By Dave ‘Scout’ Wortley
Part 1: Shooting the Action
You’re holding the camera, eager to take the shot, the kayaker is on the water about to drop in for their ride on a wave or down a waterfall. You look down at the camera in front of you, aim it at the paddler and hold down the trigger to try and catch as many photos as possible. There can sometimes be just one chance to do this; the drop might be intimidating or impossible to walk back up and run again, or maybe this is a competition ride or a moment of sheer luck where they get the move they’ve been trying for months. The moment is in your hands to capture.
Kayaking and photography naturally go together; it’s a visually impressive sport, which takes place in amazingly beautiful locations. Kayakers love to have photos as a record of achievement and to share their passion for the sport with kayakers and non-kayakers alike. One well-executed capture will more effectively convey the story and drama of the experience than a hundred blurry under-exposed close-ups.
As both a kayaker and a photographer, I’ve loved the opportunities that kayaking has brought me. I’ve been to destinations I never would have imagined possible, stood in locations that only kayakers can get to, and gained friendships all over the world that go well beyond the river.
When you’re the one holding the camera trying to capture your friends’ achievements on the river it can be quite a responsibility. You’ll often get cries of “Did you get that!?” after they’ve done something they’re proud of or have spectacularly messed up. You don’t want to have to admit, “No, I missed it”, or “It’s a bit blurry”. If you want to nail that shot you need to know your camera settings. You should be on a good setup for fast action shots, be able to adjust quickly and you need to know how to adapt to the ever changing lighting conditions that come with being outdoors in dynamic weather. It’s not just as simple as putting the camera on sports mode and holding down the trigger. You’ll either fill up the buffer in the camera before the paddler has got to the edge of a waterfall or you’ll end up with a bunch of photos which have all focused on the wrong part of the image.
On rivers you’ve never paddled before you have to balance photography with your own safety. Sometimes to get shots of all the group you have to be the first or the last to run a rapid with your camera gear on-board. Trying to make the most of these situation can be really challenging, for risky drops someone can line your camera bag down to you afterwards if you are worried about having limited safety set up. A good investment in a Watershed bag or Pelicase will protect your expensive gear and give you confidence to get to those unusual locations. Finding a new angle at an overly-photographed location might involve a bit of rock-climbing or wading, so be prepared to get wet!
Here’s some advice for shooting action moments; I’m using kayaking, but these tips apply to most dynamic action shots.
Get a DSLR with a high burst rate, you want to be at least 5 frames per second in order to get several shots in an action sequence. You don’t need the latest and greatest camera most DSLRs have a reasonable burst mode these days, shooting not at the highest quality can sometimes give you more buffer to play with.
Know the basics:
Know what F-Stop, Shutter Speed and ISO are, with these three things you can make any image effect. I’m not going to write a tutorial on this as there are plenty of them out there.
Lock your F-Stop:
I’ve found it’s often more important to get the depth of field right for a sharp image than getting the fastest shutter. You want a faster shutter to freeze the action but anything above 1/1000th is normally fine. I prefer to shoot with a not fully open aperture and boost the ISO up to get the shutter speed to be faster; this means shooting at F5.6/6.3 and ISO 400 to allow me to get 1/4000th shutter-speed. This way you get the best focus, sharpness and the action frozen in time at the cost of image noise; you can more easily remove the noise in post-processing than regain sharpness from a blurry image. As the light fades you’ve got to know what you can compromise on to get the best photo; would it be better to increase the ISO and be a bit noisier? Would a shallower depth of field be ok? Shooting white-water below 1/250th shutter speed will always be blurry so try keep it faster unless you’re doing it for artistic reasons.
If you’ve got a nice lens it can be quite tempting to shoot down at F2.8 for the shallowest depth of field. The problem with this is that it can become very difficult to make sure the camera is focusing on the kayaker. Drops of water thrown up into the air make big contrast points and cameras love to focus on these instead. I shoot mostly at about F4-F6.3 in order to give myself a margin for error for when the focus drifts.
With water and white-water you often get extremely glaring highlights reflecting off the surface. Even a flat pool of water can reflect light rather than show through to the beautiful colour underneath when you look through a lens. A solution to this can be to use a Circular Polarizing Filter. Rotating your polarizing filter from 0-90degrees will remove the glare and reflection, use this artistically to give your photos richer colours.
Help the Auto-focus:
When you’re framing up for the shot, you can quickly use the AF selection to make sure the AF is focusing where you want it to in the image. Most cameras will try to find the nearest thing in the frame to focus on, but with water droplets and rocks likely to be in the field of view this won’t always be the case. On the back of your DSLR there will be a button that looks something like this:
Holding it down and using the scroll wheel you can change which auto-focus points your camera is going to use. You may have to adjust this whilst shooting one ride as kayaks tend to move around quite a lot on a wave and in a hole. When you tell your camera where to focus it can focus quicker and you’ll be less likely to miss the shot. Try to look for contrast points where the auto-focus can do its job. The more your help auto-focus the more likely your shots will be sharp where you intended them to be, and the faster the auto-focus will react. If you are really certain of your framing and where the paddler will be on the river then you can manually lock your focus on that point; I often use the Live-View on my Canon to make sure I’ve got the image as sharp as I can make it before the paddler appears.
Work on your framing:
Don’t keep taking the same photo, no-one wants to see the same point of view 500 times over and you won’t develop your skills. Look for new angles, change lenses, change orientation, find an angle that no-one else would have thought to get. How close can you get to the action? Can you use a super-wide lens to include more of the surrounding landscape? How far away can you get and be zoomed in? What else can frame the kayaker; are there gaps through trees or bridges. Think about whether you really want to fully zoom in on the kayaker; capturing more of the river may add extra drama to the shot. Alternatively in endless play-boating cartwheels and blunts you might want to try zooming really far in to see the always amusing expressions your friends are pulling!
Chase the Light:
If you’re at the same spot for a long time, or coming back on multiple days, pay attention to where the light is and think about where the glare of the water is going to be. Back-lit kayaking shots can be artistic, but, due to how reflective water is, it can be incredibly hard to get the exposure right. Waiting for the sun to come through a gap in the trees with shadows and light to make the image interesting can be worth the wait, even if it just illuminates the boater and brings them out against the background of water.
Review and Edit:
Look through what you shoot whilst you are shooting, make sure you’re capturing good photos and review fully as soon as you can afterwards. Look for what worked and trouble-shoot what didn’t; what settings did you use? If something isn’t sharp, try and work out why it wasn’t. Post-processing on photos is essential, it’s always been there since the days of black and white film; getting it right in the dark or light room can bring extra quality of your image, if you’ve got a good base and can even improve a poor image to an extent.
Don’t overdo the colour corrections you apply an album looks better if the images have a similar look and feel. Whatever you do, don’t upload 2000 photos from one play-boating or river session; nobody will look through them all and you won’t get any useful feedback on what people like!
I highly recommend getting a software like Lightroom as it allows you to sort through your photos quickly. I suggest giving the shots you like a star rating which you can use to filter the session down to the best and easily batch-process the colour-corrections for the whole album.
I hope these tips help you to get better photos. The real secret is practice, practice, practice. Tips and tricks may help to inspire you, but you will only actually learn by getting out and trying them.
In the next part of this feature I’ll talk more about the artistic side of white-water photography that I specialise in. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/DaveWortleyPhotography and on Instagram: @daveWortleyPhotography
About the Author:
Dave Wortley is an experienced kayaker and has photographed the sport all over the world. He is best known for his film FUSE which received international recognition amongst outdoor film festivals such as the Banff Mountain Film Festival, but his real love is with photography.