Photography on the River

September 27, 2019
Juniper Berries

River Photography 


I go back and forth on shooting photography on the river. Part of me wants to get out the camera or the phone to create well composed images that will help me remember an amazing experience. The other part of me wants to put the technology away and just enjoy the outdoors. I think for most people there is a balance that can be struck. When I do break out a photo device, there are a few guidelines I follow that help me both take better photos, protect my gear, and not spend all the time behind the camera. 




What tool? 


The first question I ask myself when I’m going on an adventure is what camera makes sense to use for that experience. For photography on the river, I use a medium sized digital camera with a couple different lens ranges. I bury my iPhone deep in my dry bag and leave it there until we’re done with the trip. So, not having two or more electronic devices simplifies the photo experience and makes it easier to stay organized. If you only have a phone-camera, then that’s your tool! But, if you have a digital SLR (medium to large sized camera), or a point and shoot (smaller digital camera) I would suggest using those and keeping the phone off until you return to service. 


Keep it dry 


Obviously, electronics and the river are mortal enemies. In order to mitigate the potential for a lost or damaged device, I go back to the “what tool” question. My digital camera has a nice strap that I can hang around my neck or shoulder as I shoot from a boat, or wander the river banks. While I’m on board my raft and using a camera, I often keep my small dry bag close by in case a rapid rumbles on the horizon. 


These days many of our phones and some digital cameras are water resistant or waterproof, so splashing and dunking are less of an issue (GoPros are another great tool!). For phones or small digital cameras, a ziplock bag works really well as a redundant way to guarantee it won’t get wet even when it’s in a dry bag. While these are all pretty good mechanisms, the best way to make sure you don’t ruin your gear is to keep it organized and close by while you’re on your boat or at camp. 


When to shoot


The sun rising over Ledge Camp on the San Juan River illuminates the castle-like limestone formations all around. It glows gold and orange, the sluicing water reflecting the neon monuments all around. It is the mystical, wondrous golden hour. An hour before and after sunrise and sunset, those are the money moments for shooting desert photography. In the middle of the day shadows become dark, stark contrasts to the bright washed out landscape. While it is worth grabbing some midday shots of your friends floating down the river, or rock art you might encounter, the best shots will be when the light is glowing, at dawn and dusk. 


Basking in the glory


Knowing when to shoot will help you put the camera down and enjoy the place as well. If you give yourself some guidelines of areas that you know are coming up that will be photo-worthy, or designate one or two early mornings to photography, you’ll both get better pictures as well as spend less time fussing with the gear. If you plan correctly, you can both bask in the glory of the natural world around you, as well as come home with some totally staggering images of the most beautiful places on earth. 



Jack Stauss WriterJack Stauss moved to Salt Lake City in 2008 in pursuit of big mountains and wide open spaces. He has spent the last several years both enjoying and advocating for public lands and free flowing rivers. While he’s not typing on his keyboard, he will be backcountry skiing in the Wasatch or exploring Utah’s wild deserts. Read some of his environmental musings at or follow him at @jackstauss on Instagram