Photographing kayak and canoe races

Photo by Attila Volgyi /
2011 ICF World Canoe Sprint Championships

Photo by Attila Volgyi /

It has been requested by many of you readers I should write about the process of photographing kayak-canoe sport and not only to publish my photos of the event and a GPS log of how much I walked on water. Well, I tried to sum up the key thoughts that came to my mind in this regard – once the broadcast of a kayak race just ended in TV.

About kayak-canoe sports
Kayak-canoe is a very much Hungarian field of sports. At least our athletes end up traditionally in quite good positions in it. Some even say that at some of the Hungarian preparation races have an even stronger field of competitors than a world-class race has because more of the strong Hungarian athletes participate.
Maybe an Australian photographer told me during one off the World Cups or World Championships: it is typical of the Englishmen they didn’t teach the colonies to paddle a kayak – only rowing which was important for them to fill up their boats with goods…

2011 ICF World Canoe Sprint Championships

Photo by Attila Volgyi /

Great distances and water
It is an integral problem for all photographers with this sport from where they can take their pictures. Competitors paddle long distances, quite fast and all of it on a large water surface. This doesn’t really allow photographers to move close to them. Photo positions are usually quite far away from the competitors not to disturb them during their race. However, this also means usually there is no telephoto length that would be too long to be used.

400 mm usually is a quite long telephoto. Most non-photographers and amateurs often are baffled by the size of a 400 mm lens too (despite some of them can be amazed even by a 70-200 too). So what is enough or maybe some times even too long for an average football match that can easily feel enough at a kayak race. 400 mm is usually just a bit too short. When we are sitting at the pontoon just behind the finish line, the winners usually come straight forward on us. But by the time they would just fill the viewfinder of the camera they just finish paddling hard – that would make the photo look good. This means we have to take photos earlier while they still visibly work hard for their victory. Thus the images need to be cropped more or if there is one possibility for that one needs to use an even longer telephoto. Usually, this means either a teleconverter on the 400 or a 600 or even 800 mm lens.

The big problem with super-telephoto lenses is if the events come close to you then they don’t fit the frame. Once we have to take photos not only of the winner but their celebration and the disappointment of their losing competitors too. They some times congratulate each other or someone falls into the water in great victory or maybe loss. All these events can make a good photo. But with the same lens usually, it is impossible to photograph. In such cases, you have to either switch lenses fast (what can have certain risks when working in a boat or a pontoon on the middle of water) or if you have the possibility then start the work with two bodies. In this case, you need only to grab the other camera and can take photos without the loss of time.
Nikon shooters have been quite happy using their 200-400 zoom telephoto lens. Canon users have to wait to have their go on sale. For kayak and canoe, not only the zoom option, but Canon’s built-in 1.4x extender will be a great help for sure.

2011 ICF World Canoe Sprint Championships

Photo by Attila Volgyi /

Work boring as hell
I don’t want to hurt the feelings of any lovers of this sport, or those regularly photographing it, but it is hard to argue it can be terribly boring. Short distance races can have some of a rhythm. But the time needed for competitors to paddle along the 500-1000 meter distances can be really boring. And if you sit near the finish line you have to wait for them to come into range to be able to take a useable image of them.

While photographing we usually sit in a motorboat or on a pontoon behind the finish line. This is usually a couple of hundred meters away from the start. So we don’t even see or hear what is happening on the race track until they come close enough to be seen and photographed. All we see is usually they appear on the horizon and start to get bigger in the viewfinder. When they grow big enough in the viewfinder then we take some photos of them and then we keep on waiting for it to happen again. This is of course mostly true for the preliminary rounds. During finals, it is busier usually (more about it later).

2011 ICF World Canoe Sprint Championships

Photo by Attila Volgyi /

Photograph where you are
Because photographers are much slower on foot than competitors paddling their boats, the course is straight and quite long as well, there is not much chance for any photographer to be able to photograph the race at more than one place in one heat. Either you go to the start, pick a place somewhere in the middle of the track or you move somewhere around the finish line you will stay there for the heat and can photograph only another one from a different place. You only have a chance to take photos of the race when they are in front of you at a reachable distance. You will end up having only one photo from one heat. It is better to decide what you want to photograph and choose the place according to your plan. If you decide to go up to the viewer stands, you want to frame viewers or an advertisement in the background then you will have only that one shot for that heat and not much possibility for another much different photo. Competitors usually need just a few seconds to go past your location and it won’t leave much time to recompose another image.

Organising your work
Photographing kayak-canoe (too) needs a planned and organised system of work. It is important to know in advance what you want to do. Which athletes you need to photograph, what type of images you want to take, what you want to capture and almost identically important is what are those parts of the race that aren’t important to you or at least are less important. You will need to skip something to get something else photographed – except of course if you have a team of more photographers to cover more angles and possibilities. However, most of the newspapers don’t have so many resources for this sport.

Usually, each photographer decides what are the more important rounds for them, which ones are the least important ones. They all try to schedule their work to have some room for “artistry”, taking feature shots, panning with long exposure or to send the already captured more important photos. By the time the more important rounds with high-profile athletes come we have to be on alert and ready to make the planned mandatory photos.

Specific photo positions:

  1. Next to the finish line on the shore
  2. Behind finish line on the water (pontoon or motorboat)
  3. Among the viewers on the shore
  4. Among the viewers on the stands
  5. At the start line on the shore
  6. Awards ceremony in front of the podium
  7. Awards ceremony from the side of the podium
  8. Opposite the viewers behind the billboards
2011 ICF World Canoe Sprint Championships

Photo by Attila Volgyi /

If you photograph from the water then your possibilities are dependent on the boat. You may stay on the pontoon and in the boat as well only as long as the organiser’s photo manager allows you to (usually depends on the number of photographers and it’sáltalában a fotósok és a fotós ratio to the places available). If there are not so many photographers then they can comfortably work next to each other on the pontoon or in the boat. If there is a lot of photographers and very few places, then photographers need to rotate to switch places. Usually, this means the need to sign up for certain rounds and also fast-moving in and out of the boats as wasted time can result in missing photos of heat and not only for you, but others stuck with you on the shore too.

Organisers of kayak-canoe races in Hungary usually work closely together with the long-time official photographer of the national federation Peter Szalmas. He is a talented photographer who has seen and experienced a lot during the years of his work and mostly he tries to provide the best possibilities for a photographer. Of course, not everyone can be happy. Last time at the London Olympics organisers didn’t help his work too much, but I will have him talk about it in another post sometime soon.

“How much one needs” a photo?
When there is no place for all photographers in the boats or on the pontoon than it needs to be limited how many of them can be in a position. It also needs a system to decide how it is decided who can and cannot have a possibility. An important factor in deciding on privileges is usually how much a photographer needs a photo. Of course, it cannot be measured easily. It needs a (relatively) objective system.

For example, if there is no Hungarian competitor in one of the heats then it is considered less interesting for Hungarian media. In such cases, photographers from other countries can have more room for photographing their own competitors if they participate in a given round. Of course, there can be many photographers from one single country too. Not to mention some international newspapers or agencies can have interests in more than one country. This is why nationality in itself is not enough as a measurement system. There has to be a ranking system to prioritise photographers (mostly their employers actually). This is most of the time done by the Olympic regulations. If the given list doesn’t decide or further ranking is needed then usually comparing market sizes and audience numbers of various mediums are used.

Olympic ranking of mediums:

  1. International news agencies
  2. National news agency
  3. National sport agencies
  4. General newspapers
  5. Sport daily newspapers
  6. Single or few sports thematic magazines and websites
  7. General topic magazines and Internet websites
2011 ICF World Canoe Sprint Championships

Photo by Attila Volgyi /

Whom shall I photograph?
If you work for a national newspaper or one of the sponsors at an international event then you have a relatively easy task as you probably have to photograph only the sportsmen connected to your country or that sponsoring company. In many cases, the winner is not important for them only if it is their chosen sportsmen. Who cares about the winner, the Hungarian papers only care about the results off the Hungarian sportsmen. Sponsors are even more so, caring only about their sponsored teams, sportsmen and their advertisements. Of course, if he/she is the winner then the celebration is bigger and more important to you as well – what means more work for you. In this case, you have to take photos not only of the race and the celebration after it at the finish line. You need to rush for the awards ceremony as well.

If you work for a sports association, club, news agency or one of the international newspapers then it may mean a more complicated work as well. In such cases, it can be important to have photos of each and every one competitor and you need to photograph the winner as well as he/she wins the race and celebrates his/her victory, then a celebration at the victory ceremony as well.

How you know who wins?
It seems to be a dumb question, as usual, the winner is who first crosses the finish line. But usually, it can be seen clearly from the side – watching at the finish line. Only if it can be seen by a naked eye and you don’t need a finish line photo to decide the question. However, if you are sitting in front of the finish line in line with the competitors and wait for them to come closer then it is terribly hard to know who is in the lead.
It can help if the sound system of the event can be heard on the water too. But it is rarely so as loudspeakers are for the audience sitting on the stands on the shore, not for photographers on the water. Of course, it would not be an easy, nor cheap task to get loudspeakers on the water too just to help some photographers’ work a bit. It is more common to have a giant screen in view somewhere and to see it display who is ahead. The best solution is to have a radio and someone on the shore or in front of a TV and get the info from them a few minutes before the finish line to know whom to focus on.

Of course, statistic probability can also help a lot. If you know the competitors and the sport itself can be helpful too. If you know the competitors’ past results and current fitness, style, it all can help you know who will be the winner. Sports held on individual race tracks usually the system itself helps as usually the competitors qualifying with the best times for the final paddle on one of the middle lanes (usually 4-5-6). Quite often (but not always of course) the winner also is the one who qualifies with the best time. This usually gives a glimpse of precognition. Of course, statistics aren’t always right. This is what makes sports – and their photography too – really interesting. You cannot always know what will happen. And this can make photographers sweat in concentration not to miss the right decision and the photo of the decisive moments.

Walk path during kayak-canoe photography on the GPS track log
Click the image for more details!

The great distance walk
During the finals, it complicates things more than some of the heats are followed by an awards ceremony. For this, you have to leave the pontoon or boat and rush to the podium to photograph the gold medalist celebrating. If you stand on the shore close to the finish line then it only adds to the number of kilometres walked. If you are photographing from the pontoon or the boat then you have another obstacle to fight before getting to the awards ceremony in time. However, if you photograph somewhere around the start line, then the question is how fast you can sprint on the 200-500-1000 meter race distance between the start and the podium near the finish. And of course, the podium is blockaded so you need to make a detour to get around them. Probably it isn’t worth a try.

On the mercy of the weather
What I wrote in the beginning about the physical conditions of the race track makes photographers very much a subject of weather. If the sun shines we bake there without shade and get sunburnt. If rain falls then we get soaking wet. If the weather cools down, then we get cold. If you are on the pontoon or in a motorboat then there is nowhere to hide. If you have a raincoat, hat or jacket as protection then it is just in the way when you don’t need it. If you are on the shore there may be some rain protection in the side of the buildings – but you cannot shoot photos from there. So to fulfil your task as a photographer you need to be out in the open with your gear.
Of course, weather dependent light and visibility conditions affect taking photography too. If the weather is overcast and there are few lights, then you have to crank your ISO higher. If the sun shines them competitors more likely will wear sunglasses for the race. I like how the nose of the boat is reflected in the sunglass, but it is much better to see the unobscured face and especially the eyes of the photo subject – unless you photograph Darth Vader in his case it adds to the magic of the character not having a visible eye.

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