“Lastingly successful art triggers audience responses that are ready to happen in the culture as a whole. Regardless of how perfectly a photographer’s work rends a subject, it is bound to fail unless it strikes that chord that elicits a common emotional and visual response.”
From Galen Rowell’s Inner Game of Outdoor Photography, Galen Rowell, 2001
The sunrise broke over the distant mountains. It broke across hilltops that swam in a deep white fog on a fall morning in the Smoky Mountains. The morning was cold and I stood with my small hand-me-down 35mm camera and shot a few pictures while shivering and try to hold my camera steady. Next to me, another photographer mounted a camera on top of his tripod. He shot several frames, switched lenses, shot some more, switched a lens, repositioned his tripod and shot some more. At the time, I thought, that he must be crazy for carrying a tripod into the woods. The extra weight couldn’t be worth it. I carried on with my hand-me-down.
Now days, I find that I’ve switched roles with that photographer in the Smokies. I never leave on a trip without at least two lenses and a tripod, several filters, a cable release, level, and who knows what other gadgets I’ll lug along. I look at those adventurers with just a camera and wonder if they know what they are missing; because I know when I get home, I’ll have great pictures and a worthy slide show that makes carrying the extra weight and the hassle worth it.
When you first start getting into photography, it’s hard to figure out let alone choose what gear to carry with you. What is worth carrying and why? And how does all this equipment work for the canoeist or kayaker who wants to record the adventure of a lifetime? This primer will answer those questions.
Is that a Camera in Your Pocket or Are You Just Happy to See Me?
There are many different types of cameras out there: digital, film, 35mm, medium format, large format, APS, Point and Shoot, SLR, DSLR, etc. The list could fill up the rest of this article, but for the average paddler the clear choice is a 35 mm system. We will concentrate on this system and ignore the medium format, large format, and APS camera sizes.
35mm SLR Systems
The 35mm SLR system is the clear choice for paddlers. It is a system that allows the photographer to buy different lenses that will work with his camera system. This allows a photographer to cover images from supper wide to super telephoto. The reason that other systems don’t stack up is that they just don’t have the quality or if they have greater quality, they are too much to carry along on any one trip. There is a point of diminishing returns on picture quality vs. the ability to capture the moment that is going to evoke responses in your audience – whether that audience is a room full of strangers or your friends and family. 35mm equipment allows you as the photographer to quickly change focal lengths to produce a broad vision of your surrounding or a zoomed up-close view of something in the distance. It allows you to do this in a matter of seconds, quickly, easily, and while carrying very little extra weight or bulk.
And a Point-and-Shoot
There are times when paddling that a simple waterproof point-and-shoot camera comes in handy. For example, when you are in large seas and want to show your audience the ferocity of the water. Or when you are in the middle of a Class III rapid. Or when the day has produced nothing but rain. With a simple point-and-shoot camera, you can easily pull it out, snap a shot, stash it back into a pocket, and continue on paddling. You won’t have to risk your expensive 35mm SLR system in extreme elements, and you can paddle away knowing that you have a shot that not many other people get. For our purposes make sure that that point-and-shoot camera that you buy has at least a 35 mm lens or wider and make sure that that lens is fast (fast means that the lens lets more light in). An f/stop of 2.8 or better is the way to go.
Just like film cameras, digital cameras come in a variety of flavors. You can purchase anything from point-and-shoot cameras to DSLR systems that allow you to change lenses. You will find though that unlike film Point-and-Shoots, most of the digital versions lack the ability to record the scene with enough quality to satisfy. The reason that this is true is that although these digital Point-and-Shoot cameras may have a high quality lens, the sensor that they use isn’t up to par with the ability of film to record an image. In the current point-and-shoot market, even when the same quality lenses are used, film is still number one.
Point-and-Shoot digital cameras don’t define the whole digital field, because the DSLRs are equal to or better than what is produced with film. This makes them a great choice for paddling photography. As a bonus for those who already own camera lenses, most of the DSLR systems on the market will work with your 35mm lenses.
A last note, to consider before you take digital into the field with you, is that they require several extras. In the DSLR world, the images that they make take up a lot of space on memory cards. With a 1 GB card, you can expect anywhere from 100 to 300 pictures. DSLRs also use a lot of batteries compared to a SLR. Also, in order to take more pictures after you fill up a memory card you have to save those pictures to a CD or a hard drive somewhere, so on a longer trip, buy lots of memory cards or be prepared to carry a laptop or other battery powered device to offload the pictures after you take them. Oh ya, don’t forget the extra batteries for those devices also.
What’s In a Lens?
When using a SLR or DSLR system, you will be presented with a ton of choices for different types of lenses, but you can cover all you need with three lenses, one from each of the first three categories, and maybe a couple of extras for fun.
Wide-Angle Lenses: 12 mm to 35 mm
Wide-angle lenses are great for massive scenic shots, shooting the typical bow of the canoe in the picture shot, pictures inside a tent, and portraits that include a view of the person’s surroundings. The best way to take a photo with a wide angle is to include a strong foreground that leads into a distant feature. These lenses tend to accentuate what ever is in the foreground by making it larger in the photo than the background. If you want to cover one focal length in Wide-Angle use a 20mm or a 24mm lens.
Standard Lenses: 28 mm to 70 mm
These so-called standard lenses are called so, because the closely project onto film an image similar to how our eyes see the world. These work great for scenic, portraits, shots of camp, and expedition activities. I find that a zoom in this range works perfect for most of the pictures in this range. If you want to save weight here, just buy the fastest 50mm lens you can find.
Telephoto Lenses: 70 mm to 300 mm
Telephoto lenses are the peeping Toms of lenses. They zoom in on a subject and make it larger in your viewfinder. These lenses are great for wildlife photography, people photography, and they are very versatile when paddling with friends. Although heavy, a 70 – 200mm f/2.8 VR (vibration reduction) lens is a versatile choice. Another lens that is very popular among paddlers is the 70-300, which is lightweight, but maybe a little slow.
Super Telephoto Lenses: 300mm and above
These lenses are large, heavy, and often used for wildlife photography. If you are into this type of photography, a 300 mm is often the most versatile. If you have the money, a new class is just emerging: the 200 – 400mm f/4 VR. This lens when combined with teleconverters is about as close as you can get to the perfect all around wildlife lens for mammals and birds alike.
These small lenses fit in-between a lens and your camera. They sit there and effective multiply the focus length of whatever lens is mounted. They come in several sizes: 1.4x, 1.7x, 2.0x, and 3.0x. When you add these to a lens, expect the quality to be reduced slightly and your lens will become slower. This is the price you pay for the added focal length. For example, say you mount a 1.4x multiplier onto a 300mm f/4 lens. This lens will now become a 420mm f/5.6 lens. It will also be slightly less sharp. Make sure that if you use these lenses, that you purchase the highest quality that you can afford. It will make a difference in the end.
If you like looking and tiny details and flowers, this lens is for you. A macro lens will record an image on the film that is life-sized or sometimes more. These lenses are super sharp and make a great all around lens too. A 105mm is about the best choice out there. They are plenty sharp, do 1:1 reproductions, and are light enough that you can hand hold them for taking pictures of insects.
The Digital Factor
Most DSLRs have a smaller sensor than a frame of a 35mm piece of film, and because they use the same lenses, the effective focal length of the lens gets multiplied. This will vary from brand to brand, but most are 1.5x. So, a 300mm lens on a digital camera becomes a 450mm lens.
This relatively new technology uses electronic sensors and mechanics to help remove the vibration from a camera. When activated the VR technology essentially stabilizes an image allowing you to capture a sharp picture in situations where that would have been impossible in the past. It probably won’t be as sharp as with a tripod, but it is much better than just handholding. This is very helpful for canoe and kayak photographers, because water movement introduces extra vibration into our shots, and there is seldom an easy way to use a tripod or monopod inside a canoe or kayak.
The most used filter by canoe and kayak photographers is the polarizer. This filter removes the glare and reflections from the water. It also turns the sky a darker blue and allows you to see into the water. A polarizer stays on my lens for most of the day, except at sunrise and sunset.
A second filter that comes in useful is an 81A-warming filter. This filter gives you picture a rose warm feel to it. It is very subtle and won’t be noticed by most of your audience. This lens is perfect for overcast days, because it removes the gloom of grey skies from your shots.
What Film Should I Use?
There are two choices when it comes to film, slide or print? The obvious choice for most everyone is print film because it is easy to show your prints to your friends and family, right? Wrong. The obvious choice is slide film, and this is true for a few simple reasons. Some of these reasons include better color, better contrast, greater and crisper detail, and finally, you can project your images onto any white wall, which will impress your audience. There is nothing like one of your great pictures projected onto a wall where all can see it. Also, you can make prints out of your favorite shots and you don’t feel too bad about throwing the bad ones away.
After you purchase all of your camera gear, it isn’t unusual to develop bad feelings about getting it wet or dropping it overboard, but if you don’t overcome this you will never bring home any great pictures. It is easy to develop a good system using 2 size 10 and one size 5 waterproof dry bags from Sealline to hold your kit. Before you get into the boat for the day try and make a choice on what kind of pictures you want to take during the day. If you want to take close-ups of wildlife or your paddling partners, then load a telephoto lens on your camera and put it into a Sealline Baja 10 bag, this is your day bag. If you want to capture scenic shots, then load a wide-angle lens on your camera and put this in the same bag. For an all around day, load a standard lens onto your camera. Make sure that your filters also make it into your day bag, and extra film. I shot around 3 rolls of 36 every day, so that is how much extra film ends up in my day bag. The extra gear and lens will stored in your other two bags. The size 5 dry bag works perfect for extra film and exposed film.
Where Should I Put My Day Bag?
For a canoeist, storing the day bag under the seat works best. At the portages, you can attach the bag to your portage pack, or just carry it across in your hands, which will keep it ready to catch pictures of anything you see on the portages – one of the least photographed parts of any canoe trip.
A kayaker should keep the day bag under the deck lines, so not to mess with taking the spray skirt on and off all day. The only problem that you will encounter with this is that the compression from the bungee cords with makes it hard to get the camera out during the day. The way to avoid this is to get a piece of 1/8″ hard plastic equal in length to the diameter of the dry bag and insert it into the dry bag. This will stiffen the bag enough so that the bungee cords won’t compress the bag, thus making it easy to get at your gear.
And when you take the camera out of the bag, make sure you put the strap around your neck.
What Type of Pictures Should I Take?
Every trip you take becomes a story if you make it one. Within the first couple of days, you can develop a theme that you are shooting and concentrate on that for the rest of the trip. For example, on a recent trip to the Yellow River, I concentrated on taking pictures of eagles. On another trip, I documented what it feels like to canoe and kayak a very small stream that is only runnable in floodwaters. Here are some ideas for you to take pictures of during a paddling trip:
- The trip to the put-in.
- Anything that the area is known for. For example, in the Boundary Water, I try to take pictures of moose, pictographs, and canoeists enjoying the trip.
- People. People. People. Take a lot of photos of your friends and yourself. Look for candid facial expressions, people by the water, people paddling. If you are heading to a trip where you will be going through towns, get pictures of the locals by the water or on the water.
- Campsites. Take a couple pictures of every campsite and campsite activities. I always have the camera around my neck at camp.
- Look for interesting details that stand out. These can be plants, abstracts, and pictures of ropes, anything that you can throw into a slide show that will add to the overall experience of your audience.
Make sure to take a shot of you and your paddling partners on the last day of the trip before you reach the take out. Every trip, no matter how beautiful, is always better when you develop good group camaraderie, and you should document this.
- Keep a journal of every day on your trip, so when you get back home and lay your slides out to look at them, you can remember where you took each shot and what happened that day. Don’t feel afraid to write on the slide mount.
I’ve Given My Slide Show And Now What
After you give your slide show and you know that you have some really great shoots, why not get some duplicates made and send out your images to some magazines. Most of the paddling magazines accept freelance submissions, and there is nothing more rewarding than seeing your picture in print in a magazine. Also, many of your local newspapers often look for interesting stories to run on the weekends. If you can write an interesting story and include a picture, you may get in print that way. The best part about getting into print is that you get paid for having fun.
A Fresh New Beginning
So, now you know all about camera gear, get out and purchase some. Take some pictures, show a slide show and enjoy coming home with great photos. You will never again miss that great foggy sunrise again, unless, of course, you sleep in.