Essential Gear for Waterfall and Seascape Photography

I enjoy photographing waterfalls, rivers and seascapes. These subjects represent almost 50% of my portfolio. And when I photograph them, I need to have a good base to move freely and concentrate on the subject and the composition. So the subject of this article is the right water shoes that I finally found after testing several brands over the years.

I’m aware this isn’t the typical gear review you’d expect here, as this isn’t a new camera, fancy lens, tripod or a camera bag. But for me, water shoes also fall into the category of essential photography gear. Without these it would be difficult to take some of the pictures, which I have to get in the water for.

Take this photo of La Fortuna waterfall in Costa Rica. I was standing right in the middle of the river on a mix of sharp, slippery rocks when I took this photo. I have done such barefoot photo shoots, but it was never a pleasant experience. In the end, I would be so focused on where to put my feet that the photos I took would usually be missing.

Requirements for water shoes

To find the right water shoes, I had to set a few requirements:

  • As with all shoes, they should be comfortable to wear. This is something my previous water shoes lacked. I used a pair of Vibram FiveFinger shoes with seams on the inside, which cut into my feet when sand and water got into the shoes.

  • They should be easy to put on and take off as I often have my water shoes in my backpack when I’m on a longer hike to a photo spot. Once there, I don’t want to fumble around with my water shoes. I want to slip into it and jump into the water.

  • Water shoes should stay firm. If the shoes slip while wading in a rushing river, they are lost. This requirement contrasts with the previous one. Often, if the shoes are easy to put on, they are not particularly firm. For my Vibram shoes, it was the opposite: they were very firm but difficult to put on.

  • I want lightweight shoes for my travels, and have found that barefoot shoes with a thin sole are usually the best choice with their low weight and small pack size. In the past, I even used socks made of Dyneema material. These were from FYF and a bit too minimalistic for my taste.

  • Water shoes should dry quickly. If I put them in a warm room overnight, they should be dry the next morning.

  • A good grip is necessary. But there is usually a compromise to be made. Some shoes use hard rubber for a sturdy, long-lasting sole. These slide more easily on wet surfaces. On the other hand, there are shoes with a softer sole. Although such a sole wears out much faster, it often offers better friction. For me, the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle. Ideally, I can also use my water shoes for short to medium hikes, so they need a good profile and a durable sole.

Now that looks like quite a list. Until recently, I was unsure of finding shoes that would meet all of these requirements. I ordered a few different shoes to test out, a fresh pair from a Kickstarter campaign. None of them felt well. But after returning from Costa Rica a few weeks ago, I finally found a good solution.

Xero Aqua X Sport Shoes

After some research, I ended up on the Xero Shoes homepage where I found a great selection of barefoot shoes, including the Aqua X Sport, a shoe designed for water activities.

What I like

Opting for the gray version, I now have water shoes, which look like casual shoes. And they are super comfortable to wear. I wore them on a trip to Venice, where I walked more than 10 kilometers every day. On top of that, I’ve had them on some trails, where they’ve held up well.

The shoes have many small holes in the upper fabric to allow water to drain quickly. These holes also provide ventilation on hot days when I wear them for activities outside of the water.

The elastic laces allow me to get the shoes on and off quickly, and I can secure them properly for water activities. Once the laces are tight, I no longer have to worry about losing them in a rushing river. They are also snug around the heel which provides extra stability. For a good fit, I found my typical shoe size to work well enough.

Weighing just 7.5 ounces per shoe for a size 10, the Aqua X Sport is also very lightweight. Therefore, taking them on my travels doesn’t add much weight to my luggage.

And what about their quick-drying abilities? They come with a removable insole that dries quickly, as does the fine, breathable mesh that makes up most of the shoe. It was only at the cushioned heel that I found the shoes still a bit damp after sitting them in all night – but a few minutes in the sun should usually fix this.

Now let’s talk about handling. First of all, the shoes have a pretty aggressive sole profile, which gives them good traction on the trails. But how do they fare on wet rocks? I tested them during a day of shooting waterfalls with many different surfaces, and they gave me a good footing in most situations. Smooth, wet rocks are problematic though, and I get more friction when I’m barefoot. As I wrote above, there is always a compromise. But for me, the Aqua X Sport still hits the sweet spot.

On top of all that, I can use thin neoprene socks with the Aqua X Sport if I remove the insole. And it’s a game-changer for me because I can stand freezing water much longer now and take my time composing my shots.

What could be improved

It would be nice to have a version with a different sole profile to increase the surface area with which the sole connects to the ground. This could increase friction. On the other hand, it could come at the expense of the shoes capabilities on the trails.

Conclusion

With a price tag of $130, the Xero Shoes Aqua X Sport are some of the most expensive water shoes you can buy. But considering their features and versatility, I think they are worth it because they are more than a water shoe. I will also use them for exploring cities, for short to medium hikes in hot weather, and even for eating out on my travels. Plus, with the ability to use them with neoprene socks, shooting in cold water is now much more enjoyable.

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