Techniques

Working Wet: A Photographer’s Guide to Wading

by Jason Hahn | May 1, 2006

© Jason HahnI often joke that I do not know how to work a camera unless I am wet. I spend a lot of time wading in both freshwater and saltwater for shots. Wading provides some unique opportunities to approach wildlife or capture scenes that you simply can’t get from land. I find most animals will allow me to approach closer, plus I am able to get better angles, interesting behavior, and pleasing compositions. But wading can be difficult and dangerous.

Why Wade

Angles

Many wildlife photography books assert one of the key points of composition is perspective, being at eye level with your subject. Whether the photo is of a bird or a person, eye contact can be engaging, drawing the viewer into the shot. From the water, you can place your camera closer to eye level of the subject, especially those on the surface. Changing your viewpoint can also help you be creative; for example, taking scenic shots at water level can better convey the size and power of a waterfall.

Waterfall © Jason Hahn

Approachability

In my experience, approaching animals from the water is far easier than from land. I have literally had a Red-breasted Merganser swimming within arm’s reach of me in the water, where that same bird a half hour later would not let me approach within 50 feet from on land. Why the difference? To be honest I don’t know; maybe they know that I just can’t move fast in the water, or perhaps once in the water they no longer perceive me as much of a danger, just as another big dopey wading bird that isn’t very good at catching fish. Certainly when wading you slow down, moving much more cautiously and deliberately than on land, which may give the animal more time to adjust to your presence.

Access

For some species, your best bet to see them is in the water, whether ducks, alligators, or otters. Observing and photographing them in their natural element also helps to produce shots that capture the true nature and behavior of these species.

The Dangers

Wildlife

Working coastal areas, people continually stop and ask me about the dangers. “Aren’t you scared of sharks?” “Have you ever seen a crocodile?” “Have you ever got red tide poisoning?” Most of the danger comes from defensive mechanisms that these creatures have evolved, and the vast majority of the time it is only through accidental or careless interaction with them that they can injure us. Understanding the potential dangers, the creatures that pose them, and what to do should a situation present itself can go a long way toward keeping you and them safe. Guidebooks, local guides or naturalists, and local seminars or classes can help educate you regarding these concerns.

Environmental

Water is constantly moving, and the interaction of tides, weather, and topography can create potentially dangerous conditions. In coastal areas one of the primary dangers is from rip currents, sometimes referred to as rip tides or undertow. These are narrow, strong currents running perpendicular to a beach that move water back out to sea. The United States Life Saving Association reports that 80% of the rescues made by lifeguards on ocean beaches involve saving people caught and dragged out to sea by rip currents. Between 100 and 150 deaths a year are attributed to these currents.

Bird with catch © Jason Hahn

In some areas tide changes can also present hazards. Rapidly changing tides can leave a wader submerged or stranded. Rapid changes in tides can also create powerful currents that can sweep in debris or knock a person in the water off balance.

In moving water such as rivers, check the strength of the current and be aware of conditions or events up or down stream. Check for dams in the area that may change water flows, and be on the lookout for sudden storms that may deliver a large volume of water in a short period of time.

Especially in Florida where I shoot, there is always a chance of sudden storms. When out wading, it will take longer to get to shelter than from dry land. Check weather forecasts before heading out and take notice of any watches or warnings. Keep an eye on the horizon for building clouds indicating the formation of thunderheads. At the first sign of an approaching storm, it is wise to get out of the water and find cover.

Tips and Techniques

Dress Appropriately

There are two types of wading, wet wading or dry wading. To wet wade, just jump in. In warmer waters this can work – but consider a set of dry clothes to change into for the car ride home. For wet wading, I typically wear my usual quick drying convertible nylon hiking pants. When it’s time to go, if I am wet from the knees down, I can just unzip them and be dry for the ride home. My trick is to have a spare pair of “legs” in the same color as what I am wearing in my truck.

In colder waters, dry wading is the only way to go. If you plan to be wading for long periods of time, be aware that the risk of immersion hypothermia starts at water temperatures of 77° F or colder. Waders or wet suits will help keep you warmer in these types of conditions. In colder water, I wear breathable stockingfoot chest waders with a separate wading boot. These have an attached neoprene bootie that your foot goes in, which you wear a separate wading boot or shoe over. Bootfoot waders are also available which have the boot built right into the wader. There are advantages to both. Stockingfoot waders are generally more comfortable if hiking any distance, but are more susceptible to damage from debris getting into the boot than bootfoot waders. If possible, try both types on, then buy based on your intended use and how comfortable you find them. You will want a good fit with room for movement, heavy reinforcement in the knees, and fabric resistant to snags. In even colder temperatures, heavier Gore-Tex or neoprene waders are good options. Regardless of type always wear a wading belt and carry a wading stick for safety. In the event of a fall, a wading belt will keep your waders from filling with water, a potentially deadly situation.

Be aware of water temperature and dress appropriately, keeping in mind not to overdress which can restrict your movement and lead to overheating.

Jason Hahn in field © James Shadle

Photo of Jason Hahn, copyright James Shadle

Foot Protection

Broken glass, shell fragments, corals, and other items below the water can lacerate unprotected feet at the beach. When wet wading I generally wear an “aquatic sneaker” or “water shoe,” a lightweight closed toe athletic shoe with thick soles, good traction, and which vents water. There are many different brands available, such as Salomon and Merrell. My personal favorite is the “Wet Wading Shoe” by Orvis, specifically designed for this type of activity, which will not corrode or rot and are comfortable enough for all day use. Although they are all pricey, they are built to go in the water, and will not fall apart as quickly as hiking boots or regular sneakers after repeated immersion.

Whether your waders have built-in boots or you need to purchase them separately, the big consideration is the type of sole. Two basic choices are felt or knobby soles. Felt is ideal for slippery rock bottoms, while knobby is better in mud; neither is good in all situations. For example, wearing felt on a mudflat is akin to ice-skating. You can add studs to felt to provide more traction, but studs are uncomfortable to walk in on hard packed ground. Another option is the “Aquastealth” sole which claims to be the best of both worlds. I have a pair of Aquastealth soled boots by Simms, and while not quite as good as knobby soles in mud, they do a pretty good job, and are great on moss-covered rocks. Again, they are pricey, so choose your boot type based on where you will be wading most often.

Slow Down and Shuffle

If the water is stirred up, odds are you will not be able to see where you are putting your feet as you walk. This can pose a real danger, increasing your odds of stepping on something, slipping, tripping, or falling. When wading, moving slowly is important for safety. My own approach is to plan one step at a time, first picking up my tripod, moving it forward and making sure it is stable. I then move up behind it, never raising my foot more than 12 inches off the bottom. If wading in areas with lots of underwater hazards, I may only move a few inches at a time. This deliberate movement minimizes the possibility I will not step into a hole or trip and knock my gear into the water. In saltwater as I step forward I also do the “stingray shuffle,” dragging my feet to alert any creatures on the bottom to my presence, plus it knocks any debris out of the way that may trip me up. In deeper water, I often use my tripod legs as “feelers” to find objects on the bottom or holes that could pose a danger.

If wading in moving water, try to keep your body sideways to the current, this will allow you to balance better, presenting less surface area for the water to push against. It is always easier to wade downstream than up, just remember if you do head down stream, you will have to come back up at some point.

Slowing down also enables you to approach wildlife easier. Most species in the water are particularly alert to movement and sound; rapid movements, thrashing, or splashing will most likely make them flee. Also by slowing down and minimizing disturbance in the water you are less likely to scare off the fish and other creatures that live below the surface, possibly the very food source for which your subjects are there.

Keep your Distance

When wading, stay at stay at least 100 feet away from piers, jetties, or other structures in the water when surf is rough, as rip currents often exist along the side of fixed objects in the water.

Be Aware of Conditions

Check tides and weather forecasts before you go out. Heed any warning flags or signs, and if there are lifeguards or park personnel present, they are a good resource to ask about conditions.

Have a Rag Ready

When around water, especially salt, have a dry rag ready to wipe off any splashes or spray. Stow it somewhere that will stay dry; I usually keep a small cloth inside a sealed plastic baggie. If the wind is really kicking up a lot of spray, I use Storm Jacket covers, a large one to cover the lens and body and a separate 9″ one just for my flash. I also always keep a large garbage bag or two in a pouch attached to my tripod that I can pull down over my whole camera and lens in the event of a sudden rainstorm.

Bird in water © Jason Hahn

Clip and Zip

Minimize the chances you will drop something by attaching everything to you. Use retractable cords or lanyards if necessary for anything that does not have a secure place in your vest or harness. Make sure all pockets are zipped or buttoned shut; you don’t want to have something fall out if you bend over (which is how I lost my first cell phone and learned this very important lesson!).

Keep Items High and Dry

A lot of times when wading after a subject it is easy to get so caught up in the moment that you may wander into deeper water than intended. Keep all items that are vulnerable to water damage waist high or higher. I never put items in pants pockets, preferring pouches on my belt harness or my shirt pockets instead. Wading is one of the main reasons I use a belt harness system. Made of water repellant materials, the pouches and cases can quickly be removed and placed higher to keep them from getting submerged.

Simplify and Scale Down

Minimizing your gear selection cuts down on weight and gives you less gear to worry about. My waders have a built-in front fly pocket that I can use to store the bare essentials; media, dry rag, a teleconverter, and a battery. If you feel you need to carry more, many vests designed for fly fisherman are great options for photographers too; they have many waterproof pockets that can store accessories.

Get in Shape

Wading is a resistance exercise, every time you take a step, not only are you moving the weight of your body and gear, but you are also fighting against the resistance of the water. Be sure you are up for the physical challenges of it.

Get a Guide

Consider hiring a local guide who knows the locations, can assist you in handling the local conditions, and can get you to the subjects you want.

When it comes to working around water, don’t be scared, just be prepared. Education, awareness of your surroundings, and careful preparation will not only keep you safe but help you get better shots out on those sandy, salty, muddy shores.

About the Author

Jason Hahn is a Florida nature photographer whose work has been published in numerous books and magazines which can be seen at www.jasonhahn.com.

One thought on “Working Wet: A Photographer’s Guide to Wading

  1. Pingback: Locations I plan to work in once it warms up. | JeffJamesPhoto

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