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Paddling photography tips by Dale Mears

dale mears photography

How to use this to shoot these.

dale mears photographyStep one of a three part series on the tips and advice on how to shoot top notch watersport’s photography. By Dale Mearsdale mears photography

Photography for most can be a minefield. With new cameras coming out every few months, it’s becoming harder to decide what to buy to meet your needs. You have to ask yourself one question; what do I want a camera for? Close up action shots of the latest moves, your paddling buddies dropping off a sick waterfall in beautiful locations, lifestyle shots on that big adventure you are heading out on this year or maybe even to capture your clients on a recent training course. Well hopefully I can give you some pointers and advice for your perfect set up.

Me; I got into photography after a trip to Norway with friends, we left with nothing but a video camera between us, a foolish move! I still think back to the sights we saw and the fun times we had along the way. Ok so we had camera phones and a few point and shoot cameras… cough… even with today’s advances in technology point and shoot cameras and mobile photography still can’t compete with a Digital SLR. Action Cams hadn’t really taken off and even still these have their limitations.

dale mears photography

Luckily Ric Moxon and Monika Gokey who joined us on the trip had a DSLR. I had seen them before but never really thought about buying one until that trip, the quality of the photos was unlike anything I’d seen before. I got home and started saving – I had to have one of these cameras. I bought one within a couple of months and then the learning curve began.

I didn’t know what I was buying so I tried a few in store and went on the fact that one felt nicer in my hands than the next and the rest was history. The past five years have been a massive learning curve. I now find myself being askd by a lot of paddlers what should I buy? Well there is no easy answer but hopefully in this segment I can provide you with some food for thought.

1st camera

Let’s start with buying your first camera. Expect to pay between £400-600 (UK) for an entry level set up. For this kind of money you should get a DSLR with lens and most online retailers or camera shops will offer you deals, which include an SD or Flash card (to store your photos) and a battery. Shop around as it can be much more rewarding than buying online where you can’t try it.

My advice for anyone starting out is to speak to your friends and find out what they use, it’s always good to be able to try other peoples’ lenses and maybe even buy their old ones. Entry level DSLR cameras often have limited features that most will not need for the first year or so until you get used to your gear but the most noticeable thing I found was that cameras at this level take less frames per second –usually around three. If you want to take multiple bursts of action then ask yourself is three photos per second fast enough? I quickly found out that this was not enough when capturing freestyle kayaking. An entry level DSLR is also most likely to be manufactured out of plastic which can be light and often feel cheap. If you want a lightweight slightly smaller size DSLR for carrying around then go for one of these.


Do not get hung up on the megapixel size you won’t notice the difference. Most DSLR will come with full HD video capability these days so you should be fine to film with all DSLRs. Canon for the moment seems to have the edge on Nikon for filming, but Sony have some great offers too.

If you have a bit more cash to play with and you want to invest in something that will last you a bit longer then the second option is to buy an intermediate DSLR. Expect to pay around £600-1500 (UK). An intermediate camera will provide you with a little bit more for your money, expect a few new settings, about 6/7 frames per second and a much higher build quality.
Some models in this range will feature a part magnesium alloy body with much stronger, heavier, weather proof qualities.

Obviously if you are on the bank and want something a bit more hardwearing that at worst can take a few knocks through heavy use then these will be for you. For your extra money also expect to get faster autofocus, more autofocus points, a higher megapixel rating and better noise control.

Both entry level and intermediate DSLR cameras are DX format. You may have heard of cropped sensors, which basically means the DX formats have a smaller sensor allowing the manufacturers to make the smaller, lighter cameras. An FX (full frame) sensor is larger in size and this is better as it achieves more light gathering information and therefore features less image noise.
If you do have some more money you can always opt for a pro level camera but expect to pay anything from £1500, as recently both Nikon and Canon have both brought out more affordable full frame (FX) cameras. If this is you, you shouldn’t really be reading this! Expect better quality images, faster performance, larger image size, sharper images and the list goes on. If you do buy a full frame expect to pay more for lenses and accessories.


You may have heard people talk about the quality of their glass; a camera lens is a very important part of your set up, just as and in fact in some ways more important than the body itself.

dale mears photography

Most entry level and intermediate cameras will come with a kit lens usually 18-55mm; these are cheap due to a small focal range. The larger, more unusual the focal range then usually the more expensive. If you want a single lens to take with you in your kayak or canoe consider an 18-200mm. As our eyes see at around 50mm the 18-200mm will give you the ability to shoot a wider angle shot and zoom in on that all important detail from afar.

A common lens for the entry level photographer to combine with their kit lens is the 70-300mm focal range, ideal if you are wanting to zoom in close to the action, not so if you want a nice wide shot. Lenses that offer you these focal ranges are often referred to as zoom lenses or telephoto lenses and are ideal for action photography.

If you buy an entry level or intermediate camera one thing to watch is that due to the cropped sensor the actual focal lengths of the lens will not be accurate. In fact you must multiply them by the crop factor. Nikon has a 1.5x crop factor so a lens that states 18-55mm would actually be 27-82.5mm. A 70-300mm (105-450mm) and so on. Most use 1.5x or 1.6x crop factor and charts can be downloaded online if you’re too lazy to do the maths.

You can also buy prime lenses; these have a fixed focal range and offer no zoom. The most common is the 50mm these prime lenses offer sharper images and usually much better colour. They are also a lot faster.

When buying a lens consider the speed of it. People often refer to the speed of the lens being fast or slow based on its maximum aperture when compared to similar focal ranges; basically a larger aperture (smaller f-number) will let more light into the lens allowing you to take the same exposure at a faster shutter speed.


I generally do not use a tripod and shoot hand held but it’s always a good idea to have a tripod if you want to film or have a long lens you struggle to hold sturdy. I always carry a Joby Gorillapod Focus with ballhead X combo, these flexible tripods are so versatile – I can throw it in my bag, it’s lighter than a large tripod, easy to carry and can be wrapped around rails, posts etc. and therefore can be used in many different scenarios. Pictured is the top of the range model but there are smaller models that are suitable for DSLR such as the SLR Zoom, which can hold up to 3kgs. I can’t recommend them highly enough.


Memory cards

When buying a memory card check to make sure what your camera will take. Some will take SD cards and some manufacturers use flash cards. The only thing to consider is the size you require and the speed the card can be written to. Aim for a 10 speed which is up to 45mb/s this will ensure your card can keep up with your camera.


dale mears photographyThe last thing you’re going to need is a good bag; I recommend a bag for general day-to-day purposes and a waterproof bag to carry your gear on the water. For land-based activities check out Lowepro for some great quality bags, there are many manufacturers but I have always preferred Lowepro as their bags are well built, have excellent features and most come with a waterproof cover if it’s wet.

For taking on the water the most popular amongst paddlers is the watershed dry bag range, these are high quality, which have been proven to be very watertight. I’ve seen and heard of paddlers throwing these bags down waterfalls when portaging drops and grabbing them at the bottom.

Lowepro have also recently released their Dryzone range and I am currently using a Dryzone 20l. This is suitable to take on the water and offers far more padding for your gear than the Watershed bags. I guess as with anything this is down to personal preference so check out both options. Don’t forget to try them for size first to make sure you can get them in your boat!

I hope this has taught you something new or maybe spurred you on to make a purchase. Photography is great fun and really does go hand in hand with paddle sports. Capture your adventures your way, and make sure to share your results with everyone on Facebook and other social media sites.

More from Dale at
Twitter @DMPhotogrpahy

About thepaddlerezine (655 Articles)
Editor of The Paddler magazine and Publisher of Stand Up Paddle Mag UK.

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  1. Paddling photography tips by Dale Mears – part two | The Paddler ezine

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