PHOTOGRAPHY WHILE KAYAKING
- Fill the view finder with your subject. Resist the temptation to take those shots where you have to point to the print and declare that the tiny black spot is not just a speck of dust. Either get closer to the action, choose a longer focal length, or just enjoy the moment and look for a better opportunity. (example)
- Photography is not target practice. Do not automatically center the subject in every picture. Instead use the "rule of thirds" for composing most of your shots. This means placing prominent elements 1/3 in from the edge of the viewfinder.(example)
- Wood kayaks can be devilishly difficult to photograph well. That nice glossy layer of varnish between the camera and the wood is trying to reflect every light colored object in the area, including the sky. The solution is to use a polarizing filter. In fact, this filter is useful for most outdoor photography taken during the middle of the day. Want to make those tropical plants in Hawaii look lusciously green, clouds pop from the sky, or the rainbow over Seattle look more intense? Then reach for the polarizing filter.(example)
- The best time of day for great photos is often around sunrise and sunset. This is due to more even lighting containing warm, rich colors. Neither film nor digital camera sensors can handle harsh, high contrast light as well as the human eye and people naturally react more positively to warm colors. (example)
- You don't have to make people face into the the bright midday sun and squint. Give them a break by putting the sun behind them and use a flash to add light to their faces. If you have a camera that can add just enough light (called "fill" flash) to reduce the shadows, by all means use it. This technique is also useful in shady forests scenes with spotty sunshine. (example)
- Unless there are dramatic clouds, avoid capturing overcast skies in your photos. Instead use your time to get up close to your subjects (e.g. people, flowers, or animals).
- Simplify the background. Complex backgrounds are distracting. Choose a different angle, put a dark prop in the background, get closer, choose a longer lens, or use a very large aperture (e.g. f2.8) to blur the background.(example)
- Use motion blur (and a tripod) to soften moving water and make the shoreline or shoreline objects stand out. (example)
- Emphasize action using motion blur. Use a slow shutter speed to blur the background and pan with your subject to provide some sharpness for the subject and help it stand out. Another method is to again use a slow shutter speed combined with a flash to isolate the subject from the background. (example)
- Shooting a kayak photo against a dark cliff or band of fir trees often results in the kayak being horribly overexposed if I let the camera's meter do it's thing. For this situation, set your camera to underexpose by one f-stop or more if your subject (i.e. kayak) does not fill most of the screen. When my camera gives me the choice, I prefer to use a spot meter to set the exposure rather than guess at how much to underexpose.(example)
- Photos of people, animals, and flowers usually look better when taken in diffused light. A bright thin overcast is often the best condition for taking these photos.(example)
- Get the camera to eye level with your subject. Let's face it, how your kids' hair is parted is not that interesting. As adults we don't like getting down on the ground, but that's the secret.
- Try unusual viewpoints, either exceptionally low or high. Shoot straight down off a pier or get in the water and put your camera one inch above the surface.(example)
- Take vertical format shots once in a while. They look nice hanging on the wall.
- Believe it or not, cloudless skies and sunsets are not all that interesting. In fact, many photos that include the sky benefit from nice clouds.(example)
- Emphasize the subject by using a telephoto at a wide aperture (e.g. f2.8) to minimize the depth of field. This will blur the background and help the subject stand out.(example)
Equipment Choices and Techniques
In photography there is an old saying "f8 and be there". Choose a camera that will always be ready to capture the magic moments that make great photos. On the water this often means having an easily operated water resistant camera. A camera stuffed in a dry bag usually misses out. While there are many cameras to chose from having an overflowing abundance of features, many of those features are useless on the water or the ergonomics are so poor that they might as well not exist. Look for optically sharp lenses, optically fast lenses, shutters with no time lag, and spot metering or easily adjusted exposure compensation.
I find a zoom lens of about 35mm to 135mm to be the most useful. Compositions on the water change quickly and there is often little time to adjust position or change lenses. Anything longer than 135 mm is difficult to hold still enough to get a sharp image, especially with point and shoot lenses which tend to be very slow at their longest focal length. Anything wider than 35mm makes it hard to get the bow of your own boat out of the picture.
It's nice to have both a waterproof point and shoot camera for fast or wet action and an SLR for more deliberate photography. It's not necessary for the waterproof action camera to have telephoto capabilities. While I drag around a tripod for my on-shore photography, it's not the easiest object to stuff into a loaded boat. I store it inside a nylon fabric case to keep it from scratching up the inside of my boat and the case makes sliding it in among the gear bags much easier.The most dramatic improvement you can make in indoor flash photography is use bounce flash techniques. Generally this means using a pivoting head, accessory flash mounted on the hot shoe. You also need to be able to turn off the built-in flash. The camera you choose needs to have a hot shoe, flash controls, and a suitable flash offered by the manufacturer. This does not have much relevance to kayaking, but hey, who does not use their camera for other purposes?
Keeping Things Dry
A waterproof camera is a great tool for capturing dramatic photos in wet conditions. I have an old Nikon dive camera that is compact, waterproof, and takes excellent photos. Being fixed focal length at 35mm, I have to get up close to my subject. That's not such a bad thing because those photos are often the most interesting anyway. I can fire it one handed in waves and surf with no worries. A leash or a float on the strap is a good idea.
The biggest issue with this camera is keeping water drops off the lens. My first line of defense is a press-on cap that covers the lens when not in use (on a leash). Second I use a water repellent (Rainex) to help the water roll off. I prefer a small water drop or two in the photo to a bleary smear. Rainex is not used directly on a coated lens element but either on the glass port or a filter. Last I carry a Rocket Bulb (rubber squeeze bulb) to blow water off or a synthetic hand towel to blot the water away. You can try blowing drops away with your breath, but this usually fogs the lens for a short time.
Another option is to use a waterproof dive case for a regular camera. I have no direct experience with these. I have noted reviews however suggesting that the cheaper cases soften images somewhat, especially in glare situations. These cases usually have drawbacks like having to turn the camera on before assembly and no way to make adjustments to flash, exposure settings, or polarizing filter. Unfortunately most of the better cases are made for diving and are really too large for general kayak use.
One can use a dry box like a Pelican case strapped on deck for easy access to a regular camera. I have taken many photos this way and it works OK. The camera stays in the box if water is hitting the deck however. Be sure to use a foam lined box, lid included, to keep sun from cooking your camera.
I usually keep my SLR enclosed in a dry-bag and placed on my deck or in my lap. I pull this camera out in decent conditions. I try to anticipate when good photos are likely to happen. Sometimes I paddle ahead of the group in order to catch them in a pleasing composition. Back of head photos are not the greatest unless the paddlers are facing something dramatic. Inside the bag I have more synthetic towels and desiccant. A lens hood is very useful for keeping water drops off the front element. In fact, I often do not replace the lens cap during intermittent shooting. The hood keeps the dry bag sides from contacting the lens element while it is temporarily stored away.
For me at least, euro-style paddles work a lot better than Greenland paddles for photographic outings. The latter leaves my hands constantly wet and drips water all over the cockpit area. In calm conditions I can paddle with a "Euro" and maintain completely dry hands. This is a much better situation for non-waterproof cameras.
Taking sharp photos
When I say sharp, I mean images that are razor sharp when printed at least as large as 8 inches by 10 inches. First, use a much higher shutter speed than you would use on land. To get that high shutter speed use a fast lens (e.g. f2.8 max aperture) wide open or a high iso setting. Beware though, that high iso settings on digital cameras often leads to objectionable image noise, especially with less expensive cameras.
Use the sharpest lens that you can afford. There can be quite a difference among lenses. Some older lenses that worked fine with film yield soft results on digital SLR's because of the different technology involved. Telephoto zoom lenses on consumer grade point and shoot cameras tend to be rather poor and are so slow as to be almost useless in a kayak. In general I stay away from lenses slower than f4.5.
If possible get up close and use a short focal length lens. Long focal length lenses will amplify movement causing soft images. Besides, high quality short lenses are much more affordable and will likely account for most of your photographs anyway.
Use a vibration reduction/image stabilization type lens (could be a budget buster).
What to do when things go horribly wrong
If you drop your camera in the water, immediately remove the battery. Do not try to find out if the camera still works. Doing so could short out the electronic components. While you are at it, remove the memory card which is likely fine. Dry the camera and place it in a warm dry spot with good air circulation. It may take a week to dry out. How do I know? Trust, me, I've been there. If it is a high value camera, contact the manufacturer as soon as possible for further instructions. It's likely that they will want you to get it to them as soon as possible. In the days of mechanical cameras it was suggested to flush the camera with clean water. With all of the electronic content of today's cameras I don't believe that is any longer a good procedure.
This covers only the basics of a complex subject. The digital camera industry is moving at a torrid pace. I'm afraid trying to make equipment recommendations beyond the basics would prove futile. Also your needs and budget are likely to be different than mine. If you have questions, feel free to contact me. I have included two photography review links at the right which might prove useful to you. The first, DP Review has very detailed reviews for a huge number of cameras. They do a good job. Second is Bjorn Rorslett's Nikon Equipment Reviews for Pros. He identifies which Nikon equipment, including lenses, will produce professional results.