By Vladimir Brezina
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.
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—
The W90 is obsolete—the WG-2 was a significant upgrade.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—
rather than like this—
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:
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.
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:
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 :-)
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.