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Paddling photography tips by Dale Mears – part two

dale mears photography

Composition and technique

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

When you are looking down your viewfinder and homing in on that image you have in your mind what should it actually look like? Do you aim in the rough direction and hope for the best? How could you improve your images? These are a few questions I used to ask myself. Since picking up a camera for the first time I have been lucky enough to get lots of pointers from experienced photographers and hopefully some of these I can share with you to help you improve your photography.

First I want to explain your camera set up…

In the first post I talked about what kit you may require depending on your situation and experience but talked very little about how to take a good photo. Hopefully this will help you. It’s all very well having a bottomless wallet and the fastest kit on the market but this isn’t going to help you take that killer shot.

dale mears photography

Most useful camera settings

I find most day to day shots of paddling I want to capture the action of a move or drop, that sudden moment to freeze time so that I can share it with others. Usually these are the shots you see cropping up on social media or in the big magazines. To do this I always aim to set my DSLR on Shutter priority mode this is indicated as a S on all Nikon models and a TV on Canon cameras. What this does is sets your shutter speed at the speed you require and the camera will do the magic and calculate your optimum aperture.

You have to think of an image being made up of a calculation between shutter speed and aperture (f-stop). Your camera will look at the shutter speed you set and calculate the correct aperture to let the right amount of light in (to achieve the perfect exposure) therefore making sure your photo is not to light or too dark. I find generally to freeze kayaking shots 1/500 of a second in shutter priority does the trick. However, if you find you start to lose focus this is because the camera is giving you a low f-stop (for most kit lenses this is around f3.5 or f4 on a telephoto lens).

dale mears photography

If you start to lose focus on the background and some parts of your image which you want in your photo you will have to raise the ISO setting on your camera. ISO is the amount of light let onto the sensor of your camera and if you remember older film cameras, you would choose the ISO of the film you bought prior to taking any photos. The higher the ISO the more light but as a consequence usually the more grainy the image. By raising the ISO number usually up to a maximum of ISO800 should be fine to allow your camera a higher aperture setting therefore more focus in your photo.

OK so to summarize, that’s a shutter speed of 1/500 aperture at around f6.3 ISO800 (or lower) would be my aim. On a sunny day you will find that you can achieve a higher aperture without raising the ISO.


dale mears photographyThe composition of your shot depends on what you are using your image for. If you want a magazine cover shot you will need to take your photo in a portrait orientation and consider what is around the image as magazines may want space around the main subject to put their headline content – so make sure your photo is not too busy. If it’s a good freestyle photo you’re looking for then you have a few options.

First option is to shoot wide and get in close to the action as this way the paddler will be the main focus of your image but you will also get plenty of the surroundings, other paddlers and spectators in the shot. This can really add to the atmosphere at events if you can get up close but this will often require you making arrangements to get access to the bank, where use of a buoyancy aid is probably required and a good strap on your camera, this is not the time to drop it!

Second option is to zoom in close and capture the main part of a move, maybe filling your frame with the paddler’s face, shoulders and their initial paddle stroke. This can often tell a very good story but if it’s facial expressions you’re after then get in even closer and catch the water splashing into the paddler’s face.

Try and think of where you position yourself at all times as one of my aims is to get a good range of different angles that will interest viewers of my photos. There are too many people who stand in the one spot and share their internet gallery on Facebook or other social media where you sift through 300 photos of the same view, with the same composition and the only change being the paddler. I don’t know about you but I usually find I give up after about three or four photos. Give the viewers a variety of perspective they haven’t seen before.

dale mears photography

If it’s white water

river running or creek boating you’re photographing, you have two decisions: do you focus on the paddler and the action or do you try and give the viewer the scenery to support the paddler. Often just zooming in on the kayaker you will lose the size of the drop therefore the viewer will have no idea of the scale. This is where the rule of thirds comes in. You may have seen many photos where the subject is off to one side or towards the top of the image. Well that’s because the photographer has used the rule of thirds. The principle is easy divide your frame into three and position the subject on one of the intersecting lines. The most common shot you see these days is the waterfall on the far right of the image, with the paddler heading over or down the drop and the first two-thirds of the frame filled with beautiful scenery. This shot allows the viewer the chance to take in the whole.

dale mears photography

POV action cameras

Now I have included this under composition and technique because of the developments in POV cameras and dare I say it drones. POV action cameras specifications are getting better year on year with a number of manufacturers producing a range of models – you can even grab one for under £100 these days – so how have they impacted on photography? Well let’s face it – who actually takes their DSLR on the water these days? Yes there are bags to carry them in the back of your boat but it takes time to get them out, get set up and oh wait I’ve missed it! Can you go and run it again?

POV action cameras are waterproof, small in size and let’s face it quick and easy to use, just point and shoot. Or are they? With advances in social media, the likes of Instagram have made POV cameras a great product to capture your adventures.

With POV cameras you have the opportunity to get new angles you never thought possible. Most manufacturers such as Contour, GoPro, Sony and alternates supply you with stick on mounts so you can mount directly onto most helmets or boats, paddles etc. If mounting to your helmet, be conscious that you may get part of your helmet peak in shot. I’ve seen some great shots mid-move by mounting a POV camera on a paddle blade, I’m sure you’ve all seen the clean blunt shot from the likes of Rush Sturges and a nice wave.

You can buy poles to mount your camera on the back of your boat to get a raised viewpoint, this is an excellent way to give the viewer a perspective of what it looks like to be there in the moment.

The selfie has taken over the world of the internet, so why not get a perfect kayaking selfie? Come on we have all tried it at some stage, popping a mount on your kayak and pointing your camera at yourself allows you to get some great shots in the middle of the action smashing through a wave, surfing a wave or even mid-drop. You can get a range of good accessories to help you these days. My favourite at the moment is the Joby Suction Cup. These attach onto any relatively flat surface where I’ve used mine on my creek boat, play boat, paddle and so far have had great success. They stick on well and allow you a range of new angles.

And don’t forget with a wide range of poles and monopods available you can stand on the bank above a drop or feature and get some great shots if you have a remote or use the time lapse settings.

dale mears photography

Other techniques

There are a few other ideas you can use these generally fall under post processing techniques such as converting an image to black and white, where often this technique can add a different mood to an image making it look completely different and with some careful processing you can really produce some sensational images in black and white. This can be quite trial and error so don’t expect it to suit every image and try not to over use it.

Another technique you may have seen is the use of selective colour. I use this when I want to promote a certain brand or piece of gear. Selective colour is when you keep a single colour and convert the rest of the image to black and white this can be used to emphasise part of an image I used this really successfully on a photo of James ‘Pringle’ Bebbington hitting a Lunar Orbit on the inlet gate at Nottingham’s HPP emphasising the blue colour in his hit and boat. I have also used it to take the viewers eyes off the background of an image or to remove the colour of water when the water is that lovely brown colour that gives us a funny stomach.

dale mears photography

My advice to anyone reading this is to go out and change the way you look at kayaking. Start to see new shots, and of course a great way to develop your technique and composition is to go out and practise. Look at magazine shots, websites and of course always be looking for new angles. Another great way to get feedback is to get your photos online via social media, that way you will get feedback on your best images. Just remember do not share everything! Be selective share your top 5-10 photos using a range of angles and techniques and people will remember you for those and not the 200 repetitive shots. If you do produce something you’re proud of don’t be afraid to send them to magazines, as they are often looking out for covers from your adventures or recent competitions.

More from Dale at
Twitter @DMPhotogrpahy

About thepaddlerezine (654 Articles)
Editor of The Paddler magazine and Publisher of Stand Up Paddle Mag UK.

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  1. Positioning, location and post production | The Paddler ezine

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