Kayak Photography Techniques (long)

Phocal

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A few weeks ago I went to a new place on the advice of @zzffnn and I will definitely be going back. I was looking for a place to really explore and spend the winter in my kayak and Armand/Horsepen Bayou is it. My main reason for going there was to photograph Osprey and Tricolored Heron, Osprey are a winter resident in southeast Texas and the places I tend to go the Tricolored Heron is a rare sighting. Not only did the bayous have a large number of both, the overall wildlife activity was very high. While I didn’t see any gators (it was cold and cloudy when I was there), the bayous are reported to have large numbers of them. So this could become a great gator photography place and I look forward to finding out just how good over the next year.

The day I went the weather called for partly cloudy skies, which turned out be cloudy with the very occasional bit of sun peaking out. Since I was after Osprey hunting photographs that would require high shutter speeds I decided not try because it would have pushed my ISO much higher than I am comfortable with. I did see a lot of them (between 15 and 20) and was able to capture this photograph of one perched on a dead tree.

EM1 w/ MZ 300mm f4.0 - ISO 200, 1/1250 @ ƒ4.0, handheld from kayak
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Osprey 001 by RRcoleJR Photography, on Flickr

With my main objective dead in the water I decided to explore the area and see if I could find any Tricolored Heron’s. As I paddled down Armand Bayou and started to make the turn to Horsepen Bayou I spotted an adult Tricolored Heron hunting on this small point about 50 yards away. Before trying to get closer I stowed my double ended kayak paddle and switched to a small wooden canoe paddle. I have found that all the movement of using the long double ended kayak paddle can sometimes spook the subject when trying to get close. The small canoe style paddle creates less visible movement and does help with getting up close and personal to the subject. Using the small paddle I got a respectable distant of around 30 feet and snapped a few photographs before he moved around the point and out of view. While working my way towards him I noticed he would work one side of the point and then move to other side and then back to the original side and I planned on using that to my advantage once I got close. After getting a few shots he moved around the point and I knew I had a few minutes to move in closer and quickly paddled towards the shore. Just after getting to the shoreline and settled into position the Heron came around the corner at a distance of about 15 feet and it just happened to corresponded with one of the rare times the sun poked out from behind the clouds. I was able to snap a few shots before one of those pontoon boats came by and spooked my Heron. The boat was full of birders on a tour of the bayou and the captain was very pleasant and apologized for the disruption. I learned a long time ago to not get upset when someone spooked my subject and told him it wasn’t a problem before continuing on my way. Here are a few shots I was able to capture of the Tricolored Heron.

EM1 w/ MZ 300mm f4.0 - ISO 200, 1/1600 @ ƒ4.0, handheld from kayak
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Tricolored Heron 003 by RRcoleJR Photography, on Flickr

EM1 w/ MZ 300mm f4.0 - ISO 200, 1/1600 @ ƒ4.0, handheld from kayak
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Tricolored Heron 002 by RRcoleJR Photography, on Flickr

EM1 w/ MZ 300mm f4.0 - ISO 200, 1/1600 @ ƒ4.0, handheld from kayak
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Tricolored Heron 001 by RRcoleJR Photography, on Flickr

Horsepen Bayou is very different from the section of Armand Bayou that I had just paddled. Where I launched from on Armand Bayou is towards the end of the bayou where it drains into Clear Lake. It’s very wide (between 100 and 200 yards) and typical of the wide flooded areas where a river empties into a body of water. This wide section of Armand Bayou is a stark contrast to Horsepen Bayou that is like most of the bayous in southeast Texas. Here are two photographs that gives a good representation of the area I was in as well as an idea of what I subject my gear to.

EM5 w/ Bower 7.5mm Fisheye
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Ascend H12 001 by RRcoleJR Photography, on Flickr

iPhone
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EM1 w/ 300mm f4.0 by RRcoleJR Photography, on Flickr

Not long after snapping those photographs I spotted a juvenile Little Blue Heron hunting along the bank. He was working his way towards me so I grounded the kayak along the bank and waited for him to get closer. As he approached I was shooting photos and video of him hunting, but the sun was really not cooperating. I managed this decent image of him and hope to get around to editing the video soon.

EM1 w/ MZ 300mm f4.0 - ISO 200, 1/1600 @ ƒ4.0, handheld from kayak
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Juvenile Little Blue Heron 001 by RRcoleJR Photography, on Flickr

I watched the Little Blue for a good 30 minutes and during that time I noticed a juvenile Tricolored Heron hunting a section of the bayou up ahead. When my Little Blue got tired of hunting and flew off I worked my way towards the Tricolored. He was hunting a rather large area and would quickly work his way from one end of his hunting ground to the other. The midpoint of his hunting grounds was a large log that was adjacent to what was like a little shallow (about 6 inches deep at most) inlet off the bayou. In the photograph below his hunting grounds was from that muddy shoreline just above the flash bracket of my EM1 on the bipod, along both sides of the log, the shallow inlet, and the shoreline for about 30 feet behind me.

EM5 w/ Bower 7.5mm Fisheye
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Ascend H12 002 by RRcoleJR Photography, on Flickr

The distance from where I was in the above photo to the end of the log was about 50 feet, so he was hunting a good 100 feet of the shoreline and I had watched him long enough to notice a pattern. He would work that far shoreline above the EM1 until he got to the log, at which point he would move along the log and peck at it. His pecking would scare the small minnows under the log and he would catch them as they came out. After checking the log he would run thru the shallow inlet catching small minnows before working the shoreline back behind me in the photograph. Then he would do the same thing in reverse before starting over again.

When he got near the far end of his hunting range I moved up using the canoe paddle to a point that was about 5-10 feet away from the end of his range. On his return hunt he got within 10 feet and didn’t seem to mind me sitting there so I waited for him to get back to the far end. Once he got to the far end I moved up to the location you see in the above photograph.

I have my kayak equipped with anchor trollies on both sides so I can position it facing any direction regardless of wind and/or current conditions. To secure the kayak into position I at times use an anchor or a stake out pole, but either one of those requires more movement/noise/commotion than I can get away with at times. While I carry those items for securing myself in place I also keep two lengths of paracord (about 3 foot in length) in one of the pockets on my PFD (Personal Floatation Device aka life jacket) that I tend to use more than anything else. I will tie the cord to anything I can find (even weeds, lily pads make a great tie off object) and then to something on the kayak. Most of the times I will tie the other end to my anchor trolly so I can better position myself. This time the up angled branch made the perfect place to lock myself into position and tie off to the bipod. I will also ground the kayak on the shore or even weed beds to keep in one spot. My favorite is grounding when I can and then using the paracord, I hate using the anchor or stake out pole but sometimes they are the only option. The anchor always goes with me because it’s easy to store, but the stake out pole I only bring if I know I could use it because it’s a bitch storing a 10 foot pole so that it is not in the way or catching vegetation when paddling.

Guess this is the perfect time to bring up my PFD. I never paddle without wearing it and I MEAN NEVER. We have several kayak related deaths each year in the Houston area and in every one of them the person was not wearing their PFD. I personally only use PFD’s by Astral Design, been using them for many years now and I trust them with my life. I prefer their white water kayak PFD’s because they fit better and are designed a little different. But, they started making a high quality recreational kayak PFD in Reat Tree Camouflage that I recently got and I really like it. The pockets are very well designed and I use them for a variety of things like a place to put my lens caps for the lenses I am using or the caps off the TC I am using or even the TC if I remove it but want it in easy reach. Even if it wasn’t for the safety aspects I would still wear it because I have come to rely on those pockets for a number of things.

Back to mister Tricolored…………..

After getting locked into position the heron started his way back towards me. On his first pass he was working his way along the log and when he got to the kayak he pecked on it twice. I had lost sight of him when he got close because of the branch and it scared the shit out of me when I heard that tap tap on the kayak, was not expecting that. Mr heron didn’t miss a beat and kept on going about his business of eating as many little minnows as he could catch.

I watched him for just over 1 1/2 hours and he worked his hunting grounds the same way as before I got there. But he only pecked the kayak that first time, I think it scared the shit out of him also. He never seemed to care about me sitting there in the kayak and would regularly get to close for the 300/4 to focus. I had to switch the focus limiter to full range because he was moving between the short and long distance settings.

I will take this opportunity to mention that I am very thankful for the focus limiter on the 300/4. I have found the lens very responsive in my shooting up until this point when it would have to rack thru the full focal range when missing focus. In this situation it felt a lot slower than when using either of the other limited range settings.

I chanced moving into the middle of his hunting range because I wanted him really close. The light wasn’t the best and I have photographs of Tricolored Herons, so sitting outside his hunting range wasn’t going to get me anything I didn’t already have. I have this shot in my head that I want to capture and it will require me being at minimum focus distance. My goal is to capture a shot with the tip of the beak just out of the water with some type of prey, but I want that to fill the frame or have very little crop. That way it could be printed 40x30 with all that amazing detail the 300/4 would resolve at that close distance. Getting up close shots like this is why I bought the 300/4 and this was my first chance to try since getting it. I did not succeed and I learned that trying to keep that head in frame when it’s almost filling it as it moves around is almost impossible. I think this is one of the shots that is going elude me for a very long time.

While I didn’t get the photograph I was after, I did get some really great shots of him. At the end I will put the link to my DPR album with these photographs if you are interested in full resolution. I do want to mention that all the photographs in this post have little to no crop other than maybe changing aspect ratio.

This first photograph really shows just how much detail that 300/4 can resolve. Another one of those photographs that makes me glad I bought this lens.

EM1 w/ MZ 300mm f4.0 - ISO 200, 1/800 @ ƒ4.0, handheld from kayak
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Juvenile Tricolored 004 by RRcoleJR Photography, on Flickr

I was shooting at the full 10fps of the EM1 when taking these next two photographs and this is a great example of just how fast these guys move when striking for a fish. These are consecutive frames and I was happy that 1/800 was fast enough. I like trying to shoot at base ISO and it’s a gamble shooting birds striking at 1/800 because sometimes it’s not fast enough to freeze the head.

EM1 w/ MZ 300mm f4.0 - ISO 200, 1/800 @ ƒ4.0, handheld from kayak
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Juvenile Tricolored 003 by RRcoleJR Photography, on Flickr

EM1 w/ MZ 300mm f4.0 - ISO 200, 1/800 @ ƒ4.0, handheld from kayak
24387449687_5b4429b6db_k.jpg
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Juvenile Tricolored 001 by RRcoleJR Photography, on Flickr

I held my camera over the edge and just above the water for this next photograph. It was not easy trying to frame him while he walked around and it resulted in me having to crop just a small amount to straighten the photo. But this is probably my favorite photograph of the day.

EM1 w/ MZ 300mm f4.0 - ISO 200, 1/1000 @ ƒ4.0, handheld over the side of my kayak and just above the water
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Juvenile Tricolored 002 by RRcoleJR Photography, on Flickr

It was a great day on the water and I can’t wait to back there this Saturday. This weekend it’s going to be cold and I am hoping not windy. When I was out shooting these photographs it was in the 30’s with 20mph winds (gust to 30+). I know those in the north get a lot colder so they can ignore this next part, plus they probably don’t kayak much with everything frozen.

I have been out in temperatures down to around 15 in my kayak and when dressed properly it’s really not that bad. When it gets cold I wear insulated rubber boots with several layers of wool socks. I have all kinds of high tech fiber stuff and I use it, but when it comes to my feet I just prefer wool…….especially when I know the chance of getting wet is high. But I do have a pair of my cycling socks as the first layer because they do a great job of wicking any moisture from my feet. I go with rubber boots because if I go in I can easily slip out of them. I know some people use waders but I just don’t trust them, to easy to drown because you can’t out of them and when they flood you are going under.

For my outer layer I use these bibs from Bass Pro Shops. Bass Pro makes a line of jackets and bibs for fishing when it is cold/wet/windy and they work amazingly well. They are wind/water proof with a small amount of insulation and make the perfect outer layer. When I get in the kayak I tuck them into the rubber boots to keep them dry, but pull them out and over the boots once in. I also have the matching jacket but I wear my camouflage jacket since it is also wind/water proof. I then just layer cloths under for the temperature range I am expecting. There is always more wind when on the water so having cloths that are wind proof is very important. When I was out taking these photos the temperature wasn’t bad, but that wind was brutal.

For my hands I use these gloves by a small local company that are made for fishing. They are made from neoprene and keep your hands warm when wet, which is important since they are always wet in the kayak. They are made for fishing and have slits in the index finger and thumb for sticking the ends out. I really only need those two fingers (well finger and thumb) to shoot the camera so they work perfectly. I have used them in weather down to around 5 degrees and my hands have stayed warm. Only part that gets cold are the ends I stick out to work the camera.

One other important element on being safe is the large dry bag I bring in the kayak. The bag contains a complete change of clothing and a towel for the time I turn over far from the Jeep. Notice I said “for the time” and not “if”, it hasn’t happened yet but it eventually will. I don’t have extra boots but I will be able to mostly dry the insides and the fresh dry wool socks will keep me warm until I get back. I do have the matching jacket to my bibs as well as my insulated camo bibs which are wind/water proof. The camo bibs are super warm and a little bulky, so I don’t like wearing them in the kayak unless it’s really cold. I also don’t really need camo on the legs when sitting in the kayak.

Hope everyone enjoyed the photographs and story about my day on the water. If anyone has any questions just ask and I will answer the best I can. As always any and all comments are welcomed.

Regards

Ronnie aka Phocal

Link to full resolution images in my DPR album - Armand/Horsepen Bayou: Phocal: Galleries: Digital Photography Review : Digital Photography Review
 

pondball

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the near far nord, eh!
Another brilliant post... thanks for sharing Ronnie! (@Phocal )

The gloves you use sound like they would also be a good cold weather fit for us up here. Are these custom fit gloves or does your local supplier make them for individual orders only? You said you use them in wet conditions but would they be as warm if we didn't dip them in water before heading out into our sub-zero temps?
 

Phocal

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Another brilliant post... thanks for sharing Ronnie! (@Phocal )

Thank you, appreciate the comment.

The gloves you use sound like they would also be a good cold weather fit for us up here. Are these custom fit gloves or does your local supplier make them for individual orders only? You said you use them in wet conditions but would they be as warm if we didn't dip them in water before heading out into our sub-zero temps?

My understanding is this is a local company out of Corpus Christi and the only place I know you can get the gloves is from Academy. Academy is a regional sporting goods store that started in Texas and is now in 16 states. I am betting they are generic gloves from someplace that they put their brand on, but I have never seen anything like them so they could be unique. Either way here is the link and they are really cheap - Texas Slam 3.5 mm Neoprene Fishing Gloves | Academy

I use them all winter here, even when not in the kayak. I haven't found anything I like better for shooting in and for 99% of the places I go they are more than warm enough.
 

zzffnn

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Ronnie,

Thank you for sharing those beautiful images and a fascinating story. It is great to see my favorite place through your lenses.

Did you wear wind-proof hat that covered your ears and part of your face? That should help with cold weather too. You probably know already; about 80% of your heat loss goes through your head/face/ears.

For that head image that eluded you, do you think it could be obtained with flash? Your flash can reach much further than 1.5m, though light pulsations might scare away birds (and probably should only be used a last resort)? And of course, it would still be very difficult to frame the fast-moving bird beak/head with minnow perfectly, even with flash; it would more likely be a blind shot.

You will see baby gators there when it warms up. I saw quite a few without searching for them on purpose. They may be very shy, though I am sure you know how to get closer than I did.

And you reminded me that I need to install DIY anchor trolleys onto my kayak.

Edit: This Saturday or Sunday may be a good time to go indeed. There are usually lots of fish activities in marsh, 1-2 days after a cold front lands, according to a marine biology professor / avid angler that I know. A cold front is landing in Houston on Thursday night. More fish means more birding, I am guessing. Weather forecast says sunny in this weekend too.

Cheers,
Fan
 
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Phocal

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Ronnie,

Thank you for sharing those beautiful images and a fascinating story. It is great to see my favorite place through your lenses.

You are welcome and thanks for the comment.

Did you wear wind-proof hat that covered your ears and part of your face? That should help with cold weather too. You probably know already; about 80% of your heat loss goes through your head/face/ears.

I have multiple items with me for my head. My old floppy hat (I lost it on this outing) was heavy cotton and I would pair it with either a ear band, skull cap, or full face mask depending on the temp. None of it is wind proof, but if I get cold I use the hood on my jacket which is wind proof. I have lots of tricks for keeping warm, years of cycling in Seattle year around has taught me a lot. I forgot to mention that I also carry some of those 4 gallon trash bags to put on my feet if needed (they work great to keep your feet warm if your wool socks get completely wet).

For that head image that eluded you, do you think it could be obtained with flash? Your flash can reach much further than 1.5m, though light pulsations might scare away birds (and probably should only be used a last resort)? And of course, it would still be very difficult to frame the fast-moving bird beak/head with minnow perfectly, even with flash; it would more likely be a blind shot.

Not sure how much a flash would help. But I will be using flash some now that I picked up a Godox V860iiO (my Better Beamer arrives today). The biggest problem is just keeping the head in the frame as the bird strikes while maintaining focus. I want to play with my Godox for a bit and if I like the system going to get a few more flashes so I can play around with lighting gators. Since an adult on the shore sunny will lay there for hours, I actually have time to set up some lighting and shoot. So I want to play with flash on gators. All of that has me thinking of ways to mount flashes on the kayak so I can use them there. Already working out mounting ideas that will allow me rotate the flash to desired direction.

You will see baby gators there when it warms up. I saw quite a few without searching for them on purpose. They may be very shy, though I am sure you know how to get closer than I did.

I really hope so. The one place I know that is great for gators from the kayak has parking that you have to worry about your vehicle (Sheldon Reservior, believe we talked about it). So I am really hoping Armand becomes a great gator spot, espeically baby gators. Do you mostly see them on Armand Bayou or Horsepen? I only went down Armand to Horsepen, didn’t go farther down stream.

There are tricks to getting close to baby gators from the kayak as long as mama is cooperative. The biggest issue is mama, so each one has to be approached cautiously until you learn how she reacts. Most of my baby gator spots I have been watching for years and have come to learn the mama gators. Armand will take me a few years to get great baby gator shots, but the time spent will be worth it.

And you reminded me that I need to install DIY anchor trolleys onto my kayak.

I always paddle my kayak for a few months before mounting anything that will require drilling holes because you can’t undrill a hole. Well you can plastic weld, but I prefer to be sure about it before drilling. But the anchor trolly on both sides is something I do as soon as I get a kayak. I know I want and will use them and a lot of times I couldn’t stay in the correct position without them.....so they go on day one. It’s the only thing I do without thinking, everything else takes a few months of planning to make sure.

Edit: This Saturday or Sunday may be a good time to go indeed. There are usually lots of fish activities in marsh, 1-2 days after a cold front lands, according to a marine biology professor / avid angler that I know. A cold front is landing in Houston on Thursday night. More fish means more birding, I am guessing. Weather forecast says sunny in this weekend too.

Cheers,
Fan

I am going Saturday and the report calls for a sunny day but it’s going to be below 30 when I launch. I believe there is also going to be 10-15mph winds, which will make it even colder on the water. But I love the beautiful winter light we get here on cold clear days. So I am expecting some magical light.......just need to find a subject to photograph as the sun does it thing while coming over the horizon.

Yes, the cold front will increase fish activity and hopefully Osprey hunting activity as well. They are going to be my main focus since the light should be perfect. If it really is sunny the gators should be out later in the morning, hope to get some shots of them as well.

Regards,
Ronnie
 

zzffnn

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I saw those gators in Armand Bayou, not long after I launched from the kayak dock, before I reached Horsepen Bayou.
 

Phocal

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I saw those gators in Armand Bayou, not long after I launched from the kayak dock, before I reached Horsepen Bayou.

I think my first trip and definitely my last trip (below freezing when I launched) were on the cold side to see gators. What's crazy is last Saturday it was below freezing and this Saturday it is going to be 70. The tides will be decent for Armand Bayou this Saturday but I really want to experiment with my flash and gator photographs so thinking Brazos Bend, the gators should be out in force if it gets close to 70.
 

AllanG

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Thanks for a really interesting post with excellent images. Always read it top to bottom and actually learn something.
Thanks for your input
 
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