In general, questions and answers here are specific to photographing from a kayak or in transporting photo gear by kayak. Other advice can be found in the blog, and a gear list for backpacking can be found in Tools.
If you don’t find an answer here or have additional questions, send me an e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org . I’ll answer any reasonable questions, especially as they pertain to on-the-water photography.
Last update: 2016/10/15
What camera do you use?
How do you manage your digital workflow?
Isn’t Lightroom slow and hard to learn?
Why don’t you use a waterproof camera?
What about point-and-snoot digital cameras for use on the water?
How do you keep your camera equipment dry?
Your pictures look so crystal clear. How do you achieve that?
How do you get sharp pictures?
What kayak do you use? Any advice on kayak choice?
Any suggestions for wildlife photography?
What would you choose for a wildlife lens?
What about bigger lenses, like a 500mm or 600mm?
Any other advice?
I shoot with a Canon 5D III and a Sony a6300. The Sony is for backpacking because of its tiny size and light weight, but I’ve been using it for some bird photography because it also has 1.5x crop-factor reach. Autofocus hunts too much with my Metabones adapter and Canon teles, so for birds-in-flight, the 5D III is my go to. I also have a Meikon underwater housing that fits the a6300 for rough-water kayaking or underwater use.
I’m not feeling the need to upgrade to the Canon 5D Mark IV. I feel I don’t need the improved image quality, and the improved video options of the 5D IV still don’t match what I can get from the a6300. For 2017 and probably 2018, I’ll stick with the Sony a6300 and the Canon 5D III.
The 5D III is still a terrific camera for general shooting, with enough pixels and a full-frame sensor, critical for my kayak photos and scenics. I like going wide, and full-frame means no crop factor. I also like full-frame for selective-focus images with poster-like backgrounds, whether it’s a bird, a person or a floral portrait. It’s tougher to get that with the smaller sensor cameras. The 5D III shoots at 6 frames/sec, so I do sometimes cringe when I need the speed (The mirrorless a6300 can shoot 11 fps).
For on-the-water shooting, I keep the camera gear in a dry bag in the cockpit, with the lens I’m most likely to use mounted on the 5D III. The lens will most likely be a 24-105 f/4L or a 70-200mm f/4L, or the Sony a6300 with an 18-135mm lens. I may also mount a longer telephoto if I’m photographing wildlife. For long kayak trips, that lens would be the 300mm f/4. When photographing wildlife locally or when car camping, I shoot from the kayak with a 500mm f/4L.
For on-the-water photography, image-stabilized (IS) lenses are a godsend. In a kayak cockpit especially, space is limited. Shoulder stocks, mono-pods, or string-pods can’t easily be used—and none work in ocean swell, where IS performs superbly. A tripod is out of the question in a kayak, unless maybe you’re paddling one of those fat plastic rec boats, or a canoe. But then you’re limited in both the sea you can safely paddle in, and the roughness of the water that you can effectively shoot .
Recently I’ve added two Rokinon lenses, a 14mm f/2.8 and a 24mm f/1.4. I’ve found these to be excellent value, with resolution better than my 17-40mm f/4 and possibly better than the Canon fixed-focal-length equivalents. I bought them mostly for night sky shooting, but the 14mm is proving a useful and fun lens for scenics, kayak selfies and home interiors. Both lenses are useful for dusk, in-city walkabouts. For backpacking with the Sony a6300, I added the 9 oz Rokinon 12mm f/2, with great night shooting and landscape results.
This is a great question. I started using Adobe Lightroom in 2007, and now use Lightroom 6. At the start, I did a lot of head scratching to come up with a workflow that works; I now consider this solved. After image capture, I import, sort, discard and process images with Lightroom, my exclusive organizing tool. When a customer calls, I’m into Lightroom immediately to assemble a collection and submit photos. I use Lightroom web galleries as a quick way to show client images. With a custom web template that has the FTP address for upload built in, all I need do after creating a collection of images is bring them into the web module, change the title and destination folder, click on Upload, and then send a client the link. It’s fast and easy, taking advantage of Lightroom’s well-designed search, collection and simple web features.
Lightroom is a metadata-driven image editor and catalog—an archive and a darkroom. It’s a database—not a file browser like Breezebrowser, or Canon’s ZoomBrowser. You have to import your images into it (actually just the locations of the images, so you don’t have to disrupt your existing file system). Once in the catalog, RAW files especially can be manipulated non-destructively, with results saved in metadata as a “recipe” that takes just a few bits of hard drive. These “recipes” can then be applied to a whole shoot: optimize one image, then press Ctrl A (Windows) and Sync, and you’ve optimized the whole lot. Starting with Lightroom 2, there are features that allow individual pixel work, and I particularly like the Adjustment Brush, which I often use for scenics to easily select skies and then darken them for effect. Lightroom (6) doesn’t replace Photoshop because for much individual pixel work, especially when layers are needed, Photoshop still fills the need. Lightroom 6 HDR and Panorama features further erode that need, though, and my Photoshop use has dropped 80% or more (I use Photoshop Elements 10), while processing many more images.
Lightroom contains seven task-oriented modules, each with content-appropriate options. Most work is done in Library and Develop, but for specific outputs, there are some basic Book, SlideShow, Map, Print and Web modules. It isn’t a one-stop shop, but it’s close.
Importantly, I’ve cut the size of my image library in half since moving to Lightroom. I’ve thrown away countless TIF files, usually because I’ve created a better RAW “recipe” to replace them. My RAW files, saved as DNG (Adobe’s open source Digital Negative format) from my 12.8 MP Canon 5D average 10 MP, including the embedded recipe; the old TIF’s were at least 36 MP, and if it was a layered PSD file it could be double or treble that. Of course, some PSD files I still need, but with Lightroom 6′s adjustment brush, most images don’t require creating a TIF or PSD that balloons the size just to allow destruction-free work in Photoshop.
Briefly, after a shoot I put the CF card into the reader slot on my computer. I’ve set up Lightroom preferences to detect the card, and the images show up automatically, in an import dialog box. Within a keyword box I add general words applicable for the shoot, and select a custom processing preset. I shoot only RAW images, and the processing preset is a great time-saver that adds a recipe of enhancements—stuff like vibrance, fill light, chromatic aberration removal, etc.—so the rendered jpg looks “improved” as it enters the Lightroom Library and often needs little work. An automatic Metadata preset enters IPTC copyright information. When I hit the import button, the images are copied to a folder named with the date (year-month-day).
I don’t do a backup on import, like many folks advocate, because I prefer to purge the junk first. After throwing away 50-90% of the imported images (which takes two or three passes), I do a group rename, add more specific keywords, rate a few of them (1-5 stars), convert them to DNG (again, Adobe’s Digital Negative format), and backup the new folder to an external drive. In the past I also burned a DVD backup but I stopped that in favor of a third hard drive that I back-up less frequently. Lastly, I put the CF card back in the camera and reformat. This all goes quickly unless I have lots of similar images of good quality and I feel the need to pare them down.
On import, the new images go into a year folder inside my Pictures folder, organized by the year-month-day labeled folders. That way each new folder follows the last one at the end of the list, making backups easier. I use the year folders to reduce the number of folders shown in the Lightroom Library by keeping all but the year folder I’m using un-expanded. As an example, my date folder label is 2009-02-15, for a Feb. 15th, 2009 shoot, and it goes into Pictures/2009/. I don’t much care if the morning shoot was birds in Seattle, and that evening was historic buildings in Sitka, AK. The images are text (keyword), star rating and/or date searchable using the Library Filter. I’ve completely gotten away from grouping images by location, or trip, or subject, like in the film days. Digital is a different animal. If putting your images in date-only folders is too scary, tack a custom label on the end of the folder name so when you’re looking at the folder column you’ll have an indicator of the content. And for same date shoots, one could be, say, 2008-05-20_Seattle and another 2008-05-20_Sitka.
For individual file names, I select all images in the folder, and then do a group re-name with a custom preset that again starts with the date. I only have to add a short custom name that’s part of the preset. The preset automatically adds a three-digit sequential number and my last name. For example, if I’m shooting at the Seattle Arboretum, a file name may look like this: 20090110_arb_001_luhm. I put my last name in only because clients sometimes requested it.
However you design your workflow, it’s important to be consistent, so you don’t, for example, get out in the field and discover you have a card full of images, and then wonder if you’ve backed them up. Too, Lightroom isn’t for everyone, though it does work on both Mac and PC. If you only work on select images to optimize for printing or for web publishing, rarely do submissions, or perhaps you only shoot jpg’s, you may have little reason to go the Lightroom route.
Some people think Lightroom is slow, a reason to reject it. Yeah, if you shoot 4,000 images a day and need to sort them quickly, probably Breezebrowser or PhotoMechanic is better for that, but then what? How do you organize? How do you find your images? How do you develop them all? How do you efficiently collect images for submissions, article ideas, club slide shows? Many pros import into Lightroom after a PhotoMechanic or BreezeBrowser sort. I do confess I’ve had to upgrade my computer a few times shortly after a Lightroom upgrade because the old computer couldn’t match the demands of the new software. This isn’t really a criticism. Software is constantly driving computer upgrades. Lightroom, like Photoshop CC, is demanding software, but unlike Photoshop, Lightroom isn’t difficult to learn. Free on-line tutorials by gurus like Julianne Kost will get you up and running, without having to attend workshops or delve into books. Personally, I like the Lightroom/Photoshop Elements combo. Elements since version 9 has had a good layers implementation, and the healing brush is remarkable.
The 35mm dSLR is so versatile nothing else holds up comparatively, and the mirrorless Sony a6300 is a nice compliment. The Meikon housing I purchased for the Sony solves the picture-quality and frame-rate shortcomings of the waterproof point-and-shoot. The digital point-and-shoots also don’t have the focal length range, and continue to be plagued by shutter lag. My dSLR system has a focal length range from 14mm to 700mm, no shutter lag, and the ability to shoot at far higher ISO’s and produce sharp, noise-free images.
Many people have said they wouldn’t shoot from a kayak with their SLR. Paddling experience is key to knowing when you can take the SLR out of its dry bag without trashing it. For example, what happens to the kayak when you inadvertently drive the bow up on a submerged log? Or when a wave breaks unexpectedly over a submerged rock (boomer) when a bigger than normal wave set moves by?
Canon, Sony, Nikon, Casio and Olympus offer waterproof cases for many of their digicams. The cases are rated to a depth of 100 feet or more, with full or nearly full control of camera functions through o-ring sealed buttons on the outside of the case. All are quite compact, and are the way to go for many people, especially considering use for digital slide shows, which don’t require a high pixel count like prints, a point that bears repeating. A typical digital slide show requires 1024×768 pixel dimensions. That’s less than 1MP. In it’s a waterproof case, the digicams are as small or smaller than a 35mm SLR with a small lens attached, and close in size to a Nikonos V. You can wedge the camera inside your PFD, like you might with waterproof binoculars. The cameras are lighter than the Nikonos, and will hang easily around your neck. Many paddlers simple stow them under deck bungie. Most of them float, too, but barely.
Most kayakers will find the newer waterproof point-and-shoots like the Olympus Tough series take excellent pictures without worry. They’re versatile, they’re fun. Hold the camera high at arm’s length—or plunge it into the water (if waterproof)—you can still view the scene in the LCD. Then there’s the videos—great for stroke analysis and rolling critiques as well as documenting a trip.
If you want to snorkel as well as kayak, pretty much all the manufactures offer either waterproof cases rated up to 140 feet for some of their digital point-and-shoots, or waterproof cameras with depth ratings of 10-33 ft. It’s great to get waterproofing without a case, which saves on bulk so you can stow it in a PFD pocket. The 14 Megapixel Olympus Tough TG-810 is waterproof to 10 meters, and the 14MP Pentax Optio WG-1 is rated to 10 meters as well. Both zoom internally, which helps make the waterproof rating possible.
In almost all paddling situations, my dSLR sits in a dry bag that’s located between my legs and under my spray skirt when not in use. I pop the skirt and open up a dry bag to use the camera. My pick for camera dry bags is Sagebrush Dry. Sagebrush bags have a tough urethane skin, all-welded seams and a reliable waterproof TIZIP Masterseal zipper —not a roll-up closure that will leak if submerged. Their larger camera bag is big enough for a 35mm camera body with 28-135mm zoom and lens hood mounted for action. A pro camera body with a motor drive takes some effort to squeeze in, and could even pull the zipper apart, but if that’s your need Sagebrush will make a custom bag to your specifications. I have a lot of confidence in them [Disclosure: Sagebrush has given me a number of bags to test]. Water can of course get in if you open the bag to shoot – from splash, wet hands or from the lip of the zipper if the bag itself is wet. In that it’s comparable to a dry box, but with less bulk even with padding. In addition, you don’t have a rigid dry box lid to lift up that then gets in the way.
I have enough confidence in the Sagebrush bags that I use a custom bag from them to stow my 500mm f/4 and dSLR. The bag sits between my legs in my Necky Manitou or Necky Elias, but I’ve even used it in a Necky Tahsis – not a big cockpit kayak. To use the big lens, I pop the skirt, un-zipped the bag – pull out six grand worth of camera – and fire away. If you want something similar, I suggest contacting Sagebrush and perhaps get their “Plain Jane Duffle”, or the large “Twin-center”, sized for your needs.
Extra lenses, filters, and film are kept in a hard plastic waterproof (Pelican) case that I only open on shore. I also carry silica gel, a desiccant that I keep in double zip-locked bags. If moisture gets on the camera or in the dry bag, I open the ziplocks and let the desiccant dry things out. The drying power of the silica gel can be renewed by putting it in an oven at low temperature for a hour. It can also be rejuvenated with a camp stove if you really need it in the field. When the gel turns color from pink to blue it’s good to go again. I’ve tried using a microwave to rejuvenate gel, but it drives the water out so fast it explodes the gel ganules, so I only do that in a pinch.
A big problem for me is keeping my hands dry. I do a lot of open ocean paddling, where waves and ocean swell mean your hands frequently enter the water. Often they end up looking like prunes. If you grip the paddle with your hands close together to keep them out of the water, it can result in injury. One solution is to wear latex (dish washing) gloves. I just remove them to take a picture. I also keep a cotton bandanna under my hat, and another one in the camera bag. I use them to dry my hands, and to wipe off the camera. If the bandana in the camera bag gets damp, I put it below deck, and rinse and dry it out when in camp. On windy days or in really rough seas, I usually stop photographing, and concentrate on paddling.
I’m always looking for new solutions to these problems. If you’d like to share yours, send me an email at: email@example.com.
Aside from camera and lens choice, I always shoot with a lens hood. This accomplishes three things. First, the lens hood protects the front lens element probably better than a lens cap, so I can leave the cap off. Second, the hood keeps water spray from striking the lens. Now I don’t have to clean the lens as much, and I’m less likely to need a filter for lens protection. Third—and most important—the hood prevents stray light from the sun or bright sky from bouncing around in the glass, causing lens flare and reducing contrast. Outdoors, we have only limited control over light and its direction. So I always shoot with a lens hood.
When I’m photographing I try to face forward while seated in the cockpit. I hunch over – push my elbows into my PFD. If it’s calm I lean my elbows on the coaming. A bad way to photograph is to turn your body sideways to the kayak before snapping the shutter. This is an unstable position and the result will be fuzzy images and crooked horizons.
I’m paddling all Necky kayaks now, with three in the fleet (four with my wife’s Looksha IV). I’ve sold my beloved Mariner Coaster, my big trip Mariner Max and my fast, skinny Necky Tahsis. Mostly they’re gone for business reasons. The Broze brothers (Mariner Kayaks) closed their doors a few years ago. I’ve also had a business relationship with Necky ever since we traded my wife’s grey Necky Looksha IV, which she loves, for a brighter-colored, yellow-deck Looksha (same model). Photos of kayaking are the biggest part of my income, and it makes sense for me to paddle relatively new, brightly-colored boats.
My go to kayak now is a Necky Elias, only 15’ 6” in length. I’ve found it’s fast enough, though, and has plenty of volume for week-long or longer trips (see Photographer Kayak: Necky Elias). The short length may seem like a handicap, but shorter boats turn better and weigh less, and I can keep pace with almost any group I might paddle with. I’m still very fond of my Necky Eliza, a boat marketed to women but which is an excellent choice for small- to medium-sized guys or gals looking for a utility kayak that shines in surf and current play, has the capacity for a multi-day trip, paddles easily at a 3.5-knot pace and is so light I can pick it up with one arm (See my photo tip: Packing a small sea kayak).
In spring, 2009, I added a Necky Manitou 14, now (almost) a dedicated bird photography kayak. I couldn’t find a better kayak for photographing birds with a 500mm f/4. It has bomber stability for hand-holding the 500mm f/4 with confidence. The water line is long enough to quickly get you to photo ops, and it has enough gear stowage for an over-night (See my photo tip: Bird Photographer Kayak). It also has a skeg, which I prefer, not a rudder. I like dropping the skeg to keep me faced forward while photographing, and I like the firm footrests. At a weight of 44 lbs, it’s not super-light compared to other smallish kayaks, a consideration of women and older photographers who don’t want to deal with car-topping and carrying solo a 44 lb kayak when on day trips (Note: Most single kayaks weight more, some a lot more, but in its class there are a few lighter alternatives, especially in light-weight carbon-fiber and in shorter kayaks without bulkheads, rudders or skegs).
In general—considering multi-day, touring kayaks—a medium-volume kayak is probably the best choice for most photographers. A big volume kayak can be a lot to handle, so padding skills are even more important. Most folks should probably opt for something smaller than a 17’ Looksha Elite or Mariner Max, boats I used to paddle. Photographers especially should seek to shrink the volume of stuff that they carry. My advice is to get your gear into a boat that fits you for size and is easy to handle. For example, I used my 21” beam Necky Tahsis, for a two-week trip to Bella Bella in July, 2005. I took my big gun 500mm f/4, and all my usual photo gear. I loved paddling that kayak, loaded, or not loaded, with gear. The Tahsis is fast and tippy and I wouldn’t recommend it for photography, but with an excellent secondary I never worried about capsize while photographing from the cockpit. I kept the 500mm in a Sagebrush bag. Even though I got everything to fit, I could have done better. For instance, I took three pairs of shoes: paddling shoes, sandals, and a pair of light-weight hiking boots. It was a wet trip, and the hiking boots got damp from the get-go and were pretty useless. A good option for footwear is to pick up a pair of quick-draining paddling shoes that you can also hike in, and use calf-high gortex socks in camp so it doesn’t matter if the shoes are wet.
For overnights I love paddling my Necky Eliza, which loaded or not has such low windage it’s a joy to paddle when storms roll in. The Necky Eliza is a kayak any small to medium-sized paddler should consider, although the cockpit is way too small for photographers with big lenses.
If you really feel you need for a big volume bulk carrier (as big or bigger than the Mariner Max), two other kayaks I would recommend for photographers are the Prijon Kodiak and the Azul Aspen.
The Mariner Kayaks website is still a good place to start if you’re looking for a kayak. As I mentioned, the Broze brothers have closed their store and retired, but I’d be surprised if those great hulls don’t somehow find their way back into the marketplace.
Yes. Learn natural history. Get excited about animals. Get out every day, even if it’s only for 20 minutes to look at birds in a city park. Be patient. Carry waterproof binoculars and use them to study subjects at a distance. Learn which animals can be effectively photographed in zoos. For example, at the Newport Aquarium, Newport, OR, you can get up close to Tufted Puffins, Black Oystercatchers, and other sea birds to create images that look natural. Also visit places where the wildlife are used to people. Many bird species are approachable in marinas, near seaside food process plants (see my fishhead essay) or sewage treatment plants, or in city parks. Boat launches, especially where people go fishing, can be great locations. Some places have an essentially tame Harbor Seal, or Sea Otter.
Whatever you do, don’t feed them. A wild animal that associates food with people often ends up a pest, or dead, or results in the closure of a wild area to people. The recent (summer, 2000) mauling of a sea kayaker on Vargas Island, BC, by a wild wolf is a case in point. It was reported that this wolf had been fed previously by people, became habituated, and was probably looking for a handout.
One of the advantages of photographing wildlife from a kayak – rather than a larger boat – is you’re down close to eye level with the animal. This almost always results in better photographs.
One other point: the emphasis for wildlife photographers has always been to get close, use the biggest telephoto in your arsenal and show the bird or mammal large in the frame. Work to be different, for example, by putting the animal small in the frame, perhaps using a wide-angle and a remote trigger. Show more of the environment where the animal lives, or place it as a part of the big scenic. These types of shots take some thought and often time to set up, and are therefore largely ignored in workshops.
Oh, and did I say, learn natural history?
My first choice for a wildlife lens is the Canon 300mm f/4L IS (Image Stabilized). It’s compact enough to use hand-held with great results from the kayak, fast enough to capture action, and long enough for most situations. For many years, it was my most used lens. In good light, I attach a 1.4 tele-extender, giving me a 420mm f/5.6. If you have a cropped-frame camera like the Canon 7D with its 1.6x multiplier, the 300mm f/4 is an effective 480mm f/4, and the 420mm f/5.6 becomes a 672mm f/5.6. That’s quite a reach. I have to say, though, since I started shooting a 500mm f/4 from the kayak in 2003, it was a great leap forward for my bird photography, even though I rarely use the 1.4x with it. The 5D III/500mm f/4 shot at f/5.6 at 400 iso is my standard bird photography set-up, but I often add the 1.4x and shoot at iso800.
Another good choice would be the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS zoom, a very versatile lens. I prefer the 300 f/4, though. It’s faster for low-light situations, it has a built-in lens hood, it weights less, and you can get it and the Canon 1.4 tele-extender for almost the same price as the 100-400mm alone. You do lose the ability to zoom back to 100mm – for scenics or wildlife groupings – but then I usually have another camera handy with a zoom lens attached.
For a single, general purpose wildlife lens for kayaking, the 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS zoom (or its predecessor, the 75-300mm f/4-5.6 IS) is a good choice. This lens is sharp enough, it won’t break the budget, and it’s compact and light compared to the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS. You can hang onto it with one hand while maneuvering your kayak with the other. With the lens hood attached, it fits easily in a large Sagebrush Dry Goods or large Ortlieb dry bag. I used it in this picture, while bobbing about in ocean swell. The picture is tack sharp. The October, 2000, cover of SeaKayaker was also taken with this lens. Be aware, though, that you can’t use the 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS (or its predecessor) with the Canon tele-converters.
I love my 500mm f/4 IS, but I’ve often carried it (or its predecessor, the 500mm f/4.5L) for weeks on kayak trips and it didn’t get used. It’s too big to use from the cockpit of most kayaks. To stop and set up for shots takes extra effort, so you want to have a good situation. Of course, the results are usually worth it. I store the 500mm in a waterproof case, a Tundra 716, which used to slide behind the seat of my now-sold Mariner Max (my Max didn’t have bulkheads and hatches). On calm water bird photo trips, I now stow the 500mm in the cockpit in a custom Sagebrush Dry Goods bag big enough to house the camera, lens w/1.4 tele, and attached lens hood.
While I envy many a photo taken with a 600mm f/4, a lens that expensive has to be a workhorse. It would require a waterproof case so big you’ll need a barge to transport it. A PWS Thunderbird would probably work — or paddle a canoe. On land, the 500mm f/4, at 8½ pounds, is far easier to carry than the 12 or 13-pound 600mm. If you need to hike a mile to a good shooting location, you’ll appreciate the difference. The 600mm, of course, shines for stand-on-the-shore photography of subjects like surfing or sailing – or bears. Personally, I want to be closer to the action, where the 500mm or 300mm f/4 can compete, and I look for situations where I can make that happen.
Always reset your camera to the same settings after a shoot. An hour later, the next day, or whenever you pull your camera out again you need to know that your set-up is the same. If you only have two seconds to shoot, and you’ve got yesterdays exposure compensation dialed in or yesterday’s f-stop or you’re in manual mode – whatever it is – you’ve just lost the shot.
I leave my camera in Aperture priority, with the aperture set wide open. I always want to control aperture. Leaving it wide open assures me the fastest shutter speed, which for hand-held and sport photography is what I want much of the time.