Down to the River to Play.... (In Kayaks and Canoes)

My father-in-law died, unexpectedly, in January 2009.  He and I shared interests in photography, genealogy, and investing.  Throughout his life, he enjoyed outdoor activities, like camping and hiking.  For many years, he would spend time on various rivers and rapids in his canoe, usually with some of his kids and grandkids.  Our DaughterNumberTwo was a very frequent paddling companion.  One of his favorite places to go was the Nantahala River, near Bryson City, N.C.  After a few years, many of the family would rent a house close to the river and spend the week paddling, playing cards, eating tons of food, and, occasionally, visiting the casino in nearby Cherokee.  We always had a good time.  The picture below is Johnnie, at age 80, going through the waterfall (upright) at the end of the run.

Let's talk about taking these kinds of images and getting something you'll be happy with.   The key is planning because this photography exercise is challenging.  You've got fast moving subjects that are too busy trying not to drown to pose in the exact spot you want.  The lighting is bad, with bright highlights and deep shadows that will cause havoc with your exposure meter.  The best locations are down near the water, and it's a wet, slippery place to be playing with expensive camera gear.  Sounds like fun, huh?  Well, it sure beats joining those loons in the plastic boats!

The easiest way to get sharp photos in this environment is to maximize your shutter speed.  Generally, this is 1/500th of a second or faster.  This shouldn't be too difficult in the bright daylight.  If there are clouds or the shade is too deep where you want to shoot, you'll need to bump up the ISO as high as you can without getting noisy images.  You do know where that is on your camera, right?  If not, take some practice shots prior to your arrival, steadily increasing the ISO until you see visible noise (random pixels of color and light) in your image.  Keep your ISO setting lower than your noise limit.  Since every camera has different low light capabilities, I can't give you an exact number.  Your aperture setting depends on how much depth of field you want in your image.  I usually keep this setting in the mid-range.  You can open this up to get faster shutter speeds.  Your camera is ready.

The lighting problems can be extreme.  Trees line the banks, creating deep shade, in contrast to the bright sun bouncing light from the water, rocks, and bright kayaks.  There is dappled light coming through the leaves on the trees.  If you put your camera into a mode that allows automatic exposure settings (Program, Automatic, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority), your camera's meter will constantly change, making adjustments as you follow the kayaker through the course.  Many of these shots will be hopelessly flawed. I've found that shooting several test shots and varying my settings, allows me to find the best solution.  Then, I set those into my camera and leave it in Manual mode.

Location is always important.  Most rivers have several good locations to get the kind of shot you want.  You can get up high for look down at the river, like the shot on the left.  Move a little closer to the river to create an image that makes your viewer think "What a pleasant way to spend the day."

To create the most exciting shots that convey the triumph, apprehension, and sheer looniness of this sport, you need to get down to the water.  Fill the frame with your subject.  Get the water behind them to show its menacing turbulence. A low shot makes the water look like a wall.  There were many times when my Wife, DaughterNumberTwo, and DaughterInLaw made it through the chute alive and upright.  Whew!

Shoot continuously to catch all the action.  Things are moving quickly, and you want to catch them at just the right moment.  (Dude, there are huge rocks under there!)

I loved those weeks down there with the family.  Lots of fun with my camera.  I even went down the river myself.  How'd I do?  Well....