Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Tutorial: Basics of Whitewater Photography

First off, let me start by saying, I'm certainly not a professional photographer. I'm just a guy that really enjoys photography, especially when I can combine it with one of my other passions, like whitewater kayaking. Therefore, the following information is simply based on my experience, in the field, as well as reading though plenty of books and magazines. Furthermore, although you can take nice photos using a point & shoot camera set on auto mode, this info will be based on using manual mode, requiring you to understand and control the three basic ingredients of exposure -- aperture, shutter speed, and ISO (film speed).

Even though waterproof point & shoot cameras are convenient and very popular on the river, if you are serious about taking good photos, you'll need a camera with manual exposure controls – plus, nothing ruins a good shot like those damn water drops on the lens! Personally, I would recommend either a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera (MILC), like a micro four-thirds or Sony NEX, or a true DSLR/DSLT. These cameras will not only give you full manual controls, but also a larger image sensor (better image quality), and a full range of lenses to help bring more creativity to your shots.

I happen to own both camera types, a Sony NEX-6 and a Sony A57 SLT, and I like them for different reasons. The NEX is great for its image quality and exposure control in compact form factor, while the A57 has great focus speed and awesome rapid fire shooting, making it easy to catch that well placed boof stroke as your buddy comes off the lip. 

My camera selection

It's been said many times before, and I'll add my voice; "lenses are where you should invest your money". Lens selection will be based on the camera body/brand you select, but here are my favorite types of lenses for shooting photos on the river.

A few of my go-to lenses

  1. Fast mid-range zoom - I have a Sony 16-50mm f/2.8, which is my workhorse lens when shooting with the A57. The "fast" f/2.8 aperture allows me to bring in enough light to keep my shutter speed up and ISO down -- this is especially important while shooting in the Pacific Northwest, where light can be very limited, especially in the winter months. This is the standard zoom range, and although this is what a typical "kit lens" will cover, investing in a fast aperture version will give you much more exposure freedom.
  2. All-in-one zoom - If you’re only planning to have one lens, this is the lens you’ll probably want. These lenses will cover most range you'll ever need, excluding ultra-wide and super telephoto. Most start at18mm and go up to about 200mm or more. The main benefit to this type of lens is not needing to change it out while in the field, which is really nice on the river, where you'll be dealing with the elements, limited locations to shoot from, and the need to get setup quickly. This type of zoom lens is also great for video, so if you're planning doing a lot of that, you'll want to invest in one. The typical downsides are lower image quality and slower/variable aperture. I use a 18-200mm on my NEX, and a 18-135mm on my A57. 
  3. Ultra-wide zoom - Often overlooked by people just getting into photography, the ultra-wide zoom is one of my favorites, especially for steep creeking, where you're typically shooting in cramped quarters. I shoot with a Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8, and although the zoom range is fairly limited compared to others in its class, the image quality and fast aperture more than makes up for this.
  4. Fisheye lens - Although they're often considered a novelty lens, I have taken some of my favorite shots have come using a fisheye, and I usually have one with me on the river. These are great for getting really close to your subject, in this case the boater. For my NEX I use a 10mm fisheye converter attached to my 16mm, and for my A57, I use a Bower 8mm f/3.5. The Bower, which is also sold under other manufacturer names (e.g. Samyang, Pro Optic, and Rokinon), has a very reasonable price point for how sharp it is. The only downside is it only comes in manual focus, but at this focal length that’s really a non-issue.
  5. Prime lenses - The main benefit to prime lenses are their image quality, compact form factor, and their typically "fast", having a large maximum aperture. Even though I have more than a few of these in my arsenal, I rarely bring them on the river, since it takes some time to switch lenses, and I don't like exposing the innards of both the camera body and lens to the elements, with it being such a harsh environment. That said, and from time to time, I'll bring along my 85mm f/2.8 to gain a little more light when I want to shoot at a longer focal length.

Without using a waterproof camera, you'll need some way to keep your gear dry between shooting setups. The two easiest/cheapest ways are with a drybox or a drybag, both of which have their benefits and disadvantages. I’ll start section with dryboxes, since that's what I prefer to use. 

Dryboxes - Pelican is probably the most recognized brand, and for good reason, for their cases are bomber/battle ready. I've had a couple of mine for years now, and I've never had one fail me. The reason I prefer boxes are 1) it's super easy/fast to pack/unpack the camera in the case, and 2) they provide a good deal of impact resistance, in case you were to drop it, or send it over a large drop, solo, while in your boat. The downside is that it can be a little bit of a struggle to get it in/out of your boat, at least for the larger boxes. Also, they're not quite as space efficient as a drybag. As for case size, I use the 1150 for my NEX-6, and I use the 1200 for my A57; both of which will allow me to carry an extra lens (small to medium size) as well. 

Pelican 1150 with my NEX-6 & 18-200mm lens

Pelican 1200 with my A57 & 18-135mm lens

Drybags - Regarding drybags, Watershed is the gold standard. I have the Ocoee with the padded liner, which allows me to carry either of my cameras with a couple of lenses, or both cameras and one extra lens. I find that this bag is the perfect size for a day or two's worth of photo gear. Unfortunately, I don't believe you can still get the liner for the Ocoee, which seems silly to me since they still make them for other size bags. That said, you could either make your own liner and/or padding, or buy the larger Chattooga. Of course you can also use the ol' roll-down style of drybag, but they're certainly less convenient when trying to get your camera in/out. Also, I'm not sure I'm willing to trust hauling thousands of dollars worth of gear in them. To me, the big downside to drybags (any type), are their inferior impact resistance -- even with the padded lining, they just can't compete with the bomber design of a padded drybox. 

Watershed Ocoee with my Sony A57

Misc gear:
Rags - One other thing you'll need is rags to dry your hands off before and during shooting. I find that the REI or MSR small pack towels work fantastic, but a bandana or basic hand towel will work in a pinch. I find that it's best to pack these rags separately from the camera to reduce ambient moisture within the camera case/bag, which can be devastating to camera gear. If nothing else, put them in a zip-lock.


Desiccant canister - Basically, these little things extract damaging moisture from the inside of the space your camera gear is being stored – just like those little silica gel packets that come with all sorts of things. The great thing about them is they can be recharged (i.e. dry them out) by cooking them in the oven, or zapping them in the microwave if you have the plastic cased variety. I've actually just started using these, and only wish I would have done so a long time ago. Just simply throw one in your dry box/bag for a day on the water. 

Rechargeable desiccant canister
Controlling exposure using "manual" mode takes practice and patience, but it’s also very rewarding, and your efforts will show up in your photos. The problem with shooting in "auto" mode is that the camera makes the decisions for you, for which it usually has no clue as to how you're trying to compose the shot. Yes, most cameras have special modes like sport, landscape, or macro; but even so, they don't do as good of a job as someone who understands exposure. As an example, if the camera is doing the work, it almost always blows out the whites in the sky or water, which makes up some of the most important parts of the frame in whitewater photography. Also, how many times have you seen an otherwise great photo with the boater suffering from unintended motion blur? Basically, your camera doesn't know what shutter speed to use on its own. And finally, shooting in manual mode is just more engaging, allowing you to be much more creative – just like it’s more fun to drive a manual transmission automobile vs. an automatic...

Okay, so let’s break it down into the different exposure components, on a very basic level:

1. Shutter Speed:
As the name implies, this is how long the shutter stays open, allowing light to reach the sensor. Basically, the slower the shutter speed the more motion blur you will get in your shot. There are many situations where using a slow shutter speed is desired, like when trying to get that cool soft satin look of moving water (e.g. waterfalls), or shooting star trails. For sport photography, like whitewater kayaking, you'll typically want to use a fast shutter speed. I have found that using at least 1/500 second is necessary to freeze the action effectively, and if that is what you’re trying to do, the faster the shutter speed the better. That said, the faster the shutter speed, the less light is able to hit the sensor, so you'll need to adjust one of your other control(s) to ensure you still get the correct exposure. 

The effects of shutter speed

This photo was taken at 1/60 second. Note the motion blur of the water.
Since Loft was relatively stationary, he remains somewhat sharp.

This time I chose to freeze the action of both the water and Loft, with a shutter speed of 1/800 second

 2. Aperture (aka f-stop):
This refers to the opening size through the diaphragm blades inside the lens, which also helps to determine how much light hits the image sensor. The bigger the opening the more light is allowed through, but this also narrows the depth of field; in other words, how much of the frame is in focus. Conversely, the smaller the opening the more of the frame will be in focus, but will also limit the light getting through. Another thing to consider is that every lens has a "sweet spot", where it's the sharpest across the whole frame. When shooting in the relatively dark creeks and rivers in the Pacific Northwest, "fast" (large aperture) lenses are indispensable, allowing you to keep your shutter speed up and/or your ISO low. 

A very basic diagram which helps to give an understanding of aperture.
Note that it doesn't include the f-stops on the extreme ends (e.g. f/1.4, f/22, etc.)

This shallow depth of field was produced using a wide aperture of f/1.8

Here I was shooting at f/8, and combined with ultra-wide focal length, kept almost the whole frame in focus
3. ISO:
When talking about digital cameras specifically, ISO refers to the sensitivity of the image sensor to light -- the higher you set the number, the more sensitive it is. So why not just crank up the ISO as high as it can go, to capture the most light? Well, because, the more sensitive it is to light, the more noise/grain the photo will have. Luckily, there has been a huge improvement in image sensors in the last few years, allowing you to shoot at a relatively high ISO with minimal loss in image quality; however, it’s still best to shoot as low as possible for the best image quality. Often I find myself shooting at ISO 1,600 to keep up my shutter speed when it's fairly dark on the river, but I certainly would want to shoot with an ISO much higher than that.

This photo was taken at a really high ISO of 3200,
which greatly degraded the image quality of the shot

The histogram:
Probably your best tool for setting the correct exposure level is the histogram. You can also use the more simplistic light meter, which is that little gauge at the bottom of the view finder that typically reads from -2 to +2 – however, this only gives you a one-dimensional view of the light hitting the sensor. The histogram tells you the exposure makeup of the whole frame, in the form of a graph, which usually resembles a bell curve. Each vertical line represents a shade of gray, with pure black on the far left, and pure white on the far right. Without getting into a bunch of technical jargon, my standard rule of thumb is to push the bulk of the graph to the right, without pushing too much of it past the right border. What this will do is get you the brightest exposure without completely blowing out the highlights. One of the big benefits of shooting in RAW is that it enables you to bring back some of the highlight or shadows that show up as pure white or pure black – I do this in Adobe Lightroom during post processing. 

So, in summary, and generally speaking, try and keep your shutter speed at or above 1/500 of a second, set your aperture based on your desired depth of field, and keep your ISO as low as the other two will allow, while still getting the right exposure. And finally, learn how the histogram works, and use it!

Composing your shot
Now that we've talked a bit about exposure, it’s time to discuss how I go about setting up for and composing a shot.

Unlike landscape/still photography, you usually can't plan your shots around the best times of the day to take photos, the "golden hours". Although you will sometimes be limited on where you can actually setup, the best bet is to try and get the sun behind you (if there is any). What this will do is aim the light where you want/need it, on your subject. Of course rules are meant to be broken, and there may be times when you actually want to shoot into the sun – for instance, to get that cool silhouette effect.

Shooting into the sun produces harsh shadows...

...whereas shooting with the sun behind you puts your subject in the spotlight

You are often limited on the physical location you can setup, and you may only have a small little perch located at the lip of a drop. What this has led to is a plethora of kayaking photos that were taken from the exact same spot - heck, I'm just as guilty as taking these shots as everyone else. At the same time, I always try and challenge myself and find a different vantage point to take the photo from, and I have found that this effort has led to some of the best photos I've taken. Here are a couple of examples which show the standard shooting location, and one that folks typically don't shoot from, giving a dramatically different effect:

Here are a couple of shots taken for the same rapid, The Snake, on Upper Brice Creek, OR. The top shot was taken from the road, and basically gives the same view as what you'd get on the drive up. The bottom shot, which was taken from the lip of the drop, gives a more dramatic effect, and you can actually see how the drop gets its name.

Okay, now let's take a look at a couple of shots from Big Brother, on the Green Truss section of the White Salmon River, WA. The first shows Chris getting a great boof, which is about the only thing that saves this photo, since we've all seen this perspective thousands of times. By taking the shot from the lip of the drop, it's a much more powerful photo, and here, Chris hasn't even put in a boof stroke yet.

Field of view:
Another thing to consider is how much to include in the frame. My general rule here is to omit any part of the scene that I feel won't add to the overall mood I’m trying to present -- although when I'm doing my trip reports, I'll often include more of the surroundings than necessary to give a better idea of what drop looks like. One of the great things about digital photography is the ability to crop an image with only a few mouse clicks, but of course this comes at a cost, in the form of image resolution, so it’s always better to shoot at the appropriate focal length.


Here are two photos of the same section on Sweet Creek, OR. In the top photo, I used a narrow field of view to present a feeling of commitment, as well as highlight the concentration of the boater, in this case, Brian Ward. For the second, a wide field of view was used to show the intensity of the drop as a whole.

Rule of 3rds:
This is one of the most basic rules in photography. By dividing the frame into 9 equal parts, with two vertical & two horizontal lines, you create four intersection points in which to position your subject. This typically leads to a more interesting composition than centering the subject, but as with most other rules, it's meant to be broken from time to time. 

A great example I found on the internet

Using the rule of 3rds in the viewfinder of my camera, to compose this shot of Shawn

  Leading your subject:
Another general rule is to lead your subject, in other words, leave more of the frame in front of the subject rather than behind. This is especially true when photographing moving subjects. Just like the rule of 3rds, sometimes it's better to break the rule – for example, if you're trying to show the big ol’ drop your buddy just came through, both upright and in control!

Post Processing
Now that you have a bunch of great shots, it's time to give them a little extra punch. I shoot almost exclusively in RAW format and use Adobe Lightroom for my digital development. Furthermore, I'll bring them into a filter program called Color Efex Pro, which I use to really bring out the details. Believe it or not, I almost never use Photoshop, unless I'm doing some serious modifications, creating a sequence shot, or anything else that requires multiple layers to accomplish. What I’ll present below is the workflow that seems to work best for me, and achieves the look that I’m after – of course, yours may differ. If nothing else, this should at least give you an idea of what types of processing tools are available to use.

After firing up LightRoom and importing the photos I'm planning to process, I switch over to the “Develop” tab, and begin my workflow. Okay, for an example, I'm going to use a photo I took, which was mediocre at best, that I was able to turn into one of my favorite photos of 2012. Let's get started!

Here is the original photo. Taken on the Ohanapecosh River (WA), it features Dan Rubado dropping into Elbow Room. Due to the extremely difficult lighting, there was no way to expose this shot without losing parts of it to pure white and/or pure black. Luckily we have LightRoom, so let's see what we can do!

Step one - Adjust the White Balance
The beauty of shooting in RAW is that you can reselect a different white balance after you’ve already taken the shot. Therefore, I typically shoot with the camera set to "auto" white balance, and then use the "temperature" and "tint" sliders in LightRoom to dial it in. of course this can be somewhat challenging for me, since I'm a wee bit colorblind...

By using the white balance sliders, I was able to pull out the bluish cast

Step two - Adjust Exposure and Contrast
Increasing/decreasing the exposure is as easy as moving the slider left or right. As you become versed with using the histogram when taking your photos, you won't have to make much adjustment here. The biggest drawback to increasing exposure during post processing is that it also increases image noise, just like upping the ISO in-camera. Depending on your camera/lens combo and personal preference, you may also need to adjust the contrast slider.

The exposure was already centered, so there wasn't much I could do there. Instead, I dropped the contrast a bit.

Step three - Add fill light to the shadows and bring back "blown out" whites
The next sliders I use (in LightRoom 4) are Highlights, Shadows, Whites, and Blacks. This is the place to brighten up some of those shadows in your photo, or to bring back those blown-out whites, which typically occur within water or in the sky. These are probably my most used tools in post processing. Here are a couple of example of pre and post process:

Since I wasn't able to bring back the blown-out whites and blacks with the contrast slider, I went to work with the tone curve sliders. As you can see, these are much more effective for evening out the exposure and bringing back the lost pixels.

Step four - Export to Color Efex Pro
Color Efex Pro has numerous filters to spice up your photos, however, the only two that I use for my whitewater photography are "Tonal Contrast" and "Foliage". With Tonal Contrast, you have multiple sliders as well as a "contrast type" drop-down list, in which to adjust your image with; and finally, it has a saturation slider. Essentially what this filter allows you to do is add texture/detail, from a very subtle change to highly processed look – in fact, you can use this tool to simulate those cartoony HDR photos, which seem to be all the rage right now. As an example, this is the processing step that I use to bring out the texture of the water, which it's very effective at. As for the Foliage filter, it simply allows you to bring out the greens in the image, which usually takes up a majority of the frame when shooting in the Pacific Northwest. The key to both these filters is to strike a balance between making your photo pop and over processing it – Personally, I try and push the limit without completely falling over.

In this photo you can really see the power of Color Efex Pro. When I had reduced the contrast in LightRoom, the photo ended up a little flat, where Color Efex really brought back/added a substantial amount texture to the shot.

Step five - Sharpening and/or noise reduction
Sending the image back into LightRoom, the next thing I do is sharpen and add noise reduction as necessary. For sharpening, the only slider I typically adjust is "Amount", and for noise reduction "Luminance". Make sure to zoom into your image to see the changes occur, as both of these fixes can produce negative results if overdone. For this particular photo, I didn't need to do either of these two adjustments.

Step six - Framing the shot
Typically the last things I do are crop and/or add vignetting, but only if I think it will improve the overall look/feel of the photo. When cropping, I play around with the "rule of 3rds" as well as cut out anything in which I don't feel adds to the composition. By adding some "Post-Crop Vignetting", you can draw the viewer's attention to the center of the photo, by darkening the borders in a circular pattern. If I do add vignetting, I'll typically move the "Amount" slider to around -15.

The final product! Quite a bit different from the original, eh?!

Of course there are many other adjustments that can be made in both of these software programs, and I certainly use them from time to time; however, this was simply meant to give you an idea of my basic workflow.

So, there you have it -- my gear selection, basic shooting techniques, and post-processing workflow. As I stated in the beginning, I'm by no means a professional photographer, and there are many ways and opinions on the process of creating worthy photographs. In the end, like any other form of art, it's very subjective, and the main person you should worry about impressing with your photography is yourself. In conclusion, here is my short list of things which I believe will help you take better photos on the water:
  • Get a camera that has manual exposure controls, and learn how to use them.
  • Learn how to use the histogram as a guide for controlling exposure.
  • If you have/buy a camera with interchangeable lenses, invest in fast/sharp glass.
  • Get out of your boat to shoot photos.
  • Find a unique perspective, which probably isn't the most convenient!
  • Shoot in RAW format, and process the photos yourself, instead of letting the camera do it for you.
  • Take as many photos as you can, which is usually determined by how annoyed your buddies are getting...
  • And finally, remember that it’s just a hobby, so keep it fun!


  1. Well done Nate, you have put so much good information in this post. I too, have had a passion for both photography and kayaking and up till now have only been using a Panasonic waterproof camera for my kayaking. I have just purchased a Sony a77, but was not considering taking it kayaking until I read your post. Obviously the difference in the quality of the photos is not an argument, but now that you have explain your use of dry boxes I think I will give it a go when I am more formiliar with the camera. Also your steps with post production are very helpfull with your example. I have been using Photoshop, but ou have certainly given some good tips. Thanks again on a very detail article.


  2. great article. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and experience!

  3. Great writeup Nate, thanks for sharing this. A lot of good info in here!

  4. Even though waterproof point & shoot cameras are convenient and very ...

  5. Years later... I'm wondering if you tend to use larger apertures to get some bokeh effect or do you find you prefer the look of having the full frame in focus? I know, I know, the answer is probably "it depends..." or "do both" but if you had to choose one or the other which one would you choose most of the time?