Shooting From Canoes And Kayaks; Gear, Prep, And Image Ideas

It's not every day that your eyes are opened to a whole new world, but that happened to me in August of 2004. A friend suggested we take our sons on a canoe trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. Not one to miss an adventure, I quickly agreed and we made the arrangements. Although not a photography trip, I took my camera and tripod along and, on the third day of our outing, had the opportunity to paddle off on my own to photograph a rapids area we had passed earlier in the day. As I was photographing I started thinking about how exploring this area would not be possible without paddling to it, and then I started looking at all the surrounding areas that were only accessible with a canoe or kayak. Well, needless to say, I was hooked.

Island In Namakan Lake
Island in Namakan Lake at sunrise, Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota. This was my reward for paddling six hours in the rain as discussed in the text. This island and the sun lined up beautifully from a vantage point on the shore, so I was able to set up my tripod and shoot from solid ground. Voyageurs National Park is open to all types of watercraft, so I shared the water with plenty of motorized boats as well as other canoeists and kayakers. (Canon EOS-1Ds, Canon 70-200mm f/4 L lens, Gitzo tripod, f/14, 1/250 sec.)
All Photos © 2007, Clint Farlinger, All Rights Reserved

My biggest concern when photographing from the water is keeping both the camera equipment and myself dry. I use a Pelican watertight case for my equipment and a bike chain to secure it to the canoe. Fortunately, I haven't yet capsized with my gear on-board, so the reliability of this setup remains untested, but from the research I've done, it should do the job. When I'm paddling in familiar waters and am confident that rough water or other dangers are not a threat, I keep my gear sealed in Zip Loc baggies inside my regular camera bag sprayed with Scotchgard's Heavy Duty Water Repellent. I doubt this would keep anything dry if actually submerged, but it does the job for keeping rain out.

I use a Duluth Pack, a canvas pack made specifically for canoeing, rather than a backpack for my non-camera supplies. The Duluth Pack is heavy canvas on the outside with specially made heavy-duty plastic bags, intended for one-trip use, on the inside. These bags have kept their contents dry without fail on my trips.

Flowage Into Winchell Lake
Flowage into Winchell Lake, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Superior National Forest, Minnesota. This beautiful cascade is located along a portage going into Winchell Lake, approximately six hours of paddling and portaging from the entry point. (Canon EOS-1Ds, Canon 28-70mm f/2.8 L lens, B+W polarizing filter, Gitzo tripod, f/20, 2 seconds.)

As for my person, I use a quality GORE-TEX shell coat that can go over whatever I'm wearing. A coat like this is versatile and can be worn during warm summer rains with just a T-shirt or during cold autumn rains with a sweatshirt or two underneath. A light pair of waterproof pants that goes over whatever I'm wearing is a necessity, and these nylon rain pants have helped keep me dry in some pretty extreme conditions, such as the time I paddled six hours in a heavy rain. If it weren't for taking my map in and out of my inside coat pocket, I think I would have stayed dry for the entire trip even in those extreme conditions. As it was, however, I stayed dry for the first four hours.

Sandals seem to be the best choice for footwear, unless the temperature gets cold, then rubber knee boots work well. Footwear is important because the cardinal rule when canoeing and kayaking--not to be confused with the unspoken law "don't stand up in the boat"--is "don't try to keep your feet dry," and wearing sandals takes away the temptation to keep the feet dry while getting in and out of the canoe/kayak, thus tremendously reducing the chances of a spill. The last time I tried to keep my feet dry while getting into a kayak I spent the entire morning wet from my shoulders down.

North Hegman Lake Shoreline
North Hegman Lake shoreline, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Superior National Forest, Minnesota. A relatively short paddle with only one portage (between the parking area and the launch site) makes this an easily accessible area in the Boundary Waters. There are ancient pictographs painted on this cliff face less than 40 ft to the right of where this photo was taken, and they were my destination on this outing. However, I was so taken with this cliff that it became my main photographic subject. The only place this composition worked was from the canoe, so the Image Stabilization feature of this lens made the difference in being able to get this photo. (Canon EOS-1Ds, Canon 28-135mm IS lens, B+W polarizing filter, f/8, 1/40 sec.)

The camera gear I use during these outings is the same as I use on dry land, except that I replace my favorite traditional lens with one that has Image Stabilization. Many of the best compositions, especially when photographing a lake, come from inside the canoe, making a lens with Image Stabilization a great asset. That said, I get out of the canoe to photograph in shallow water or along the shore whenever possible, so I can still use a tripod. My newer carbon-fiber tripod gets quite temperamental when wet, and the legs will take weeks to work smoothly again after being submerged, so consequently I opt for a metal tripod that I can take completely apart and dry thoroughly.