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Wade Right In: A Nature Photographer’s Guide to Wading to Get the Best Shot

I spend a lot of time in the water wading after shots, both in fresh and saltwater, so much so that I often joke I don’t know how to work a camera unless I am wet.  Wading provides unique opportunities to approach wildlife or capture scenes that you simply can’t get from dry land. However, it can also be difficult and dangerous.  But, with education and preparation, you can keep yourself and your gear safe, while getting some amazing photo opportunities.

Why Get In?

Take 1 part camera, mix in 1 part saltwater, add 1 part clumsy photographer, and you can end up with an expensive doorstop.  A freshwater camera bath is an expensive repair, and a camera dunked in saltwater is likely destroyed. So, what makes it worth the risk to get in the water with your expensive gear?

Some images you just can’t get any other way than by getting wet. To get this particular light, angle, and field of view required I stand in the middle of this creek. For me, the results were well worth the cold, wet feet!

Approachability

I have had ducks swimming within arm’s reach of me in the water, but that same bird on land wouldn’t let me within 50 feet.  In my experience, approaching animals from the water is far easier than from land, but why the difference? Maybe, in the water, they no longer perceive me as “man”, a danger, but as some odd-looking wading bird that isn’t good at catching fish.  More likely though, when you wade you slow down, moving much more cautiously and deliberately, giving the animal time to adjust to your presence. Whatever the reason, I have had experiences in the water with wildlife that I cannot duplicate from land, with glimpses into their lives I wouldn’t have seen any other way.

Access

For some species, you simply won’t find them anywhere else but in the water.  Whether its ducks, alligators, or otters, you have to go to where they live. Observing and photographing them in their natural element provides you with opportunities to make images that capture the true nature and beauty of these species.

Angles

Whether it’s a bird or a person, eye contact in a photo engages and draws the viewer into the shot.   When wading, you can use the depth of the water to your advantage to place your camera closer to the eye level of your subject, especially subjects floating on the water’s surface.  Changing your elevation also makes you think in different, creative ways. For example, taking scenic shots at water level can better convey the size and power of a waterfall. Changing your viewpoint can help you produce something different and engaging.

The Dangers

Wildlife

The creatures that inhabit the coastal areas and wetlands are a far lesser danger than most other manmade or environmental dangers you may encounter.  Of the wildlife that populates the coastal and wetlands areas, only a small percentage may be dangerous. Most injuries caused by wildlife are through our accidental or careless interactions with them.  Remember you are entering their home, treating wildlife with care and respect can help you avoid most dangerous situations, whether on land or in the water.

Weather, Currents, and Tides

Water is constantly moving, and the interaction of tides, weather, and topography can create dangerous conditions.  Storms can whip water into a frenzy, producing dangerous lightning, wind, and powerful currents that can knock a wading photographer off their feet.

In coastal areas one of the primary dangers is from rip currents; narrow, strong currents running perpendicular to a beach that move water back out to sea.  Rip currents are one of the most threatening natural hazards along the coast, 80% of rescues made by lifeguards on US beaches are of people caught and dragged out to sea by rip currents.

In some areas, tidal changes can also present hazards.  Rapidly changing tides can leave a wader submerged or stranded.  They can also create powerful currents that can sweep in debris or knock a person in the water off-balance.

Deciding you are willing to wade for a shot is never an excuse to drag someone else out into the water. Only work with others who are equally as prepared and knowledgeable about the challenges and risks.  I work frequently with Scarlett Dawn who specializes in nature fine art modeling and is as comfortable wading as I am.  You should never push someone into wading for your photos, and always have their safety be your primary focus!

 Tips and Techniques

There are two types of wading, wet wading in regular clothes or dry wading using hunting or fishing waders.  In warmer waters I wet wade, wearing just a quick drying shirt and convertible hiking pants. But, if you plan to be in cooler water for long periods of time, then for safety’s sake you should dry wade.  The risk of immersion hypothermia starts at water temperatures as warm as 77° F, and although that doesn’t sound cold, even warm water can quickly sap your body temperature and put you in danger. You may get some funny looks on the beach when you show up in your waders, but they will help keep you dry and warm when the water temperatures are cooler.

There are many choices when buying waders, pick your waders for the conditions you will most often shoot in, and look for a good fit, heavily reinforced knees, and resistance to snags.  Regardless of the type of waders you get, always wear a wading belt. In the event of a fall, a wading belt will keep your waders from filling with water, a potentially deadly situation.

  • Dress to the Temps – Check water temperatures, wear proper insulating clothing, and limit your time in the water.  You can add layers of thermal underwear or fleece wading pants under your waders, just be careful not to overdo it, as too many layers will restrict your movement and lead to overheating.
  • Protect your Feet – It’s tempting in the warmer months to jump in the water with only sandals or bare feet, but you risk stepping on sharp items underwater like broken glass, shell fragments, or coral.  In warm water wear a “water shoe”, a lightweight closed toe athletic shoe that has good traction and vents water. These shoes are meant to go in the water, and will not fall apart from frequent wading like other shoes will.  When dry wading you can rely on your wading boots to protect your feet, just be sure you have the right type of sole and insulation for the conditions you will be wading in.
  • Support your Stuff – Using a tripod while in the water separates you from your gear so that if you take a swim only you get wet, not your camera, too.  It also helps relieve fatigue, taking the weight of your camera off of you, and helps you make sharper images in the low light common to wetlands.  A tripod can also double as a walking stick, using the legs as feelers to check for underwater obstructions or holes that can trip and dunk you.
  • Slow Down and Shuffle – When wading, slowing down is key to your safety.  I plan a step at a time; first picking up my tripod, then easing it a foot or two forward, setting it down, and making sure it’s stable.  I then move up behind it, never raising my foot more than a foot off the bottom so I don’t lose my balance. This staggered movement ensures I don’t step in a hole or trip and knock my gear in the water.  In saltwater you should also do the “stingray shuffle”, dragging your feet to avoid stepping on any creatures on the bottom. Also, try to avoid climbing over debris, take the time to go around if possible.
  • Keep your distance – When wading, stay at least 100 feet away from piers, jetties, or other structures in the water when the surf is rough as rip currents often exist along the side of fixed objects in the water.
  • Watch the Water – In moving water like rivers, check the strength of the current, and be aware of conditions or events up or downstream.  Check for dams in the area that may change water flows or sudden storms that may deliver a large volume of water in a short time period.   In moving water, try to keep your body sideways to the current, this will allow you to balance better, presenting less surface area for the water to push against.


Mangrove Tunnel at Weedon Island, Florida. These naturally occurring tunnels are formed in part by tidal currents, during rapid tide changes the flow of water can be very strong and dangerous!

  • Watch the Weather – Always check tides and weather forecasts before you go out and heed any warning alerts or flags.  Watch the horizon for building clouds indicating the formation of thunderheads, and at the first sign of an approaching storm get out of the water!  It may take you some time to get to shelter when wading, so don’t wait around trying to get just one more shot.
  • Simplify and Scale Down – Minimizing your gear selection cuts down on weight, and worries about dunking all your gear.  Just make sure the things you do carry are easy to get to. Having to contort yourself to get out a lens will only lead to you throwing yourself off balance, or dropping gear in the drink.
  • Clip and Zip – Minimize the chances of dropping something by attaching everything to you.  Use retractable cords or lanyards if necessary for anything that does not have a secure place on your person.
  • Keep Items High and Dry – Keep all items that are vulnerable to water damage waist-high or higher.  Wading is one of the main reasons I use a belt harness system. Made of water-repellent materials, the pouches and cases can quickly be removed and placed higher to keep them from getting submerged.  Never put items in pants pockets, use belt pouches or shirt pockets instead.
  • Have a Rag Ready – Have a dry rag ready to wipe off any splashes or spray and be sure you have it stowed somewhere that will stay dry; I usually keep a small cloth inside a sealed plastic baggie.
  • Get in Shape – Wading is a resistance exercise, every time you take a step, not only are you moving the weight of your body and gear, but you are also fighting against the resistance of the water.  Check with your physician if you have any doubts or are not accustomed to this type of strenuous activity.
  • Get a Guide – Hiring a local guide* who knows the locations, can teach proper techniques for handling the local conditions and can get you to the subjects you want.  They know the dangers, how to handle the elements, and where and when to go better than anyone else, providing you a fun and safe outing.
  • Cover your Glass – No matter how careful you are, accidents can happen.  An Inland Marine Insurance policy will cover all your equipment in the event of an accident, like taking an unplanned swim with your camera.  It will also give you peace of mind, letting you focus on getting your shots in and around the water without worrying about the risk to your gear.
  • Respect the Residents – As you venture into the water, treat the ecosystem and wildlife that inhabits it with respect and care.  Learn about what lives there, understand any risks posed by the flora or fauna, and lower your impact on their environment.  Educate yourself through online or print guidebooks, by talking to local guides or naturalists, or by investing time in classes like state master naturalist programs.  No shot is ever worth harming the ecosystem or its residents!

*Like an experienced nature photographer who is also a Master Naturalist, who’s lead hundreds of group and one-on-one workshops and tours, and loves sharing his knowledge, such as in articles he’s written about wading…(hint, hint)

Disclaimer

The contents of this article are for informational purposes only.  Wade at your own risk. The author isn’t a physician, and speaks only from his own experiences which are unique to him.  Take your own personal precautions and consult a physician before engaging in any outdoor or strenuous activity.

Credits

Model: Scarlet Dawn, Photographer/Digital Artist: Jason Hahn

Like this article? Follow this link to read more of my photo tips and techniques. Jason’s Articles at Photofocus

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