Photographing wildlife from a boat is something I try to do whenever possible. Using a boat as a photographic platform brings with it many advantages as well as a few challenges. In this post I’ll be discussing some of the things I think about whenever I am out on freshwater rivers like the Chobe, the Okavango and the Zambezi. I use much the same approach when it comes to boat photography in some of the estuaries and coastal lagoons that I visit on South Africa’s shoreline.
Keeping It Safe
One of the most important considerations is safety of photo gear. I only store my equipment in places on the boat where it cannot roll, slide or tip-over into the water. If I place my camera or bags on the deck of the boat, I first make sure that the deck isn’t likely to wash over with water for any reason. In shallow water especially, I remove my big lenses from tripods when travelling. Should the boat encounter a submerged obstruction, sudden deceleration can topple a tripod. Once underway, be aware of airborne spray coming over the side of the boat. A large towel makes for a great accessory when boating with camera gear, for protection and light padding.
James Weis from Eyes On Africa, working with a long lens in the Okavango Delta.
Depending on the size and design of the boat, it may be possible to set up a tripod on the deck, which is an ideal way to make use of big and heavy telephoto lenses. Be aware that boats with hard decks and lots of engine vibration can shake loose screws, nuts and other fittings on tripods and cameras over time.
Custom-built photographic boat belonging to Pangolin Photo Safaris
Dedicated photo boats like those run by Pangolin Photo Safaris are ideal, with adjustable mounts for long lenses built in to the boat design, and a dry, carpeted deck, as well as extra stability and shallow-water capability.
Handholding also works great from boats and monopods are yet another option.
When it comes to camera setup, I always set my camera on Ai Servo (Canon) or AF-C (Continuous) for Nikon and Sony cameras. This is not only because I like photographing moving subjects, but also because the boat is likely to be moving itself. Boating on most rivers typically means current and drift, which implies some movement, and I also frequently shoot whilst the boat is running steadily under power should a subject appear unexpectedly. I have much more success shooting from moving boats as opposed to trying to do the same from a moving motor vehicle, and some of my favourite shots come from such instances.
Hippo, Chobe River. Canon 70D and EF 500f4L IS ii. Shutter speed 1/800sec at f5.6, Iso 800. Click for larger view
I like the low shooting angle that I get from a boat, as compared to being up in a game drive vehicle. This often puts me close to eye level with my subjects, which makes them appear more imposing, and adds impact. It can also mean that the background is further away from the subject, which is often something I look for in my images.
When it comes to choosing focal lengths for wildlife photography from boats, I tend to favour really wide angles, from around 16mm to 50mm, and then longer focal lengths, from 300mm upwards to around 600mm, particularly as birds are often the subjects that I may be after. I try to use the wide focal lengths to capture unusual perspectives, and angles that the boat allows me to get.
Night lilies, Okavango Delta, Botswana. Canon 40D, EF-s 17-85 IS lens. Shutter speed 1/500sec at f10, Iso 250. Click for larger view
Although wide-angles and long focal lengths (between 300mm and 600mm) are those I tend to use the most, I always try to have a middle range zoom lens nearby. Lenses like the Canon EF 70-200 f4L IS and the EF 70-300L f4-5.6 IS and any other telephoto zoom lenses can be indispensable on a boat, especially when mammals are the subjects.
I tend to shoot fast shutter speeds much of the time, and especially so when there is a chance of capturing some action. When I am shooting from a boat, I don’t change this approach. The way I look at it, the subject may be moving, the boat may be moving, and I myself am not always steady, so if there is enough light, I keep my shutter speeds fast. This also means that I may have a better chance of capturing a fast-moving subject if one should appear suddenly. I am not too fussed about fast shutter speeds when shooting with wide-angle lenses. With longer focal lengths, say from 300mm and longer, I look to try and work with speeds from 1/1600 second and faster, up to 1/8000 second, when trying to photograph fast action.
Light and Water
One of the things that I think about a lot when photographing from boats is the water surface. Water both reflects and absorbs light, and this can make a big difference in just how my image may come out.
Mfolozi River, South Africa. Canon 5Dmk3 and EF 16-35L f2.8. Shutter speed 1/500sec at f8, Iso 400, Plus 0.33 Exp comp. Click for larger view
In very calm conditions, the water can become as still as a mirror, and it becomes possible to capture reflections. When attempting to do so, it is important to keep as still as possible, as too much movement inside the boat results in ripples working their way outwards, which can then ruin the reflection. I especially like using wide-angle lenses when there are reflections.
Still water also helps me whenever I have subjects, usually birds, that may fly low over the water. Unlike when shooting over land, still or relatively still water reflects light upwards, especially when the sun is a little higher in the sky.
African fish eagle, Chobe River. Canon 5Dmk3 and EF 500f4L IS. Shutter speed 1/1600sec at f6.3, Iso 640. Click for larger view
In the image of the fish eagle above, it can be clearly seen how the light is reflected upwards onto the birds underwing, on the left side of the frame (the lower wing). The pattern of the reflected ripples can even be made out on the underwing closest to the water. Without the light reflected upwards like this, the eagle would have had one wing in deep shadow. Instead, the water throws up enough light to illuminate lots of feather detail on the underwing. Obviously this effect is lessened the higher the bird flies above the water.
I also look for reflections of my subjects over water, and this works best when the water gets very still.
African skimmers, Chobe River. Canon 1Dmk4 and EF 300f2.8L IS. Shutter speed 1/2500sec at f5.6, Iso 640. Click for larger view
Even tiny ripples will break up the reflection but it can still add something to the image, as with the image of four young African skimmers photographed above. These birds were learning to fly and to ‘skim,’ and flew straight towards the boat I was in.
If I am on the water when the sun is low to the horizon, either rising or setting, I keep a close watch on the atmospheric conditions. Some clouds, and dust, or other haze in the air can sometimes turn the sky orange or red.
African elephant, Chobe River, Botswana. Canon 1Dmk4 and EF 70-300L f4-5.6 IS lens. Shutter speed 1/5000sec at f5, Iso 1250. Click for larger view
If the sky turns to a rich colour, then the surface of the water will pick that up too, especially if it is smooth. When I suspect such situations might occur, I try very hard to locate a wildlife subject that I can include in my frame. At times like that it is an option to photograph against the sun, and to create a silhouette of my subject, which in this image was a young bull elephant. It is also usually quite easy to move the boat to precisely where I want it, to best line-up subjects, sky and sun.
Without wheels, boats can be quite stealthy too, and quite often I am able to get closer to shy subjects than with any other method.
Half-collared kingfisher, Nxaxo River, South Africa. Canon 40D and EF300L f4 IS. Shutter speed 1/1000sec at f5, Iso 320. Click for larger view
I was able to photograph this half-collared kingfisher in an estuary on the east coast of South Africa with just a 300mm lens and a cautious approach, made with a very quiet boat.
Virtually all of the things I have mentioned in this text that are of benefit to stills photographers, also make well-designed boats ideal platforms for video shooting. Videographers especially appreciate the smooth, panning movement that boats allow them to capture, as well as unusually low shooting angles.
Filming African elephant, Chobe River, Botswana, using a Chobe Savanna Lodge boat.
Last Word About Boats
One of the better places for boat based photography is the Chobe River. To increase my chances of seeing good things, and getting good photographic opportunities, I usually spend my time on the river there either with Chobe Savanna Lodge, or Pangolin Photo Safaris. Both these operators have safe, stable, well-designed, boats that can be reconfigured to suit the number of photographers I might be working with, as well as very good guides/boat drivers.