Have Boat, Will Photograph

by | April 29, 2010

© Kari PostPhotographing nature and outdoor subjects from a boat gives a photographer a unique perspective and can allow a photographer to get original photographs of often photographed subjects or approach a subject that would otherwise be impossible to photograph. Any subject can be photographed from a boat, including birds, wildlife, landscapes, and recreational sports.

Some types of watercraft are better suited for photography than others, but just about any boat can serve as a platform for a photo shoot. My favorite boat for on the water photography is a single person, recreational kayak. Kayaks ride low in the water and have a low center of gravity, making them ideal for photographing water birds and using heavy, somewhat awkward telephoto lenses. Since they are self propelled, they allow you to sneak up on shy and skittish wildlife slowly and quietly, as well as adjust your position in the water for the best angle. Canoes are also good for photography, but are larger and easier to tip than kayaks, and don’t allow for the same low angle.

Larger motorized boats, like pontoon boats, motor boats, even large sailboats and commercial ferries, can also make for some unique opportunities. Often, birds like gulls and terns, follow boats because they are accustomed to getting scraps from fishermen and the wake of the motor churns up fish. Dolphins and porpoises like to play in the wakes of large boats at sea, and there are whale watching and seal watching boating tours that let you get close to animals you would not likely find near shore. Many pelagic bird species can only be approached on the open ocean and pelagic boating tours can allow you to photograph these birds at close range.

Northern gannet © Kari Post

Many bird species, like this Northern Gannet, can only be found out at sea, so a boat ride is often the only way to photograph them. Pelagic bird photography trips are a great way to get shots of these otherwise difficult to observe species. Canon 1D Mark II N, 70-200mm f/4L IS USM, 1/2000s, f/6.3, ISO 500, handheld from a ferry.

When photographing from a boat, there are some special safety considerations for both yourself and your gear. Regardless of your swimming ability, you should always have a PFD (personal flotation device) or life vest available on board of your boat. Which type of PFD and whether it needs to be worn at all times depends on the type of watercraft and local regulations. You will also want layers of warm clothes, including a rain shell, as it can get cold on the water due to water spray, wind (which carries well across the water), and the fact that water does not gather heat as quickly as land. The open water also offers no shade and sun rays reflect off the surface of the water, so wear sun block to prevent sunburn and carry plenty of fresh drinking water to stay well hydrated in the baking sun.

Your camera will also need some protection as well. If traveling in a smaller boat that can possibly tip or flood, such as a canoe, kayak, raft, rowboat, or pedal boat, you will definitely want a waterproof case for all your gear. I usually keep my photo gear in a roll top dry bag inside my kayak. I leave the dry bag open when photographing on calm water, but seal the top whenever I am getting in or out of my boat, or when the water gets rough. You can also use a waterproof camera bag, such as Lowepro’s Dryzone series backpacks or a waterproof trunk, like a Pelican case, for your gear as well. On larger boats you may not need something waterproof, but you will want some sort of case or bag to protect your gear from spray and water that may get on the deck of the boat.

Canoers © Kari Post

Bring a variety of lenses with you when photographing on a boat. You want to be able to switch to a wider view if a special scene, like this one of canoers paddling past an island, presents itself. In this case, the atmospheric fog would have lifted by the time I had gotten my wide angle lens if I had forgotten in on shore, and I would have missed the shot. Canon 1D Mark II N, 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, 1/800s, f/8, ISO 200, handheld from a kayak.

When choosing which gear to bring with you on your trip, think of the subjects you are looking to photograph. Zoom lenses are especially useful for boat photography, as they allow you to change your perspective quickly without moving the whole boat. Zooms also mean you can leave the same lens on your camera for a variety of shooting situations, so the inside of your camera is less subject to spray because you need to change lenses less often. On boats, having some sort of image stabilizing feature on your lenses or camera is beneficial, as the vibrations from the boat motor, rocking of waves, and unsteadiness of using a camera without a tripod, can all ruin pictures. Unless you are on a particularly large and steady boat, like a commuter ferry or cruise ship, you won’t need or want to use a tripod. A neck strap is also good to have to prevent your gear from accidentally going overboard.

Common loon © Kari Post

The Common Loon is an ideal subject to approach from a boat since loons spend the majority of their time on the water and only go on land to nest. By photographing aquatic birds from a kayak, you can get a nice low angle on your subject and capture clean reflections. Canon 1D Mark II N, 300mm f/2.8L IS USM, 1.4x converter, 1/200s, f/4, ISO 800, handheld from a kayak.

Boat photography is a bit trickier than shooting on land, but becomes more natural with practice. If using a small personal boat, like a canoe or kayak, I recommend trying out the boat a few times, without gear, just to get used to it. Practice moving around in the boat, turning from side to side, so you get an idea of how to balance in the boat. Even bring a heavy rock or dumbbell in the boat with you and hold it in front of your face while turning your body, to get an idea of how to shift and balance with a heavy camera and lens. When you are ready to bring your gear aboard, start on calm water and keep your gear sealed inside a waterproof case whenever you are not actively shooting. Framing and tracking a subject through the lens while on a boat takes some practice, as even the slightest waves can make the job very difficult, especially at higher magnifications, so start on calm water with shorter lenses, allowing a bit extra room around your subject, and progress to rougher water and longer lenses, with more tightly framed compositions. In general, you will always want to photograph from smaller boats when there is little wind, as the wind will not only kick up spray and make the water choppy, but it will move your boat around, making it difficult to photograph.

On larger boats, give yourself some time to feel how the boat moves, and see where spray is coming from, before beginning to photograph. On some big boats, you can lose your balance pretty easily while others are very smooth, so you want to know that before you take out your gear. Once you get a feel for the boat, shoot away, keeping an eye out for spray and changing weather conditions.

Photographing from a boat can add a new dimension to your photography and open up the possibility of photographing new subjects or older subjects in a new way. So the next time you venture out on a boat, consider bringing your camera gear along and seeing what you can capture.

Water lily © Kari Post

To capture an overhead view of this beautiful white water lily, I held my camera and wide angle lens off the side of my kayak, parallel to the surface of the water. Without a kayak, I would have had to wade waist deep into the pond to get such a picture. Canon 1D Mark II N, 17-40mm f/4L USM, 1/80s, f/8, ISO 400, handheld from a kayak.

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