Dragon Slayers

Rob Sloane shifts the focus to photographer Steven Ooi

Remember the lead image of a dragonfly leaper in our Top Shots article (FL#88), featuring the winning entries in last year’s photo competition? It certainly stuck in my mind… It is hard to appreciate the time and dedication involved in capturing an image like that — a wild trout, in mid air, snatching a dragonfly in flight.Imagine having to be in the right place at the right time; lying in wait; putting aside the rod to set up the camera; figuring out the settings and getting the focus and exposure just right — who could possibly be so dedicated to capturing that one perfect shot? Well, it turns out Steven Ooi is the man, and having tracked him down recently I teased more photographs out of him along with answers to some questions I’d been dying to ask about what motivates the man behind the lens. Here’s what he had to say… BACKGROUND? I was born in Tasmania but my parents had the travel bug. They started a journey that took most of the next 14 years, travelling and living around Australia, so I experienced a lot of different places at a young age, fishing along the way. That really set a precedent for me later in life when the travelling continued. I ended up living in various places around Australia as well as enjoying stints in England, China, and Vanuatu. I would always periodically come back to Tassie and stay for a few years before heading off again. There’s part gypsy in me, but Tasmania just keeps calling me back. With its surrounds and magnificent fishing, hey, who could resist a place like this? I’m a roofer/plumber by trade so I get to spend most of my days outdoors with a view. You get to work in some cool locations, but the downside is working through blue-sky days, thinking about how good the fishing would be today. FLY FISHING PREFERENCES? Well that would have to be anything that involves sight fishing. I’m very much a visual person, so dry-fly polaroiding is high on the list and I’m also equally happy on a tropical sand flat. It’s the whole process of stalking a fish, watching it glide through the water, setting up the presentation and watching the change in body language as it sees your fly, and then the take. Living on the North West Coast, I spend a lot of time on the Mersey, Leven and Meander rivers and smaller tributaries in the area. But my heart always takes me to the Central Plateau. It calls out to me like no other place — the habitat and the fishery of that area are amazing and anytime I have the opportunity, well I’m thinking about putting on the hiking boots and heading up there. The Western Lakes have a way of rejuvenating the soul. FLY FISHING BEGINNINGS? The defining point was at about 15 years of age. I was on a local farm dam with a friend, when his father casually wandered down with a fly rod in hand. Being a farmer of few words he just nodded and proceeded to make a cast out into the dam. He waited before starting a very slow figure-eight retrieve. It wasn’t long before he gave a lift, came up tight, and soon had a nice brown trout on the bank. Only a few minutes later, he had another. He then gathered his fish and wandered back up to the farmhouse. I was like, Wow! And in that moment I thought, yep, this fly fishing business is for me. So in the following weeks I purchased a cheap Daiwa fly rod from the local hardware store, back when hardware stores sold cool things like fishing gear and hunting equipment and not just snags at the front door. It was a wet noodle of a fly rod by today’s standards, but it was the start of a journey that’s been going for over 25 years and has given me some amazing experiences. AND PHOTOGRAPHY? I honestly have to credit FlyLife for making me take photography more seriously. From early on, it set the standard and made me think about how I could improve. Every time I pick up a FlyLife magazine I know I’m going to be inspired visually. The real leap for me personally in taking my fly-fishing photography to the next level was when I started to visualise the type of images I wanted to capture. It wasn’t a matter of just going out and hopefully getting some great shots. I visualised what I wanted before heading out on the water. I was thinking about angles, lighting, depth of field and all the elements I wanted to achieve in the image and overall composition of the shot. You don’t always get the shots you are after, but when you go out prepared with a vision in mind your arrows are always a little closer to the target. WHY LEAPING FISH? There is something about a leaping fish that just captivates us as anglers. The moment you see a fish burst through that aqueous boundary your adrenalin just goes up a notch. I find it incredibly rewarding to capture that moment, a sliver of time frozen, in which you get to study the details that you missed in real time because it all happens so fast. It really is amazing to watch a trout as it tracks flying insects or reacts in an instant to snatch an airborne dragonfly. The mathematics of it all is mind-boggling, taking into consideration the speed and flight path of the dragonfly and refraction of light through the water surface, all calculated at super high speed and instantly reacting to chase down and intercept it in flight. I find it pretty cool to be able to freeze that moment in time. OTHER MOTIVATIONS? Macro photography is another calling, for sure. Even though a large part of our brain is dedicated to visual perception, we have so much going on around us at any given time, that our focus will quite often skip the details and especially the really small details. It’s in those small details that I find there is so much beauty and interesting design going on. I’m sure trout have much better eyes for seeing those details. TIME & PATIENCE? Time is a funny thing: I’m quite often wishing for more hours in the day to capture what I want and generally only look at the clock when I need to be somewhere else or think, hmmm, how far is the hike back to the car before it’s pitch black? I have spent a whole day standing in the one spot, not moving, just waiting for that right moment to press the shutter button. You fight off the leg cramps and hand cramps as you worry about taking your finger off that button for fear of missing the moment, and I have missed plenty. Patience, and lots of it, is especially handy with leaping fish shots. I don’t think I’ll ever get that absolute perfect shot as I am always too picky about my own work. That’s when I have to remind myself to sit back and just really appreciate the moment as it happened. To achieve certain shots, I treat them as projects — as works in progress. I’ll envision a photographic idea and then work on the small details, figuring out how to nail that shot just right. You experiment with various aspects of it, and each time it doesn’t quite work out you learn something new. I’m always looking back through my photos and thinking about how I can improve on them. EQUIPMENT? To me, the most important piece of equipment is that creativity within your head. The quality of camera systems has moved ahead in leaps and bounds, and really you can pick any of the major brands and they all have systems capable of taking astounding photos. Quite often I find it’s the extraneous items that prove themselves to be essential, like a good waterproof pack for example. There are numerous brands now on the market — I’ve been using a Patagonia Stormfront to lug my gear around for a few years now and it’s been a lifesaver. I have waded through chest-deep waters, fallen in the drink with it, been through countless rain showers and recently fallen down a flooded wombat hole with it on. It’s copped a flogging in salt and fresh water but always kept my gear dry. Another handy item is a lightweight durable travel tripod. I use a small carbon fibre model (Sirui T-025X). While I use a much heavier tripod for short trips, a lightweight tripod is especially handy when going on long hikes or when you’re limited with luggage restrictions on a plane. The one I use folds small enough to fit in my pack or easily straps to the outside, yet it’s still strong enough to hold a full frame camera with a 70–200 mm lens. Let’s face it; with outdoor photography and fishing, you are going to get dust, water spray and fingerprints on everything at some point. So having the right tools to clean your gear in the field and at home is essential. Out in the field, I’ll take a little rocket blower for removing loose dust, a lens pen for more stubborn water spots and a couple of microfibre cloths — one for lens cleaning only duties and the other just for cleaning and wiping down the gear. IMAGE SHARING? Currently, I share most of my images on social media platforms. You can search for Fin Ripple Media on Facebook and Instagram to see more of my work. I look forward to being able to share more through FlyLife in the future too.

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