I took up standup paddleboarding a couple of years ago and I started to notice that I could get closer to birds and wildlife than I sometimes can on the shore. I would also get these great unique perspectives being on the water looking back at birds on the shoreline. But I always thought I could never bring my camera with me… far too risky.
Until I decided it was worth the risk!
Here are my tips from testing this out in the field.
Obviously the biggest concern with taking pictures from the water is your camera getting soaked. This is an advantage of using a superzoom camera like mine – worst case scenario and you’re only out a few hundred dollars, not thousands if you were to bring a DSLR out on the water. If I ever were to upgrade my camera, I would definitely keep the superzoom around for water-based photography (June 2017 Update: I took my DSLR in a canoe and it nearly cost me my camera!).
The other good thing about a superzoom is that they are relatively compact and lightweight so it’s easy to bring one on board with you. You’re only worrying about 1 piece of kit, not a separate camera + lens. But, there are plenty of photographers who will bring a DSLR with them on the water, it all depends on your comfort levels.
I’ve also taken photographs from my paddleboard with a GoPro. This is a safer option, but not ideal for closeups of birds and mammals. You can mount the GoPro on your paddle for landscape shots or selfies, or on the board itself for a unique perspective. If you try to use it to photograph birds that seem fairly close, they will end up looking tiny in the photograph.
Protecting the Camera
What I do is really simple, I just bring the camera with me in good quality dry bag. I clip the bag onto the bungee cord at the front of my paddleboard. Sometimes if I’m feeling particularly worried, I will put the camera in a Ziploc bag and then inside the dry-bag. But honestly I’ve never had issues with it just being inside the dry bag. Just make sure you use a dry bag that you’ve tested on inexpensive items so you get a feel for how waterproof it will be. I’ve used dry bags before that get a little bit damp on the inside which you don’t want.
When I’m ready to take a photograph, I’ll get the camera out of the dry bag and put the strap around my neck to stop it falling overboard. You can also pack a small microfiber towel in your dry bag to mop up any small water drops on your camera.
On the Water Photography Technique
Sit Down and Have the Camera Ready
One thing I should clear up right away – I never take pictures while standing on my board! When I see a bird I want to take a photograph of, I will sit down and then get my camera out. To reduce the time it takes to get the camera out in the moment, I often paddle quietly along the shoreline with the camera already around my neck. Trust me, if you wait to see a bird and then try to get your camera out you’ll be flustered, rushed and at risk for dropping the camera in. Not to mention you could miss the shot completely!
Waves and Moving Water
All the same photography tips that I’ve written in previous articles still stand, but the one thing you will quickly notice when you’re trying to take photographs from the water is that it is much harder to keep the camera still. Even a slight ripple in the water will send your camera rocking. If I’m close enough to shore I will put one leg down on the ground to steady the board. If not, then you just have to try your best to keep things steady and keep your shutter speed high to counteract any blur from camera shake.
Videoing is particularly challenging and I think if I was going to try to video a lot I would bring a small monopod with me. You also want to choose a day when the water is fairly calm or head to sheltered bays or narrow waterways on flat water.
Here is a video I took of Sanderlings that landed two feet away from my standup paddleboard:
Getting Close Enough
Just like on land, many birds are nervous when you try to approach them too closely. Slowly and quietly is the best technique. Same goes for mammals.
It’s also a bit of a lottery – some days you get lucky and a loon will pop out on a lake right beside you. Other days you just can’t get near. Great Blue Herons I find particularly tricky, but I’ve managed to get pretty close to a Green Heron. Migrating shorebirds can sometimes be so hungry that they don’t even seem to notice you a few feet away. You may even see warblers in trees along the shoreline.
Type of Paddleboard
The last important consideration for doing photography from your standup paddleboard is what type of board to use. This is probably not the time to get out your narrow race board! Stability is king so wider is better. I use a Red Paddle Co 12″6, 28 inch wide inflatable board, but for the most stability I would recommend a 30 or 32 inch wide board.
Obviously you can also use a kayak or a canoe and then you’re already sitting down. But I like the option with the paddleboard of putting a leg down on the ground. I also just enjoy paddleboarding so it’s neat to combine the two activities. Plus, you’re pretty much the only person out there on a paddleboard taking nature photos which I think is pretty awesome!