8 Canoe and Kayak Photography Composition Tips

Kayaking in the surf.

Using good compositional techniques can turn a boring picture into an interesting one. These photography tips will help give your canoe and kayak images pop. Next time you go paddling try these and see the difference they make. They will make your kayak expedition photography or canoe expedition photography pop.

Canoe and Kayak Expedition Photography Composition

The following eight tips are just a few of many. Think of them as techniques that you can use to accomplish a goal similarly to how different paddle strokes move your canoe or kayak in different ways. Use a tip when it works, but discard it when it does in favor of something that works better. You can click on the photos to see a bigger version.

Rule of Thirds: Imagine dividing the image up into a tic-tac-toe board, like in the image below. Use the division to divide the photo into unequal parts, like two horizontal divisions of water and one of rock. Keep your primary subjects, such as the kayaker in the photo, on the lines. Each of the intersections are powerful points in the photo that draw a viewer’s eye, so if you put the subject there it’ll be a more interesting photo.

Paddling towards the sea caves in Crystal Cove.

Leading Lines: Leading lines are diagonal lines in the photo that lead the viewer to wherever the lines point. Use them to make the viewer look at your subject, or by pointing them at the horizon to add depth to your photo. In the below photo the canoes are diagonal and point off into the distance giving the feeling of moving forward. The vegetation in the foreground points towards the canoe.

Paddling on the Kelso River through lily pads. Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, MN.

Focus: Use focus and a blurred background, called shallow depth of field,  to draw attention to the most important subject in your photo. Here, the most important part is the stove and boiling pot of water.

Cooking with a homemade Penny Stove.

Perspective: Changing the photo’s perspective by taking the picture below or above eye level creates an interesting angle that most people never see and add impact to the image. In the first photo, I got down low to change the perspective and in the second I got up on a cliff and shot down.

Canoe in the BWCA during the fall.

Canoeing past a snowy cliff on Mink Lake.

Fill the Frame: If you have a specific subject to emphasize — all photos need an identifiable subject — zoom in close to the subject and fill the frame completely. In the example below, I filled the frame with the crossed paddles to show them off and make an interesting detail shot. In the photo at the head of this article, the filled frame shows the kayaker’s expression when he’s hit with a big foam pile in the surf. The second photo below zooms in on the corners of tents to show how tight the camp space was and the interesting colors and shapes.

Two Sawyer Paddles crossed in a Wenonah canoe.

Tents in a tight campsite.

Frame the Subject: Use something, such as trees, around the edge of the photo to work as a picture frame. A picture frame works to keep the subject’s eyes on the photo, and you need to replicate that with this technique. The example uses the Tettegouche State Park arch, now collapsed, to frame the kayaker and the cliff face of shovel point.

Paddling through the Tettegouche sea arch on the way to Shovel Point.

Active Space: When you’re photographing something that’s moving, like a canoe or kayak, it needs an open space in the photo in front of it, so it looks like it has someplace to go. If there’s no open space, the movement may take boat out of the picture and the viewer with it. In the below photos there’s enough space between the paddler and the side of the photo to give the boat space to move into. The viewer knows where it’s going.

Canoeing on a calm stream in snow.

Kayaking on Lake Superior.

Interesting Foreground: In landscape photos, fill the bottom third or two-thirds with something interesting and eye-catching. A good landscape combines three elements, something interesting in the foreground and a mid-ground that leads the eye to an interesting background.

Kayak on a Lake Superior ice pan. Grand Marais, MN.

Photography Exercises

Exercise 1: On your next paddling trip — no matter how short — take one or two pictures using each of these techniques.

Exercise 2: Check out the below photos and figure out what compositional techniques I used. Also, look at the above photos to see if I used multiple techniques.

Lake Superior kayaker under a waterfall.

Inside of a biadarka sea kayak.

Dolman in the Boundary Waters.

Bell Magic canoe in the BWCA.

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