During my trip to China, one of the photo opportunities I had most been looking forward to finally arrived. Coming from a fishing family myself, I was eager to discover and photograph the ancient art of cormorant fishing on the Li River.
I left my hotel at 0’dark thirty, drove for half an hour or so, and then took a little ferry across the river to be on the spot long before sunrise. I was keen to see the Karst Mountains, and I wanted to prepare as much as I possibly could before the fishermen arrived, so I started making long exposures just to see what would appear on my LCD screen.
It kind of reminded me of the darkroom days of past when you put your paper in the water and waited with high hopes for the photo to appear. It was so dark that I really didn’t know what I was going to see. I could barely see the tops of the mountains. Then, when the photo displayed, a feeling of utter glee enveloped me when I saw my first shot (above). I was delighted that the water on the Li River was absolutely glassy calm, the sky was clear, and the mountains were just as craggy as I hoped.
I adjusted my frame to eliminate the large mountain on the left and the tree at the top right. Then … a light in the distance. My fishermen were coming!
I prepared as much as I possibly could for what was going to happen next but I really didn’t know if I would be able to get the shot.
What happens is the fishermen light the lanterns on their rafts. There was going to be a bright flash and a really dark background, and I had to capture it without blowing out the highlights.
As I was standing there, I was wishing I had picked up a faster lens for this occasion. With the equipment I had, I knew I was looking at f/4 for my widest aperture and I cranked my ISO up to 6400. Even then, I was going to have a lot longer shutter speed than I wanted. It turned out to be 1/10th of a second, which is waaaay too long for a subject that might be moving. Fortunately, that calm water was my friend and I got the shot!
After the intial lantern lighting, the light was more of a constant glow which lit the faces of the fishermen.
Using cormorants to catch fish has been a custom in China since about 960 AD. On a bamboo raft, the fishermen have a lantern and usually a pair of cormorants. The cormorants have a ring around their necks to prevent them from swallowing the larger fish. When they have a fish, the fisherman pulls the cormorant up by a line attached to its leg and takes the fish. I feel a little bit sorry for them, but at least the birds get to eat the small fish!
This traditional way of fishing has been dying out over the past few decades since it cannot compete with newer more efficient methods of fishing. The fishermen you see in these photos learned to fish this way from their ancestors, but today they are making a decent living as models who show their custom to photographers and tourists.
Cormorants love to stand with their wings open allowing them to dry. I can attest to this coming from British Columbia, Canada, where there are a lot of cormorants. They are always dunking themselves in the water and then standing with their wings open. It’s how they hydrate themselves and stay cool.
This was one of those photographic opportunities of a lifetime with the beautiful and calm Li River, the rugged and dramatic Karst Mountains, and the cormorant fishermen in full traditional dress on rafts and with their cormorants.
After the photo shoot, I did the full touristy thing and hopped on a raft for a float down the Li River. Aaaahhhh.