Tips for On-Water Photography

This shot from Belize was on a particularly windy, stormy day, but instead of worrying about how dark that made it under the surface, I embraced it and balanced the two worlds—above and below water—in one shot.


There’s something about water that captures our imaginations. Some of us seek out water wherever we go, paddling across home state rivers, dipping toes in far-off seas whenever we travel, and peering out of airplane windows at blue lines crisscrossing the world below. Anyone who spends time outdoors has a special relationship with the places away from civilization, but watermen and women are different. We’re forever dreaming of the next dip in water, the next line we’ll run down a river. It’s our brand of adventure.

And part of adventuring in the modern age is documenting our exploits. But even the simple act of carrying a camera becomes complicated when you figure that our world consists of kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, skiffs and rafts. It’s no secret that water mixed with electronics is not a happy combination, but with a little forethought and planning it’s very possible to both carry a camera on your adventures and to actually use it while on the water.

Life’s about the adventure, and while I’d wholeheartedly encourage you to focus on the moment and not worry about capturing images for “the ‘Gram” and other social media time-sucks, documenting a moment can be a way to save it for yourself. As a working photographer who spends a lot of my time in admittedly distracting, incredible locations, I’m always caught between staying in the moment and doing what I’m supposed to be doing—capturing images for my clients. It’s a balance.

Thanks to modern technology, it’s possible to take high-quality images with the phone you carry in your pocket. It’s no longer necessary for casual adventurers to carry around the 20+ pounds of gear that professionals often must. Regardless of whether you’re shooting an iPhone or DSLR camera, the key to strong images is how you shoot, not what you shoot.

Whether you are an aspiring professional photographer looking to boost your skills or an outdoor recreation enthusiast with a penchant for the artistic side of things, here are ten things water-bound photographers need to remember.

1. Know Your Gear
Learn how your equipment works—be it a phone, a quick-shot camera, or a hefty DSLR. Spend a bit of time reading the owner’s manual, then leave the paperwork behind and get out to shoot. Take the camera with you everywhere; experiment with different settings in different light conditions. Shoot lots of images—the beauty of the digital era is you can simply delete the “learning” shots. Shoot enough that setting ISO, aperture, and focal length becomes second nature. When your friend is about to land the brown trout of a lifetime or preparing for that spicy drop, the last thing you’re going to want to worry about is a camera setting.

2. Get Out—Then Keep the Camera Accessible
Those are the two most important tips on this page. I’ve never had a picture published that I took while sitting on the couch. No matter how long or rough the day was, get outside. Great pictures are made when we step outside the front door, out of our comfort zones. Grab a cup of coffee, then load the gear and camera up. Even if you’re not even getting on the water, simply get to the river and the lake and look for a scene. There are always photos to be made and your mental state will benefit from the simple act of getting outside.

You can be in the most incredible setting, seeing the most amazing things, but if your camera is tucked in the bottom of your bag and not in your hand, it might as well be on the counter at home.

It’s easy to argue that keeping gear out, instead of tucked away nicely in a bag, is harder on it. It’s true. I’m wicked hard on my gear, but with proper cleaning and maintenance, it keeps up and gets the job done. Keep a bag nearby, so if conditions go south or you absolutely need to, you can stow the camera. But otherwise, keep it out. Keep it on your shoulder. In the organizer on the drift boat. Slung across your chest. Whatever. Good images never come from inside the bag.

I recently took a quick midday nap in camp during a fly-fishing shoot in Patagonia, and a friend photographed me, bundled up in waders and jackets, sound asleep with the camera next to me. And you know what? When I woke up, the camp dog was doing something I wanted to photograph; if I hadn’t had the camera with me and been able to pick it up and shoot, that shot would have been impossible. Keep your gear accessible.

This image was shot on a very hot afternoon in the Peruvian Amazon during a SUP first descent in the Madre de Dios Region. We were all tired, hot, and navigating some challenging water. When we stopped to make a plan for the next run, I grabbed the camera and tried to get honest expressions that captured what we were all feeling.

3. Invest in Good Camera Bags (or Boxes)
Building off what we discussed above, a solid, waterproof camera bag is going to be your best friend. Over more than a decade of shooting on water, my bag arsenal has evolved and continues to evolve with the unique demands of each individual shoot.

If you spend most of your time in a raft or drift boat, consider investing in a hard-sided waterproof case. I’ve used Pelican Cases on six continents, in both fresh and saltwater, and they are workhorses. I typically travel with two; one as a carry-on with camera bodies and lenses, and a second as checked luggage for my underwater housing and lighting equipment. Yes, hard-sided cases are heavy. They’re bulky. There will be a moment in time you regret bringing it along, likely when you’re hauling heavy gear up a hill on a hot day. But they are hearty and protect gear like nothing else.

I’ve been known to strap a Pelican case to the front of my SUP on river shoots (only if I know the river is slow and broad). I’m not sure if I’d recommend it, but it’s possible and makes for quite the mobile photo studio.

I also travel with a waterproof backpack which was not purpose-made as a camera bag, but I pirated a camera bag liner from another bag and slid it in the backpack to provide a little protection and organization for my gear. This set-up often comes with me on smaller boats or walk-in shoots, and it’s fantastic for carrying camera gear in third-world countries where the Pelican would be conspicuous—it doesn’t look anything like a camera bag.

Above all, keep the camera accessible, as talked about above. A bag is handy when rain comes or when water turns rough, but you won’t capture any images if your camera is sitting at the bottom of a bag when you should be shooting. Invest in a bag that you’re comfortable using; get to know the zippers, straps, compartments, and organize it how best suits your own needs. Keep the camera readily accessible; when good light hits or your friend hooks into that 22” brown, time is of the essence.

4. Consider Positioning. Move Your Feet. Look for Perspective.
Okay, so you’ve made it outside. Congratulations. But don’t just stand there and shoot from eye-level. Kneel. Climb something. Drop to your belly. Change the perspective, and don’t be afraid to get dirty. The eye gets tired of seeing the same thing from the same angle. You’ll be amazed at what a little positioning can do to spice up an image.

Are you fishing with friends? Ask them to not bring the fish in the boat for the traditional hero shot. Instead, lean over the side of the boat, keeping the fish in the water, and shoot creatively. Paddle day on your SUP? Straddle the board and shoot close to the water, or stand and hold the camera above your head for a landscape image. Go outside for a day and challenge yourself to not shoot a single frame at the traditional standing eye level.

5. Think Happy Hour (Light)
Nope, not the boozy one—I recommend leaving the camera at home if you’re heading there. Think about timing when you are trying to capture strong images. The best photographers spend most of their working time outside between pre-dawn and 10 AM or so, and then they’re back out from several hours prior to sunset until dark. Midday light is harsh… get out and shoot early and late. Your images will thank you for it. Enjoy an afternoon siesta—or your own non-photography activities—while the sun is high.

6. Explore Polarizing Filters
We’ve all had long, hot days on the water where all we can see is glare. Or maybe it’s a gray day and everything just looks tonal; the water is glare and the sky is mud-colored and there just seems to be nothing appealing about the whole package. And while sometimes poor light is just poor light, the addition of a polarizing or other filter can turn a bad-lighting situation into something workable.

A polarizing filter works like your favorite pair of polarized sunglasses, filtering out sunlight which has been reflected toward the camera at specific angles. Many polarizing filters currently on the market are circular polarizers, which means once the filter is mounted on the camera the photographer can turn the filter to change the level of polarization. (The next time you’re out in the sunshine with your polarized sunglasses, look to the sky and tip your head right to left. You’ll see a change in the level of polarization; a circular polarizer works the same way.)

A neutral density (ND) filter works well in bright light, modifying the intensity of all light wavelengths and colors equally, while giving no changes in hue. If I’m on the run all day in conditions not conducive to changing filters (extremely dusty desert, documenting a forest fire, or wade fishing a big flat, for example), I’ll still leave on a protective UV filter as protection. But if the light is nice and I’m looking for some enhancement, an ND filter or a circular polarizer offers an instant boost. Just be sure to pay attention to circular polarizers in bright, midday light—they can overly enhance contrast and work against you.

Shooting on your phone? Several companies now make attachable filters for your cell phone camera.

Sometimes you’ll be in an incredible place and the light will be awful. This image, shot in Peru in high, hot, midday light, was a challenge. The cliff face to the right cast half the river in deep shade, while the far cliffs and the remainder of the scene were overly bright and carried a lot of glare. With careful exposure and the use of a circular polarizer, I was able to balance the two to catch this shot below this rugged jungle bridge.

7.  Make Desiccant and Lens Cloths Your Compadres
Cameras are going to get wet; that’s a fact of life if you are around water. The key is minimizing exposure, taking care of your gear once you come off the water, and being ready in case a “dunk” happens.

I always travel with a fleet (sometimes as many as 10 or 12) tubs of desiccant. I leave two or three in each camera bag to help suck excess moisture away from equipment during the day, and in particularly hot, humid environments, I’ll lock all the camera bodies and lenses in a Pelican case with desiccant overnight to remove any moisture build-up. If you happen to get a camera wet, stick it in an airtight sack (dry bags are great for this) with all the desiccant you have. You’ve heard the old adage about sticking a wet phone in a tub of rice? Same concept. The desiccant (or rice) will draw the moisture out of the wet electronics. Make sure everything is turned off before you dry it out, and let it dry several days before attempting to turn it back on. (This method works well for freshwater. If you’ve dunked a camera in saltwater, consider it KIA.)

Lens cloths are also a cheap investment that’s going to make a world of difference. If you’re around water, cameras and lenses are going to get splashed, and while most modern cameras are somewhat weather-sealed, your images aren’t going to be much good if the lens is spotted. Keep lens cloths in your boat bag, camera bag, fishing bag, waders, jacket pocket… everywhere. (I find new ones every time I do laundry.) Keep them close and keep them handy.

8. Photograph People You Know
Photographing people: you either love it or you hate it. One of the most productive ways to get comfortable shooting subjects is to recruit your friends. Make it a mutually beneficial deal: they can model and, in turn, get a few images to keep. Make the most of friends who enjoy being in front of the camera, but also use photography as a tool to grow your “tribe.” Putting out a call asking for people to get on the water for a day is a great way to meet new friends with common interests.

At times, it can feel a bit like you’re a voyeur, looking on at something you should be part of, instead of watching from behind the camera. Be bold. Pick up the camera and, with your friends’ permission, make the image.

Tip: if your friends (new and old alike) take you to a “secret spot” they don’t want to be shared, respect that. Photograph the place in such a way that it wouldn’t be readily identified by the public. Don’t blow up your buddies’ spots.

9. Shoot in Your Own Backyard
Shoot what you know. This can mean literally that pond out behind your house, or simply your hometown wharf, local mountain creek, resident river… whatever is close and familiar. It’s convenient and comfortable (no traveling expenses or dealing with navigating a foreign country). Pick a topic and spend the summer photographing it.

I did this early on in my career and it was a game-changer; I moved to Craig, Montana, a small fly-fishing town on the Missouri River consisting of 29 year-round residents. I worked in a fly shop throughout the season and spent every spare minute either fishing or photographing fishing. It was a great way to develop my eye and learn what I liked to see through the lens, and most of those images were shot within 10 miles of the fly shop.

10. Find Your Own Eye
I’ve touched on this topic in a few different sections above. Every photographer will see a scene differently. One of my favorite things to do when teaching photography workshops is to line everyone up, first thing, before a nice scene. Sometimes we’re looking at a barn and mountains, other times it’s a long dock leading out to a saltwater flat. And, with no further instruction, I ask everyone to make three images.

Well, those images are all going to be pretty similar, right?

Not quite. After a few minutes, people start moving, start dropping to their knees or even spinning to shoot the scene from a new angle. Everyone is looking at the same thing, but they’re not seeing the same thing. And it’s beautiful to watch

Take the time to find your own eye. Shoot a lot, then take your images home and study them. Are there themes? Is your eye finding the same angles in multiple pictures? Find the shots that make you smile, then ask yourself why they make you smile. Then go make more of those.

Above all, don’t be afraid to experiment. Play with the camera—this is supposed to be fun! Some of my favorite shots of my career have come from experimenting. Shoot through grass at your subject. Bright, full sun conditions? Embrace it and over-expose the image slightly. Want to add a bit of motion to an angler casting? Slow your shutter speed slightly to get a bit of blur. Everyone will find their own trademark “look” in their photography—more on that later—and a big part of that is found when you’re willing to shoot outside the ordinary.

Editor’s Note: Guest contributor Jess McGlothlin is a fly-fishing and adventure travel photographer and writer based in Missoula, Montana. See more of her work at www.JessMcGlothlinMedia.com or on Instagram.