Tips for Paddling Photography


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Want to shoot great paddling shots? Take a few pointers from Paddling Life contributing editor Aaron Black-Schmidt, a former photo editor and staff photographer for Canoe&Kayak, SUP and Kayak Fish magazines and a regular contributor for such brands as NRS, Esquif, Confluence Outdoors, and Advanced Elements. 

Get out of the boat

Karrie Thomas paddling a kayak at sunset on Lobster Lake in Northern Maine.

To get some really great images, there is simply no alternative to just getting out of the boat. Whether it’s a quick hop up onto a rock at an eddy, or actually running up the hillside to get a more landscape view, releasing yourself from the confines of the boat will open all kinds of creative possibilities. Plus it is a great way to stretch your legs after a long stretch of paddling. 

Protect your gear – the quick way!

Here’s my setup on a multi-day SUP trip. NRS drybag, Pelican case and Aquatech water housing. Paddling at the Apostle Islands National Park in Lake Superior, Wisconsin.

For those of you still using roll-top drybags for your camera gear – stop! They are slow to use and dubious at best for protecting your expensive equipment. Bags with waterproof zippers, like the 48L NRS DriDuffle, are easy to use while shooting from a kayak or canoe. I pad the bottom of the bag with extra base layers or puffy jacket and just nestle the camera and lenses inside. The TZip makes getting in and out a breeze – especially when you lube the zipper. Watershed bags are another great option. These rounded bags nestle nicely into the hull of a canoe or kayak, as opposed to a hardshell Pelican style case, which are suited better for the flat deck of a SUP. I carry a couple microfiber rags and an old t-shirt to wipe off wet gear. 

If you’re really serious, you can also look into water housings from brands like Aquatech. These housings can add a whole other dimension to your photos by being able to go underwater. Morgan Mason fishing in Colorado.

Use shutter speeds effectively

Motion blur compared to frozen action.

An often overlooked creative tool is shutter speed. Try lowering the speed to around 1/20 of a second and shoot multiple frames, tracking a single point on the subject as they pass by. This is called a pan-blur, and creates a fun sense of motion. When done correctly, part of the subject, ideally their face, will remain sharp while the rest of the image blurs in a horizontal direction. When in bright daylight make sure you use the lowest ISO you have combined with a small aperture (f/16 etc) to balance all the light being let in by a slow-shutter. Using a polarizer or ND filter also helps. * Adversely, you need a shutter of at least 1/1600 to effectively freeze fast motion, such as water drops flying from a paddle. 

Adjust your shooting angle and zone focus.

One of the main issues with paddling photography when shooting from a canoe or kayak, is that your paddling subject will often have their head bi-sected by the shoreline or horizon. This creates an unflattering image. The only way to fix it while on the water is to raise or lower your camera so to give the subject visual separation against the background. This can be hard to do while in a canoe without standing, and is impossible in a kayak. The workaround is to pre-focus, or zone-focus, on the subject then raise or lower your camera and shoot in their direction. You might want to shoot more frames than you normally would, tweaking the angle of the camera as you do and picking the right frame in post. 

Once you get comfortable with this method you’ll be able to create interesting images by lowering the camera to right above water level, or high above your head.

Lens choice matters

Caitlin Looby and Odessa in the Boundary Waters, MN.

Canoes, kayaks and SUPS are by their nature long craft, and I’ve found that when shooting close the only way I’m able to fit the whole boat into the frame is by using a wide-angle lens. Zoom lenses in the 14-24mm or 17-35mm realm work best. These lenses are generally rectilinear, meaning they minimize distortion of straight lines, like horizons. i.e. don’t use a fisheye! Wide-angles are also great at shooting POV looks from inside the boat. My other go-to lens is a standard zoom, like the venerable 24-70mm or more lately, the 24-120mm. This lens will provide plenty of creative looks and versatility. However, if your budget and bag allows, the 70-200mm is a great lens for paddling photography for its ability to compress the background with the subject. This is great for showing off the distant mountains with the paddler in the foreground. It’s also helpful for showing off details and even makes a decent wildlife lens option. In general zoom lenses provide more flexibility than primes, mostly due to the fact that everything is often in flux while out on the water and zooms give the ability to make quick adjustments to composition. My general paddling photography kit uses these three zoom lenses with two interchangeable camera bodies. Having two bodies means I’ll always have two lenses ready to go. 

These images are made in the same location, one right after the other.  You can really see the difference between the wide-angle and telephoto effects. Paddling on the Mississippi River near St. Paul MN with Alan Schmidt.

Tell a story with your images

Multiple images are needed to tell a story.

Even epic photos of your friends paddling can get a bit redundant. Think about other ways to tell the story of your adventure. Photos of camp cooking, struggles on portages and catching fish all help to bring the story home. Bring plenty of memory cards and batteries so you can stay creative and keep shooting.

Photograph yourself

If you find yourself all alone, but still want to make images you can setup the camera with a remote trigger (or self-timer / timelapse) and just paddle around the scene. Bringing a tripod of course makes this fairly simple, and having the tripod also allows for fun landscape/astro photography around camp. You can also get creative with where you mount the camera, such as in the bow of the boat looking back at you (you can also just use a GoPro too, which is a great little tool to keep in your kit.)

I setup my camera on a tripod inside this cave and set it to time-lapse mode. Paddling on the Tennessee River in Chattanooga Tennessee.

Use good communications

I used radios to set up the crew to paddle single file when taking this photo. Paddling the Rogue River, Oregon.

When setting up photographs with other paddlers, it can be helpful to establish simple visual cues to avoid having to yell over the water. I tell people to wait until I wave my paddle, which is the signal to paddle towards me. I also use my paddle to point which direction they should move. If you’re serious about even better communications, just bring a set of waterproof VHF radios.  This is especially helpful in noisy whitewater to coordinate out-of-sight drops, or when you’re really far away. 

Shoot for proper paddling

Shoot multiple frames to capture the right moments between paddling strokes.

With paddling, timing can be pretty important. I often shoot multiple frames to get a good shot of the paddler in the proper position. I won’t use an image if a paddle or arm is covering their face. Viewers will key in on the eyes, and if they are obscured or looking down it can ruin an otherwise good image. Digital cameras make shooting lots of frames easy, but do it with purpose and with the intent of separating the wheat from the chaff. 

Beware the backfocus

Kayak fishing on the Little Red River in Arkansas with Josiah Pleasant.

Focusing on a distant subject next to a shoreline can also confuse the autofocus system, oftentimes resulting in an image where the background is in focus but the paddlers slightly soft. This is referred to as ‘backfocus.’ I tend to use single point continuous autofocus, using the pin-point to select just the paddlers. Setting the camera to use the back AF button for focus helps, as opposed to the default setting of shutter/AF on the main trigger. Getting to know this setting, as well as your camera’s AF modes, will greatly improve your photography in general, as it allows for quicker composition and more creative control over your focus points. 

Level your horizons

Kayak Fishing in Washington State with Jesse Coble.

In paddling photography, you generally are going to have a horizon or shoreline in the image. It’s hard to get a perfectly level shot when shooting from a rocking boat. So please, take the extra 2 seconds in post to level the horizons. This will require a slight crop, which is fine and I’m a huge advocate of cropping as needed. Today’s modern sensors allow plenty of megapixels for aggressive crops. But, always level your chosen images. 

Additional tools

I used fill-flash to balance the high dynamic range of the sunrise. Kayak Fishing in the intercoastal waterway near Charleston SC with Captain Justin Carter.

Using a polarizer filter can be helpful for reducing glare on the water. I also use GoPros on occasion to get interesting angles, (mount it to your paddle and swing it away from the boat.) External flash can be cool to fill shadows. It used to be that I’d jump out everytime our crew passed by a bridge or high point – now I just bring a drone!

But perhaps my biggest secret is that I often shoot from a paddleboard. Being able to stand, kneel, lay down etc gives me the ability to make a variety of creative angles from a moving platform. 

Loaded up with a water housing and a drybag full of tools. Paddling and fishing on the John Day River, Oregon.

—Aaron Black-Schmidt is the former photo editor and staff photographer for Canoe&Kayak, SUP and Kayak Fish Magazines. He still focuses on paddling photography and is a regular contributor for brands like NRS, Esquif, Confluence Outdoors, and Advanced Elements. To view his paddling portfolio, go here:




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