I think it would be great for us to have a thread to discuss photography from a kayak. Photographing from a kayak can provide a unique vantage point for photographing wildlife, birds, nature, and landscapes. Kayaks allow you to explore and position yourself in ways that hiking does not allow. Wildlife and birds are generally more tolerant of a kayak versus a walking human, and the low vantage point relative to the water can provide great eye-level compositions. This thread is a place for kayak photographers to gather and for those interested to ask questions. I thought long and hard as to where this thread should be located. Since there are so many different genres of photography that can be enjoyed by photographing from a kayak, the General Photography forum seems like the best bet.
The thought of taking photography gear onto the water usually strikes fear into the heart on the non-paddling photographer. After all, the idea of submerging thousands of dollars of gear is scary. But if you approach kayak photography with careful planning and selection in your boating gear, along with choosing the conditions and timing of when you'll actually take your gear out onto the water, it can be quite safe. It's a risk versus reward scenario, and you can definitely minimize risk and reap some great rewards.
I'll kick off this thread with my background and where I'm at with my intro into kayak photography, and I hope that I can receive some guidance from those who have already spent some time on the water with their camera. As time goes on, I will provide pictures of my eventual set-up, and share what I learn along the way. I know kayak photographers are far and few between, but hopefully we can gather here and inspire others to give this a try.
I am an all-around photographer that specializes in photographing action-air sports, such as skydiving and BASE jumping, and I also enjoy hiking and landscape photography. Over the last couple of years, I have developed an immense interest in wildlife and birds. Something about observing wild creatures in their natural habitat and wanting to subsequently capture their behavior in a photograph drives a passion inside me. My wife and I are spending an increasing amount of time in the field and we have also started to take as many classes as we can to learn about bird behavior, wildlife, bugs, and insects. We have a varied background in paddling -- mostly paddling inflatable kayaks up to Class III whitewater and also enjoying sit-on-top kayaks in lakes and along the ocean shoreline. We just moved to Rhode Island in southern New England and have discovered that there is an immense amount of paddling opportunities here in the "Ocean State". Narrow rivers, open ocean, and protected saltwater bays and tidal ponds are everywhere around us. Also within reasonable reach is Cape Cod and Acadia National Park. My paddling interests, rank-ordered from what I will probably do the most, down to the least are:
1) General exploration on waterways, both saltwater and fresh water, to include calm rivers, lakes, shorelines, and crossing open ocean waterways to access remote islands.
2) Wildlife observation with binoculars while doing the above.
3) Photography when the conditions are right.
4) Kayak fishing (on occasion).
I have decided that a sit-on-top kayak would best suit my needs. Sit-on-top kayaks can be sleek or come in very wide models that offer great stability. They also offer another advantage: you can easily climb back aboard if you capsize. Sit-in kayaks can often be faster, warmer, and dryer...but you often sacrifice stability and you're in big trouble if you have to eject from your kayak and you're not within swimming distance of the shore. So, I've been focusing my attention on sit-on-top kayaks.
For the uninitiated, there are dozens of sit-on-top kayaks to choose from. There are so many design choices that it can be mind-boggling at first. Each type of kayak has pros and cons. For example, wide kayaks offer more stability whereas sleeker kayaks offer greater efficiency. Long kayaks track very well (hold a straight line), are faster, and can handle chop or waves with ease. However, the trade-off is reduced steering maneuverability and increased weight. I think you're getting the picture here, so for my particular needs, I've settled on a sit-on-top kayak in the 12-13 foot range and stability is extremely important to me, especially since at some point I will be on the water with my Canon 500L II. I'm leaning towards a fishing kayak since they tend to be wide and stable (you can even stand in them!), you can rig all sorts of gear on them, and they tend to come with a lot of storage.
The next big decision, and perhaps the one I'm really hoping to receive feedback from experienced kayak photographers on, is the drive system. Traditionally, kayakers use paddles. And they still do. However, in recent years, pedal-drive systems have gained popularity, especially amongst kayak anglers because they allow you to move along at a really good speed with your hands free. The benefits are fairly obvious here, especially for a photographer. The trade-off however, is a much higher initial cost and these kayaks tend to be very heavy.
After about 100 hours of interest research and one visit to a great local kayak shop, here is what I've narrowed my choices down to (in no particular order):
1) The Ocean Kayak Prowler Big Game II. This is an expansive fishing kayak that uses a regular paddle. At 34 inches wide, it is a very stable kayak, with good moderate speed. (Kind of the best of both worlds, but with stability still being very high.) Tons of dry storage with an enormous carrying capacity up to 600 pounds. Price runs in the neighborhood of $1,299, but with a special discount that I'm eligible for, I can pick one up for $975. By the time I add a rudder, the total cost would be $1,200.
(video is fun to watch too!)
2) Hobie Pro Angler 12 or Pro Angler 14. This is considered to be the crème de la crème for kayak fisherman. Fit, finish, and functionality are top of the line. And unique to Hobie is the Mirage drive. You push back and forth on pedals with your feet, and fins underneath the kayak propel you forward. Steering is accomplished with a lever by your left hand. It is far easier to pedal with your feet since your legs are a major muscle group and again, you remain mostly hands-free. At 36-inches wide, stability is as good as it gets. This kayak is the widest of the three I'm mentioning here. They say you nearly have to throw yourself off the kayak to fall into the water. You don't have to Price jumps up to $3,400. I can land one for $2,750.
3) Native Slayer Propel 13. This is also a pedal-drive system, but it is different then the Hobie Mirage Drive above. Rather than push back and forth on the pedals, you actually pedal this one in a circular motion like a recumbent bicycle. Some say that this is slightly less comfortable, but the great advantage is that you can go forwards and backwards, whereas with the Hobie Mirage Drive above, you can only go forwards. This might give the Native kayak an edge for the photographer that needs to back off a little bit from the birds or wildlife you're trying to approach. It also gives you the ability to pedal backwards and hold/maintain your current position if there's a tailwind. Native has a loyal following, but some say that overall that while the boat is good, it is not quite as refined and polished as the Hobie. At 33-inches wide, stability is still very good, but slightly less than both choices above. Retail price comes in at $2,599. I can pick one up for $2,040.
Internet research is great for narrowing down your choices to 2 or 3 boats, but experienced paddlers say there is no substitute for getting out and demoing the finalists to see which one fits you the best. Being in New England, the weather is getting cold and demo days are nowhere to be found, but my awesome local kayak shop does have #3 above in stock and I can demo it out on the water. I'm going to do that this weekend. Unfortunately though, there is not a demo for #1 or #2 above anywhere near my region, so I'm not sure what to do there.
Ok, for the experienced kayak photographers out there, what are your thoughts on my choices? What have been your experiences? Do you have any insight to share? Again, I know that kayak photographers are far and few between, but I know you're out there! It may take awhile, but hopefully you'll discover this thread.
As for the non-paddling photographers out there, if you've survived this really long post, hopefully I've piqued your interest in something new.
I will continue to update this thread as I learn more. I will also provide pictures and stories once I actually have a kayak...and I'll share even more stories and pictures once I get out on the water, which may not be until things warm up next spring!