Photographing wildlife is hard enough when you're standing on dry land. But add to the usual difficulties a rocking boat, ripples or waves of water and a subject rising, falling, diving or splashing, all while you're also moving around and you have a whole new challenge. How does a photographer manage to focus on a subject, get a sharp image and avoid motion sickness all at the same time? With a few tricks and plenty of practice. Here's how to prepare yourself for photographing wildlife from a boat, kayak or canoe.

Handling your gear

The first two things to consider when going out on the water with your gear is how to protect it from spray and how to keep it aboard the boat.

To help improve the chances of your camera equipment coming home perfectly dry both inside and out, dress it up in a rain suit. This can either be a professional level cover, like LensCoat, or as simple as a plastic rain sleeve with a draw-string on one end. Whatever route you choose, an extra layer between your camera and the sea spray or drips from a paddle can make a big difference.

You can also bring a dry-bag with you to store your camera gear while you aren't shooting or to stash extra gear that you aren't using at the moment.

Another important consideration is a camera strap. If you're standing, walking or leaning on a railing, a strap helps keep the camera secured to you. This is especially necessary if you're on rough water and may need to quickly throw your hands out to brace yourself to keep from falling. It's a simple precaution that can save you a big headache if your camera slips while you're, say, leaning over the bow for the perfect shot of a dolphin.

Be particularly careful where you set your camera down. A spot that seems stable enough one moment might not be a few moments later when a wave tilts the boat. If you need to set your gear down, be sure that it is braced somewhere that it won't roll or tip as the boat rolls around on the water.

Locking focus on your subject

Curious Steller sea lions photographed at a distance with a telephoto lens from a kayak. Curious Steller sea lions photographed at a distance with a telephoto lens from a kayak. (All photos: Jaymi Heimbuch)

There are a lot of little things a photographer can do to ensure the best shot possible depending on the situation. It might be a particular strategy for balancing your camera or a particular combination of camera settings. However, there are two things that definitely help in almost any situation, and they are managing your autofocus settings and anticipating behavior.

It's to your benefit to use continuous autofocus (AI-Servo on Canon, AF-C on Nikon) when shooting wildlife in the water. This helps your camera stay locked on a subject as it moves in any direction and as you move in various directions on the water.

However, when your camera is figuring out what movement to track, other moving objects can get in the way — such as a splash or ripple of water — causing your camera to lock focus on something other than your subject. To avoid this as much as possible, it's important to get to know your camera's autofocus capabilities, including how to select autofocus points and how to adjust focus tracking and sensitivity.

Use a single autofocus point, preferably the center autofocus point. By doing this, your camera isn't looking for movement within a large field of the frame and switching focus whenever something else moves; you'll be more likely to stay locked on your subject.

In the custom menu options, slow down the tracking sensitivity of the autofocus so that it's more likely to ignore objects suddenly moving into the frame such as splashes, a bird flying in front of your subject and so on.

Finally, learn your subject well enough to anticipate behaviors such as breaching activity in dolphins and whales or diving activity in birds. If you can better predict what your subject is about to do, you'll have an easier time keeping the subject in your frame and maintaining focus despite all the movement of a boat.

Tracking a subject while everything is moving

Tracking wildlife moving among waves, from a boat floating on waves, can be a particularly interesting challenge. Tracking wildlife moving among waves, from a boat floating on waves, can be a particularly interesting challenge. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)

When you're shooting with a telephoto lens on calm water and the boat has a quiet motor, or no motor at all, it makes sense to use a tripod. However, in many situations the conditions aren't ideal for a tripod, and it's easier and more efficient to hand-hold your camera.

As photographer Charles Bush points out, "[S]etting a tripod on the deck of a boat transmits all the movement directly from the deck to the camera through the tripod. When hand holding the camera your body acts as a shock absorber and is able to correct somewhat for the motion of the boat."

There are other benefits to hand-holding a camera rather than using a tripod. You have the ability to move your camera independently from the movement of the boat, which makes it easier to stay locked on a target. You also have the ability to easily change your angle or track a subject even as it moves around the perimeter of your boat. It's ultimately to your benefit to get comfortable hand-holding your camera and lens so that you have more flexibility in tracking your subject and getting sharp shots.

Use your knowledge of how the subject moves to help maintain focus while panning and use what you know about the movement of the boat, staying aware of when your boat is likely to rise or dip or the speed at which the water's current is moving you in relation to your subject.

It's also important to trust your intuition when tracking a subject, such as a bird that's taking off from the water, or a dolphin leaping into the air in a breach. Sometimes it's really hard to keep an eye on the subject when things are bobbing around, so relying your intuition to know where to pan and how quickly can help increase your chances of maintaining focus on your moving subject.

Keeping balanced

When photographing from a canoe or kayak, be conscious of how you shift your weight so you don't capsize. When photographing from a canoe or kayak, be conscious of how you shift your weight so you don't capsize. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)

When you're holding your lens, keep your arms loose and stay aware of your balance. The general rule when on a boat is to maintain three points of contact, which usually means both feet and a hand, to keep from falling. This is more difficult when both hands are busy managing a camera and lens. So, try to either sit down or lean against something that can help you maintain balance even as waves rock the boat unexpectedly.

Being aware of balance is particularly critical when you're in a kayak or canoe, and a sudden shift in weight can cause a capsize. If you're new to using a kayak or canoe, it's a good idea to take it out for a paddle a few times without your gear.

Kari Post offers this advice:

Practice moving around in the boat, turning from side to side, so you get an idea of how to balance in the boat. Even bring a heavy rock or dumbbell in the boat with you and hold it in front of your face while turning your body, to get an idea of how to shift and balance with a heavy camera and lens. When you are ready to bring your gear aboard, start on calm water and keep your gear sealed inside a waterproof case whenever you are not actively shooting.

Camera gear is expensive and a hassle to get repaired or replaced, so it's worth taking some time to practice before bringing it aboard.

Avoiding sea sickness

A common problem with photographers who aren't used to shooting from a boat on the ocean or a choppy lake is spending too much time looking through the viewfinder at a subject. This dramatically increases the odds you'll get a bit woozy.

Remember to look up and take in the scene while also taking in deep breaths. Watch the horizon for awhile every so often, which can also be an opportunity to scan for more subjects to photograph.

Respect your subject's space

Photographing from a boat, especially a small boat, often allows you to get close encounters with wildlife that you'd never be able to get from dry land. However, despite the flexibility a boat provides, it's still key to provide your subjects with an appropriate amount of space.

The rule of thumb is this: If you're close enough to alter an animal's behavior, you're too close.

Purposefully causing animals to wake up from much-needed rest, take off from or dive under the water, stop feeding to watch you or other types of pressure is harmful not only to the wildlife but also to your photography. When you allow an animal to remain comfortable and engage in natural behavior, you're increasing your ability to get plenty of unique and interesting compositions and also increasing the chances that you will witness and photograph behaviors that you might otherwise never get to see.

Of course, there are also laws to abide by, such as keeping a certain distance away from endangered species or staying away from a certain nesting habitat. Those laws are still in effect whether you're walking a shoreline or paddling a canoe. Be familiar with the rules and regulations, as well as the reason why those rules and regulations are in effect.

Being on the water is a wonderful way to gain a new perspective for your photographs, and it may be the only way to photograph certain subjects, so taking on the challenge and responsibility is worth the trouble in the end.

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.

How to photograph wildlife from a boat
How does a photographer manage to focus on a subject, get a sharp image and avoid motion sickness all at the same time?