How to Take Awesome Rafting Photos

4 Min. Read

There’s no secret to great photography. It’s a matter of getting out there and going for it. But shooting photos or video on a whitewater rafting trip presents unique challenges. As OARS in-house photographer, I’ve learned a few tricks that have helped me create rafting photos I’m happy with. Below are a few tips that will hopefully help you get the images you want.

A case full of cameras and lenses

Don’t Go Overboard with Gear

In the past, we’ve broken down the best camera gear for river trips. The bottomline is on a whitewater rafting trip, the best camera is one that you’re familiar with, one that can get a little (or very) dirty and one that can squeeze into a dry bag. We’re not saying don’t bring your high-end camera and lenses, but consider swapping overly-bulky gear for more compact and versatile equipment.

Playing food games on the Klamath

Wait for the Perfect Moment…or Don’t

The tough thing about photography on a river trip is there will likely be more great photo opportunities than any one person could reasonably catch with a shutter button. Rather than racing around firing off photos like an outdoorsy paparazzi, take time to think about what images you really want.

Pull out the camera when the light is really good, like morning and evening, instead of filling your memory card with harsh shadows and bright highlights. Let guides know you’d like to shoot some photos on the trip and they can often tip you off when something cool is coming up or help you access an interesting vantage point. But don’t forget to grab a few candid photos of you and your campmates. They’re often the most telling.

Raining on the Main Salmon

Capture the Honest Experience

Not every trip is going to be all sunshine and rainbows. And that’s okay! Sometimes a little misadventure is what really makes an adventure. The tough times are often a good time to grab the camera. There’s nothing like getting goofy for a photo in a downpour or a dust storm to lighten the mood. These are often the memories that stand out when the trip is over. Might as well make them fun.

Sunset in Cataract Canyon with rafts in the foreground

Go Wide!

Most river trips in the West will take you through some amazing scenery. To capture the landscape and open blue sky (hopefully dotted with fluffy white clouds), we recommend using a wide angle lens or the widest camera setting if you’re using a phone. The best landscape shots use both the foreground and background, so look for cool features like wildflowers or your fellow rafters to include in your sweeping views.

A butterfly perched on a rafters arm

Look for the Little Things

It’s okay to get lost in the big beautiful landscapes. But there are so many details on the river that create a distinctive experience. Look for amazing textures, subtleties in the canyon light, artfully-crafted plates of food and some really cool butterflies. If you observe the surroundings thoughtfully, there’s always an interesting image to be made.

Splashing through a rapid South Fork American River

Shoot Tight

Get close! Whether you’re in the boat or shooting from shore, the best whitewater rafting photos make you feel like you’re part of the action. If you’re in the boat, an uber-wide lens allows you to be right in the middle of things and can capture your splashy surroundings. That’s just one of the reasons GoPros are an ideal camera for river trips. Their ultra-wide lens allows you to be right in the middle of the action. If you’re shooting from shore, you’ll want a solid telephoto or zoom lens of at least 200mm. With a phone, avoid the digital zoom which will decrease your image quality.

Camera in a plastic bag housing

Protect Your Equipment

You’re not going to have any photos if your camera is at the bottom of the river. Damaging (or losing!) your gear will put a damper on a trip. Using floating straps and waterproof, dustproof, crushproof cases if you’re using your phone is a good idea. GoPros are great as long as they’re secured to whatever mounts you’re using. For mirrorless or DSLR cameras, bring solid padded bags that can fit inside dry bags. Hard cases like Pelican can be a good option, but it’s best to avoid sizes larger than a carry-on, as they might not fit well in the rafts.

Photography by Justin Bailie, James Kaiser, Dylan Silver, Cindi Stephan, David Hessell

Portrait of Dylan Silver

Dylan Silver

Dylan Silver is the digital marketing and foundation coordinator for OARS. He loves photography and exploring California's rivers and lakes.

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