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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Backcountry PhotographyWhere the Action Is

Shoot the Action!

By Tamia Nelson

March 1, 2011

Winter's long, dark evenings are a good time to go over old trip journals, sketchbooks, and photographs, reliving past paddling seasons in the process. Just last month, I suggested ways to rework this material in a home studio, creating new images from old with pencil and brush. Now I'm revisiting the source, so to speak. In other words, I'm taking another look at digital photography as a creative outlet. Why? Because I shoot thousands of photos a year, and — since there are only 24 hours in my day — a lot of these images gather digital dust on my hard drive till winter, when I have the leisure to give them more than a perfunctory look. You could say that the dark of the year is the time when I catch up on the previous summer, I suppose. And I was doing just that a couple of weeks ago, when it dawned on me that I'd given short shrift to one very important subject in my previous "Backcountry Photography" series. I said almost nothing about …

Photographing Paddlers in Action

Of course, not every trip involves high‑adrenaline thrills. A lot of paddling is pretty laid back, and many trip albums reflect this. My own collection of photos has plenty of pictures in which the highlight of the shot is a meal under preparation, a convivial gathering around a campfire, or a serene sunset. But that's only part of the story. At other times, on other trips, the action is fast and furious, as boaters struggle to stay in control while negotiating precipitous drops and surging currents.

It's a challenging area for photographers. Query the photo editor of a glossy sports magazine, and you'll like as not be told to submit pictures that get up close and personal, scenes in which every drop of sweat gleams and each twitching muscle fiber stands proud for all to see. Shots like that often require ideal light, a camera that can deliver flawless images at impossibly high ISOs, and telephoto lenses the size (and heft) of a light mortar. The price tag? Don't ask. Luckily, though, there's another approach to action photography. It may lack the in‑your‑face intimacy that's the hallmark of much professional work, but it makes up for this in other ways — most notably accessibility and simplicity.

Want a for‑instance? Here's one:

A Bracing Dip

A creeker lands after an almost flawless boof. Now he's leaning on a low brace, fighting to stay upright. His face is hidden by spume, but that doesn't matter. The exposed paddle blade is the focus of attention. The photo isn't a portrait. It's a study of the tension between chaos and control on a fast‑flowing river. I was happy with the shot. But I was even happier that I didn't need a bank loan (and a pickup truck full of specialist kit) to capture it. Want to know how I did it? Then here's …

The Lowdown on Action Gear

Wide‑angle lenses make for great dramatic shots, but they limit your reach. Unless you're part of the action yourself — in which case you'll probably be too busy to squeeze the shutter — a telephoto or telephoto zoom is a better choice, and for a very good reason: It brings your subject closer. You don't need one of the massive telephotos used by the pros, however. I use a stock 50‑200 mm. It lets me zoom in, focus, and then zoom out again till I find the sweet spot, the place with the best balance between intimacy and big‑picture context. And I'm happy with my choice, although I have to admit that a 50‑300 mm might be even better.

What about a waterproof camera? It's nice to have one, certainly, but it's not necessary if you're shooting from shore or from a boat in a sheltered bay or large eddy, not even if you're waiting in a downpour. I use the same cameras for action shots that I use for all my other photographic work: a little digital point‑and‑shoot and a "semi‑pro" digital SLR. Neither is waterproof, though the SLR is labeled "weather resistant," and (for once) that tag seems accurate. That said, the SLR is definitely not immersion‑proof, and there's no denying that a waterproof camera or housing would broaden my scope for action photography, especially when I'm part of the action myself. In fact, helmet‑mounted video cameras like the one worn by the boater in the photo below are showing up with increasing frequency on northern rivers:

Up to His Neck

You can't get much closer to the action than that, can you? And here he is again, though he's getting the subject treatment from another shutterbug this time:

Rough Water Shoot‑out

Still, interesting as they are, helmet cams are a topic for another article, and the intricacies of video photography would take us even further afield. These will have to wait. In the meantime, back on shore, notice that the photographer in the last shot is still wearing his PFD while he snaps his buddy. That's a very good idea. Wet rock doesn't make for the most secure of platforms, and a single misstep can instantly transform a photographer into a swimmer.


So much for equipment. Now let's look at some …

Techniques For Capturing the Action

You can simply set your camera to Auto and hope for the best, of course, but if you want more control, …

Use Shutter Priority Mode.  Select a relatively fast shutter speed and let the camera choose the aperture. An exposure of 1/180th of a second is probably the longest you can risk when you need to freeze the action, but you can go as fast as the light allows — and you'll likely want to. You may also want to increase the ISO to improve your camera's ability to get acceptable shots under low‑light conditions, though there's a downside: Images shot at high ISOs are often granular or "noisy." But that's a price you may have to pay. I prefer ISO to be as low as possible, yet I sometimes bump it up to 800 to capture fast‑moving subjects.

Then, once you've decided on shutter speed and ISO, …

Set the Exposure Bias.  This bias — it's also known as "exposure value," or EV — compensates for unusual lighting conditions. Bright water can throw off a camera's built‑in meter, resulting in an underexposed subject. Here's an illustration of just such a situation:

Dive! Dive!

The waterfall was in full sun, but the plunge pool remained in shadow. Since I was interested in the paddler, rather than the falls, I deliberately overexposed the shot. This reduced much of the torrent of falling water to a blinding white wash (see the upper right‑hand corner of the photo), but that was OK by me. If I hadn't overridden the camera's automatic exposure, the kayaker would have been lost in a miasma of impenetrable murk.

Correcting for the bias of an exposure meter sounds like a complicated business, and it is. Or at least it can be. To make things as simple as possible, take several test shots before the action begins, and look at the results in the camera's LCD. (The ability to preview exposures is one of the blessings of digital photography.) Now adjust the bias as needed. There's no universally satisfactory rule of thumb here. Different cameras will require different EVs. Trial and error will get you where you need to go.

Satisfied that you've got the right EV? Then it's time to consult your crystal ball. Failing that, you need to use your scouting skills to …

Anticipate Your Subject's Moves.  Luckily, it's a pretty safe bet that you're a paddler, so you've got a head start here. Perpetually landlocked photographers will see rushing water and nothing else. But you'll be able to pick out eddies, standing waves, upstream‑ and downstream‑V's — in short, all the elements in the glorious, structured chaos of a free‑flowing river. Use this knowledge. If you know where a paddler will be before he gets there, you'll be ready to frame the perfect shot. How? By making sure you …

Prefocus on the Crux of the Action.  It's likely that your camera's autofocus works surprisingly well much of the time, but action shots are the exceptions that will test this rule. Worse yet, autofocus often takes a couple of seconds to decide when things are just right. Those are seconds you don't have. So prefocus on the spot where you expect the action (and your subject) to be. You can let the autofocus do the job for you — you've got time; you're prefocusing — or give your camera's brain a rest and focus manually. This latter course may be easier for photographers who served their apprenticeships during the Age of Film, when autofocus technology was still in its infancy. If you rely on your camera to prefocus the shot for you, however, make sure you switch over from Auto to Manual focus when it's done its job. You don't want the camera hunting for the focus again, just as you're squeezing the shutter.

Now wait for your subject to find his way into the frame. Then, when the moment arrives, don't spoil things with camera shake. A tripod and a remote release (or an old‑fashioned cable release) are invaluable allies here.

Taking my own advice (for once), I used my knowledge of The River to catch this shot:

Between a Wave and a Hard Place

At high discharge levels, the current slams hard into an undercut ledge at the outside of a tight bend. And sure enough, every paddler who ventured down the run on this day had difficulty at that very spot. This guy had the hardest time of all, but I'm happy to say he made it through.

Is there any such thing as the one perfect position from which to frame a shot? Of course not. Each photographer will have her own ideas about perfection. A for‑instance: While I was planning a shoot at the brink of a falls, I noticed this woman on the opposite shore:

Getting Ready

She's set up a digital video camera on a tripod, and aimed it right at the spot where the creekers will be going over the falls. She also has a long lens mounted on the still camera around her neck. So far so good, but fortune was against her. The sun peeked out from behind a cloud just as the action began. Her subjects were now between her and the light. They were backlit, in other words, and backlight makes exposing water scenes even more problematic. The moral of the story? That's easy. Just …

Choose Your Position With Care.  Pick a spot where the light will work for you, rather than against you. If you keep the light at your back or over your shoulder, you should be fine. Of course, backlighting can be used for dramatic effect. But it always complicates matters, and you don't need complications when things are happening fast. On the day in question, I had the sun over my right shoulder. And I had stationed myself with an unobstructed view of the lip of the drop. It paid off:

Over the Top

By a happy accident, even the spectators got in on the act, giving my photos a sense of perspective they'd otherwise have lacked:

A Different Perspective

But other photographers preferred to shoot up at their subjects, from vantage points below the falls:

Ready for Anything

She looks well‑prepared, doesn't she? And I'm sure her shots turned out fine.

Situational awareness is always important in setting up a shoot. Not only do you have to keep track of the sun — and make your best guess as to what the clouds will get up to at the critical moment(s) — but you have to watch the trees, too. They won't drift into your shot, of course, but the wind can set them dancing, and even on still days, their branches can limit your field of view. This needn't be a problem, though. Just use any obstructing greenery to frame your photos, as in this example:

Hard‑Charger Framed

The guy in the shot is driving hard to make the setup for the next drop. The birch bough, far from being a distraction, actually helps concentrate the viewer's attention on the action. And speaking of capturing the viewer's eye, there's another trick that merits mention:

Pan That!  No photographer wants to see his work panned by a reviewer, of course, but panning is still a good way to win over some critics. The technique works best when your subject is moving laterally in a more or less straight line. Simply focus, track the paddler in your viewfinder or LCD, and depress the shutter, following through as needed. (Experienced wing shots will find that easy, though they'll have to check the urge to lead their targets.) This is one place where a slow shutter is a virtue, rather than a handicap: Try 1/30th or 1/60th of a second to begin with. Panning takes practice, to be sure, but once mastered, the technique highlights a sharply focused subject against a motion‑blurred backdrop. And even if the subject isn't in perfect focus, the resulting shot can still capture the speed and power of the water:

It's All a Blur

Sometimes even a failed shot is worth hanging on to. I hoped to keep this fast‑moving creeker in sharp focus, but as you can see, I couldn't manage it. I found the resulting (unintended) abstract image strangely appealing, however. It certainly evokes The River's muscle!


It's time for a few last words. Gear and technique are important, but safety always comes first.

There Are No Photos Worth Dying For

Location, location, location… It's all about location. Picking a good spot to shoot from is essential to getting a good picture. It's equally important if you value your skin. Moving water can kill, and cold, moving water can kill you even quicker. You don't want to be knocked into the river by a hapless spectator or a playful dog, do you? It happens. So when I'm setting up a shoot, I take my time, often bushwhacking into secluded spots where few clueless kibitzers are likely to go. Even then, I always brace myself against something solid. And if I'm at all concerned about the possibility of an unintended dip, I wear my PFD. Since rapid eye or head movements can sometimes trigger vertigo — Farwell once came within inches of plummeting from a narrow ledge while trying to keep a soaring hawk in view through a pair of Zeiss 10 x 40s — I sometimes rope up and tied in to a point of protection. A knowledge of knots is as much a part of the photographer's kit as her camera and lenses, after all.

On‑water photography warrants still more care. Don't get so absorbed in framing a shot that you slide over a falls while you're pressing the shutter! Nor are flatwater paddlers exempt from mishap. I've seen canoeist‑photographers capsize on dead‑calm bays when they turned round suddenly to snap a shot of a fast‑moving companion. Instead of getting the picture they hoped for, they ended up in somebody else's album. And there are few more pathetic sights than watching a man drain water from a $500 camera.

I Am a Camera

Whether you're a participant or a spectator or both, it's fun to capture your fellow paddlers on pixels as they run the rapids and dare the drops. What about you? Winter's grip on Canoe Country is already loosening. Are you hoping to shoot the action with your digital camera? There's no reason not to. And you won't have to drop big bucks on professional kit. It just takes a little know‑how. Plus a little luck. The rest is up to you.

If you have any action shots or photo tips you'd like to share, send 'em along to me. It's always a treat to see your work and hear your ideas.

Copyright © 2011 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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