It’s an interesting conundrum- should the kayak choose the camera, or the camera the kayak? Some kayaks will be suitable for almost any camera, provided the right conditions, while some cameras will work great in any kayak, but again, provided the right conditions. And then there are times when the location you are kayaking will choose both.
If I will be shooting rapids (in the kayak sense, not the photographic sense) I don’t want an SLR. I want a rugged, shockproof, waterproof type of point and shoot camera that can with stand a bomb. Chances are I will be too busy to directing my kayak to mess with an SLR anyways. In this case it would be something along the lines of the Canon D10 series, the Olympus Tough or TG series, the Casio EX-G1, the Vivitar… You start to get the idea. There are a ton of these types of effective, tough water proof point and shoots out there. Each major brand has its own, plus there are companies that do nothing but underwater. Many of them are similar in what they can do, so find the one that is closest to your needs outside of kayaking (for instance, you might want it to be freeze proof if you live in Minnesota). Most of these are cheaper than an SLR, and if they go floating down the river without you, while it isn’t nice, at least it won’t be a huge loss.
Most river kayaks can also be problematic for SLRs, even when they are on lakes and calm water. They are almost too maneuverable. They are less stable, rockier, and more prone to yaw, and it can be hard to keep the ‘yak still enough to handle an SLR for long enough periods of time. On a river kayak simple is often best. Kayak chooses camera.
Sea kayaking can be either way. It really depends on if you are on the high seas or the flat seas. If you know you will be in larger waves (in or out of the surf), the rolling motion will make it hard to focus the camera on much, plus the kayak will want lots of attention. The conditions choose the camera. Keep out the point and shoot, stow the SLR until you are on land.
If you know you will be primarily in reasonable conditions though, let the camera influence your kayak. Choose something a little more stable versus super sleek or tippy. Get your self a rudder. Make things stable enough for that SLR, and allow yourself to steer while both hands are holding the camera.
If the weather gets too rough for an SLR, put it away until you are in a spot where you can use it, be it a sheltered cove, a wind shadow, or shore. If it’s really rough have it inside of a dry bag or hard case and in the driest part of your boat. At least you won’t be wanting it when you need it.
Sea kayaks are sort of the middle ground. You can prioritize them or your camera, it depends on your shooting style.
Sit on tops
Generally these are the most camera friendly (but not always). They are a wider kayak, which usually will make them more stable. Movement inside of the kayak is not as restricted as here is no spray skirt to worry about. An SLR can be kept close, and at the ready, while in easy reach using a dry bag or hard case. If the water gets rougher, you can secure the camera within its protection, stow it out of the way, grab your waterproof point and shoot, and be ready to go. Try to get the longest open deck kayak you can, while maintaining stability. This way it will track the best and be faster.
There are however some draw backs to a sit on top. You will get wetter. They are not designed to keep you as dry. It can be easy to keep your camera dry, not so much yourself. This is generally a slower kayak. If you don’t have a rudder (and you will want one for your photography) they are often more difficult to control.
They still won’t be stable enough if you are going through rapids or rough seas. You will still have to put your camera away if conditions get too rough. They are good, but not perfect.
In the end, the camera, the kayak, the location and conditions all depend on one thing. You. Decide where you will be spending most of your time, and under what conditions. Ask yourself if you are kayaking to take pictures, or just taking pictures while kayaking.There are some features that you can look for in any kayak for photography, such as these.
And don’t forget to have fun.