Story and photograph by Jim Clark
In the last issue of eNews (Part I), I wrote about a private cruise along the Alaskan Coast where I was invited to teach photography. In that piece, I emphasized the importance of keeping your equipment and yourself safe and weatherproof when photographing from a small boat. Now that we are warm and cozy, and our equipment is protected from the fickle elements of the weather, let’s explore some shooting techniques.
Unless you are photographing from a ship (remember, a boat fits on a ship, but a ship cannot fit on a boat), a tripod is not going to be useful. There is too much wave action and other vibration-causing variables, such as boat motors, breaching whales, splashing seals and such. Handholding your equipment is the way to go on a small skiff. Having the luxury of great technology today is helpful in achieving sharp images when handholding gear.
I use vibration reduction on my Nikon gear, and all lens manufacturers have some form of this technology, but they may have different names for it. With vibration reduction, you can take pictures at shutter speeds three to five stops slower than you normally would. It can make a big difference in the number of images you keep. For the Nikon lenses, I engage both the vibration reduction and active modes when photographing from a boat. I just have to be sure to switch the active mode back to normal when I’m finished.
Use zoom lenses when photographing from a skiff so you don’t have to constantly switch lenses and risk getting water on the camera’s sensor. For photographing wildlife, I used both the Nikkor AFS 80-400 VR and Nikkor AF-S VR 200-400mm lenses. The latter is much heavier and takes more muscle to hold, but I was surprised at the high number of keepers I got from handholding this lens. For wide-angle shots, I used a Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. Hint: I had each lens on separate camera bodies, so I did not have to switch lenses back and forth, further reducing the risk of water damage.
To steady the camera and lens, I used my left hand as a cradle under the lens and my right hand to hold the camera body, keeping my elbows tight against my body. I discovered this method worked whether I was sitting or standing.
Speed is essential when photographing in these situations, so use the highest shutter speed possible without sacrificing image quality. I set my camera to continuous high and at the fastest frame rate. My ISO settings varied with the amount of ambient light, but I was comfortable using ISOs of 800 up to 1600 in low-light situations. The quality image resolution with today’s lineup of DSLRs is amazing at these higher ISOs, so take advantage of that. I started with the native ISO resolution of my camera and worked up from there to get the shutter speed I needed to freeze the action.
While I will always remain a landlocked, terrain-loving photographer, photographing from small skiffs was fun, and I got a different perspective for photographing wildlife. All this was made better since my son, Carson, was by my side, also photographing the wonders of the Alaskan coast.
A past NANPA President, Jim is a contributing editor for Outdoor Photographer and nature photography instructor for Chincoteague Bay Field Station, Wallops Island, Virginia. The author/photographer of six books, Jim is particularly proud of two children’s books he did with his son Carson. Visit Jim’s website at www.jimclarkphoto.com, blog at www.jimclarkphoto.wordpress.com or visit him on Facebook.