For general tips on kayak photography, regardless of your camera, visit Simple Tips for Kayaking with your Camera For tips on how to protect your digital SLR, keep reading.
There are some of you out there that won’t be satisfied with a point and shoot camera, while you are out there kayaking. You’ll want your digital SLR right there with you. Perhaps it’s because you want pictures of wildlife and need your long lens, or you want a greater depth of field or image quality. But, you have a problem. There’s all that water. You don’t know if you dare risk your precious out there on the open seas. It’s okay, I understand, because I am one of those people too- I can’t imagine leaving my babies behind.
So what makes me confident enough that I will take two bodies and multiple lenses out there on my kayak? The belief that I can keep it safe. Through trial and error (thankfully it’s been mostly trial,) I have developed a system that works well for my style of kayaking. Each person will have slightly different needs, so each person’s style of protection will also vary accordingly. (For example, I wouldn’t really recommend bringing SLRs on a white water kayaking trip using this method.) This should however serve as a good base to develop your own system.
I have two preferred options for keeping my SLR safe from water- dry bags and dry cases. They are what they sound like, a case to keep things dry and a bag to keep things dry. Both can be very effective, but each serves for a different style of protection. Either of these can be kept in different spots on your kayak, but if you want them to be accessible the main options are lashed to the deck in front of you or between your legs (this second option is mostly for open deck kayaks, because of the spray skirt on sea kayaks.)
A dry bag is generally a heavy bag made from flexible PVC or treated fabric that has a device for sealing it. Some are sealed with multiple rollings of the top, and then being fastened with buckles, others have ziploc style zippers. Both can be very effective, but make sure your choice can stand up to some rugged use.
The soft walls of the bag provide very little protection for your cameras and lenses, so you will need some sort of padding (to protect against banging.) Two main choices- a piece of dense foam with cut outs for your different camera pieces or light weight synthetic towels. You may also do a combination of the two.
The foam is the best protection. You will want a piece five to twelve inches deep, by the circumference of your dry bag. Cut out insets for your equipment, and that’s it. It is not a bad idea to keep a micro-fiber towel or two in the bag to clean off incidental water droplets, and to protect the top of your camera gear from bumps when it is stored. Also, it can be easier to lash onto the deck of the kayak as its shape is more defined. However the foam is bulkier and less versatile. It will eat up the limited space of your dry bag.
My usual method with the dry bag is without the foam. I keep each lens in a soft foam lens case or wrap it in a micro-fiber towel (these are the sorts of towels that you can find at camping stores. They are small and lightweight, soak up lots of water, but don’t hold it. They also dry very quickly.) I also wrap the camera bodies I am not using in microfiber towels. The parts are less well protected, but I am careful of banging them around. The size and the shape of the bag is more versatile, so it can place more easily between the legs.
One of the advantages over a hard case is that it can be easier to access a bag. You can keep the camera lying just inside the open mouth of the dry bag, without sealing it shut. This way you will not have to undue a case or a dry bag to pull it out and shoot that bobcat that just came down to the beach.
Not only should you test your dry bags water tightness regularly, there are also some dry bags that the manufacturers do not recommend for electronic equipment. Avoid these if you can, if you can’t, test them very thoroughly before trusting your camera. To test fill your bag with air (no camera or other equipment inside,) seal them, and hold them underwater. Watch for air bubbles. Make sure that each part of the bag spends time under water. If you see bubbles rising, you know it is not a place for your camera.
A hard case is a plastic box that seals out water using an o-ring (rubber gasket) and buckles. One manufacturer is Pelican. The inside is lined with foam, either the egg crate style, or with cut outs for each piece of equipment. A hard case is generally mounted and strapped down, or held in a rack (here is a site for a DIY pvc mounting rack for a dry case.) These cases are the best option for guaranteeing dryness and protecting your camera from hard knocks. If you will be kayaking in rougher seas, this can be ideal.
Access can be a little more time consuming, as it is either locked in the case or out of the case, unlike a dry bag. On a sea kayak, you must make sure that if you open the dry case, that the lid has stops behind it to keep it from opening completely to where you can not reach it. You can set it up so that it opens sideways, but it will be less well protected from bow splashes. On an open deck kayak this is not as much of an issue as it will be more in reach.
You should be sure to regularly inspect the o-ring of the case for wear, dirt and debris. Sometimes a single hair can be enough to allow water to leak through. Be sure to occasionally test your dry case by immersing it in water.
Both systems can be very effective. If you will be in rougher seas or subjecting your equipment to heavier knocks, go for the dry case, unless you really need that easier access and are comfortable enough in your abilities to leave your camera in an open bag.
A further suggestion if you get a dry bag is to get one with back pack straps. It is that much easier getting in and out of the kayak with it over your shoulder.
Happy paddling and good shooting