Photographing from a Kayak

By Chuck Graham Back to


Some of my most memorable experiences with nature take place within my kayak. I can reach coves, beaches, rock outcroppings, and other locations otherwise inaccessible on foot, and paddling stealth-like makes me more acceptable to wildlife that would flee in most other situations. I’m also a photographer, so my two pastimes eventually went hand-in-hand.

Shooting from a kayak offers photographers access to unique landscapes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve hiked to a high spot on a island and seen a potentially beautiful islandscape from above, only to become frustrated be- cause I had no means of getting there. In a kayak, much of that frustration is eliminated.

For me, that means access to more sea caves than anywhere else on the planet at the Channel Islands National Park, off the coast of Santa Barbara, CA, where I work as a kayak guide. The archipelago is honeycombed with toothy grottos that make for great silhouettes with paddlers or wildlife in the frame. Many of the sea caves inhabit pinnipeds and seabirds that need to haul out to rest or roost inside. Keep in mind that wildlife has the right of way inside caves, so paddlers should remain silent in and around sea caves and other venues where nature has the right of way.

Sea and wildlife

I use a sit-on-top kayak called a Dolphin, with two water-tight storage compartments and plenty of space for multi-day trips. I keep my camera gear in my lap at all times, always at the ready. I use a clear dry-bag (a special waterproof gear bag available at outdoors stores) to keep my equipment dry. I can see what I want to grab through it, and keep a small towel inside the dry bag to quickly dry my hands if, say, a harbor seal or a common dolphin breaches next to my boat.

Positioning myself in a kayak is often the greatest challenge when a photo opportunity arises. Say it’s a flock of California brown pelicans on a craggy sea stack. I don’t want them to get nervous and fly away, so the challenge is to keep them feeling comfortable while maneuvering in for a good composition. In my experience, wildlife is more likely to stick around if I stay a safe distance away, then approach slowly while paddling deliberately, thus not creating much noise or splash. Always use a paddling leash to connect your paddle and kayak—a wave of helplessness will arise if you finish shooting and find your paddle has drifted away from your kayak.

The other concern is sea conditions. When the water is rough, it’s harder to maneuver a kayak, keep it steady, and maintain a composition while also accounting for camera shake. In more challenging conditions, I throw one leg each on the port and starboard sides of my kayak. It doesn’t completely stabilize the kayak, but it’s a big improvement when arranging gear and shooting. It also allows me to lean forward and sit lower in my cockpit, an added edge when shooting intimate images of nature at sea level.

Shooting from a kayak

California brown pelicans on Scorpion Rock, Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park. Canon EOS 630 and 300 mm IS lens on Velvia 100 F film.

Due to wind, swell, and current, the required shutter speed fluctuates with the situation. The more turbulence, the faster shutter speeds should be. I find that 1⁄125 second is fine if there’s very little water motion; I’ve even gotten away with 1⁄60 second if it’s completely still. But if it’s choppy and I’m trying to shoot two elephant seals brawling on a deserted beach, I need 1⁄1000 second. I’ve gone as fast as 1⁄2000 second panning a flock of pelicans soaring in formation during choppy conditions. In challenging conditions it’s best to mix shutter speeds because it’s really hard to gauge what’s required when the kayak is tipping back and forth. An image-stabilizing lens comes in handy too.

A monopod is an option, but I handhold almost everything shot from my boat. Once again, steadying the kayak is key: you can lie down and brace your elbows against its side rails or your knees for better stability. Just like the best lighting conditions, best (i.e., calmest) wind conditions tend to be in the morning and late afternoon.

To get the best images, observing a specific subject’s habits is essential. During a easy paddle at Elkhorn Slough in Monterey Bay, CA, a southern sea otter continued surfacing on the port side of my kayak. Every few minutes it surfaced with a clam and used another clam to crack open its shell. The otter was easy to follow, because its trail of discarded clam shells were visible at the bottom of the slough. I knew that its voracious appetite meant it would resurface until it was full.

Shooting from your kayak will add another dimension to your nature photography, offering an entirely different light on subjects previously photographed only from shore.

About the Author

Chuck Graham
Chuck Graham is a freelance writer and photographer living in Carpinteria, CA. His work has appeared in Outdoor Photographer, Shutterbug, Nature Photographer, Men's Journal, Backpacker, Canoe & Kayak and The Surfer's Journal.