Capturing the Wilderness: Tips for Better Canoe and Kayak Photos

Art & Science, Recreation

Why do some photos look better than others? Why, when you point your camera at a misty sunrise, doesn’t it come out looking nearly as good as what you saw.

How do professional photographers do it?

These days, taking a picture (or a thousand pictures) to share with your friends is easier than ever. But truly capturing the magic of what you see and experience, that’s an art that still needs to be learned.

Last week, we were lucky enough to be joined Bryan Hansel, a professional photographer based in Grand Marais Minnesota who has logged thousands of hours chasing the light and capturing the splendor of the Northwoods.

Hansel also teaches photography classes throughout the year, both around the Boundary Waters and throughout the country. He’s a passionate advocate for wilderness and we’re glad to call him a friend.

We recorded his presentation, which you can watch below. Otherwise, read on for a preview of what’s covered in this information-packed presentation.

What kind of photos do you want to take?

Great photographs begin with this question.

A few options include:

  • Candid, in-the-moment pictures of your friends and paddling partners?
  • Posed photos, such as in a great setting, in the perfect light with people posed in it (these can take time and patience)
  • Landscape
  • Wildlife
An example of a candid photograph. Courtesy of Bryan Hansel

What kind of photo you want to take will determine what kind of camera gear you bring.

For instance, for candid photos, you want something that is easy to access and ready when opportunity knocks. These require small cameras that can fit into small spaces.

You can either carry the camera in a waterproof container so they are easy to get out, or purchase a waterproof camera, which are hugely convenient and allow for some creative options you might not otherwise have.

As the photographic quality in cell phones continues to improve, many are opting to bring along their cell phones and use that as their main camera.

And you can get some great shots this way.

Hansel has done trips where, during the day, all he used was a Google Pixel, which is waterproof and it works great for high quality, candid shots. However, he found that using a phone as a camera was too close to his working life and it distracted him from the feel of being out in the wilderness. Because of this, he opts for a handheld camera instead.

Would a cell phone on a trip, even if it were to be used just for taking pictures, impact your wilderness experience? Certainly this is something to consider!

More complicated photos

For landscape shots taken early in the morning or the evening — during the magic hour — you need more gear and a full-frame camera with interchangeable lenses that have the ability to use filters.

There’s more in this presentation about the importance of filters and what you need for a basic filter kit and how to use them properly, so if you’ve been wondering how to balance the light in your photos and want to bring your photographs to the next level, watch the presentation to learn how to use these handy tools.

Strategies for iconic photos

Hansel’s talk is loaded with tips and tricks that are both simple to learn and will set you on a path to take better photos on your next canoe trip.

In addition to covering the essential gear needed for particular purposes, Hansel gives crucial pointers on how you can get those National Geographic photos. These include:

  • The near-far composition style for landscape photographs. This involves putting something visually interesting in the foreground of a photo and something cool in the background. This could be a far-off sunset with rocks and leaves in the foreground, soaking up the light from the setting sun. The task here is to connect these two elements, to show their relationship. Herein lies a great landscape photograph.
  • Using an ND Grad filter to balance the light in on the horizon with the foreground. This is an essential technique that involves using a filter to darken the bright light in background to avoid over-exposing and washing out elements in the foreground.
  • How to capture that classic kayak and canoe shot, using the canoe to lead the eye to the horizon or a point of interest.
Photo: Bryan Hansel
  • Night shots. How to set up your equipment, how long to keep the shutter open and how to use artificial light to for iconic “tents at night” shot or to “paint” the surrounding landscape with light.
  • How to prepare your camera settings to take better shots from a canoe and kayak.
  • Tips on ways to fill the frame when taking personal shots of friends and paddling partners so that the action is isolated and the focus is the people and the action.

We hope you enjoy this presentation and come back from your next canoe trip with better photos and plenty of stories to tell.

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