White water photography
Iboutdoor‘s first guest post, from Carrick Armer of P.Y. Photographic
This isn’t so much a technical “how to” post as a fairly vague “how I do” post, really. I’d like to think I’m a decent enough photographer. I’ve managed to get the elusive combination of luck and skill right to produce some images I’m pretty happy with over the years, and it led me into an interesting world of Adventure Sports photojournalism, mainly for the SleepMonsters adventure racing website. Over the last few years I’ve covered a bunch of Adventure Races, kayaking events, trail runs and Ultramarathons, including several Adventure Race World Series events and three World Championship finals. I also, very satisfyingly, have taken lots of pictures for the University Canoe Club I paddle with and had some used on their website and Facebook page. Both the larger and lesser of these are great things to me. I just like taking pictures.
Like I said, I’m not going to try and teach anyone the complete basics of photography on here, but just delve into the way *I* shoot certain things. I’m not going to get too techy, there’s a whole world of books and magazines out there for that side of things. These are just things I’ve found out over the years that work for me.
There’s a few times in this post where I’m going to contradict myself. There’s a good reason for that: ‘Rules’ in photography are more like guidelines. Knowing the ‘Rules’ lets you compose things properly and competently; breaking them lets you create images that can be unusual, striking and occasionally awesome. Whether or not you want that is up to you, what you’re shooting for and what you (or any client, if you’re working for someone else) want out of it. If you’re a photo-boater for a commercial rafting company, you probably don’t want arty stuff, you want sharp, regular, deep images that show your clients having fun/looking terrified. If you’re just shooting your mates running drops, your brief is your own, though be prepared for your mates not to understand or appreciate the ‘arty’ shots and moan at you for not getting a clear shot of their deck grab/brown claw/crash and burn. Yes, that’s happened to me before…
The arty stuff. Be prepared for your friends not to understand.
Lighting and reflections on a river can be tricky. Shots of paddlers in bright sunlight can often end up looking burned out, with massive bright water bits with a really dark paddler in the middle, so look carefully at where you’re shooting from and where the light is. Don’t always try and even exposures out completely in post-processing, though, Sometimes, that burned out (or ‘high key’) type image can work well as an atmospheric effect. Highlighting a paddler in a patch of light (on, say, a river in woodland or a deep gorge) can be really effective, look at where light and shadow areas fall and try and get people to paddle into specific patches of light if they’re on a good line. Oh, and a circular polarising filter can help cut down glare and even the exposure out if you’re shooting an open river with a lot of reflection.
Filey Surf. A bright but hazy day, shooting mainly into the sun, made for a nice High-Key effect, though conventional wisdom would say this was overexposed.
Fast shutter speeds get you the pin-sharp ‘frozen’ images, but if the lighting isn’t right, they can be very dark Sometimes you can get more of a sense of speed and movement into a shot by slowing the shutter down, panning with the moving person and maybe sticking a burst of flash on the end of the exposure (Slow Sync or Rear Curtain flash). It’s sometimes tricky to get right, but that will give you the movement trail behind the person, with them picked out by the flash burst. This works best for relatively close-up shots, at longer distances either you lose the flash range or the panning action is too exaggerated and you lose too much detail. If you’re ever shooting mountain bikers, this works really well if you position yourself on the inside of a corner and shoot with a wide-angle lens, that way, they’re leaning towards you and the view trail leads your eye to the person. This technique is harder to do with paddlers, though, unless you can find a shooting position close to their line.
Verdon Canyon Ultramarathon. Slow shutter speed and panning from above to convey movement. Not the shot I’d intended but one I like nonetheless.
Cranking the aperture wide open, and using fast prime (non-zoom) lenses really shortens the depth of field, that patch of in-focus stuff, and blurs out backgrounds really nicely. All of the big camera manufacturers have a 50mm f/1.8 lens (the ‘nifty fifty’) which is usually pretty cheap (under £100), light, fast, and well worth getting hold of. I make sure I go ‘back to basics’ every now and again and shoot a trip solely on my 50mm to force myself to think about the various photographic elements and take the zoom out of the equation. You may have to stand a bit further back to get wide shots, but the lack of zoom lets you concentrate on the ‘holy trinity’ – shutter, aperture and ISO – rather than constantly tweaking the zoom and reframing the shot.
River Fournel, French Alps. Shot on a 50mm, this meant crouching down in a bush well back from the river and shouting at people to crouch down and get out of my shot!
Unlike IB himself, I prefer not to shoot ‘Continuous’ mode unless I absolutely have to. The camera bodies I use at the moment can shoot 6 frames per second which can (note: ‘can’, not ‘will’) increase the chance of getting something *good*. In my view, that can also increase your chance of missing something *awesome*. I prefer to try and anticipate the action and take one or two shots rather than 10 or 12 in a burst. If you’re a paddler shooting paddling, you can understand and anticipate what someone’s going to do, where the boof stroke should be, where they’ll crank the boat over and carve a turn, and that helps. Try and visualise the action and shoot the points that you think look best in your head. That understanding can also help with avoiding the classic paddling shot problem: the paddle right across the face
That said, and here’s another fine contradiction, sometimes there is a good reason to shoot a continuous burst:
River Leven, Cumbria. Shooting a burst without moving the camera made creating this line sequence easy.
Consider your angles, objects that frame the person you’re trying to snap, visual lines that lead through the image to the object or person and the balance of the shot. On drops, look for people on take-off or in mid-air. If you’re shooting from high above, use the river as a lead-through line, or to balance patches of light or shade. Shots don’t always have to be a full frame of a person in a boat, giving some space around them, and therefore context, tells the story of the image a whole load better than just a close-up.
Composition is sometimes hard on paddling shots as we’re restricted as to where we can be, unless you want to risk getting the camera wet by shooting from the boat or perching on a rock in the middle of the river. Sometimes the best shot positions are awkward to get to, and sometimes there’s a really well established place that everyone takes shots of a specific drop from (the Upper Tees and the Etive are prime examples), but I often try and choose the awkward one if it gives me a chance of a more interesting shot. Perched on a rock, the middle of a bush, a bough above a trail, and nuts-deep in a river are all places I’ve been to get a different camera angle. Even just crouching or lying down rather than standing can change your perspective on a shot dramatically.
River: Souloise, French Alps. After the portage of l’Infernet, paddler above the normal get-in, photographer still on the portage.
Basically, take your camera out and just play around, and remember paddling isn’t just about the drops themselves, look around for other stuff to add some ‘arty’ to your galleries – kit hanging on fences, boats on the ground at a getout in some awesome scenery, wildlife as you’re driving to the get-on, some of the history and the landscape around where you’re boating, not just people in boats. They won’t generate the Facebook ‘likes’ that pictures of people’s faces do (I say this from experience!) but they set the scene and give a sense of completeness to a gallery. And hey, it’s your gallery, so the world is your lobster. (I don’t like oysters. Too much like fishy snot…)
Glen Carron in the sunset. A favourite shot from a week’s paddling in Scotland at New Year.
One last thing, though: Get out there and have fun with both your shooting and your paddling, but don’t let camera duty stop you running the drops yourself – push yourself to run stuff first, THEN take pictures. You look like a double badass that way…
Carrick ‘Pyro’ Armer works as freelance adventure sports photographer and wordsmith. For more of his work, check out P.Y. Photographic