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On-Water Photography

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schessl |
Published Monday, March 01, 2004

Leaf on Spray SkirtShooting great on-water photos shouldn't be hard, right? Well, according to the experts, it's not. Just stop moving, setup your camera correctly, simplify the shot, focus and click. Perfect pictures in no time. If that's not working for you, we have a few pointers to help.

Pointer #1: Protect Yourself

If you are a kayaker, the moment you put down your paddle and pick up a camera, you lose stability offered by the paddle. Think tightrope walker. You risk losing your paddle, which is why we recommend using a paddle leash and/or carrying a spare. You also need to be aware of your surroundings.

In most paddling situations, you will be drifting - either downriver, closer or further away from shore. On narrow rivers you could drift into deadfalls, rocks or low overhanging braches. Make sure you know where you are at all times and don't risk life and limb for a fuzzy bird photo. As always, wear your PFD!

Pointer #2: Protect your Camera

Don't let this scare you, but I'm on my fourth digital camera in a five year period. Why? Let's see, one dropped on concrete, one dropped in the water and finally salt spray shorted the third's electronics. How can you avoid this fate? Protect your camera. Here are the tips I've learned:

Camera case - I use a water resistant camera case clipped to my PFD with a carabineer. The camera has a long strap, which in turn is hooked to the case. This way I can drop the camera and grab the paddle quickly. Make sure the strap is short enough to keep the camera from hitting the water. Hanging the strap directly around your neck is a bad idea should you roll or fall out of the boat.

Disposable Water Resistant Camera - If your primary camera isn't water resistant, carry one of the cheap disposables for quick shots. Just don't strap it on the desk of the boat as it can melt in bright sunlight or water will accumulate on the lens and run the shot anyway.

Pelican Box or Gallon Zip-Lock bag - If you are paddling an open deck boat or Sit-on-Top, you might try one of these to keep your camera safe while paddling.

Dry Bag - These offer a great way to store cameras when you're travelling to the paddling location, but are typically too slow to retrieve the camera for quick (or even moderately quick) action.

Pointer #3: Steady as She Goes

The chief reason pictures come out blurry is that you are moving, so hold the camera steady. Now, before you tell me "Of course you're moving. The water is going up and down, side-to-side, blah blah", here are some tips to help:

Best advice - Press the shutter button s-l-o-w-l-y.

Use a friend - that's right, either paddle a tandem kayak, canoe or raft up to your buddy so she can hold your boat while you take the picture.

Use a tripod - while not practical in kayaks with small cockpits, canoes and some kayak models like Perception's America or Wilderness Systems Pungo have sufficiently large enough cockpits to use a small tripod or monopod. I mounted a small 9" tripod to the deck of my Carolina, put the camera on movie mode and ran small Category I rapids. It was fun to see the movie afterwards, but if you try this I take no responsibility for you or the camera.

Use the current - Allow the current to move you closer to your subject.

Telephoto - Be aware that shooting pictures in telephoto (zoom) mode magnifies not only the subject but also the amount of movement. If you can manually increase the shutter speed do so.

Pointer #4: Highlights and Shadows

One of the biggest challenges to shooting good pictures, especially in rivers going through densely forested areas or with bright overhead sunlight is limiting the highlights and shadows. Most cameras have light meters that are calibrated to give you good shots of items with average brightness. The problem comes in when you have all different amounts of light and dark you get a washed out image.

If your camera allows for spot metering or manual adjustment, do so. Focus on the subject then adjust the exposure one or two stops to bring out the light and dark. Another possibility is to shoot a close-up, thereby eliminating most of the light and dark areas. Use the flash, especially if you have a digital with Smart Flash, to equalize the contrasts in close-ups. If all else fails, use Photoshop or other editing package to digitally alter the shot afterwards.

Pointer #5: Try Different Shots

One technique frequently overlooked by most beginners is rotating the camera from landscape to portrait. When you do so, remember to keep the flash on the top (if you use it). By changing the orientation, you are force your eye to scan the photo from top to bottom and this typically results in giving the photo much more depth and aggressiveness. Great for lighthouses, palm trees, etc.

Another technique is to simplify the photo. Instead of trying to cram every tree in the forest into your picture, try reducing it to a single group of colorful trees, or maybe even a single tree. Before taking the shot perform this bit of mental gymnastics - "This photo is of X on/in front/besides/at/near Y". For example, "This photo is of a baby alligator sunning on a log". Don't include the entire river and half the forest.

Another good technique is to change your vantage point. They tell you not to stand up in your kayak or canoe, but in calm water (and with care) if you can do this it adds an exciting new look any photo. Also (again with care) get the camera low, near the water to shoot the picture. It's easy to create high-profile silhouettes this way.

Pointer #6: Location, Location, Location and People

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) not everyone paddles South Pacific islands, Alaska's Prince William Sound, the Florida Keys or Norway's Fjords where great photo opportunities exist in 360 degrees. If the place you paddle is largely urban, try shooting closeups of plants and animals to give your photos a "natural" look. Add the boat's bow to give photos for an exciting "I was there" image. Just don't get too carried away with this technique, as your friends will soon tire of the big yellow thing in the every picture. Don't forget to add people in your photos.

Pointer #7: Digital Editing

While purists don't agree with digital editing beyond cropping, it is now a way of life for many. A good editing system, such as Adobe Photoshop goes a long way in making a bad photo acceptable and good photo great. Books have been written on the subject, but here are some of the more common techniques used:

Image Sizing - After downloading from the camera, first thing I do is burn a CD or DVD with the raw images. That way I always have an original copy. Next, I'll crop then resize the image for whatever output medium I'm planning (printing, website, email). Basic sizes: website - not more than 1024 x 768, email 640x480 usually does the trick, newspaper and magazines - minimum 300 DPI (Dots Per Inch) and 600 DPI is preferred by most. So, if you wanted to submit a 3x5 inch photo to your favorite padding magazine, send them at least a 900x1500 image. If you are scanning photos, make sure to use 600 DPI.

Cropping - Trimming a photo to change the size and shape of the image. If you shoot a photo containing unwanted material, simply select the "good" portion of the photo and get rid of the rest. Just make sure you maintain adequate resolution for your output medium.

Color Correction - I love Photoshop's curves and levels options for correcting color and saturation. With these you can adjust the color of maple leaves to their true color, the water blue, remove red eye, etc. Just remember that as you make changes to color you are losing detail.

Pointer #8: Practice Regularly

Taking great shots doesn't happen overnight. Or at least it didn't for me. In 2003 I took over 7,000 digital photos of which I'd say about 100 were magazine publication quality. So, every time you go out, take your primary camera and a cheap water-resistant disposable camera and shoot lots of pics. Don't forget to practice your paddling skills to keep you safe and comfortable on the water.

While on-water photography can be a challenge, with drifting, side-to-side and up-and-down motion, equipment and lightening issues and uncooperative subjects, the rewards are many. Follow the basic pointers I've listed above and see if your photography improves. If you have tips, tricks or comments please send them to me at I'd love to include yours in a future article.

Best Wishes,

Ed Schessl

Last update Friday, January 30, 2009

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