Ten 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 for 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.