How to Take Photographs from a Kayak

by Dr. Robert Berdan


Kayaking & Canoeing will take you places you can't get to on foot - taken with the compact Panasonic SDR-SW30P
waterproof video camera - 10 day kayak trip aboard Mothership III from Shearwater, BC.


Kayaking is a sport that is growing rapidly along the coast and on many inland lakes. Traveling in a kayak is a great way to slow down and observe the environment more deliberately. Kayaking also provides a different perspective of the wilderness then hiking and you can explore shallow bays, waterfalls, tidal flats and other out of reach places.  I have also found that in a kayak I can safely approach wildlife like Grizzly bears that I could not do on foot. I concede that you can carry more gear in a canoe, but I think kayaks are more comfortable to sit in and are easier to maneuver by a single paddler. I started kayaking with the goal of taking pictures in remote mountain lakes and along the BC coast.  I purchased two kayaks, a red and yellow one, and have just begin to explore the many mountain lakes and coastal inlets in Western Canada.. Bringing a camera long on such a small narrow boat may seem risky, but in fact kayaks are quite stable, and if you take a few precautions to protect your camera from water, anyone can bring home memorable photos from their outdoor kayak adventure.

Kayaker unloading in front of Spirit Island, Jasper National Park, AB by Robert Berdan ©

My two envy kayaks in front of Spirit Island, Jasper National Park, AB. I used 18-200 mm zoom angle lens, Nikon D2X - converted image to BW and restored the original color in the kayaks and kayaker (Peter Dettling). The day was overcast and rainy. DM

Choosing your camera

Space is limited on a kayak and you want to have quick access to your camera so you can take a shot when you encounter wildlife or something interesting in or on the water.  One solution is to bring a small compact waterproof camera and carry it in one of the pockets of your personal floatation device. Several manufacturers make digital cameras that are ideal for this purpose (e.g. Pentax Optio W20, Olympus 720 SW). These waterproof cameras can be used in the rain or even held underwater to photograph jellyfish and other sea creatures. Compact cameras are great for group shots, taking video, and wide angle photos, but they tend to have limited zoom range are not particularly good for photographing wildlife up-close. Even so I always keep a waterproof digital camera with me when kayaking.    

Kayker photographing the Columgia III mothership by Robert Berdan ©

Serious photographers will want to bring along their SLR cameras with interchangeable lenses. The downside is you don’t want to drop one of them in the water.  The easiest way to protect these cameras from the elements is to place them in a small water proof case and strap it to your bow.  If you use a case, I recommend attaching it to your boat with a paddle leash so it can’t float way. Always bring along a dry-towel to wipe off the water that gets on your equipment from waves, splashes or rainfall. There are also a variety of dry bags that you can attach to the bow of your kayak or that you can place in your cockpit. On calm lakes I usually leave my spray skirt off my kayak and simply place my camera and telephoto lens in a dry bag with a towel.  For overnight trips or when we expect to go ashore, I will also bring along a tripod which I store in my cockpit or water tight hatch.

Kayakers enter narrow coves by Robert Berdan ©

Exploring island inlets in the Broughton Archipelago, Nikon D2X, 18-200 mm lens.

What’s the best lens to bring Kayaking?

There isn’t a lot of room to carry several lenses and camera bodies so you have to choose carefully depending on what youPelican case to store camera while kayaking by Robert Berdan © expect to photograph.  My favorite lens is a wide angle zoom lens (18-200 mm, F3.5 to 5.6) with vibration reduction technology.  This lens is compact, focuses quickly and is the ideal lens for most situations. An F2.8 70-200 mm lens with autofocus and vibration technologies is better for wildlife, but then one has to change lenses for taking wide angle photos. In heavy overcast I prefer to take along one of my F2.8 zoom lenses. Having a fast shutter speed is important on a kayak because the boat is rarely standing still on the water so often I am shooting at F8 or less and I want to use the fastest shutter speed that is practical.   To photograph birds in flight, breaching killer whales, or any moving wildlife, you can increase your camera’s ISO speed from to 200, 400 or even 800 to achieve faster shutter speeds. As you increase the ISO speed the pictures will appear grainer, but it is better to have a sharp grainy picture then a fine-grained blurry picture.


There are two filters that are useful when kayaking. The first is a UV or Skylight filter to protect the lens from sea water. These filters have little affect on the picture and are primarily to  use protect the front of your lens from salt spray on the ocean. If the ambient light is quite bright then I will attach a polarizing filter to reduce glare off the water and increase overall color saturation. When kayaking on saltwater one should always wipe their camera equipment down each night with fresh water to remove the salt slime that begins to cover your equipment.

General tips for Kayak Photography

  • Try to keep your horizon level
  • Take pictures when the water is calm or when you can steady your kayak
  • Keep your camera strap around your neck so you don’t drop your camera into the water
  • Protect the front of your lens from water and salt spray with a UV or polarizing filter
  • Store your camera in a waterproof container that floats e.g. Pelican case.
  • Choose a camera that has a wide-angle-telephoto zoom lens with vibration reduction
  • Set your lens aperture, and ISO speed so that your minimum shutter speed is 1\60 of a second or faster
  • Bring along a portable tripod to take pictures when you go ashore

Miray Cambell taking a photo with a compact digital camera in her kayak by Robert Berdan ©

If there are several kayaks, you can get help bracing your kyak by rafting with the adjacent kayak. Compact cameras like the Pentax Optio and Olympus water proof cameras are ideal for kayakers - their small and waterproof.

Suggestions for composition

Composing pictures from a kayak is different from shooting on land since you are only about a foot or two above the water.  I think including the bow and even your kayak partner in some of the scenes adds perspective and a sense of being  on the water. I also like to include other kayakers in my pictures as they approach or leave waterfalls, explore caves, pictographs and interesting rock formations. Also consider including the shoreline in your pictures or places that you land. Kayaking may also bring you close to wildlife, such as birds, mammals and intertidal life. If you do approach wildlife below is a list of guidelines that photographers and wildlife viewers should follow to minimize their impact on the animals and for your own safety: 

Guidelines for viewing wildlife from a kayak:

  • Marine mammal viewing guidelines recommends a minimum viewing distance of 100 metres. If your kayak party finds itself unexpectedly within 100 meters of a whale, stop immediately and allow the whale to pass.

  • Avoid approaching whales from the front or from behind.

  • Always approach and depart whales from the side, moving in a direction parallel to the direction of the whales.

  • Haul-outs and rookeries should not be approached. Use binoculars or telephoto lenses to observe animals from a distance and back off at any sign of agitation.

  • If you find an abandoned seal pup, leave it alone.

  • Sometimes marine mammals appear inquisitive and follow or watch a kayak from the water. In these situations, it is appropriate to observe the animal from whatever distance it chooses however, you should not approach it.

  • Do not swim with marine mammals (they might bite you!).

  • Stay off nesting sites. If a bird is vocalizing at you, move away from what the bird is trying to protect.

Mother and young Orca by Robert Berdan ©

You don’t have to buy a kayak to try this sport, many places offer rentals, training, and professional guided tours. If you are planning to kayak on the ocean it is strongly recommended that you do so with qualified kayak guides until you become more experienced – at the minimum invest in a few lessons on safety and how to get back into your kayak should you fall out. Kayak touring is a wonderful sport that take you to secluded places and it will offer you unique photo-opportunites.

Robert Berdan in Envy kayak taking a picture by Dr. Wayne Lynch

Author with 70-200 mm lens and Pelican case, photo by Dr. Wayne Lynch

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