My Kayak Photography

By Vladimir Brezina

Vlad in action

Vlad in action (photo by Johna)

I am often asked how I take my kayaking photos. What camera do I use? Am I not worried that water will damage it? And how do I manage to keep those pesky water drops off the lens?

So, here’s a brief answer.

Camera

For many years, I’ve used one or another of the Pentax Optio W-series waterproof cameras. I began with the W30, then moved on to the W80, W90, WG-2, and finally the WG-3.

I still have the last three—

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My current stable of Pentax Optio W-series waterproof cameras. Left to right: W90 (2010), WG-2 (2012), WG-3 (2013).

The W90 is obsolete—the WG-2 was a significant upgrade. But the WG-2 and WG-3 are not all that different from each other, at least in the features that matter to me. Neither, apparently (I don’t have one yet), is the WG-4 that Pentax—now Ricoh—has just come out with.

These are basically point-and-shoot cameras. These days, though, point-and-shoot cameras can do amazing things. These cameras have many shooting modes optimized for different types of subjects, they have image stabilization, face recognition, they shoot macro, video… I confess that I have not used most of these features. This is what matters to me:

These cameras are waterproof. You can dive with them! (They are ruggedized in other ways as well—against heat and cold, shock, dust, sand—explaining their somewhat fearsome appearance.) While no electronic equipment can be absolutely guaranteed against failure where water is concerned, over a number of years, with many dunkings in salt water, the claim of complete waterproofness of these cameras has held up well. I marvel at how the apparently flimsy little doors that allow access to the battery and memory card can be waterproof, but they have been, even though on a couple of the cameras they are now showing rusty discoloration around the edges…

The knowledge that the camera is waterproof takes the worry out of kayak photography. I don’t have to protect the camera in any cumbersome housing, or scramble to hide the camera in a drybag as soon as the waves and spray pick up, or the rain starts… I am free to use the camera the way I like, which I will be describe below.

Megapixels! The WG-2, WG-3, and WG-4 all have 16 megapixels. And I hope future models will have more. You can’t have too many! That’s true in any kind of digital photography, of course, but especially in kayak photography where, in the heat of the action, there is often no time for optimal framing of the subject. So what I do is take in a sufficiently wide field of view and crop later—but that loses pixels, so I’ve got to start with as many as possible.

Limitations. Three limitations of these cameras have been significant in practice.

First, most obviously, these cameras do not have interchangeable lenses. They have 4x optical zoom (as well as digital zoom, which is pointless if you have post-processing capability), from 25mm to about 100mm, in 35mm-camera terms. But the longer focal lengths are often hard to use in a kayak bouncing in the waves. So, given that most subjects in kayaking photography are quite far away, as is any background, it’s difficult to use selective focus to separate the two. Everything from a few feet away to infinity is equally in focus. In other words, the photo looks like this—

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Taken with a Pentax Optio point-and-shoot. The seal is a hundred yards away, the background a couple of miles away…

rather than like this—

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Taken with a Nikon DSLR, with lens zoomed out to 300mm

I took this last photo with a 300mm zoom lens on my Nikon DSLR camera, when for once I ventured out with it—but fearing for its non-waterproof life with every wave.

Second, the Pentax Optio cameras do not produce RAW files, only compressed files such as JPGs. In producing the compressed files, many creative decisions—most noticeably, about things like the color balance—have already been taken for you by the camera.

Third, the battery life can be short, especially in winter. And many after-market batteries fall well short of the charge they promise to store. So I carry with me a number of extra batteries, and I’ve fallen into the bad habit of changing batteries on the water, which I will no doubt regret one day when a wave comes along just at that moment…

When I bought my first Pentax Optio waterproof camera, there were few other such cameras on the market. But today every camera manufacturer seems to offer a line of waterproof point-and-shoots. Some of them no doubt are better in this or that respect than the Pentax cameras, which indeed often score only middling on comparative reviews. So I am not advocating the Pentax cameras specifically—just this type of camera.

How I use the camera

I paddle with a deck bag on my kayak, strapped on just in front of the cockpit. The deck bag has an open string pocket facing me. That’s where the camera lives:

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The camera’s home

The fact that the camera is waterproof allows me to keep it in this open pocket, immediately accessible, despite pouring rain, spray, or waves washing over the deck. I can grab the camera and take a shot, then put it back very quickly—between breaking waves, even.

The bane of kayak photography, even with a waterproof camera, is water droplets on the lens. Between shots, I keep the camera in its pocket with the lens facing inward. That is enough to keep the lens dry for a surprisingly long time. When water drops do eventually appear on the lens, I dip the entire camera in the water. That coats the glass that in these cameras overlies the lens with a thin film of water, which then retracts leaving the lens clear. If all else fails, I keep dry tissues in the deck bag.

Planning shots

The ability to bring the camera into action quickly opens the possibility of taking not merely random snapshots or static set-piece shots, but dynamic shots of kayaking action.

Given that kayaks are relatively slow-moving, it’s surprising how fast the composition in front of the camera—the arrangement of kayaks relative to each other or to the background—changes. A fraction of a second makes all the difference:

One moment

One moment

... and the next

… and the next

I try to recognize an attractive composition when it appears, then take as many photos as possible in quick succession before that composition dissolves again. (Unfortunately, the Pentax Optio cameras don’t have a fully functional burst mode—something to look for in a future camera!) Later I select the best photo. With digital photography, there’s no real downside to taking many photos—except the agony of then having to select among many almost-identical images…

One factor that becomes significant when a photo opportunity appears unexpectedly is the lag time of the camera. The Pentax Optio cameras take a photo almost instantaneously if they are on, but they take quite a long time—a second or two—to turn on. It’s tempting to leave them on all the time, but then the batteries run down faster.

Similarly, I usually turn off the camera’s auto-focus, which is slow, especially when it tries to find something distinct to focus on in the often featureless watery environment. Instead, I preset the focus to Infinity, which ensures that everything from a few feet out will automatically be in focus. (As I explained above, with the relatively short focal lengths of these cameras this would usually be the outcome anyway, even with the auto-focus on.)

But the best solution, rather than merely to recognize photo opportunities when they appear, is to try to anticipate them. I envisage how the visual elements will align seconds or minutes later, and move into the best position ahead of time. Or I even try to create the visual scene myself: I often find myself paddling around my kayak model, Johna, trying to find the best angle. Since Johna continues to paddle on at her usual high speed, that can be challenging :-)

Ahead of Johna

For this kind of shot, I need to paddle far enough ahead to turn and take the shot before Johna blows past…

Post-processing

While I do pay attention to the internal composition of the shot, I pay much less attention to framing the shot tightly. Indeed, these days I intentionally capture a much greater field of view than I know I will use, so that I can just point the camera quickly in more or less the right direction—even over my shoulder—and still be sure to include all the components of the scene.

Of course, such shots then require cropping. (That’s where all those megapixels come in handy!) I do this in Photoshop. I also straighten the horizon—since shots taken from a bouncing kayak are often tilted at disturbing angles—and any verticals. I usually increase the color saturation somewhat, to try to get closer to what, on my monitor at least, appears to be “the way it really was.” Ultimately, of course, no photo can do the way it was justice—you just have to paddle there yourself…

Other kayak photographers

These fairly simple procedures work for me, at the moment. Many other kayak photographers have more elaborate and sophisticated methods. For instance, the now ubiquitous kayak- or helmet-mounted video cameras such as the GoPro have produced some beautiful images.  (I experimented along these lines myself some time ago.) For further advice on sophisticated kayak photography, I highly recommend Marek Uliasz’s website Paddling with a camera. To see the possibilities of state-of-the-art video on a kayak trip, I can’t do better than recommend the videos of Doi Nomazi.

94 responses to “My Kayak Photography

  1. Really interesting post :)

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  2. This was so interesting Vladimir! Even though I do not kayak, I really enjoyed reading this post. Thanks for sharing!

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  3. Very interesting. I’ve been using water-sealed Olympus SLR equipment in my old Boreal Systems Oopik Duo – a tandem kayak that is very stable. Of course I’ve, for the most part, avoided taking the camera out on rough water and try to not bring it if it will be a long paddle that may become unpredictable. I will not use it with my new Jackson Journey. My wife just picked up an Olympus TG-3 camera that is waterproof. I haven’t used it yet. It was pretty easy to bring a camera in the Boreal but I wasn’t sure about the Jackson. Seeing how you carry yours gives me ideas.

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    • Great! Give it a go! The camera is one thing, but having somewhere to put it conveniently is almost equally valuable. Without my little pocket on the deck bag, taking photos on the water would be much more clumsy and cumbersome…

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  4. A vastly interesting post! I must borrow my granddaughter’s waterproof and experiment. The battery life is always a downside. The Coolpix (mine has just died) is wonderful in that respect, particularly with a spare.

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  5. Thank you for the thoughtful post. Kind of exposes how little I know of the camera and how much more there is to learn. Love how you point out the awe and wonderment in small things – flimsy chips made waterproof! Engineering marvel indeed.

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  6. Thank you for sharing all those insider tips, but you’ve forgotten to emphasise that it is you, armed with your visual awareness, that is making all those decisions that result in some really brilliant photographs. I’m a great fan of your pelicans, New York skylines and shots of Johna paddling along near giant tankers in the docks.

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  7. George Fatula

    Thanks for this Vlad,
    I am one of the “pests” you satisfied with this post. I am encouraged to learn you are using a “point and shoot” for your on water photographs. We do too. We needed two, one for the bow paddler and one for the stern. our choice was the The Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS20. It is one of the less expensive rugged cameras on the market and serves us well. 16 mp but low light isn’t great. We learned the hard way, prior to buying two of these (different colors, same batteries), by loosing one overboard. Now we use lanyards or floats and they have saved us more than once. The Go-Pro looks interesting but this little camera can shoot a lot of video when mounted on a pole, turned on and left to run. Having these convenient little cameras has made a huge difference for us. They sit in simple mincell foam pockets we cemented to the boat. Always ready. I have a lot of good finger shots! Ha!

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    • Sounds like you are doing it more or less as I do… The same needs often do lead to the same solutions :-)

      I was going to mention tethers. I did for a time attach the camera to the boat, but gave up on it. The tether had to be quite long, and ended up being more trouble than it was worth. That is, it was all trouble and no worth, since I have not yet dropped the camera overboard. No doubt I will think just the opposite once I do :-)

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      • We purchased simple floats on lanyards that were designed to provide the right amount of buoyancy for each camera. I have retrieved the float with suspended camera attached as it drifted back past me at the stern of our Sawyer. “Where is your float?” “O.K., if you insist.” “Plop” Smiles! I have a good idea where one of our “old” cameras is. It is under a bridge among pilings in a strong tidal rip on the Cathance River! We upset our pro boat there and did not have the floats then. There is no good place in that boat to store them, hence the floats now.

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        • Yes, although I am not too worried about losing the camera when the boat is the right side up, if I were to capsize it would be a different story. So before any surf landing or anything else that seems precarious I try to remember to put the camera away in the deck bag. :-)

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  8. Reblogged this on Locating Frankenstein's Brain and commented:
    I always like learning about the behind-the-scenes stuff.

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  9. Really lovely shots!!! I love your photography.

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  10. I enjoyed the post also…cameras…and what they can achieve…sounds like you’ve planned pretty well!

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  11. Thank you so much, Vladimir! I am a novice at best to photography. I’m using a canon powershot XLS for candid and action family photos. It is nice to know that it would take a lot more money and camera to get photos like yours.

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  12. Very interesting! Good camera and great ‘eye’ make your photos amazing!

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  13. Very useful information! Thanks for sharing! The photos of the seals popping their heads up are fun and cute! Very good timing on your part!
    Remember the anemone pic that I posted? That anemone was in a little alcove that I could walk out to (about thigh high depth) but every once in a while I’d have to jump up to avoid splashes from the small waves so my point & shoot wouldn’t get wet. haha It probably entertained people who may have seen me trying to get the shot. It was kind of funny. But I’m going to invest in a waterproof camera so I can concentrate on the subject without worrying about my camera.

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    • A waterproof camera would be perfect for that kind of photography. Just make sure that it has good close-up or even macro capability. The Pentax Optios seem to be pretty good in that department, even though I don’t use those features much. But probably most of the waterproof point-and-shoots on the market are just as good…

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  14. I have a similar setup on deck with a mesh low profile bag. Have killed 2 Lumix FT2 cameras over the years and my current one is corroding from the salt exposure. Recently purchased a Canon D20 which has larger buttons as often wearing gloves on long paddles and quality of shots seems good, even if the photographer is not so good. Keep on paddling ….and clicking.

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    • That’s one thing to be said for the Pentax cameras—they haven’t corroded at all anywhere on the outside, even after years of salt water exposure. (It’s recommended to rinse them in fresh water, but of course I haven’t been doing that…) Corrosion will start inside the little doors if water is allowed to get in there—for instance by not closing the door properly—but so far there’s been remarkably little of it.

      Thanks!!

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  15. Phoenix Tears Healed

    I love that seal :)

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  16. I’m looking for a tough camera, so your post provides timely and useful information. I had an early version of the Pentax and didn’t like it. I’m hoping I’ll find a tough camera — I’m not a diver — that’s also water-resistant, sand-proof, heat and cold-proof to shoot outside in every kind of weather — and at the beach on on a boat where salt spray is a problem with my regular cameras. I haven’t found what I want. I’m not sure it exists, at least not in my price range.

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    • Remember there’s a difference between water-resistant and water-proof. Reading about it and in my personal experience, merely water-resistant devices fail sooner or later around water, even if they remain within their nominal limits (e.g., spray rather than liquid water). I always try to go with an IPX-7 rating, which the waterproof cameras have.

      Good luck!

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  17. Appreciate all of the information Vlad. I too had wondered how you managed the camera action of all those fabulous photos.

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  18. Great article packed with good advice. Seems like I was one of those guys who asked you about what you used. Now you can simply send us guys a link! Thanks for taking the time to share. I still haven’t bought a camera yet and am still using my iphone / life proof case. Gotta make a decision soon. Cheers.

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    • Send a link—that was the idea! ;-)

      If you do research on these cameras, it will be interesting to see what you come up with. I haven’t done any comparative research in the last few years—just keeping going with the Pentaxes out of inertia…

      Cheers!!

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  19. This was fun to read as I too kayak and take a bunch of pictures. One thing I’ve added to my camera is a floating strap so that I don’t get as worried when I am whipping it out every few seconds.

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  20. The mystery has been solved, thanks for going into detail with this, I think we were all waiting for it :)

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  21. very interesting Vlad, easy to follow and makes good sense, thank you!

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  22. confess I had not given much consideration to the hows of how you take your shots- too in awe of the images and the fact that you two have such great adventures. An impressive post!

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  23. Thank you Vlad, with all your fabulous shots taken in conditions with lots of wave chop I figured that you used a waterproof camera, and I appreciate all the detailed description of how and why. I think I will be investigating the Pentax Optio cameras after reading this post. I got a Go-Pro in January to use for underwater shots, but am just starting to see what it will do when taking video of kayaking trips. Unbelievably, most of my kayaking photography is done with an old Lumix DMC-TZ5, which goes in a waterproof case that hooks to a small kayak strap with a little carabiner. The case has two snaps that unlock it quickly, but I too suffer with camera lag when turning it on. The case has saved the camera several times when I misjudged some large waves while kayaking to shore from the boat!

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    • When I got my first kayaking camera, I got a waterproof one almost out of principle, because I already knew from experience that in kayaking everything is going to get wet sooner or later, no matter how well protected it is. And I didn’t like the idea of fiddling with cases, or worse, having to shoot through a case…

      At the beginning, the waterproof point-and-shoots were not as good as the non-waterproof ones—there was a price to be paid for waterproofness. But now there really isn’t.

      As I said, I don’t necessarily recommend the Pentax Optios against similar cameras from other manufacturers—I haven’t done any comparative research recently. It’s entirely possible that if I were picking a new camera now I might go with another brand.

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  24. Thanks – excellent explanation and great tips!

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  25. Your photos are always great, Vlad. :)

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  26. What a fantastic article. I learned a lot that is also useful w/o kayaking. Thank you.

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  27. Love this post!

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  28. Thanks for posting. I liked the info on the camera you use. I have a non-waterproof Canon and always have the same fears. I also have a Go-Pro but, its extremely wide-angle lens and lack of view finder makes it difficult to get the shot without the associated curve/warp in the photo due to the broad water horizon. I like the chest harness better than the head strap because I don’t need to worry about it falling off my head if I roll my kayak. I plan to look into the camera you use.

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    • There are many other waterproof cameras on the market now that seem equally good. I would suggest looking at a comparative review before buying, such as this one (in this one, the WG-4 actually does come out on top, but it doesn’t always).

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  29. Fascinating! I enjoyed reading this, even though I don’t kayak…it’s just interesting to see how other photographers work…

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  30. I have just bought the Olympus TG3. I am not intending to take it under water, but you never know!

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  31. Hey, Vlad! Thanks. We can’t wait to check out Uliasz’s site also. :)

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  32. What an interesting and informative post, full of handy tips.

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  33. Sweet as a Picture

    Very cool! Thanks for sharing this with us.

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  34. I didn’t know till now that Pentax was taken over by Ricoh in 2011, nor that Hoya had acquired Pentax just four years earlier. The first “real” camera I ever had was a Pentax Spotmatic. Because it was bought in the Panama Canal Zone in 1969, the camera said Asahi Pentax on it, rather than Honeywell Pentax, as was the case with Pentaxes sold in the United States proper. I have fond memories of my first SLR, and it’s clear you’ve been making good use of your Pentax Optios.

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    • I seem to recall that my first real camera was also a Pentax :-)

      The way I understand it, the bigger Pentax cameras will continue to be called Pentaxes (so the brand name will not entirely disappear), but these little ones will now be Ricohs…

      Thanks, Steve!!

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  35. Great post, Vlad, thanks for sharing your “inside” info. You’ve certainly answered all of my questions!

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  36. Great explanations of your process! I appreciate learning about what you do to accomplish all your wonderful photos. Amazing that these cameras that you are using have more megapixels than my Nikon D90! Love the shots of the seals/sea lions (?) by the way :)

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  37. Wünsche ein schönes Wochenende ;-)

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  38. Thanks for the tip about dipping the camera overboard to clear droplets, a perennial nuisance. I love my old Panasonic TS2, boots up very quickly & takes a shot almost instantly. I got the newer version, the almost identical TS20 but I find it less capable than its predecessor.

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    • I haven’t tried the Panasonic cameras, but there are certainly many very capable waterproof cameras available now—every manufacturer seems to have at least one.

      If you dip the camera in the water to clear drops, it helps if at the beginning of the trip you’ve applied to the lens some substance which discourages discrete drops of water in favor of a continuous film—an anti-fogging solution of some kind, Windex probably works fine, as does saliva… Then the film of water that forms when you dip the camera in the water withdraws into the corners of the lens opening rather than coalescing into drops in the middle.

      Actually, I haven’t had to use this trick for a very long time now. Just placing the camera lens down in a (somewhat protected) pocket of my deck bag is sufficient to keep the lens dry, even when the spray is really flying…

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  39. This is a very helpful post, thank you. I am just beginning to shop for a waterproof camera. Most of my kayaking is done on rivers, my biggest concern is getting snarled in an underwater tree and flipping the kayak. I want a camera that will survive a dunk in a river, but the rest of the information you gave about auto and infinite focus is very useful.

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    • So glad you found the post useful, Kim!

      Since I wrote this post a couple of years ago, the GoPro cameras seem to have taken over the world. You might want to consider one of them, especially if you want to shoot video. They are reliably waterproof and great at automatically documenting your time on the river. But they are a bit cumbersome in many other ways, you do have to invest time in post-processing, and certainly using a GoPro is a very different experience to using a waterproof camera of the type I wrote about here.

      (P.S. If you get snarled on an underwater tree and flip your kayak in a moving river, you may have bigger things to worry about than whether your camera is waterproof…)

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