A Boater’s Guide to Better Photos


River trips are full of special moments. Exciting rapids, stunning landscapes, cherished time spent with loved ones. Scenes can be magical, but what you see in front of you doesn’t always translate to a photo. Have you ever gotten home from a trip and been disappointed in your images? You aren’t alone.

It can be easy to blame bad images on gear, but there’s more to it than that. A little bit of knowledge can go a long way. Learning what to look for can help you get good photos in any condition.

How to Shoot at Noon | One of the biggest problems with taking photos on the water is the lighting. Many people boat during the middle of the day when the sun is brightest. This leads to harsh light with bright highlights and dark shadows. It’s harder to get good photos in full sun, but not impossible. Here are some strategies to help.

1. Utilize the Shade
One of the easiest ways to avoid shooting in the harsh sun is to find shade. Keep an eye out for whatever shade you can find. It could be a canyon wall, tall trees, or even a passing cloud in the sky.

2. Shoot Landscapes with the Sun Behind You
Taking a picture of the landscape is one of the hardest things to do in the middle of the day. With so much in the photo, it’s hard to avoid harsh shadows. One strategy is to shoot with the sun behind you—aka front lighting. This will produce the most even lighting possible.

3. Shoot Subjects with the Sun Behind Your Subject
If you’re looking to get a photo of a person or object, you can use backlighting. Place the sun behind your subject. This essentially creates shade for your subject and allows you to photograph soft, even light.

4. Keep the Sky Out of the Image
Dynamic range is a measure of how much the brightest spot in your image can vary from the darkest spots. This is a limiting factor in smartphones and consumer cameras. If a scene has too much contrast, the brightest highlights will be white and/or the darkest shadows will be black. Either way, it will have a negative impact on the photo quality.

The brightest spot in nearly every image is the sky. So, keeping the sky out of the image reduces the amount of dynamic range that’s needed and helps any sensor process the scene.

The best way to do this is to find a tall background or a spot above the water so that you’re shooting photos of subjects below.

Tips for Using a Wide-Angle Lens | Wide-angle lenses are found in both smartphones and Point & Shoot cameras. This makes them the most popular lens on the water. As their name implies, they’re meant to capture a wild field of view. That makes them great at capturing moments inside a raft or sprawling scenic views.

The downside of wide-angle lenses is that subjects will look farther away than they appear to your eye. This makes it hard to get close-up shots of boaters or wildlife.

Here are some tips to best utilize wide-angle lenses.

1. Get Close to Your Subject
Since wide-angle lenses make subjects appear farther away than they appear to your eye, you need to get really close to your subjects when using this lens. Don’t rely on digital zoom, move closer. (Don’t use this tip for wildlife. Wildlife is best photographed at a respectful distance with a telephoto lens).

It may not look like it, but my camera was just inches from Emily’s hands while taking this photo.

2. Use the Change in Perspective for Greater Drama
The fact that a wide-angle lens makes things appear farther away can be a creative advantage. Want the canyon you’re standing on top of to look as epic as it feels in person? A wide-angle lens can make it appear even deeper than it appears to you in person.

3. Pay Attention to Distortion
With wide-angle lenses, objects that are closer to the camera will appear noticeably bigger than objects that are farther away. That is something to be aware of when photographing people. A shot from head high will leave the focus on the face as the rest of the body falls away. Whereas, a shot from the hips could leave a midsection appearing unnaturally large.

With this image, I held my camera just above head height. Can you see how Ben’s upper body appears larger than his lower body?

Additional Tips

1. Use Bursts for Action
Half a second can make a huge difference when capturing action. One of the best ways to make sure that you get the shot is to use Burst Mode. Available on most smartphones and cameras, Burst Mode allows you to capture multiple images in rapid succession by simply holding down the shutter button. Capture an entire sequence then go back and pick your favorite image.

I use Burst Mode for virtually every rapid. It allows me to capture peak action.

2. Try to Include Multiple Layers
Multiple layers add depth to an image. They give the eye something to follow and make it more interesting. Look for a foreground, midground, and background. Include even more layers if you can. Or just use two. Try to consciously choose all the layers that appear in your photos.

3. Have Fun, Don’t Take It Too Seriously
Remember that you’re on the river to have fun. If you’re taking photos it should add to the experience. Experiment with what works for you. Ignore what doesn’t. Sometimes the best photos happen when you forget the rules and capture the moment. It doesn’t matter whether others like your photos if they mean something to you.

In this photo, multiple layers of rocks carry your eye from the foreground to the midground to the background.

Editor’s Note: Guest contributor Ben Kitching is an adventure photographer, climber, skier, and outdoor athlete. Adventures and expeditions evoke feelings of resilience, joy, heartbreak, and freedom. He captures those authentic moments and crafts stories that inspire people to get outside and strive for the best of their own capabilities.