Photographing wildlife from a boat, whether it be on a lake or the open ocean, is one of my favourite ways to spend a day with my camera. Large bodies of water always provide a rich, diverse environment, and the fact that you are silently floating through it often means that you can get closer to many species then you’d ever be able to if you approached by foot or by vehicle on land. This kind of photography is not without its challenges though, so I’m going to draw from my own experiences and share ten tips that will help you safely get the shots you’ve always dreamt of from the water.
1 – Choose your Boat Wisely
In many places you’ll have a choice between different tour companies with different styles of boat, and some larger companies will have two types of boats to accommodate the requirements of all customers. This might not be true if you’re floating around amongst icebergs in Greenland, or somewhere similarly remote, but if there’s ever a choice of boat captain/tour operator, you can be sure there will be a choice of boat.
From a purely photographic point of view the smaller the boat the better, especially when it comes to wildlife photography. Smaller boats are lower to the water and for land-based animals the resulting images are often at eye level which gives them a much more intimate feel. If you’re looking for whales, dolphins or other ocean-based creatures, a lower boat will give you more of an opportunity to get some background in the photo to give it some context, because your lens angle will be closer to perpendicular with the ocean surface instead of looking down from from a greater angle.
Small boats do have their downsides though. Apart from the obvious fact that you can’t escape the natural elements if the weather turns on you, a smaller boat is also much less stable in choppy seas. If the water isn’t flat calm and you think seasickness might be an issue, a larger boat might be a better choice for you. In very rough water, the added stability of a larger boat also gives you a better chance at getting sharp photos if you’re working in lower light levels with longer shutter speeds.
I’m very thankful that I have never suffered from seasickness, and at least at this stage in my life, with my current level of fitness, I’m happy to take my chances and fight the roll of the ocean to try and get a sharp shot on a rough day from a small boat. You definitely have to be prepared for your keeper rate to drop a little though, and if you’re working with very large lens it can be quite a physical activity.
On a rough day in a RIB or smaller Zodiac, you’ll also have to pay close attention to the water protection that you give your camera equipment. Whilst it might seem like it offers the best view, the front seat will also be the one that gets the wettest as your captain battles through the swell. By comparison, a larger boat will be a much more comfortable experience, offering you shelter from from the spray and the rain whilst you travel greater distances, and a more stable viewing platform once you find what you’re looking for. Those that have a history of seasickness should also note that larger boats will have a washroom, where smaller boats clearly do not, so your only option there will be to feed the fish directly.
2 – Choosing the Right Telephoto Lens
In the cramped confines of a small boat I find it easier to work with slightly smaller and lighter lenses than you might perhaps choose if you were working out of a safari vehicle in somewhere like Africa. With no room to set up a tripod, you’re going to have to hand hold any lens you choose, and do it in less than stable conditions. For Canon photographers, the perfect lens is the Canon 400mm f/4 DO IS II. The diffractive optics design keeps it small and easily manageable, and it’s also tack sharp with the 1.4x extender, and very good with the 2x. This gives you 400mm, 560mm and 800mm in very compact setup! Nikon users will be pleased to see the upcoming 500mm f/5.6 PF lens when it hits the market, as this lens also uses a phase fresnel lens design to achieve a similarly small design to the Canon 400mm DO II. I have tried working with longer, larger and heavier lenses, but it’s that much harder to hold them for prolonged periods that my keeper rate is noticeably lower. Aside from factoring the weight of a lens, the physical size is a consideration as well when you have someone sitting right next to you and want to point the lens in their direction.
After a lightweight 400mm or 500mm lens, my next choice would be a 100-400, or the 200-500mm if I was a Nikon shooter. These lenses are also easy to manage, and a zoom lens is particularly useful when your subject is moving towards you and you can’t manoeuvre the boat to back up at the same pace. I actually carry my 100-400mm with me even if the 400mm prime lens is on the camera, and one of the reasons for that will be discussed in the next section.
With any of these lenses, the zooms or the lightweight primes, you’ll also have a much better time of it if you have the opportunity to photograph birds in flight as they zoom past your boat. Wildly pointing a 600mm lens at the sky and trying to track fast moving birds, hand held, is an exercise in frustration. The same lightweight and physically smaller lenses that lens themselves so well to photographing the shore-based wildlife, will also be perfect for birds.
The lenses mentioned in this section aren’t an exhaustive list, but hopefully it gives you some clues as to what might be best for your camera system. If you don’t have quite the right lens, I recommend renting one from someone like LensRentals.com if you are embarking on a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Whichever lens you end up picking, make sure it has image stabilization!
3 – Trading Focal Length in Rough Waters
If conditions look a little rough and the boat is going to be rolling about on the waves, you should also consider the question of focal length vs. keeper rate. On a rolling ocean it’s incredibly hard to point a long focal length at a specific point because the angular velocity of your view is increased along with that focal length. Every tiny motion from the boat is exaggerated through the viewfinder and the entire frame is changing constantly. Photographing anything specific with a 600mm lens on a rough day is nigh on impossible, but you might just get something by shooting in the 200-400mm range if you work hard and don’t get yourself too frustrated by the challenge. For wildlife photography this might meant that you need to shift your focus from close-up portraits, to environmental portraits.
At the same time, you also want to make sure you leave yourself a little room in the frame to crop and rotate images once you get them onto your computer. A level horizon is essential if land is included in the image, but keeping it level whilst your rock and roll over the waves is an added challenge. It’s more than likely you’ll have to rotate the image when you edit, and if you want to maintain the same aspect ratio then this means that the edges of the frame will be cropped. Including compositional elements close the edge of the frame is likely to result in problems this way, so shooting 10-15% wider with your focal length is a good idea.
For the same reason, I find a zoom lens to be a useful tool on a rough day because you can easily adapt your focal length for all of the considerations mentioned in this section. It also means that you can grab wider shots to get something ‘in the bank’, and then zoom in quickly to try your luck at getting something sharp with a tighter composition. On a rough day, a lens like a 100-400mm is a truly excellent choice for wildlife photographers.
If you’re on the water for landscape photography opportunities with a wider lens, this won’t be such an issue for you, although you’ll want to make sure that you increase your shutter speeds to combat that motion and get nice sharp images. Remember from the exposure triangle basics, that you’ll have increase your ISO if you want to increase your shutter speed and still maintain the same aperture (and hence depth of field).
4 – Stabilization Techniques
Keeping your camera steady on a boat is of great importance, but you can’t rely on a tripod or a monopod as you would do on land. Not only is it very unlikely that there will be space for larger support accessories, but they also directly transfer the boat’s movement to your camera which will more than likely result in a softer image. With a bit of practice though, the human body can do a remarkable job of dampening out the movement of a boat. The most important thing to remember is that you need to remain a little supple, not totally rigid. On land when we’re hand-holding a big lens, the best technique is to lock up and turn yourself into a solid tripod of sorts. On a boat though, you need to try and feel the rhythm of the water beneath you, and absorb that motion from the bottom of your body upwards. Counteracting first with the lower extremities of your body, then your core/torso, and then your arms. If you have a choice and aren’t shooting a surprise peak-action moment, then it’s also best to take the photo as your boat is on the crest of a wave or at the bottom of the trough. At these two points in the boat’s oscillation it will be moving much slower in the vertical direction, and you’ll have a much better chance of getting a tack sharp shot.
It might seem counterintuitive, but if it’s safe to do so, I actually prefer to stand up in the boat so that I can use my legs to absorb a lot of the motion before it gets to my camera. Obviously you need to be sure its not so rough that you’re going to topple out of the boat though, and you also need to make sure that this doesn’t ruin the view of your fellow passengers.
If the water is far from flat then as I mentioned, you don’t want to be using a monopod in the traditional way because it will just transfer the boat’s motion to your camera. However, if you’re working with a very heavy lens then it can be useful to take the weight off your arms and shoulders between shots. Wildlife photography is always a waiting game and if space is limited on the boat then it might not be possible to easily put the camera and lens down anywhere safe between shoots. Indeed, some smaller boats might not even let you bring a large camera bag with you at all. With a monopod, you can use it between your legs to take the weight of the camera and lens while on the search for your next wildlife opportunity. Then when the time to shoot comes, your arms, back and shoulders will be fresh and you can lift the monopod up off the deck to isolate yourself and the camera from the boat’s movement. This is the point where your core strength comes into play and you put into practice the technique that I mentioned in the previous paragraphs.
I don’t bother with this when I’m using a shorter zoom lenses but I have used it on longer days with larger lenses. I’ll take any advantage I can give myself! There’s no sense fighting arm and shoulder fatigue on long days if you don’t have to.
5 – Talk to your Captain
This wouldn’t be necessary if you were on a specific multi-day photographic workshop, but if you’re jumping on a smaller boat for a one-off trip then it’s worth talking to your captain to let him know that your primary goal is photography. Once you encounter the landscape or wildlife that you’re looking for, they might be able to position the boat in a way that offers you some additional benefit. You might also find that they have some suggestions about where to sit in their particular boat in order to get the smoothest or driest ride.
In the past I have found that if you approach a boat holding a huge super telephoto lens, these conversations happen naturally. As long as it doesn’t negatively impact the experience of other guests, most captains will be more than happy to try to help you get what you need. After all, they would love you to come back again sometime!
6 – Don’t Leave your Wide-Angle at Home
If your primary goal is wildlife photography, I’d still recommend carrying a lens that is at least as wide as 24mm on a full frame camera something like a 24-105 or a 16-35 is a great choice. Wildlife is unpredictable and the image above is a great example of that. On a whale watching tour in Canada I was happily photographing more distant grey whales with a telephoto lens, when another one suddenly surface next to our small boat and began to rub itself along the hull! Getting a close-up shot o a barnacle covered whale like this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that would have been photographically wasted if I hadn’t had a wide-angle lens with me.
A wide lens is also great for storytelling images that include your boat within the frame. If I publish a series of wildlife images taken from a boat, I like to include at least one or two shots that give the viewer a little more of the story from that adventure. The viewer will have more of an appreciation for the fact that the images were taken from a boat, and also get a feel for the wider environment you were in.
7 – Use the Water to Help your Story
If the wildlife you’re photographing is actually on land, don’t just focus on tight portrait shots that give no indication of the coastal or lakeside environment around them. Shimmering water, waves and reflections are just a few of the interesting elements that can be added to the foreground of your photos when working from a boat.
8 – Best Ways to Carry your Camera Gear on a Small Boat
As I mentioned in the previous section, you might find that smaller boats simply don’t have room to accommodate regular backpack style camera bags on board. Having encountered this many times myself, I think I’ve perfected the solution by using a bag from Think Tank Photo called the Change Up. The Think Tank Change Up is technically a belt pack, but it can also be used as a shoulder bag or even just as a camera insert to go into a larger pack.
When I’m on a small boat and holding my main camera and lens in my lap, the Change Up is just the right size to hold a couple of extra lenses, teleconverters, batteries and other small accessories. What’s really useful about the belt pack design is that it has a huge buckle on a waist belt. I use this belt to secure the bag to the boat, either strapping it to the back of the seat in front of me, or to ropes that usually run around the perimeter of the boat. The bag also comes with a full chest harness, so you also have the option of strapping it right onto yourself in rougher weather, or in a situation where you need to be able to quickly jump in and out of the boat. You could also use a small shoulder bag such as the previously reviewed Think Tank Retrospective, but I must say that I do like the ability to strap the Change Up to the boat with that waist belt.
Importantly, I also take an empty 30 litre ultralight dry bag with me which is stuffed into the back pocket of the Change Up bag. This dry bag, from Sealline, is large enough to protect both my camera and the Change Up itself if weather and waves start to make things really wet. You might find that your boat tour provider has a collection of dry bags for customer use, but I still prefer to carry one with me just in case.
9 – Camera Weather Protection
Whilst I do have the aforementioned 30 litre dry bags to wrap things up if the ocean is too rough, it’s also a good idea to have a rain cover for your camera so that you can keep shooting in wet weather. Having tested many camera covers here on Shutter Muse over the past years, I’ve narrowed the choice down to two very different covers that should cover everyone’s acceptable price points. Firstly there is the Storm Jacket series from Vortex Media. These are cheaper, ultralight covers that don’t have a back to them. This open back design means that controls are easy to access, LCD screens are easy to view and the price is kept to a minimum. They’re also small enough that you can stash them in the pocket of any camera bag and simply carry them around ‘just in case’. For not a huge amount of money, they are a massive step up from a garbage bag.
On the other end of the spectrum of simplicity you have the Sport Shield series from Aquatech. Available in four different sizes, these covers are made from ultra durable waterproof materials with taped and sealed seams just like a high-end hiking jacket. Unlike the simple Storm Jackets, they are fully enclosed around the camera body and a camera-specific eyepiece is used to form a watertight seal. As well as protecting your camera, there’s also openings for both hands to give you perfect control, while at the same time keeping those digits warm in the rain or snow.
These undoubtedly offer more protection for your precious gear, but they are considerably more bulky and expensive. Personally, I still think they are worth every penny though, since they are likely protecting upwards of $5000 worth of gear, and potentially well in excess of $15,000 for some wildlife photography setups.
10 – Personal Protection
If you’re on a commercially organized wildlife tour then most companies will give you a PFD (personal flotation device = lifejacket) or a flotation suit if you’re in an open RIB, whilst larger commercial boats will have lifejackets stowed away for emergencies. If you’re out on your own boat and want a PFD that works well for photographers, I suggest check out the NRS Chinook. I use this in my own kayaks because it has a large number of pockets that are perfect for storing my 1.4x extender, a wide-angle lens, some batteries, my phone, by InReach Mini, a marine radio and my memory card holder.
When I’m on the water I also pay close attention to how much sun I’m getting and I always carry sunscreen with me in my camera bag. It amazes me how many people pay no attention to this and even stubbornly decline the sunscreen I offer them, only to show up the next say with scorched faces. Water reflects the sunlight at you and drastically increases its effect on your skin! If the sun is really intense and you plan to be out for prolonged periods, consider getting a fishing sun mask that offers 50+ SPF protection, from someone like Buff.
If you’re planning on spending some time shooting from a boat in the near future, I hope this article has fully prepared you to make the most out of your ocean adventure. Getting out into such a different environment can really be eye-opening, and it’ll certainly help you broaden your portfolio if you’re well prepared. Happy shooting, and please leave some comments below to tell me about your oceanic adventures!