5 Tips for Photographing Whitewater Action
As an outdoor photographer, you probably find yourself continually searching for new locations to photograph. Maybe it’s an exotic location like the tropical rainforests of Costa Rica or the Polar Bears of Northern Canada or a wilderness adventure that will take you to remote locations.
I continually imagine the next photographic adventure to some beautiful landscape and still have many places I hope to photograph. But it was an adventure many years ago that changed how I looked at where I would go and what I would photograph: for fun and profit.
In the beginning I was strictly as a landscape photographer and that was all I was interested in. Then a new friend I met on a job invited me to raft Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River. My answer was ‘No problem, when and where?’
Seeing a chance for great wilderness scenery to photograph, I went fully prepared for anything I discovered in front of the camera. But as we spent our days floating along, I kept seeing scenes passing me by. Unable to get out of the boat at each spot and take a photograph, I was missing out. That was frustrating but I quickly learned that this was rafting trip and I should be photographing rafting when I was in the boat and scenic when I wasn’t.
Since that trip, I have rafted many rivers for fun and for assignment and that created my passion for whitewater photography. I went on to photograph not only rafting, but also some kayaking and canoeing and as my work began to get published more often I began to hire ‘boaters’ and kayakers to perform in front of my camera.
Like all niche subjects, water sports have a unique set of photographic challenges to capturing great images and so I have compiled 5 tips on how to capture great whitewater action.
Where to photograph from?
How you approach photographing whitewater action depends on the subject and whether or not you are a participant in that action. Rafting for example can be photographed from within the boat as a participant and from the river bank. I shoot both on every trip and use several strategies.
Having rafted and photographed three Grand Canyon rafting adventures, I learned early on that photographing from the river bank provided images that showed the canyon with a boat (or kayak) navigating the impressive whitewater. I zoomed in and zoomed out and it depended on what the white water action was like.
If the location was a massive rapid I normally zoomed into the boat to fill the frame with the boat moving through the rapid. Even better, was to zoom in so close that you could see expressions on the participant’s faces.
If the whitewater was less dramatic, zooming back and showing more of the river and canyon with a smaller boat as part of the scene, creates images that setup the story of the location giving viewers a feel for the location.
Using a 300mm lens from the opposite bank, I captured this raft getting slammed in Granite Rapid on Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. The image is all about the wave that hit them and shows the power of the river.
For this kayaker going over a waterfall, shot with a 70 – 200 lens, zooming in on just the kayaker and water would not tell as effective of a story as this composition showing the entire falls with a small kayak as part of the visual story.
Rafting, canoeing, and power boating also allows you to photograph while in the boat for an up close perspective. Kayaking less so because they is only room for one participant, so in this case, many kayakers attach a camera like a GoPro to the front of their kayak or to their helmet to capture their perspective.
Shooting from within the boat allows you closer access to the action and the ability to capture every moment of that action including the expressions on people’s faces. This view gives viewers an up close look at what it is like to be in that boat.
While rafting Oregon’s Rogue River in winter, wearing dry suits and thermal undies, I captured this shot of a paddler as we entered a large rapid. My back is to the rapid that is about to swallow us but my focus was on her. When I clicked the shutter a wave was coming over the top of me and it created a water vignette to the image.
On a Grand Canyon trip I wanted a ‘crows nest’ perspective to I brought along my old beat-up-barely works- tripod and strapped it to the back of the boat using a ratchet strap. Then I mounted an old – expendable if it had to be- camera and attached a homemade underwater housing (large Ziploc bag with hot-glued skylight filter) and remote release. Not much water would go that high up and ruin the camera but if it did I hoped the bag was enough. The result was a perspective not often seen.
White water is often like snow; hot white when the sun is on it and this can fool your meter. Especially if you zoom in on the kayak immersed in all white boiling water. When your composition is further back and showing the shoreline and even surrounding landscape, the camera will meter normally.
Establishing Exposure: To ensure a proper exposure, consider the brightness levels of the scene. Is there any shade across the river where the boat will pass through? Is it all boiling white water or a little white water mixed with darker water? The main point here is the water that is white and how much is in your composition. If is mostly white water, I will zoom back and meter the entire scene: stream, canyon walls, some blue sky, an average of the scene and set that exposure, then zoom back in.
This kayaker was immersed in boiling whitewater and the meter was off some because of that brightness. I am a big fan of taking test shots and evaluating the histogram and I do this before all the action starts. Here a +2/3 provided the perfect histo for the scene.
This is the same kayaker in another rapid a few days later and the water is brown; a result of rain far away the day before. I established that the metered exposure was perfect after a quick test and evaluate.
Shutter Speed: Usually when we think of shutter speeds for action sports, we think fast to freeze the action. That works well in the majority of cases because the fast shutter defines the moment. Occasionally however, you might want to experiment with a slower speed to create a unique version of an action photo.
In this example of a kayaker going over a 50’ waterfall, a fast shutter speed to freeze the action was really the only option. A longer speed would result in blur and the possibility of the kayaker disappearing in the blur. Here I used 1/500 at f/5.6 to freeze him.
On another trip, our boat was next to another raft and the light was flat and weak. While I could have gotten a fast shutter speed, I instead went for the blur look allowing the water to streak and the movements of the paddlers creating some blur. That blurring provides a sense of action and the movement experienced by the paddlers. This exposure was f/11 at 1/15th.
Here the kayker waits for others to enter the rapid before he does and it gave me an opportunity to capture motion creating an ethereal feel. The shutter speed was 1/15th.
Shooting Mode: While you might have your favorite shooting mode for most things you photograph, you might need to break free and try others to better guarantee good exposures. The whiteness of whitewater increases and decreases as the water flows and the position of the boater also changes as well and this may require using different shooting modes in different situations.
On some rivers with trees along the banks, shadows are cast across the water. Boats and kayaks might be in the sun and then in the shade making exposure accuracy a challenge. I use Manual mode and Aperture Priority and which depends on the situation. If the action is in the wide open and evenly lit across the scene then I prefer to meter, take a test shot, and set a manual exposure that does not change no matter where the boater is because the same bright light is hitting the subject as it moves along. That way I don’t get exposure fluctuations when there is more white water, then less as they float along and in manual, all exposures will be the same.
In the scenario of a smaller river with tree lined banks creating bright water areas and then dark shadows, Aperture Priority has worked better for me. If I used manual as just mentioned and favored the sunny areas when setting exposure, the shadow areas would result in very dark exposures. By using Av mode the camera adjusts exposure for the changing light.
Here is an example of that situation. This kayaker celebrates after running Crystal Rapid in the Grand Canyon. It is late in the day and when we arrive the rapid is backlit and much is in the shade as you can see in the background. I used Av mode throughout the scene and when he emerged from the shade I did a quick re-meter with half shadow and half sunlit water in my frame, and then pressed the exposure lock button to set the exposure. That was the best solution for this bright water.
Anytime you are photographing outdoors you are at the mercy of the natural conditions in most cases. The lighting can be perfect or it can be really bad like the above image. Whatever it is you must adapt and some things you can do to work with you have includes changing position, manipulating ISO, or using a flash.
Changing position is an option if you are on the river bank, but even that may not improve the lighting as it hits the subject. There are even fewer options while in the boat as your position is usually locked in.
Adjusting ISO is an option only if the weather is poor and lighting is weak and you need more shutter speed to freeze the action. That leaves flash as the only tool you have full control over. It is useful when lighting is bright and contrasty and when low and flat.
Here the sun was in and out of the clouds and it was contrasty. Boaters often where hats and this creates a shadow across the face that can be dark. Adding some flash fill can solves that problem.
Other times the light just might not be there or the sun has disappeared over the canyon rim and it is getting darker. You can add flash to brighten the subject up and you can also select a slower shutter and create some blur for the sense of motion.
Now that technique is covered, what about gear? There is a lot to choose from when it comes to cameras and cases and accessories. Starting with cameras and which to take depends on what you are shooting and how you will be doing it.
If you will be on the river bank shooting then standard dSLR cameras is perfect along with telephoto lenses to zoom in and out. You want a camera that will shoot fast at several frames a second and leave your AF on Continuous so it changes focus quickly for the moving subjects.
If you will be in the boat shooting you also need a camera that shoots fast, but a wide angle lens instead because the people will be close to you. I always preferred a fixed 24 mm lens due simply to the fact that when a raft is bashing through a rapid you want to hold on with one hand. That leaves one other hand to hold the camera so zooming in and out for me was never an option. The fixed 24mm seemed to have the coverage needed and is so much smaller than my 16 – 35mm zoom.
You also need a waterproof camera setup and there are many point-and-shoot cameras that are waterproof and perfect for water sports. I however, prefer to be more sophisticated in my setups and final output and still prefer a dSLR so I use the Ewa Marine Underwater Housing. They make a wide variety in various size for different cameras, lens lengths, and some allow a flash in the hot shoe.
I have used these almost exclusively for my in-boat shooting and they have worked very well. Do use a lens solution designed for scuba masks that prevent the water from beading on the front glass element of the housing.
On long trips I use Pelican waterproof cases for my gear and take an older tripod that I don’t mind sacrificing to the adventure as in filling with sand.
Whitewater action photography is a blast! You may find yourself shooting along a nearby river for a few hours or on a grand rafting vacation and being prepared for all conditions will insure better photographs!
Have you been there and done that? Please leave a comment.