonked seconds before the photo was snapped. It wasn't gilled until after the photo was taken, so there's nothing dangling or dripping in the photo. The fish is unconscious, but alive, so it still has it's natural coloration. The profile on the fish is empasized with a curved, slightly forced perspective.
This mint bright summer steelhead really reflected the light well. It's fins were clear, and it's belly was the color of snow, so it was tilted with it's dorsal fin slightly back away from the camera to fully capture the fresh ocean color phase this fish exhibited. The blood is from an aggressive strike that left the hook deep in it's mouth. The fish is naturally curved to reflect light from different angles.
Regardless of the photos you take or pose for, have some respect for others that are displaying the pride in their catches online. The pages of fishing magazines should not take the course of cosmopolitan or grocery line tabloids, airbrushing out the natural beauty exhibited by the wild. We are all sharing our experiences with those that we think will appreciate them.
A little positive reinforcement goes a long way. There are tons of resources on taking better fish photos, but very few on being a better viewer. Louis Cahill of Gink & Gasoline best explains the frustration of listening to "haters" in his article, "Forced Perspective in Fish Photos, What's Right?"
What pleasure do they possibly derive from taking jabs at my buddy on the Internet? The man is standing there holding a great fish, which took a lot of skill to catch, and you know he's reading the comments. Why can't you just be cool?
Remember, keep 'em wet and everyone will be happy!