Kayak Photography: When to paddle

Morning Bay under Fog

The water can be calmest in the mornings, making it easier to kayak, but also allowing reflections

Possibly more important than what to photograph while kayaking is when. I’m sure you’ve all heard about “magic hour” and morning light, which is helpful and good, but not what I am writing about. (After all, nearly every photography book/blog/class has already beat that dead horse. I haven’t yet, but likely will some day, when I am hard up for a photography article to write.)

Occasionally the afternoon can give similarly calm water, but this is the exception rather than the norm

In many places the calmest time of day is the morning. Often there are no winds, or they are light earlier in the day. This is good for two reasons. Wind will create waves. Without the wind your kayak will be more stable, allowing for a better shooting platform. It will be easier to frame your images and to focus on the subjects you want. This stillness to the water also means that you will find more and better reflections. If you are going to be on the water, you might as well take all of the benefits you can. As the day warms up, temperature differentials will be created, causing winds to build. While these winds will sometimes die down as the day begins to fade, it is less common than a calm morning. (I will often take this a step further. I will paddle out in the mornings in a direction that the afternoon winds will help me return from later in the day. That way when I am tired, I won’t have to work so hard.)

It is often easier to find a greater variety of wildlife early in the morning or later in the day. There is an overlap time between the nocturnal and diurnal critters that we can take advantage of, especially in the summer time when the nights are shorter and all of the creatures of the night need to maximize their feeding times by being out on either side of dusk and dawn.

I found this trio of otters late one afternoon. I've rarely seen them midday.

This can be especially true if you kayak areas that are tidal. Many animals find it more necessary to feed according to the tides than the sun. Raccoons for instance will come down to search for crabs at low tide, if it happens to fall near sunrise or sunset. Otters will often swim with the tides, so that it helps them to cover more territory with a minimum of effort.

When photographing birds from a kayak, timing can be a factor in several different ways. Many shore birds will feed in different areas depending on how high or low the tide is. Time of day doesn’t matter nearly as much as time of tide. Osprey will be most active when fish are active. Many birds will leave roosts in the morning, and return in the evening. If you know roost sites, and keep a respectful distance, you will know what time to catch them. For instance, there is a large population of shags (cormorants) that live on an island where I kayak. While I know they will return to this island all throughout the day, I know their numbers will be greatest early and late.

This group of Harlequin ducks was shot when they were in their breeding plumage, rather than the drab browns of winter

With birds time of year can also be a factor. With migrations, you will only find some species at particular times of the year. If I want to photograph ducks that aren’t the humdrum species I find at city parks,  I know that wintertime is the best. Also, at their plumage will change throughout the year.

This white pelican is only round for part of the year, but more than that, notice the growth on the beak? That is only there when breeding season is near

Late spring and summer are usually the most colorful, late fall and winter more drab. Learn when different species are in your area, and what they are wearing, and you will have the easiest time of it. For other important things to think about, try reading Kayak wildlife photography: Tips and Tricks.

Happy shooting,


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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
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3 Responses to Kayak Photography: When to paddle

  1. Rachael says:

    Is your header a picture of a sea lion?! I LOVE sea lions! And also your pelican picture. I saw a pelican sculpted out of ice once.

    • The header picture is a Harbor Seal, although I’ve taken many pictures of sea lions also. I’ve never seen a pelican sculpted from ice, but they are one of my favorite birds. Happy you are enjoying the pictures,

  2. Rachael says:

    I’m sorry! I hadn’t seen the picture in awhile and apparently deluded myself into thinking it was a pelican, because I love pelicans too. I was referring to the picture of the bird with the big beak. Sadly, not actually a pelican. I apologize.

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