How To Take Photos From a Kayak

Photo by Jim Braswell

Photo by Jim Braswell

Note from Steve: Today I’m excited to introduce another new contributor to PhotoNaturalist: Jim Braswell. Jim is a great wildlife/landscape photographer from Missouri, and his first post is all about taking photos from a kayak! Enjoy!

Want to have some real fun? I was turned on to photographing wildlife from a kayak by a friend of mine a few years ago. After a lot of convincing (yes, I had a lot of concerns about taking my expensive camera equipment in a small vessel, over open water), we loaded up two kayaks and headed out to photograph at a Conservation Area. After a day of photographing American white pelicans at pretty close range, I fell in love with the thrill of kayaking the backwaters, where human intervention is rare and the wildlife abundant.

So, then I purchased my own kayak and have since been out hundreds of times, capturing some pretty unique wildlife encounters.

Here in the Midwest, we have lots of American beavers and Northern river otters, and both are high on my “shot list” whenever I kayak. But there are times when I’ve just enjoyed the outing and the encounters, without capturing them on my memory card.

Such is the case about 3 years ago when I was sitting among a large field of American lotus plants, waiting for beavers to swim by. Hearing some splashing on the other side of the lotus field, I navigated the kayak around the corner and found a curious little otter staring at me as I clicked off a couple of images. Not wanting to frighten him off, I paddled back to my “hideout” to wait for beavers. In about 10 minutes, my kayak suddenly lurched backward and began traveling in reverse! Not being able to turn around to see what was going on, I began paddling hard on one side, allowing me to sit in one location and spin in a circle. Once my speed was up a bit, I turned around and saw my otter friend swinging around, with the rope carrying handle in his mouth! Seemed he just wanted to play a bit.

On several occasions, while photographing ducks during the spring/fall migrations, I have had small groups of ducks that almost landed on the kayak. No matter the subject, the use of a kayak in photographing nature has its advantages. First, sitting in a kayak means sitting low in the water, allowing the photographer to photograph at eye-level to the subject. A kayak is small and easy to navigate, allowing it to be positioned at strategic locations along waterways.

Choose a good kayak

I often am asked what kayak is best for photographing wildlife. My preference is a wide-body model, with a bottom that is flat and similar to the bottom of a canoe. This gives a tremendous amount of stability, as well as helps to overcome the fear of working with camera gear over water.

You will also need a good kayak paddle for navigation, preferably a lightweight, metal one. In addition, I purchased a small, wooden canoe paddle at a local discount store and then cut off the handle to make a short, emergency paddle that I keep inside the kayak during all outings.

A life jacket or PFD (personal flotation device) is mandatory. If you should capsize, or lose your paddle, you certainly don’t want to be up the creek without a paddle! Never kayak without this important safety gear!

Use “dry bags” to protect your gear

What about protecting camera gear? I use “dry bags” to transport and store my body/lens in, while navigating. Once I am ready to shoot, I remove the camera/lens and always place the camera strap around my neck. It would be tragic to successfully navigate the kayak about, with expensive equipment, only to drop the equipment in the water! And if you are nervous about splashing water on the equipment while shooting, you can use one of many available plastic or nylon protectors over the body and lens.

Wear camouflage to blend in with the environment

Photo by Jim Braswell

Photo by Jim Braswell

Whenever I kayak, I always wear camouflaged clothing so that I blend in with the plants along the bank. In fact, I took things a step further and re-painted my kayak, from a pretty, sky blue, to a flat army green color. This is particularly important when you are shooting waterfowl; since waterfowl is hunted in my area, they are very wary and the last thing you want to do is to have your clothing shout out to them that you are there!

Use a fast shutter speed

When shooting from a kayak, always try to shoot with a sufficiently high ISO so that the shutter speed will be enough to negate any movement by the kayak (I like to shoot for at least 1/500 second, when possible). If you have an IS or VR lens, even better.

Navigate slowly!

To be successful, you must navigate at a slow, steady pace and always be alert. It is very easy to come upon waterfowl or aquatic mammals and you don’t want to scare them. But most of all, have fun!

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Jim BraswellAbout the Author: Jim Braswell is a lifelong resident of Missouri, photographing nature in Missouri and beyond. His photographic passion is wildlife and wildflowers. When working with wildlife, his goal is to capture animal behaviors and actions. Besides photographing nature, Jim teaches photography and Photoshop at a local career center and participates in several art fairs/festivals every year. View more of his work on his website at: http://www.showmenaturephotography.com/

Comments

  1. Great topic for a blog post! I love photographing wildlife from my kayak. A couple things to add.

    When choosing a PFD, I would suggest getting one with some pockets on it. My PFD has 4 pockets on the front. Two of those pockets are large enough to hold my Canon G9 so I have quick access to a 2nd camera if needed. My DSLR does not shoot video so having the G9 comes in handy when I want to shoot a little video. It’s a great place to keep extra batteries, filters, sunscreen etc.

    Another thing that has worked out well for me is to use a monopod. My longest lens does not have IS and I have found that a monopod really helps out. I have tried using a tripod, but found it too difficult to maneuver the camera if there is a photo op behind you or off to one side.

    Another technique I use a lot in my kayak is to shoot in burst mode. This is a great help when my shutter speed is pretty slow. A few years ago I wrote a blog post about using this technique to get sharp photos when shooting 500mm at 1/20 second. You can read more about that here and see some example photos. http://magiclightphotography.blogspot.com/2010/07/500mm-120-sec.html

    Here is a video I shot a few years ago of me sneaking up on a raccoon in my kayak. I’m not zooming the camera at all, just slow drifting towards the shore.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8omXCOBdVFY

    https://fbcdn-sphotos-a-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-ash2/t1.0-9/396900_497102653638148_483582920_n.jpg

    • Jim Braswell says:

      Thanks for the added comments, Mike. Yes, pockets would be nice. Mine doesn’t have such, but I have customized it by adding clamps for some small items, keeping my camera under the canopy and between my legs, for quick access.
      I have also tried a monopod, with limited success. If you can find one that is short enough, they can be a great help. But my lens has IS, so that works fine for me.
      I totally agree with the burst mode. In fact, I keep my camera in this mode for all shooting (unless I’m shooting landscapes or wildflowers). By shooting many frames, you will usually find at least 1 or 2 that are pretty sharp, even with some movement by the kayak or the subject.
      Again, thanks for the additions, Mike, and Happy Paddling & Shooting!
      Jim

  2. Brian Palmer says:

    I enjoyed this article. I think I will stick to my canoe though. I can use a double paddles and sit mid ships for speed but use a conventional paddle for maneuvering quietly and unobtrusively. It is amazing how accepting wildlife is of a quietly paddled boat.Both boat have advantages and is is much a matter of personal preference.

    • Jim Braswell says:

      Thanks for your comments, Brian. I totally agree that either canoe or kayak can give you great results when photographing wildlife. And yes, it is a personal preference as to which one to use. I went with a kayak as it is smaller and I can easily handle it myself (I don’t think I could manhandle a canoe by myself anymore … and each year it gets a bit more difficult). But your vision, especially towards the rear, is drastically cut down in a kayak (my solution … I carry a stainless steel mirror, like one you take camping, with me and I use it to “see” behind me) :o)
      Keep Paddling!

  3. Hello.
    I’m interested in doing this. I know several places I can launch a kayak or a canoe. I live on Long Island, New York. One of the places that I could launch from is the ocean (south shore, Jones Beach area ) or the north shore (Long Island Sound). What would be best to use for these environments. Is it possible to use an inflatable ?

    • Jim Braswell says:

      Thanks for commenting, Bill. For ocean work, most people use a “sea kayak”, which has more of a “vee” bottom. They are reported to be better maneuvering in sea waters. But they are (or at least they feel like) less stable than a flat-bottomed kayak. I have been in a few and I always fear that I will turn it over … I feel MUCH SAFER in a flat-bottomed kayak with my gear. An inflatable might be a good alternative for you, as well. I have no experience in them (other than for relocating from a big boat to shore, etc.). Whatever you decide to use, wishing you good luck … and I know you will have loads of fun!

  4. Rick Petersohn says:

    Thanks for a great and timely post–the paddling season has finally arrived here in the upper midwest!. A fellow photographer friend just forwarded your post to me knowing I too am a kayaker and have fretted over the question of kayaking and risking photography gear on the water. I found your post refreshing, encouraging, and very helpful. I have a question and a couple of suggestions. I’d rather not paint my kayak– it is a bright green, the question is: What would you think of a camouflaged cover –with either an elastic hem or a drawstring that would wrap the kayak (above the water line), be removable, yet not drag in the water. Do you know of any such product on the market?
    Suggestions: Dry bags provide protection from water, but leave the camera vulnerable to being banged around. They also will not float should you take a swim. May I suggest the Dolphin Box. It comes in a variety of sizes (mine holds a Canon 7D with a Tamron 18-270 lens), has foam padding inside, is water tight, has hard plastic sides, floats, has both a removable shoulder strap and a handle for carrying. It can be a bit awkward on board tucked between my legs, or secured to the deck while paddling, and the camera is not readily accessible for quick shooting, but the gear is safe until I get to my “capture” location.
    Finally, consider a carbon fiber paddle–more expensive, but well worth the investment when out on the water for hours at a time.

    • Jim Braswell says:

      Thanks for your comments, Rick! I don’t know of any commercially-made cover you can purchase, but I dont’ see any reason why it wouldn’t work; you’d just have to find someone to fit/sew one for you. The only potential difficulty may be if you are in an area with a lot of brush … you might get it caught and rip it, but probably not a big issue to worry about. You could probably even use velcro to attach it to the kayak (of course, one of the velcro pieces would need to be permanently attached to the kayak).
      The Dolphin Box is a good suggestion, as well as a Pelican box, or other similar containers. But having little space inside the kayak, I have not even tried one. Your comment on a drybag “not floating” is a very valid concern. In the rare times that I kayak in a sea kayak (Alaska), I always tie the bag to the kayak, using a small cord. Not the best, but I am in an unstable environment so little, I can’t justify the cost of a good box.
      And I like your idea of a carbon fiber paddle. I now use a carbon fiber tripod for land work and the weight difference is wonderful … I can see how a carbon fiber paddle would also decrease weight.
      Happy Paddling, Rick … and hope you get some great shots from the kayak!

  5. Great article. I have been thinking about this for a while. Can anyone provide some more specific information on which kayaks work best: a brand or model as an example? A sit-in or sit-on? Thanks.

    • Jim Braswell says:

      Thanks for your kind comment, Rich! I’m using an older Otter kayak, made by Old Town Canoe (located in Maine). I’m sure that other make similar models, but I’m just not up to speed with what’s available. I, too, was interested in a sit-on model, but decided my gear was safer with an enclosed kayak. I have one place I kayak where there are a quite a few (non-venomous) water snakes. I’ve fought them from trying to get inside my enclosed kayak several times, particularly when sitting still … with a sit-on, I don’t know that I could keep them out as well. Not a big issue, but just wanted to throw that out there.
      Whatever you decide on, you will have great fun! Happy Paddling/Shooting!

    • There are lots of options for kayaks depending on your price point and what type of water you are paddling. I’m pretty much a flat water paddler (small lakes and calm rivers). I like boats in the 12′ range. I have used my wires 10′ boat and it just doesn’t track as nice as mine. A friend has a longer boat and wishes he had a 12′ so I think that’s a good compromise between tracking and portability. The boat I have right now is a Perception Prodigy and it has worked very well for me, but I do want to make a switch. If I had it to do over again, I would go with a Native Watercraft Ultimate 12. It’s almost a cross between a kayak and canoe. It is a sit in kayak, but the entire top is open like a canoe. Also the seat in the Native boats is top not and very comfortable for all day paddling.

      • Jim Braswell says:

        Sounds like some good options, Mike. Kayaks, like cars, vary widely and personal preference is an important factor. Happy Kayaking!

  6. Cindy Leeson says:

    Thanks for the post, Jim. My husband and I canoe quite a bit where we live and I always take my camera. We also go to Montana every summer and see a lot of wildlife on the rivers we paddle. We stop so he can fish, so I take the opportunity then to walk around with my camera. I love it. I also use a dry bag in the canoe that sits on the bottom right in front of me so I have quick access, and I tether the bag to the front of the canoe (I sit in the front) in case we tip. Do you know if they make padded dry bags? On rivers in a canoe sometimes we hit little rapids and it can be bumpy. I’ve thought about buying some pieces of foam and lining a dry bag. What brand and size dry bag do you use? I need to fit a Nikon D7000 with 300mm f/4 lens with a TC and one shorter lens. BTW, I know a photographer who kayaks with his camera and “wears” his camera using a Cotton Carrier, a harness that you wear and the camera clips on the front in your chest area. It works for kayaking, but with canoeing my left arm crosses my body when I’m paddling and the camera is in the way. Anyway, thanks again for the post.

    • Jim Braswell says:

      Thanks, Cindy! I’m not aware of padded dry bag, but someone may have some out there. I would think you could, as you suggest, pad one yourself … and probably less expensive … heck, you might even patent it! :o)
      I’ve got several dry bags, of various sizes. I usually get mine through Cabela’s, not that it matters, but I have their Visa card and rack up points, which translates to more toys … uh, I mean gear. I’ve also bought some at WalMart. I have several sizes because I sometimes use different lenses and having different sizes, I can always find one that fits. I even use the dry bags when on land and expecting rain (like Alaska).
      I have looked at the Cotton Carriers and think they have a lot of promise. But like you, I think paddling in a cramped kayak would be a bit difficult with the camera on my chest.
      Wishing you continued fun in paddling/shooting! :o)

  7. Great article Jim! I’ve been shooting from my kayak for years and I have very few problems shooting from my kayak even with a tripod. I use a smaller version of the tripod putting a leg on either side of my hips and the 3rd leg I extend out a little more to push the camera up closer to my face. With the legs pressing against the bottom “sides” of the kayak, it creates an extremely stable situation allowing me to shoot as slow as 1/30th of second when necessary (depending on wave action of course). Though it works great for taking photos in front of you, if the subject should be too far off to the side, I’ll then quickly disconnect my camera (quick release) and shoot hand held. Also, when the subject is gone and I have to cover some ground (water) I collapse the tripod and camera and it fits rather easily between my legs at the bottom of the kayak. It’s a great way to shoot for sure!!

    • Jim Braswell says:

      Thanks for the comments, Jerry. Sounds like you have a good system for using a tripod … maybe I gave up too soon! It seems like Mr. Murphy followed me around and my subject was never in front of me for easy tripod use, so I just canned the idea and began using my trusty IS lens. But it sounds like you are able to use your small tripod well. Ever since I was introduced to shooting from the kayak, I always look forward to shooting this way. It seems the wildlife are often so accepting of the kayak, sitting low in the water. Happy Kayaking!

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