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Mountain Fork River near the re-regulation Dam in Broken Bow, Oklahoma.
Mt. Fork River - Broken Bow, OK

 

 

 


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The White River in Arkansas offers cold water paddling on the hottest of Summer days.
Misty Mountain Bluffs surround the White River near Mountain Home, Arkansas.

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Kayak Photography - Get Ready To Love It!

Sunrise Paddling on the North Canadian RiverFear of losing their camera to the watery depths is the reason most folks give for not trying kayak photography. Sadly, they are missing out on one of the greatest sources for beautiful pictures. You can take your camera kayaking with you, you just need to take some precautions. In this article, I'll try to give you some tips on keeping your gear dry and how to get the best shots from your boat. Most of these tips are about how to find good pictures while paddling because in my heart I believe that if your camera is keeping you off the water...you need a cheaper camera.

There may not be any float trip operators in your town, but I'll bet there is a reservoir nearby.  A small recreational kayak can open up a whole new world of photography fun in your own backyard. You can even turn your kayaking photos into cool products or custom printed gifts!

My wife Dianne and I started exploring kayak photography a few years ago. Dianne and I are not expert photographers.  However, we have learned the tricks listed below and they have vastly improved our kayak photography efforts in Oklahoma.

Personally, I think kayak photography is ideal for novice photographers for a number of reasons.  One reason is that we tend to own inexpensive cameras, but two better reasons are sunrise and sunset! Place yourself on any body of water larger than a puddle at sunrise or sunset and MAGIC happens.  You won't need to be trained photographer to notice when it happens, just be there...with your camera.

We hope a few folks might benefit from the lessons we have learned. So here goes:

Top Ten Kayak Photography Tips from FreeWine

Kayak Photography Tip 1:  Paddle During the Magic Hours.

Many kayakers do the majority of their kayaking after 10am and before 4pm. This is sad from a kayak photography perspective because any photographer will tell you that morning and late afternoon provide the best light for shooting. Shooting around the noon hour tends to provide a harsh nearly colorless light that is better suited for tanning a torso than landscape photography. Dianne Kayaking through the morning mists on Table Rock Lake, Cape Fair MO.Paddle at dawn and you will enjoy cooler temperatures, lighter winds, golden tinted sunlight and flowing mists. Paddle in the evening for jaw dropping sunset shots dripping with intense colors.

 

Consider launching at 4pm someday instead of landing. Capture the golden sunset light reflected off the waves made by your tiny boat and you are much more likely to see magic happen! The sky becomes a runway for a long line a dazzling colors and cloud formations on the best days, but even a clear day offers its own special allure. Mists are common in the early morning and evening, they are wonderful for shooting silhouette shots. Wildlife activity also tends to increase as twilight sets in.

 

Sinking SunCheck online weather sites for what time Nautical Twilight will occur on the day you plan to paddle. If you get on the water by early morning Nautical Twilight OR stay on the water until after the evening Nautical Twilight you will catch the best light the day has to offer.

While you are looking at that online weather forecast, check the expected wind speed. I like using the Weather Underground Site (http://www.wunderground.com/) because they give an hour-by-hour forecast of the wind speed. Even on windy days the wind often settles down for a couple hours of calm early in the morning or late in the evening. These are great times to get out an take some reflection shots at water-level from your kayak.

Kayak Photography Tip 2:  Hunt the reflections.   

Clouds, trees, flowers, rocks, etc. all create brilliant reflections. Trees that arch over the river make graceful circles in your kayaking photos when they combined with their reflections. For many seasons in Oklahoma, the skies are the most dramatic thing in sight. Our weather patterns here in Oklahoma provide us with a secret wealth of stunning sunrises and breathtaking sunsets. Remember that on still waters the sky will be reflected, meaning that you are seeing TWICE the sunset that the rest of the world is seeing....lucky you!

 

Paddling Kayak Photography Tip 3:  Try including the kayak and/or the kayak paddle in your pictures.

Capturing the experience of kayaking means more than simply shooting sunrises and sunsets on the water… although I absolutely LOVE doing that. A picture of the kayak paddle or the gentle wake created by a kayak in motion really speaks to fellow paddlers and they can add a lot to your kayak photography, too!

I should say that there are those in the photography community that think taking landscape shots with the kayak bow in the shot is poor form. Myself, I think it helps the viewer get a sense of 'bring there' in the moment with you.  I don't really see how that could be a bad thing.  Your mileage may vary.

Salt Creek By KayakKayak Photography Tip 4:  Wet the deck of the kayak to add reflected light to your shots.

Capturing light is the name of the game in any kind of photography, kayak photography is no different. One of the first things I noticed was that my little plastic kayak photographed like one of those gleaming, colorful and expensive fiberglass kayaks...IF the deck of the kayak was wet. Some Flickr Friends even accused me of waxing my kayak after they saw the pictures. However, the truth is that I just grab a paddle full of water every now and again and dump it across the deck. Note the shiny kayak in the picture above was taken on Salt Creek from my muddy, old, five year old boat.

Kayak Photography Tip 5:  Use software, such as the freeware tool Picasa, to straighten the horizon line of your shots.

The wake, waves and wobbling off your kayak are sure to cause the horizon line on many of your shots to be abnormally skewed. It may seem subtle, but the human eye picks up details like this without thinking about it. Correcting a skewed horizon only takes a second in Picasa. I have some vision issues that cause me to have to correct this problem on most shots that I take...even on land! Picasa also does a pretty good job of helping me to organize and customize my kayaking photos.

Kayak Photography Tip 6:  If you prefer whitewater paddling shots, learn where your local natural springs and hydroelectric dams are.

Here in the Ozarks, rainfall generates a lot more of the paddling water than snow melt.  This can make it tough to choose a good time to ride the local whitewater as rainfall is mostly seasonal when it comes at all.  The exceptions to this are spring-fed rivers like the Spring River in Arkansas and rivers like the the Lower Mountain Fork River in Oklahoma that get their water flow from dependable hydroelectric dam releases.

Kayak Photography Tip 7:  Seize the season! Most kayaking shots are made during spring and summer, but fall and winter offer unique surprises.

Oklahoma woods are more often deciduous trees than evergreens.  Paddling during the winter months in Oklahoma offers much more visibility for spotting wildlife. In the winter, you can quietly paddle quite close to white-tail deer that are just begging for a close-up. Rapidly changing weather conditions can allow you to catch snowy scenes on fairly warm days, so have a list of local paddling spots.

Kayak Photography Tip 8:  Choose the right kayak. Whitewater kayaks are made to be easy to roll, not stable for photography.

Recreational kayaks are wider than whitewater kayaks, so they are more stable.  They also offer longer, wider cockpits that more easily allow the use of a tripod.  Adding a tripod will make a massive improvement in the sharpness of your photos as well as allowing you to capture the truly amazing light and colors that just follow the sunset. My kayak recommendation for photographers is the: Old Town Vapor 12 Kayak, the XT Angler version offers some nice features worth considering too (Like a covered rear hatch).   The boat is very quiet, super stable, brightly colored, economical and offers the largest cockpit I have ever seen on a Sit-Inside kayak. 

Kayak Photography Tip 8:  Look for the coves along the shoreline of lakes. Coves offer water that is more sheltered from boat wakes and wind.

A large lake can become quite choppy under even slight wind conditions, which is great for shooting wave shots, but a bit of a pain if you are looking to make a portrait of another kayaker. The lake also tends to become a brilliant mirror, not too long after sunrise. The little coves along the shoreline will offer the kayak photographer a more stable shooting platform as well as a better mixture of light and shade. Consider using low hanging branches that arch over the water to frame your subject.

Kayak Photography Tip 9:  On whitewater, use the eddies to stop and wait for photo ops as other paddlers pass by. Pull up behind a boulder for free parking right on the rushing waters.

Whitewater in The Rock Garden on the Lower Mt. Fork River in Broken Bow, OK.An eddy is a place where the current of a river slackens suddenly or reverses itself. Midstream objects like boulders create eddies that form on their downstream side. The boulder splits the river into two parts, but some of the water flow runs back to fill the "hole" in the river behind the obstruction. The reverse flow can hold your kayak totally still with rushing water passing all around you. Paddlers call this 'surfing' a wave.  This trick will amaze novice paddlers, while setting you up to capture awesome action shots on the river as your buddies go through the same rapid. Lead the pack, so you can setup in the eddy, to 'make the shot' when that ice-cold water drenches your friend or family member.  Catch their O-Face in a rare public appearance!

Kayak Photography Tip 10:  For better paddling portraits - paddle with beautiful people and catch them in action.

I love making paddling trips with my wife.  She has also been my favorite subject for portraits and I especially like capturing her 'in action' on the river! Lately, she has become obsessed with kayak fishing.  Kayak fishing action can be difficult to capture with a camera, as you don't know when the fish will show up.  The kayak fishing method Dianne has been using lately makes it easy to catch her landing the lunkers.  Another great tool for taking kayak fishing pictures is the Lip Grip Fish Handling Tool made by Mustad or Berkley.  I have found that making sure your kayak fishing model doesn't accidentally lose their fish while you are getting 'one more shot', make for a much happier photo shoot.

That is all of the kayak photography tips that I have for today. If you liked this article and want to see more like it, check out our Oklahoma Kayaking Blog and leave us a comment. We would love to hear from you.

May Your Days Be Filled with Good Light and Happy Paddling,

Thomas & Dianne Jones (FreeWine)
See loads more Oklahoma paddling pictures on our Flickr page.

Kayaking with Camera - Equipment Safety Tips

  • In my opinion, photo gear in a kayak is most at risk during launches and take-outs. Like a pilot, you will want to add extra attention to safety during take-off and landing.
  • Carry a hand towel to wipe off the water drops that occasionally get on the lens and carry a water resistant camera bag. Can't afford a waterproof camera bog?  I often use those soft-sided 6-pack coolers that you can often get for free as promo items.
  • I usually launch and take-out with my camera in the bag, tied to the kayak and in easy reach in case of rain or rapids.
  • Wear the camera strap around your neck when shooting over water, for obvious reasons.
  • Use your lens cap when you stop shooting even if you don't put your camera back in the bag. This helps avoid water drops that splash onto the lens while paddling.
  • Polarizing filters are great for reducing glare in all types of outdoor photography, in the kayak I find it is easier to clean off the filter than the camera lens.
  • Although water is the enemy of your camera equipment, it is the essence of your kayak photography, so you obviously need to be kind of Zen about it. Losing your camera to the watery depths is just nature's way of telling you to upgrade.

Most importantly...wear a PFD anytime you paddle your canoe or kayak.  Not wearing a PFD only makes the paddler look like a novice or a fool. 
Also, the pockets on a good kayaker PFD are handy for photographers.

Want to see some more of my kayak photography?
My best photos are on in the Flickr album below:

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Taking Pictures From Your Kayak Offers Challenges

1.  Motion Blur - When your kayak is bobbing up and down on the waves, it can be tough to become stable long enough to get a good shot. If you can't find a sheltered cove to escape the waves, try setting your camera to 'Sports" mode or setting an ISO of around 400.  I have pretty shaky hands, so I always shop for cameras that offer Optical Stabilization and I prefer recreational kayaks, which are the most stable kind of kayaks. Using a small tripod, monopod or suction cup Camera Mount on your boat works great for creating sharper kayaking photos.
 

2.  Water Droplets On The Lens - This one drives me crazy! You need to have a bit of cotton or something to wipe off the tiny droplets of water that are splashed on the lens.  Worse, you have to remember to check the lens for the droplets often or risk large blurry spots right in the middle of all of your shots. If you are wearing a dry suit, wet suit or quick drying clothes, you will find they don't work well for wiping your lens.  One guy I worked with once simply decided that the water droplets added value, so he ignored them. I carry my handy-dandy Nikon Lens Pen Cleaning System and a cotton hanky in my Fishing PFD, just in case I am not wearing a cotton t-shirt on the river.


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