I’ve been photographing OARS trips since 2003, and I’ve learned a lot about river photography. Taking great photos on river trips definitely presents a unique set of challenges. Water, dirt, dust, sand—they’ll all gravitate to your camera. But don’t stress. From choosing the right camera and accessories to some helpful insider tips, here’s what you need to know to avoid camera disasters on the river.
Which Camera is Right for You?
These small, waterproof cameras are terrific for river trips. You can take action-packed selfies, timed sequences, videos and more. GoPros are so common on OARS trips that many helmets have GoPro mounts on top. I’ve even seen a few rafts and dories with GoPro mounts attached to the bow. But these popular cameras have one major downside: a super wide angle lens, which distorts perspective and makes it hard to clearly capture anything more than a few feet away. But if you want great photos of spectacular scenery—or non-selfie people shots—you’re better off with other cameras.
I’m constantly impressed by the quality of new point-and-shoot cameras. If you have zero interest in technical details (aperture, shutter speed, ISO) or interchangeable lenses, you can still take great shots with just about any new point-and-shoot. And they have one big benefit over professional gear: compact size. You can easily stash them in a small dry bag—or even a Ziplock bag—and pull them out quick. Some point-and-shoots are even waterproof.
Want to use your smartphone camera on the river? Buy a LifeProof waterproof case. I recently learned about this brand from longtime river guide Chris Moore, who treats his smartphone far worse than you ever will. If it’s good enough for Chris, it’s good enough for you. The only downside: you might be tempted to use your smartphone! #Annoying #LiveInTheMoment #YouCanSurviveWithoutEmail. Fortunately, most river trips are in areas with limited phone service, so you probably won’t have that option anyway.
Nothing takes photos like a good DSLR. The problem: they’re extremely un-waterproof. Yes, there are underwater housings used by scuba divers, but they’re expensive, bulky and, quite frankly, a pain to use above water. I use GoPros for splashy shots; I use my DSLR for the calm, scenic stretches in between. How do you protect your DSLR? I use a Pelican Case, but you can also use a waterproof dry bag. More on this below. Just give yourself plenty of time to stash your camera before you hit the rapids!
Must-have Camera Accessories for River Trips
I can’t recommend these enough! Use one bag to store cleaning accessories. Use another for batteries and memory cards. Ziplock bags keep your items clean, organized and provide an additional layer of waterproof protection.
Microfiber Cleaning Cloth
Good photographers always carry microfiber cleaning cloths to wipe fingerprints and smudges off camera lenses. On river trips, they provide another important function: wiping away water droplets. Make sure you use a microfiber cloth; regular cotton can scratch your lens.
Lens Cleaning Solution
If you’ve got a big smudge on your lens, a quick squirt of lens cleaning solution will get it off quick. (Regular water can potentially damage the lens). Most photographers recommend squirting the solution on a microfiber cloth, then cleaning the lens.
Manual Air Blower
When you spend time outdoors, dirt, dust and sand are a fact of life. Wiping them away with a microfiber cloth can potentially scratch your lens. A manual air blower gently blows away small particles, after which you can safely use a cleaning cloth. Note: don’t use compressed air cans, which sometimes squirt liquid that can damage your lens.
These soft, flexible bags are rolled at the top and clipped together, creating a watertight seal. Whenever I use a dry bag for camera gear, I stuff a t-shirt in the bottom and another t-shirt on top, providing a dual layer of padding that can absorb some water if necessary.
Or, for total peace of mind, invest in a Pelican Case. These hard plastic cases are 100 percent waterproof, yet you can quickly access their contents by flipping two secure latches. The inside is filled with soft foam that can be plucked out in the exact shape of whatever you’d like to protect and they come in a wide range of sizes, so finding one for your camera is easy. I don’t think I’ve ever met a river guide who doesn’t own a Pelican Case.