Wildlife Kayak Photography: Tips and Tricks

Great Egret on the hunt

Kayaks are an amazing medium for wildlife photography. You are down low, giving an almost eye to eye view with your subjects. You can move in almost any direction, there are no trails you have to worry about stepping off of (although a river or slough could be considered a really wide trail.) There are good views of what is around you, no trees or buildings blocking the views, giving you an idea of where to go and who is around to be photographed. However, due to its nature kayak photography also has some special considerations, many of which can be considered as pros or cons, depending on how you deal with them. I try to make them benefits.

With any wildlife photography it is important to understand that you are seeing wild animals. Their lives are fraught with danger and they don’t understand that we just want to shoot them with a camera and not a gun. They don’t realize we are creeping closer just to see them better, that we won’t suddenly pounce on them and carry them off. They need us to respect them and keep some distance. Stress is harder on them- there are animals that can literally be frightened to death. So please, even though there are no physical obstacles between you and that seal when you are on the water, give them their space. They will fly away or swim away if you approach them incautiously or too closely, losing any chance for that great photo. Also, it is against Federal Law in the U.S. to approach and disturb marine mammals.

Sea Lion surfacing for air and curiosity

That said, there is some good news. It is not illegal for these same animals to approach you, and there are a lot of curious marine mammals out there. If you do give them their space, many times they will actually approach you, because they want to figure out what you are. Otters, seals, dolphins, even whales, can all get very curious and decide to come close enough for some amazing pictures (whichever camera you are using.) Seals especially love to pop up right behind kayaks where they think you won’t see them. Just remember to let them come to you. The Sea Lion to the left, and the Harbor Seal below did exactly that.

A curious Harbor Seal

Compact digital cameras (point and shoots) can be excellent for general photography, but fall shy (usually) on wildlife. You end up with lots of background, but little detail. Kayak photography is no exception. You will have your best chances for stunning and meaningful pictures using a dSLR with a longer lens- 200mm or 300mm often giving the best results. These lengths will help you get close enough for detail, while not being too long to compensate for the bobbing of a kayak. Under the right conditions you can be add a 1.4x or a 2x converter to these lenses.

Keep your camera accessible yet safe (I will be addressing this in Part 2 of Which Camera to Take, and how to keep it safe.) If your camera is packed away in to tricky of a place, you will never use it, because of the ordeal to take it out, or you might miss the magic moment when the whale is next to you.

Marsh Hawk (Northern Harrier) hunting flooded wetlands

First of all, realize that it is generally not ideal to use a monopod or tripod when taking wildlife pictures from a kayak, unless the water is very calm. ‘Pods are made to be on stable surfaces, and a kayak is anything but. Slight movements cause a kayak to shift, causing the camera to shift even more. (Put your elbow on the table in front of you, with your hand up. Move your hand to one side- notice how little your arm moved near your elbow, compared to how much your hand moved? That is what a camera mounted on a tripod is like when kayaking, but even more so.) Image stabilizing cameras and lenses can be much more effective than a ‘pod on a kayak. Also, your body actually works almost as a natural shock absorber and compensator for the movement of the kayak. You will have the steadiest camera if you handhold. It will also be the easiest way to track and pan.

Osprey and fish

Use the wind and currents. Most of the time there will be a wind and/or some current. Figure out what direction you will go if you stop paddling for a while, and use that to approach  and pass wildlife with a minimum of movement. That is, get to a point where the kayak naturally wants to pass by what you want to shoot. Don’t waste all of your energy trying to keep your kayak close to something, when you can set yourself up to pass by them. This is often less frightening to the animal (no paddle waving in the air, just a still unmoving object drifting by,) but it also keeps your hands free for shooting.

Try to make sure you don’t drift right at the animal, aim your path to the side, giving the animal enough room that you don’t frighten it. This will also give you the most angles, and the largest range of lighting. You can’t direct the animal, so direct yourself.

Also, using the kayaks momentum, you can use the kayak itself to pan for your pictures. When a bird is flying by, if you have a rudder (which I highly recommend for kayak photography) you can steer the kayak with your feet, so that you are turning and rotating with the bird as it flies by. You can track it without turning your body, just your kayak. I’ve done this many times with Red-throated Loons and Osprey with fish.

Marsh Hawk with prey

Watch the animals, don’t just take their pictures. This does several things. First, it lets you know if you are frightening the animal and should back off. It can also let you know if you can slowly approach more closely. It can also help you time your images for when the wildlife is doing something exciting or interesting, such as catching a fish. If you understand its behavior, it will be easier to guess when it will be doing something interesting.

Through watching the different birds while kayaking, I now know how closely I can approach different species. Great Blue Herons for instance are a much flightier bird than a Great Egret, and I find myself having to paddle in a huge circle just to pass them by(unless the fishing is really good, then they become so focused that I can glide right by without them ever noticing.) Least Sandpipers on the other hand will pass within feet of me and my beached kayak as they walk along the shore, feeding on bits too small for me to see. Willits and Marbled Godwits are often fairly fearless, as long as they feel you aren’t approaching them too directly. There are many different ways in which time of day or year can also affect which species you will see, in what numbers, and in what plumages. Knowing the species will help with these questions.

Least Sandpiper scrathcing

Take advantage of the fact that you are less than three feet off of the surface of the water. Use this to get images of wildlife from their own perspective. An eye level shot of  a pelican is much more engaging than one from a standing height. I even lean forward or back to get even closer to the water at times for the smaller and shorter of the animals.

You are on water. Water reflects. Include reflections when you can, it can give drama and effect very simply. Also, compensate for the reflected light when you are taking your pictures. Water is 1-2 stops different from the sky, but even more than that, it helps to light the wildlife you are photographing.

Marsh Wren in cattails

Also, be aware if you are about to kayak through a shady area (under a steep hillside, cliffs, or trees.) Preset your exposure if you are on manual settings, or adjust your exposure compensation if you are shooting on AV or TV. Make sure to fire plenty of test shots before you come across that bobcat walking the shore. You may only have one or two shots before it is gone. If you have custom shooting presets have one set to the light in the shadows, one for looking away from the sun, and one for the sun at your back. Try to plan ahead as much as you can for those surprises.

Bobcat on the shores of Tomales Bay. By having my camera ready, and my settings preset, I was ready for this beautiful cat

When I took this picture of a bobcat on the shores of Tomales Bay, I had just paddled into deep late afternoon shadows. I had my camera preset for the shade I was entering, my dry bag was open. This bobcat came out from around the corner of rock, stopped and looked at me. I was able to pull my camera out, take two quick shots, and then it turned around and left. If I hadn’t been ready with a preset camera, the bobcat would have been gone before I could have set the camera and taken a single shot.

Being so low to the water also makes it easy to include some of that water in the image. This can give perspective. It also gives a sense of place and naturalness to the image. What is more natural than a duck on water?

Don’t just look for animals on the water. Look on the immediate shore, but also a little distance onto land. Some of my best wildlife images of raccoons, deer, bobcat, elk, and coyotes all came about while I was kayaking. They don’t necessarily watch the water for dangers and might not notice you if you stay quiet and fairly still. If they do notice you, you are such a different creature from the person that is walking and stomping around, that they generally aren’t as freightened, and can be more curious as to what you may be.

Mother raccoon hunting for crabs at low tide

This mother raccoon on the right I saw very early one morning searching for crabs in the rocks along the shore. I set my kayak to drift by her. She looked up as I passed, before going back to her hunt.

Be quiet and move small. This is true of any wildlife photography. No large sudden movements. When you do have to move, move slowly. Get a small one handed fishing paddle or carry a spare half paddle. My paddle splits in two, and I will often separate the halves and just use one end when I am trying to move small and not spook an animal.

Don’t be afraid to beach yourself if the opportunity presents itself and you have a chance for some good images. Sometimes it is nice not to have to worry about where you are drifting, and if it will take you too far from what you are trying to shoot. Be aware though that this will limit your mobility, and might not always be the most effective.

Bobcat stalking the shores at low tide

This is a different bobcat that I saw while I was out kayaking. It was some distance down the coast, but I saw it slowly making its way north. I beached my kayak well ahead of it, and just sat quietly and waited. I sat very quietly and stilly, moving little more than my camera and my finger on the shutter. It was aware of me, passing within a two meters, but as I was very still and unthreatening it merely passed on by before marking its territory and heading off into the brush.

Have large memory cards. You don’t want to swap out your memory very often while kayaking, or when taking pictures of wildlife. This also helps to simplify things. There is enough to think about already, that it is good to keep things simple when you can.

There is more. So much more, but this is enough for now. Keep shooting, paddling, and reading, and I will keep passing on tips, like what to bring in your kayak besides your camera.


River Otters pausing in the shallows to watch me, as I watch them

About Galen Leeds Photography

Nature and wildlife photographer, exploring the world on his feet and from his kayak. Among other genres, he is one of the leading kayak photographers in Northern California. To learn more about him, visit him on his website- www.galenleeds.net
This entry was posted in birds, kayak photography, marine life, nature photography, photography, wildlife photography and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

66 Responses to Wildlife Kayak Photography: Tips and Tricks

  1. I really like this great article on your web-site. There are numerous photo websites that are just plain bad out there, yet this is not one of those. The template you’ve installed seriously promotes the feel and then compliments this content superbly. I will come back to see a lot more of your work. Thanks a lot!

  2. dadirri7 says:

    this is a wonderful article, thanks for visiting me so I could come here and find it! I dont have a kayak, but moving on the beach and foreshore is similar, in that slow and quiet works best. Your photos are really beautiful, I can feel the joy in them, the respect for each creature! I would like a better camera one day so I enjoy reading your advice.

    • Thank you, and the pleasure was mine for being able to visit your site A better camera can help in some situations, but it is the joy and appreciation of nature that I also see in your images that makes the biggest difference. I look forward to more time well spent wandering your pages

  3. Maggie L R says:

    Thank you for posting such great info. Your photos are so perfectly focused I am amazed you were able to get them from a kayak. I love being on the water, Usually in my canoe and I know how unstable it can be. Great work and great sight. Thank you for visiting me so I could find your blog. Great info. I will be following you.

    • Thanks Maggie. What I don’t show as often on my blog are all the blurred and out of focus images that don’t work out because of camera shake or a wave hitting me at the wrong moment. Kayaks are also lower to the water than a canoe, and some of them can be more stable. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a canoe however. Thank you for following. I look forward to exploring your own blog in more depth

  4. theresagreen says:

    Beautiful pictures that perfectly convey the sense of place and your ability to capture the essence of the environment you are in.

    • Thank you Theresa. I’ve enjoyed your photographs of birds and sea. Nature amazes me in how different, yet similar the various shores of the world and their inhabitants can be. Keep sharing and I will keep visiting

  5. From Moments to Memories says:

    Thanks for stopping by my blog, what beautiful photography you have. You are very talented, thank you so much for sharing with us.

  6. ladyfi says:

    Wow – fabulous nature photos! I love the glowing white egret as well as the bobcats pics.

  7. Fantastic photos, Galen! Kayaking truly provides unique opportunities for wonderful images. And your tips are helpful!

  8. bluebee says:

    A wonderfully informative blog, Galen, and your photos are marvellous – I particularly like the ‘Marbled Godwit’ series

  9. Wow…. these shots were GREAT! Having the camera ready is something I have some trouble with, as I go out using my power chair and need one hand on the joy stick so I can maneuver. I’m figuring things out as I go, so perhaps I’ll figure out a way to be ‘more prepared’ for that unexpected shot. :) Thanks for stopping by my blog and sharing your thoughts.

    • I’ve never been in a wheel chair, but I would imagine that in some ways it is similar to being in a kayak, in that you don’t always have your hands free right away (in a kayak you are paddling) and that which ever way the wheel chair (or kayak) is pointing, we too are pointing. It becomes necessary to maneuver our “vehicles” around rather than our bodies. In both we sit, at a fixed height and a fixed perspective. You cruise upon land and I upon water, each of capturing what we may from our thrones.

      When I kayak I keep my camera in a bag in front of me, between my legs, where I can access it fairly easily. If I think a shot is eminent I place the strap around my neck and halfway remove the camera from its bag. Sometimes I am able to remove the camera in time, sometimes not. It just inspires me to try to be faster the next time.

  10. Brian Comeau says:

    Beautiful work and writing Galen! I really love the Bobcats and the Marsh hawk.

  11. Orel Engel says:

    Wonderful photos, top quality compared to many of the “photography” blogs around here! I like the way you see photography. I was wondering, have you ever done scuba diving photography?

  12. Anne says:

    Stunning photographs!! Thanks for stopping by my blog :) and thus leading me to yours! I will be back

  13. One says:

    I am glad Donna has insisted that I come over. Absolutely love your website. The photos of the sea lion and bobcat are still lingering in my mind.

    I have just inserted a link in my post today to your bird photography tips since I only have photos of cute ducks with no tips. :)

    • Donna runs some marvelous blogs. She has been very kind about directing people this way. I am happy that you are enjoying my pages as well.

      Even more I would like to thank you for providing the link to my pages

  14. Always incredible photos, thanks for sharing them. My husband is thinking of moving over to digital photography and I wondered if you had any tips or recommendations for choosing a camera? We would appreciate any advice as it’s a new field for us.

    • Recommendations on a camera can be tricky, as each person looks for a little something different in a camera. The major brands all have very high quality cameras now for varying needs and skill levels, each capable of creating very high level images. There isn’t one brand that really stands out over the rest, so it becomes a matter of what he wants to be able to do with it.

  15. P.S. Especially the osprey and fish.

  16. sheriffsmith says:

    Very cool shots … I visited Northern Cal last fall and I concure we have some really different birds! I love your Bobcats … I’ve been following a Mom and 3 cubs since Dec and have just fell in love with them. Wonderful article … guess I need to invest in a Kayak for Everglades National Park! Tom

  17. Lois Farley Shuford says:

    I really appreciate this post. Am hoping to do some kayaking this spring and summer on the north branch of the Chicago river (might not sound too exciting, but it’s truly an interesting local route), and this is helpful in preparation. Thanks for visiting my photo blog “trace of place”!

  18. fiztrainer says:

    Thank you so much for coming by my blog and leaving me a LIKE. It brought me here and I love your blog … your tips are great. Thanks so much for sharing. I look forward to keeping up with your posts. :D

  19. Dave says:

    I have always wanted to try photographing from a kayak. Not sure if my knees are as up to as my spirit is these days, but after reading your post, maybe I’ll give it a try. I want to thank you for stopping by my site. Best wishes to you!

    • It was my pleasure visiting your site. Very interesting place.

      Kayaking for me is fairly easy on the knees, much easier than hiking down a mountain for instance… and the rewards can be great!

      • Dave says:

        There are some kayaks in our village. Maybe I can try it out! Is it easier to paddle against a current than a canoe? The Yukon has some strong ones.

      • It can really depend on the kayak and the strength of the current. Kayaks come in a huge variety of shapes- long and skinny, short and stubby, and everything in between- and each one handles and manuevers differently under different conditions. I feel like often a kayak is a little easier in a current than a canoe, simply because it does not draw as much water, but I imagine it also depends on the kayak. Never having kayaked the Yukon, I cannot make any definite recommendations. Regardless, I hope you have a heck of a good time finding out

      • Dave says:

        Whatever happens, I’ll definitely have fun!

  20. dalzellphoto says:

    Great read. Just started wildlife photography myself only a few weeks back with my D90 and a 300 2.8. It’s been a lot of fun and I’ve enjoyed learning more about the birds and animals I’ve come across.

  21. Patty C says:

    Have you ever considered an electric kayak where you use your feet to steer and your hands are freed up to photograph birds and animals instead of paddling?

    • I have considered an electric motor on the kayak, but here in California, that involves a few additional issues, some of them legal. When a motor is added to a water craft, even if it is only a kayak, it then becomes necessary to register it with the state, obtain a registration number that is then placed on the boat, and then to keep and maintain a current sticker.

      Outside of legal issues, a motorized kayak could be set up, to be steered by foot pedals. Provisions would also have to be made for a throttle control, one that preferably would not require too much movement of the hands away from the camera.

      A great advantage to this would be not having the movement of the paddle dipping in and out of the water, which can sometimes spook the wildlife. An interesting idea, that I would like to try out some time.

      • Kris says:

        They have those foot pedal ones now, probably would be good if it was stable enough

      • I really enjoy the foot pedal kayaks for touring, but not as much for photography. (I’ve used them while guiding tours before, and they are awesome in their place.) They are tricky for photography in my opinion however, because of the steering. The pedal powered kayaks are steered by a hand lever… which means you can’t steer and hold the camera steady and take pictures using both hands, which I find to be key in taking quality, crisp photographs. Non-pedal powered kayaks can often be rigged with a rudder system that is steered using your feet, leaving both hands free for the camera.

  22. Peggy Tee says:

    Great shots! My favourites are the bobcats – do you see them often?

    • Thanks Peggy Tee. I don’t know that I see them often, but I do come across them a few dozen times a year. I know their habits to some degree, and that has definitely helped me to come across them with more regularity, and to be able to place myself in situations where I can photograph them. I am enjoying your own blog and travels

      • Peggy Tee says:

        Would love to see them in the wild myself one day. My partner loves kayaking, but so far I haven’t quite managed the art of photography and balancing in a kayak quite as well as you have! Keep shooting!

  23. Ingrid says:

    Thanks so much for discussing the ethics of getting close to wildlife … and also the perspective that wild animals undoubtedly have when they see a human moving toward them. There are animals I won’t even try to photograph, like ducks flying overhead, particularly during hunting season. I don’t blame them for being wary of any object pointed at them, and I don’t want them to divert course, as they often do. Your methodology is beautiful and I wish more people would abide by the gentle and patient approach to wildlife and photos. I appreciate the information and thoroughness of this post, too. I will remember some of your points when I’m photographing on the water.

    • Part of the enjoyment of wildlife photography is sharing images of animals in their wild and natural state. Any approach that didn’t take the animals own welfare into account would be antithetical to nature photography. I am glad that you too take a conscientious approach to photography

  24. Bob Zeller says:

    Great informative post, even though I will probably never set foot into a kayak. Wonderful photos, too. Gorgeous images of the bobcats.

    • Thank you. From what I’ve seen of your images, you do more than well enough without a kayak, that I don’t think you will miss it, even if they are great platforms to bird from.

      Happy shooting. I look forward to many more of your fine photographs

  25. Love your cover photo up the top :-)

  26. EhkStream says:

    Beautiful images. I photograph, explore and adventure via kayak, thanks for your kindred views.

    • Thank you for stopping by and following. It was actually your header photograph of the sandpipers that originally caught my eye. That and your response to Cee’s photo challenge. Kayaking, photography, and exploring go so well together, that I am glad that you are also able to combine them all.

      • EhkStream says:

        That particular flock of sandpipers allowed me to drift to within a few feet of them, the bow of the kayak actually resting on the mud bank they were feeding at. I love your seal photos, excellent lighting.

  27. Thanks a lot for checking out my blog. This is an amazing article :D you’ve gained yourself a follower

  28. stevewongbk says:

    Nice. Thanks for sharing

  29. beachmama says:

    Your bobcat photo is to die for! Getting that shot sitting still is amazing . . . on a kayak it’s brilliant! I seem to have more fun shooting from my kayak than on two legs but need a better camera with good glass to really do justice to what I see. Between you and Richard James we are blessed with great kayak photography ~ thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks. I actually find it easiest to photograph bobcats from a kayak. I come across them more regularly, but also being curious cats, they are more prone to sit and check out that funny thing bobbing in the water. It’s nice having Richard out on the water too. There is so much to see and explore out here, that it would take a few people many lifetimes to try and share even a fraction of it. Can’t wait to see what you share with all of us when you get that new body (camera body that is).

  30. You have some amazing shots on here and thanks a lot for the tutorial! :D I have nominated you for the sunshine award: http://salimwillshirephotography.com/2013/03/31/sunshine-award/

  31. Mr. Gentleduck says:

    This is a great post. The high-quality photos and content are put together nicely, and it’s very informative.

  32. ayeshi says:

    Great photos, Galen!

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