For some reason, people are squeamish about getting their feet wet. There seems to be a natural biological imperative that screams “stay high and dry” whenever one gets close to water. Maybe people just don’t like the feel of cold water on their toes. Or maybe they’re afraid of whatever squishy creepy-crawly things that might be lurking in the depths. Whatever the reason, you need to fight this aversion when you get near the wet stuff. If you don’t, you will find that you miss some fun moments, or even worse–you might miss some great shots!
Getting in the water is sometimes the key to finding unique angles, and often the only way to get the composition you want or to capture a fleeting moment of light. For the image above, incoming waves were a critical component of my composition, as I was looking to mirror the shape of the clouds in the sky. That meant getting in the surf zone, and taking the occasional foot bath (or worse) whenever a large wave rolled in.
Unfortunately, water photography has its challenges. First and foremost, the human body is not well-equipped for long-term exposure to water. When working in warmer water, or if you don’t plan on getting too deep, a pair of water sandals will often do the trick. If working in cold water, you’ll need more protection. A pair of wading boots—or better yet, fishing waders—can come in handy. When I am working in very deep water, I will sometimes even don a wetsuit or dry suit. For the image above of Rainbow Falls in the Adirondacks of upstate New York, I put on a pair of chest-high fishing waders and worked in four feet of water so I could get a close-up, wide angle perspective of a thundering rapid in my foreground.
When working in or near water, handle your equipment with care. Most tripods don’t like deep water (especially those with collar locks), and no tripod likes salt water (although wooden ones seem to handle salt water better than carbon fiber or aluminum). If you get water inside your tripod, you may need to disassemble it and let it dry out. Wash your tripod after working in salt water. If necessary, store camera and lenses in a dry bag, only taking them out when you are ready to shoot. Be extra careful when working in fast moving currents or near large waves—don’t sacrifice your equipment or your safety just to get a shot, no matter how good it is.
For the image above of reflections in the Virgin River, taken in Zion National Park, I encouraged a group of my workshop students to get into knee-deep water with me to capture this scene. Sunset light was striking a canyon wall in the background, reflecting colorful light into the moving waters. Although it was a bone-chilling experience, it was the most fun we had in five days of photographing Zion.
Despite the challenges of shooting in water, there’s little doubt in my mind that it is worth the effort. So roll up your pant legs, take off your shoes, and plunge right in!
P.S. I just released my latest eBook, 10 Easy Ways to Improve Your Wildlife Photos, a downloadable 34-page PDF filled with informative text, full-color images, and plenty of insights and inspiration—just in time for the holidays!