10 Tips for Better Kayak Photography

©istockphoto/mihtianderKayak photography, either on the sea or in whitewater, is one of the hardest types of photography to master. You’re trying to photograph and paddle at the same time, you’ve got water on the lens, and most of your photos come back blurry, or worse, boring. Here are ten tips to shooting on the water.

Know Your Story
Before you even take your camera out, know why you’re taking a photo. Photography is a form of communicating, and there’s no point trying to communicate if you don’t have something to say. Ask yourself “what’s compelling about where I am or what I’m doing?” The stars at night while the river rushes by your camp? The drop in your stomach you feel before you drop into a big rapid? The strange feeling of squeezing into wet gear on a cold morning?

If you only do one thing to improve your photography, put less in the frame. Most images are too cluttered, try and say too much all at once, or struggle to include a vast sweeping landscape that will never fit in one image. Go minimalist. Your images will be better.

Make the viewer wonder. Great images are often cliffhangers, and kayaking images are no exception. This image of a kayaker descending a waterfall makes the viewer wonder where the bottom is, where the top is, and how he’ll land. The tight framing that excludes the setting’s details makes the viewer wonder, and wondering creates suspense.

Vary Perspectives
One of the hardest things about kayak photography is that the perspective never varies: you’re always on the water. That’s a choice, although you’ll have to work harder to vary your perspective in kayaking than shooting cycling, skiing, or other sports. Get out of your kayak and climb up on rocks to get a good angle, stand in the surf, swim, do whatever it takes to vary the perspective. This is often easier in whitewater kayaking, where eddies abound, than it is on the sea.

It’s More Than Action
Action shots dominate kayak photography for obvious reasons. But those aren’t the only stories. Tell the stories of your friends being stuck in tents during a storm, coaching each other, scouting rapids, loading boats on cars and cleaning gear. All of these are part of the story. Like any story, the characters and the setting matter as much as the climactic moment.

Master Your Machine
This may sound obvious, but learn how to work your camera. I mean really work it. If you don’t know how to override your camera’s meter quickly, or to change the focus point, learn now. You’ll be glad when the light is changing, the action is fast and you might only have one shot. Even the small, relatively inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras that are waterproof and fit in PFD pockets have features like spot-meters, exposure compensation and custom modes that you can turn on in a jiffy.

Be a Connoisseur of Light
Light is and will always be the raw material of every photographer. Bad light usually equals bad images regardless of how cool the subject matter is or how hard you worked to get in position for the shot. Good photographers know the difference 1/3 of an f-stop makes, when the range of light in a scene exceeds what a camera’s sensor can handle, and how the light they see will be rendered as an image. Use a combination of planning—seeking opportunities for photography when the light is good—and learning to make the most of what the day gives.

Use Both Sides of Your Brain
As David DuChemin says, photography involves balancing the artist and geek. There are a lot of technical details ranging from camera settings and exposure to managing endless gadgetry. Thus technical mastery often runs counter to the artistic side of the brain that conceives of great stories and does things that don’t make rational sense—but that can lead to stunning images. Grow both sides of your brain and give them both a home behind the camera.

Find A Group
I find it hard to shoot with other people: schedules conflict, we get in each other’s way or we want to shoot different places. But groups are great when you’re looking at images later: they can react to your images, provide feedback, be objective and provide a collaborative environment for skill development and creativity.

Be Different
Let’s face it: there are a ton of photographers out there. This is even true of relatively small sectors like kayak photography. To make yourself stand out, being good isn’t enough: you’ve got to do something different from the masses, from how and what you shoot to the look of your images to how you share them or engage a community in your vision.