How To Remote Photograph on a Kayak

CHARLOTTE, NC – AUGUST 24: 3-Time Olympian Scott Shipley of the USA paddles down the rapids during the official training session for the US Slalom Kayaking Championships on August 24, 2006 in Charlotte, North Carolina at the US National Whitewater Center.  (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

One mid-summer day back in 2006, I was lounging around the casa surfing the internet thinking of ideas on an offbeat event to shoot. I was originally looking for an outdoor swimming or diving event to cover because I wanted to do some underwater remote photography in nice light, but then came upon an article about the US Slalom Kayaking Championships being held at the recently opened US National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. I immediately thought, “If I can set up a remote underwater in a pool and on a bobsled going 80 miles per hour, why can’t I do one for a kayak?” The wheels immediately began to turn then spin. Mind you this was the days before the GoPro Hero water cameras that weigh 15 ounces rather than 15 pounds. The water housing I was using at the time was an SPL, and although a bit bulky with it’s aluminum construction it was fairly light and had custom features I had Sean Labrie build, including a remote cable firing capabilities and threaded holes to attach to a ball head. I mounted the housing to a light metal plate that had an antiskid rubberized bottom using a Slik ball head. The plan was then to attach the rig to the front of the kayak with ratchet straps and use a small foam floatation device to offset the weight of the camera and that would also be useful for retrieval if the rig slipped off the vessel. Since I only had the rough physical dimensions of a kayak and didn’t have one I could test on, I planned to prepare most of the remote on site; therefore, I would have to allocate extra time for set-up, and bring as much gear as possible with me to make sure I had the flexibility to change the set-up on the kayak if needed. After I had figured out the technical logistics of the camera placement, now I had to sort out how to pitch the idea to my employer and the organizers.

At the time I was a staff photographer at Getty Images, so I called my Managing Editor Brandon Lopez to see if he would approve travel expense to Charlotte for the event. Since he had recently added a new young and talented photographer Streeter Lecka to staff in Charlotte, it was a hard pitch but he agreed if I could stay at Streeter’s pad, and spend no more than $500 on all expenses (flight, food, transport) I had the green light. I had run on limited budgets on editorial shoots before, so this was no problem and I knew if I got a money frame it would pay for the costs ten times over. Next, I contacted the US Kayak and Canoe to introduced myself, told them of my plans to cover their event and requested mounting the camera on one of the kayaks during the competition. “Well, the only person who is probably capable and willing of going down the rapids with a large camera attached to their vessel is Shipley,” the media officer told me over the phone. For those of you who don’t frequent the kayak and canoeing circles, Scott Shipley is not only one of the most decorated US kayakers of all-time, but also a three-time Olympian and the course designer for the US National Whitewater Center. “He could run the course with his eyes closed,” he continued, ”Let me contact Scott and see if he would agree to this.” A couple days later, I received and email from the media officer from US Kayak and Canoe saying that Scott was totally down and forwarded Scott’s info along to me so I could touch base with him over any technical issues I may have. I spoke to Scott leading up to the event, and ironed out the final logistics for the shoot with him, including which day of the event we would meet and shoot the photo. Finally, I shot an email to Sports Illustrated’s Photo Editor Jimmy Colton, told him of my plans and if he would be interested in possibly looking at the photos if I had anything good. I had contributed many photos to Jimmy in the past and as always he was supportive and expressed interest in the photos.

The day had come for the shot, and I met Scott a couple hours before his first run at the top of the course. He brought his kayak, and with the help of Streeter Lecka, we started to put the rig together. About half way through, my Slik ball-head snapped because it was corroded from underwater usage from previous swimming shoots, and with only an hour or so before Scott’s run I began to panic. “Dude, I got an extra one back at my pad!” Streeter said in his classic Southern accent and he ran back to his house like a champ and about 20 minutes later we were back in business. After tightening the ratchet straps to the camera and kayak, even though it was a bit top heavy, I was surprised how stable it was. Inside the housing I had a Canon Mark II with a 15mm fisheye lens attached to a remote trigger that ran through a port to an external waterproof cable. I ran that cable along the side of the kayak, attached with waterproof tape, up into Scott’s life vest to a pocket wizard receiver in a waterproof bag. The final preparations had to be done while Scott was in the kayak floating in the water so we could tuck any of the extra cable slack under the rubber bib and into his kayak.

CHARLOTTE, NC – AUGUST 24:  Scott Shipley paddles down the rapids with a camera rig attached to the front of his kayak during the U.S. Slalom Kayaking Championships at the U.S. National Whitewater Center August 24, 2006 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

My heart raced as Scott took his first strokes with his paddle down the water, tainted red with the fresh dirt still present from the new construction.  I sprinted as fast as I could along side the man-made river, holding and firing my pocket wizard transceiver in my hand, praying it was firing the camera. Fans, coaches and other athletes smiled and looked on in amazement  as Scott skillfully negotiated class IV rapids and whitewater with grace and ease and I ran like a little kid following him down the hill. Even with an extra 10-15lbs on the front of his kayak, not once did he loose control and like all elite athletes in their zone he  looked effortless.

When I met him in the pool at the bottom of the rapids I was panting like a dog from my run while he was slightly out of breath like a man who just took a leisure walk in the park rather than a person who just paddled down angry whitewater. We immediately took the camera off, which was intact, and looked at the previews on the LCD through the back of the housing. “How does it look?” Scott asked. I quickly scrolled through about 300 frames that were shot as the camera hosed down his run, and found the frame and smiled. There was just one frame of the red tide of the river completely encircling and framing Scott and his vessel, that was one in a million and one of those lucky moments when preparation meets opportunity. “It looks awesome,” I said, shook his hand, thanked him, and told him I would send him some copies.

When we got back to Streeter’s place, we ordered pizza and drank beer while we edited our takes. I ftp’d a selection to Getty and also directly to Jimmy at SI, and he replied immediately via email “Do you have a picture of the set-up?” Once again, Streeter came through by taking a photo of Scott coming down the rapids with his 400mm, and I sent that along to Jimmy as well. SI ran my photo as a Leading Off double-truck with Streeter’s photo as an inset, and it also landed on the front page of the New York Times sports section. To top it off, my expenses were under-budget at $450 for the entire trip, including our celebratory night in Charlotte we had following the shoot. Proper preparation as well as a little help from a friend made my idea into a reality as well as a great time, and that’s what it’s all about.

Copy of the double page spread in SI’s Leading Off opener that featured both of our photos…