6 Killer Tips for Awesome Kayaking Photographs

Reading Time: 8 minutes

What are some tips and tricks to help me take better photographs from my kayak?

  1. Kayak motion. Anchor it for stabilization. Throw an anchor overboard or nest in some thick vegetation. Tie a rope to a rock if you have to but stop the drifting.
  2. Change the angles. Your kayak may be eye level with your subject but the camera doesn’t have to be. Hold it high, submerge it half underwater, twist an oblique angle. Switch it up!
  3. Forego staying dry. If you want to capture nature in-the-moment, you may need to get out of the kayak and move about in the water. 
  4. Close-at-hand. Keep all the crucial equipment within reach. Hang it around your neck, from your belt, in a dry bag…whatever you have to do but keep it within reach. 
  5. Choose the best kayak. Know your limitations on the water and what you want to accomplish. 
  6. Gear is key. The quality of your photographs is only as good as the gear you pack and your skill to use it. 

Taking photographs from a kayak isn’t simple.  Frequently, I find it tougher than shooting photographs of my six daughters chasing after the last scoop of ice cream on a hot summer day.

Three things that make kayak photography very difficult.

kayak-photography-tipsListed below are three reasons why kayak photography is more than difficult than you might think:

First, you’re bobbing up and down in a kayak with the waves, wind, and current pushing you around in every direction except the direction you want to be pointed. Meanwhile, you’ve got a costly piece of equipment in your hands along with your paddle that is always getting in the way. Then, once the object that you’re attempting to picture gets in the ideal place, subtle motion in the water is just enough to push it (or you) from this ideal framework.

Second, you’re sitting in a vessel at the exact same height as your subject. It’s somewhat difficult to stand up and find a greater vantage point, therefore regrettably nearly every shot is at head / topwater perspective looking straight ahead. If you’re flexible (and have sufficient balance in a kayak) to contort your own body around like a pretzel, maybe then it’s possible to find a bit of a different angle. Here I feel blessed to have the trunk versatility required to find these shots (losing 60 pounds last summer helps! Go Keto!)

Third, there is a clear concern of having your expensive camera gear suddenly becoming not wet.  If you miss a paddle stroke or record a few frames of your kayak instead of what you were intending to photograph… the game is finished.

6 killer tips to help capture the best pictures ever – in more detail

Those were a few reasons why taking photographs from a kayak is irritating, awkward and undesirable, but here are four tips for making things go a lot smoother:

Tip #1. Kayak Motion – Life’s Full of Ups and Downs

We cannot do too much about the object we’re photographing.  We can make a bunch of positioning demands like, “Paddle a bit to your left, no more, now paddle a bit to your right, now come so the light is in your own kayak where I could view it…” and so on. Photographing people in the kayaking environment is much more difficult in my opinion that the natural landscape, per se. Capturing a billowy cloud as it crests over a mountain top and mirrors its reflection in the water below your kayak requires only that you adjust your camera properly. You can’t tell the cloud to move or the mountain to smile. Well, you could… but people might start to whisper.

A tactic that I find helpful is to search for something to use as an anchor. Any bed of floating vegetation is perfect for this. If it is available where you’re photographing, park your kayak in the center of a kelp bed, then catch a few strands and tuck them under your deck. You can even loosely tie them to your kayak in some cases. Anchoring to a partially submerged tree that is poking out of the water can help with the unwanted swaying while trying to photograph objects. Always carry a good 10-20 feet of rope for this reason. Personally, I carry paracord because although it is thin in diameter, that stuff is bulletproof. I even use it to tow my ten-year-old when she gets “too tired” to paddle near the falls.

Do whatever is necessary to eliminate your movement while you work on finding the best shot. Additionally, floating up alongside a different kayak may provide you more stability and less kayak motion. Sometimes just resting your paddle tip on a rock, wedged between two boulders can anchor you for a bit. I almost forgot, I also have a little lead anchor that I bought from Dick’s Sporting Goods. It was only about $15 and folds up very nicely. But I can drop it overboard, again simply using my paracord of 20-ish feet and I’m good-to-go. This is my method of choice when I want to post up under the Perrine bridge and capture bridge jumpers leaping from the edge.

Tip #2. Experiment with Angles – Different is Good

Capturing unique and captivating photographs occasionally requires getting wet but be careful.  You can capture plenty of amazing photographs while floating along a river at dawn and never leave your craft. But there will come some times when getting in the water and holding your camera at water level (or even a little submerged with the right gear) will produce the most unique images of all.  So if you would like to capture amazing views while kayaking, then you’re not likely to just capture them while shooting from inside a kayak.

Some of the best shots for the day may come from the shore or bridge high over the water looking down at your subjects or submerged half in the water as they glide towards you. Always be considering different vantage points. Ask yourself, “how could I shoot this image differently?” I’ll include an image near this paragraph that I took of my kayak perched up on some rocks. The sun was setting and my daughter and I were at a breathtaking location called Blue Heart in southern Idaho. At this specific place, natural spring water bubbles up from the floor and the water for a 100-foot diameter is crystal clear.

Beached Yak at Blue HeartI perched my kayak up on a rock and ended up with the nose somewhat up in the air. With the camera held just above kayak level but near the nose, I captured an image causing the kayak to be foreshortened at the tail but enlarged at the front. A little lighting manipulation and I captured what I think is a beautiful yet unique image.

As you’re out in your kayak, consider making the vessel appear more intriguing, perhaps from an unusual angle like I just described.  A camera phone is actually great at this since it’s so small and easy to maneuver around in your hands. I have a particular Android phone that came with a 24MP camera. The capabilities of this simple smartphone are amazing to me. Experiment by holding up your camera high over your head, near the water, or perhaps at the water (in case you’ve got a watertight housing, more on this in a little ) and keep asking yourself, “How do I create this view differently?”

Tip #3. Getting a Little Wet – It Won’t Hurt You

There are a couple of helpful products that will help you (attempt) to keep your gear dry. A pelican box strapped to the front or rear of your deck is going to be a bombproof, watertight safe haven. The issue with a Pelican case is that they are large and bulky and difficult to open. If you’re fiddling with your gear because you can’t’ get it open, you’re likely to miss many shots. But they’re great if you’re shooting with a bigger camera and fewer lenses (this works nicely for point and shoot cameras).

If I need my camera to be available and watertight, particularly if attempting to take photos somewhere in rough water, I  use an underwater camera. This gets a little pricey and may not fit everyone’s budget. You can use a generic underwater waterproof bag from a local sporting goods store to keep your costs down. You can find cheap dry bags on Amazon for under $20. Or you can get a high-end name brand that runs somewhere in the 300 dollar range. The cameras made for imaging underwater are very good for getting shots in the water but not all budgets can afford one. I will discuss those in a different article. But having a good dry bag or Pelican case is crucial and it helps when you are able to relax knowing that your camera isn’t likely to have an unexpected river bath.

SHTF-kayak-is-goldTip #4. Ease of Gear Accessibility

Among my tricks for easy camera access is paddling with my cameras in cushioned camera bags tucked up under my cockpit. I’ve found the ideal mix is a decent chest rig that keeps my camera off my lap. Othewise,  I can balance my camera in-between my thighs as I kayak, like shown in the image to the left. As a tall man (at 6’3″, 270 lbs) I’ve got less space than a typical size paddler within a standard cockpit. I place 2 additional lenses in cushioned lens bags and stuff them within a watertight bag and store them at my toes too.

If Mother Nature is calm, I grab the dry bag and camera bag and keep them together with the bag flap covering over my vulnerable camera. This provides me the fastest access for my camera whenever there’s a bird or particular instant where speed is vital. Yes, this is dangerous if you aren’t careful and I am playing the risk every moment, however, when conditions get rougher or I need a break from taking photos, I just tighten up the bag and I am all set.

Tip #5. Choosing the Proper Vessel for Photography.

The ideal kayak for photography depends upon your paddling ability, size, and what exactly it is you will be photographing. A broader more secure vessel provides you more space on your cockpit for camera equipment and is not as tippy while shooting photographs. The Swifty Perception 9.5′ and Perception 12′ are my favorite kayaks for photography. Of course, I’m biased because that’s what I own. Maybe one of you vendors out there can sponsor me into a different kayak so I can try it out? Anyway, they have more space in the cockpit to sit comfy with a camera along with a few different types of equipment and they have a wonderful balance between maneuverability and stability.

The dimensions of the photographer also come into play. Smaller paddlers can fit more smoothly in thinner kayaks with more camera equipment. I am barely able to stuff big dry bags filled with lenses and additional camera gear packed with padded bags facing my toes.   Additionally, a paddler’s experience plays a huge role. If you’re a newer paddler of ordinary build and you are going to be taking photographs while paddling, I’d encourage you to acquire a wider more secure kayak. If you’re a seasoned paddler, I invite you to buy a kayak that does the kind of paddling you need to do and just be certain that you are able to watch your camera equipment on board.

Tip #6. Camera Stands and Chest Rigs.

I already mentioned that I have used a chest rig in the past. But I found another helpful companion on my personal trips. A properly mounted tripod stand, securely fastened to the kayak, can serve as a whole new perspective for the viewer if you can capture video while kayaking. I have captured lengthy routes on video and the mixture of waters rushing and paddles moving water are about as soothing as I can image a sound to be. I have one particular short video of a soothing waterfall that has thousands of views on my YouTube channel.

My next goal is to see if I can convert my kayaking videos into a 3D virtual format. I’ve been enjoying a virtual headset (oddly enough purchased at our local thrift store) and watching virtual movies has been amazing. There are virtual kayaking videos available that are phenomenal. I can see the use for them outside of normal entertainment being the ability to share the kayaking experience with people who may not be physically or mentally able to go kayaking. So if you know of software that can help me convert my 2D videos into 3D for virtual please let me know.

Good luck with your endeavors and may your images be breathtaking!

Leave a Comment