Photo of whitewater kayaking over a falls

Liam Fields dropping over Spirit Falls while whitewater kayaking on the Little White Salmon River near White Salmon, Washington. To create this image, I rappelled over the edge of the gorge right next to Spirit Falls and waited for the kayaker to drop over the waterfall. I used Elinchrom ELB 1200 battery-powered strobes to freeze the motion and light up the kayaker, who was in shade when descending the waterfall.

Kayaking is at its heart a mode of transportation, but it’s also a gateway to adventure. Whitewater kayaking is an adrenaline-filled, fast-paced sport and one of the most dangerous adventure sports, bar none—especially at the highest levels. Sea kayaking isn’t nearly as dangerous as whitewater kayaking, but in large swells, it can certainly have some exciting moments. Sea kayaking is, in my experience, an epic adventure that immerses the participant into nature like very few other outdoor activities.

While these two forms of kayaking may seem similar, in practice, they are radically different. Photographing these two sports also requires unique strategies for each. Here we’ll discuss the basic techniques and what’s involved when heading out to photograph kayaking as an adventure sport. Let’s start with whitewater kayaking, as many of the same techniques will also work in the sea kayaking realm.

Whitewater Kayaking Photography

You don’t have to be a kayaker to get excellent images of whitewater kayaking, but kayaking skills can certainly be useful to gain access to areas that are otherwise difficult to reach. I have done some whitewater kayaking, but I would not call myself a whitewater kayaker. To overcome this fact, I use my climbing and backcountry skills. With some planning, and perhaps a lot of bushwhacking, it is possible to get to just about any location along the river’s edge.

Example of whitewater kayaking photography

Rush Sturges standing by as a safety precaution as Liam Fields drops over Spirit Falls while whitewater kayaking on the Little White Salmon River near White Salmon, Washington. I walked around to the edge of the gorge and lined up our safety kayaker standing on the boulder and then waited for the kayaker to drop over the waterfall in the background. I used Elinchrom ELB 1200 battery-powered strobes to freeze the motion and light up both kayakers.

Generally, the best shooting angle is at river level and downriver from the rapid, so you can shoot as the kayakers come into and through the rapid. In some cases where there are steep riverbanks or the river is in a deep canyon, another interesting angle is to stand on the top of the ridge and shoot down on the kayakers as they go through a rapid. For waterfalls, I always check to see if the better angle is at the base of the waterfall or at the top. In my experience, the better angle is most often from above, but be sure to check both.

Setting up a rope across the waterfall to photograph kayakers as they pass underneath is also an incredible angle. This is generally done with a Tyrolean traverse, where the photographer is suspended on the rope with a pulley and climbing harness using an ascender attached to the rope to stay in position. An easier way to get a similar perspective is to rappel in just next to the waterfall and have the kayakers launch off the top as close to you as possible.

Photo of Rafa Ortiz kayaking

This image of Rafa Ortiz whitewater kayaking on the Little White Salmon River near White Salmon, Washington, was created by rappelling into the river gorge and finding a low perspective. I blasted away at 8 fps to make sure I could catch the height of the action.

If you can find a river with a trail or road next to it, then you can shoot all the rapids by having the kayakers wait just before the next rapid while you get into position. If the rapid is particularly good, I’ll ask the boaters to run laps on that section, if they are willing. It is a lot of work to get out of the boat and carry it back upriver, so I am mindful of this fact and try to get the image I want in as few runs as possible.

The classic kayaking images are a kayaker dropping over a sizeable waterfall, surfing on a static wave, “throwing ends” or performing what are called “rodeo tricks,” and generally fighting to stay upright in a rapid. If you have some top kayakers and decent camera equipment, it isn’t that difficult to get solid kayaking images. The trick, as it is with all action sports, is to combine the action, light and composition to capture that extraordinary moment. Work with the best kayakers you can find. Their skills will open up many photo opportunities because they can run the more difficult Class V rivers with big waterfalls and lots of wild rapids, which will greatly improve the quality of your images.

As for capturing the action, I would recommend using a camera that shoots at a minimum of 5 fps, but 8 fps or faster is ideal. I set my focus point according to where I want the kayaker (or their head) positioned in the frame, and I set the autofocus to track the subject and fire continuously. Once I have the camera’s focus set up, I plant the autofocus point on the kayaker and blast away. With modern mirrorless cameras, some of the more advanced autofocus modes may be able to track the kayakers without having to plant the AF on them, but this may or not be the best option depending on the camera.

Photo of Sebastian Johnson whitewater kayaking

This image of Sebastian Johnson whitewater kayaking on the Clark Fork River had a very easy approach as this spot is in the middle of downtown Missoula, Montana. I chose a slow shutter speed that seemed to match the velocity of the current and shot at 12 fps. With motion blur techniques like this, you must shoot a lot of images to get one that is sharp. Out of about 800 images I captured during this session at slow shutter speeds, this one was the best.

I coordinate the timing of the photoshoot with the kayakers so we can be on location during the best light. If the river lines up east-to-west with the sun, then I’ll shoot either backlit or with frontal lighting. In many cases, the river is down in a shaded trench or valley where there isn’t a whole lot of light. For these scenarios, I look for times when there isn’t any light hitting the background, which would totally blow out if I was exposing for the shade, and I then use battery-powered strobes, like the Elinchrom ELB 1200, to add light. When using strobes with kayaking, you’ll need to be at a semi-fixed distance to keep the exposure consistent for the strobe. Shooting a kayaker in a play hole or as they go over a waterfall is a specific example of where using strobes can be used.

Sunlight is your friend when it comes to photographing whitewater kayaking. On a cloudy day, the river looks flat, and there just isn’t much life to the images. Sunlight illuminates all those tiny drops of water flying around, so they really accentuate the action. Even if the river doesn’t line up for early- or late-afternoon light, because you get so much reflection off the water (especially in rapids where there is whitewater), the river itself acts as a giant fill light and allows you to shoot all day long.

Photo of Rafa Ortiz rolling up while whitewater kayaking

Rafa Ortiz rolling up while whitewater kayaking on the Little White Salmon River near White Salmon, Washington. This image was created using a Ewa-Marine underwater housing and an Elinchrom ELB 1200 battery-powered strobe to freeze the motion. We also used a powerful reflector to replicate the look of sunlight streaming through the water. The camera was submerged just under the surface of the water, and Rafa rolled several times in the ice-cold water to help us get the shot.

The gear required for shooting whitewater kayaking varies greatly depending on the location and access. In general, a standard kit that covers 14mm to 200mm (equivalent) is appropriate. The need for a 300mm or even a 400mm lens is not uncommon, though, especially for larger rivers. Whitewater kayaking is about the toughest test of autofocus I have ever run into because the kayakers are moving randomly at very high speeds. Because of this, using the fastest autofocus available with top-end cameras and lenses will greatly increase the number of sharp images. My main setup for kayaking is a trinity of ƒ/2.8 lenses: a 14-24mm, 24-70mm and a 70-200mm, along with a camera body that can fire at 12 fps or faster. If I need a bit more reach, I’ll take a 300mm ƒ/4 lens or a 100-400mm zoom lens.

How you transport your gear depends on the location and how much you intend to carry, with the caveat that if you are hiking along the river, you’ll have to go lighter than if you are shooting kayakers at one specific location like a play hole. If you are kayaking and carrying photo gear with you in the boat, I highly recommend using a small dry bag. This will allow you to pack one camera and one lens, like a small mirrorless camera body and a 70-200mm zoom lens, in a padded camera pouch. Most kayaking photographers slide their camera bag either between their legs or under their knees, so it is easy to access. A waterproof hard case is another good option, but they are so heavy and bulky that you’ll have to store them in the rear of the boat, which makes access difficult.

Sea Kayaking Photography

Sea kayaking is, for the most part, a very tranquil sport mixed with occasional moments of high anxiety depending on the location, the skill of the kayaker and the conditions. This is a sport that can be a luxury cruise or a cold, windswept fight for survival. Trying to launch or paddle into a remote beach in a big swell or dealing with white caps and large waves can make for quite a bit of excitement and some seriously challenging shooting conditions. Add in cold weather and water conditions requiring a fair bit of gear just to stay warm, and creating photographs could soon be low on your list of priorities.

Sea kayaking photography example showing a racing team

Team Helly Hansen Prunesco sea kayaking on the open ocean into the Wickhand Fjord during the 2009 Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race. This image was captured from the deck of a much larger boat, which put me high enough to show the mountainous background and the stormy seas.

Sea kayaking is a sport that is all about access to wild environments and landscapes. In general, you aren’t going to see many “high-action” moments. When shooting sea kayaking, you will mostly be trying to communicate the experience of a sea kayaker in a landscape. That isn’t to discount images that show a sea kayaker on the ocean with no landscape visible, but the landscape establishes where the kayakers are and why they chose to venture to that location. Normally, the best images are going to be found close to or on land. You’ll have a lot more freedom shooting from the shore than you will in a boat because the higher perspective helps establish the environment.

If you can find an inlet that isn’t too large, it is easy enough to scout shooting positions on either side of it, which also gives you a lot of options in terms of the light. An island gives you the same options without as much scouting, and since you can walk around it (if it’s a small island), you’ll be able to get the lighting you want just by having your kayakers circumnavigate it. Since you are most likely wearing a dry suit already, if you have a lightweight underwater housing, like an Outex water housing, it is sometimes interesting to try shooting in the water to get a very low perspective or, if the water is clear, to create an over-under shot.

Photo of Joe Nodeland sea kayaking

Joe Nodeland sea kayaking in, around and through the tiny Wedge Islands not far from the Johnstone Straight near Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. I shot from a small series of islands that we kayaked through. I convinced my fellow kayakers to hang out while I pulled over and set up the shot, then had them kayak through a few times to get the image.

For underwater housings, I have found the Outex water housings to be the best choice for sea kayaking as they are really lightweight, and they can be used in a variety of situations while sea kayaking. I have the Outex Large Pro kit, which will work with just about any camera make or model and with lenses up to a 70-200mm. Alternatively, a hardshell-type surf housing, like those from Aquatech, will also work, but they are a lot heavier and take up more room in your sea kayak than the Outex. If you plan to shoot while sea kayaking, then having your camera in a water housing is a great idea to protect your camera—and placing it in a padded chest pouch will give you quick access to it.

Another consideration when shooting sea kayaking is the subject’s body position. Shooting sea kayaking is, in a sense, similar to shooting running. The classic running image needs to have the runner’s legs apart at full stride. Just about any other part of the stride looks awkward in a still photograph. Sea kayaking is no different. In general, you want the sea kayaker to have their paddle on a diagonal, as when they are just initiating a stroke. Anything else (aside from having the paddle parallel to the water) looks a little strange. To solve this problem, you can either blast away with a fast continuous shooting rate or wait for the kayaker to initiate a stroke and catch that moment. I prefer to shoot in short bursts that catch the stroke as it is initiated all the way through to where it looks awkward, so I am sure to get the exact moment.

Photo of Stephen Leavins sea kayaking

Stephen Leavins sea kayaking in West Penobscot Bay near Camden, Maine. For this image, I put on a wetsuit and put my camera in a water housing so that I could get in the water and photograph Stephen as he came at me. Using the pre-dawn light, I was able to create some amazing reflections as he kayaked straight toward me. in West Penobscot Bay near Camden, Maine. For this image, I put on a wetsuit and put my camera in a water housing so that I could get in the water and photograph Stephen as he came at me. Using the pre-dawn light, I was able to create some amazing reflections as he kayaked straight toward me.

There are an infinite variety of situations you can find yourself in that will make for stellar sea kayaking photos. If it is at all possible to get above your subjects, you’ll be rewarded with a great view of the landscape and the kayakers. Even better, if the water is aqua blue or emerald green, as it often is in tropical areas or high-altitude lakes, then your landscape will also include the water and perhaps even some formations under the water. As with any adventure sport, look for those off-the-cuff moments to capture the lifestyle of sea kayaking.

A key point to remember for sea kayaking is that the golden hour is extended because the water reflects so much light. For approximately a half-hour before sunrise or a half-hour after sunset, you’ll have pink, red and golden hues of light reflected by the water, which makes for spectacular shooting conditions. If your subject is backlit, then you’ll most likely end up with a silhouette. In that case, it is a good idea to include a mountain range or some landscape element in the frame as well. For frontal or side lighting conditions, the kayaker will be lit with very soft and subtle light. In these situations, you might need to crank up your camera’s ISO settings.

For sea kayaking photography, you can get away with a basic photography kit similar to what we discussed for whitewater kayaking. A lightweight and packable camera is the best option, and there are many small mirrorless cameras from which to choose. A standard kit that covers 14mm to 200mm gives you pretty much everything you’ll need. How much room you have in the sea kayak will probably dictate how much camera equipment you take.

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