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Kayak Photography

paddling a kayak can at times, be difficult. Finding a balance in the boat, shooting skittish wildlife while steering into the waves becomes a juggling act.

The digital age, the right equipment

I reluctantly moved into the world of digital photography after a mishap with sea water and my old analog film camera. As a sea kayaker the challenge of waterproofing a camera was always at the forefront, and virtually impossible to achieve. It became obvious that I needed something durable and able to put up with constant exposure to a moist environment. The then new Pentax Optio W10 waterproof point and shoot hit the market so I bought one. I am brand loyal and to celebrate my new Pentax camera, I set the self-timer and dropped it into a jug of beer. Yes, it works and for my trouble have a photograph of beer bubbles. If it could handle that, I was sure that it could withstand the rigors of kayak trips, and it has.

I am currently approaching the 10,000-image mark on its original SD memory card after many years and many more miles of paddling. This camera handles the abuse and even accidentally left out all night in the rain, it is happy. Dipped into seaweed to take a jellyfish portrait, it is happy. This is the kayaker’s camera and since I bought the Optio w10 the new edtions of this rugged point and shoot camera have only improved. I dare say that a lot of the kayaking imagery and video you see these days in magazines and Youtube come from the Pentax Optio series cameras. By no way is this article meant to be a gear review. This is the camera I choose to use in the outdoors and it has served me well.

The kayak photographer

So you have a kayak, and you set out for a day of paddling, or perhaps you are enbarking on a multi-day tour with friends. Taking pictures is a natural instinct for the traveler and on your paddling travels you will come across the second ingredient for kayak photography, the subject. Here are a few considerations to take on your paddles.

  • Buy a good waterproof camera. Kayaking is a specific activity and photography by kayak requires specific camera gear. I recommend the Pentax Optio series, or the Olympus Stylus cameras.
  • The above mentioned point and shoot digital waterproof cameras have sealed internal lenses, all other cameras do not, including the detachable lenes of an SLR. If using an SLR, whether analog or digital do your best to keep them dry and safe. A dry bag is not enough to ward off the seeping in of the ocean, or rain. I carry the Pentax on a clip attached to my life jacket but I do bring an digital SLR and keep it in dry box or Pelican case. They can be pricey but in the long run a lot less expensive than replacing cameras. The SLR I used for off the water shots (with the odd exception) and use the waterproof camera for all the images and video I capture while kayaking.
  • If shooting wildlife remember our presence is stressful to them. Keep your distance no matter how tempting it may be to get an up-close-and-personal photo of a seal. Keep upwind of the subject and do not use your paddle. Try to drift into them and let them adjust to your presence. Then take a few shots. Having a longer lens on you SLR will aid in getting these once in a lifetime images without disturbing their peace too much. I use a 28-200mm lens on my Pentax K100 D SLR for all my kayaking shots both on and off the water. A lens longer than that will become problematic with the constant motion of the kayak and the images will not be satisfactory. However, there are point and shoot digital cameras on the market with up to a 300mm built-in lens that works well.
  • A kayak with a rudder is a great help. My Pygmy Coho is a rudderless wooden kayak, and I like it that way but has make picture taking a challenge. I end up doing contortions with paddle in one hand and camera in the other to get my shot as the kayak drifts always in the wrong direction.
  • Lastly, take as many photos as you can. Do not be afraid to use up film, though these days that is less and less of an issue, and if using a digital camera fill every memory card in your bag.

Inevitably, you will shoot 10 images to get 1 good keeper. Taking dozens of shots just to get a couple keepers by no means says you are a terrible photographer. It is just a fact of photographic life that not every shot will be a winner. Take lots and take your time as well. The subject may tempt you to rush, especially if it is wildlife, don’t be drawn into the haste when taking your memorable photos. Photography in the outdoors should become part of to overall experience and not detract from its enjoyment.

A case in point, on a recent trip to the coast of Vancouver Island I was on a water taxi with several tourists armed with cameras. A pair of grey whales surfaced some distance away and though the driver was kind enough to stop to allow us to watch, and that was when the cameras took over. The whale was too far away to get a decent image yet everyone on board was clicking away madly. They will go home with a frustratingly long string of fuzzy images of black lumps in the water. I dropped the camera to my side and simply recorded the sight and sounds of the pair passing by on their own journey.

Be patient and if you miss an opportunity, take that mental image home instead. Stop, point and shoot, but only after framing the image properly. Think about contrasts and composition, and the subject does not have to be front and center in the frame. Take that extra moment or two to play around with the composition and make it an event to take the picture.

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