What to look for in a kayak (for photography)

There are a wide range of factors to consider if you are looking for a suitable kayak to photograph from. In this post I don’t recommend a particular kayak, because each person is a little different, their needs will be different, and different brands are more easily available in different areas. However there are several important aspects to consider, and I will guide you through these.

Stability. You want a stable kayak, to minimize movement while taking pictures. You also don’t want to be tipped over by a wave you didn’t see, because you were too focused on your picture. One way to test stability in a kayak is to sit in it (without a camera) and start rocking from side to side. See what it takes to tip yourself over. You’ll feel more comfortable having your camera in there once you know what conditions you can handle. Generally the wider a kayak the more stable. Also, if a kayak is too short (as many river kayaks are,) they can lose some of their stability, even if they are wide.

Next, it is important that you can control which direction the kayak is facing, because this controls where you can see, and therefore what your camera can see. You will be able to swivel your body somewhat to either side, but you will be limited and will lose stability the farther around you twist. There are two main factors that affect where your kayak points-

Rudders. If you will be doing a lot of photography from your kayak, especially of wildlife, a rudder can be nearly indispensable. It is best if the rudder is controlled with foot pedals, so that both hands can be free to handle the camera and its operations. (I love the Hobie pedal kayaks, but the rudder control is with the hand, and harder to steer while actively photographing.)

Ability to track (go straight) in windy or adverse conditions. Some kayaks will spin like a top in the slightest breeze. Short river kayaks and some inflatable kayaks can be especially hard to keep headed in a straight line, especially when it is breezy. Traits that will often add to a kayaks ability to go straight are its length (often the longer the better) and if it has skeggs, a rudder, or sharp contour lines. The best way to know how a kayak tracks is to ask and/or try it out yourself.

When taking pictures from your kayak don’t under estimate the value of comfort. Often, if you are out there to take pictures, you will be spending several hours at a stretch seated in this thing. You don’t want to be uncomfortable the whole time, or it will distract you from picture opportunities. Look for a kayak that comes with or can accept a real seat, hopefully padded, or a molded seat that fits your body well. Can you stretch out your legs from time to time to keep them from cramping up? Do you have enough back support? Are you able to sit at a comfortable angle?

Ease of use. Two different issues here. First is your ability to put in and out of the water alone. If you will be photographing wildlife, chances are you will be either paddling alone (which can be dangerous if something goes wrong) or with one or two other people. This means that you may be having to get your kayak on and off your car by yourself or with limited assistance. Most kayaks are fairly light, but there is some range to their weight. Choose one that is light enough to handle alone, and/or make sure you have rollers on your roof rack to make it easier to get on and off.

The second ease of use issue is the amount of effort for distance paddled. If you will be paddling long distances, you want to be able to conserve some energy for your pictures. Longer, skinnier kayaks will often go a little faster and farther for the amount of energy you put into each stroke of the paddle. Unfortunately, longer and skinnier isn’t always as stable. You’ll have to figure out your ideal balance on this one.

Storage in the kayak. How much space do you have to keep not only camera gear while you are kayaking, but also for your day. Will you want a tripod if you are resting on shore? Layers of clothing in case the weather changes? Food to keep your energy up? Blanket for a nap? (One of my favorite activities during those afternoon hours when the light isn’t as photogenic.) These are all part of your kayak outing, so plan them into your kayak choice. Here are some suggestions of what to bring in your kayak when on a kayak photography outing, especially if you are paddling solo.

Factors such as use (ocean, bay, river) will also affect the type of kayak you need, but even within each subset of kayak, there is quite a range, and the options can vary greatly. There are many other questions to ask yourself, such as Where will I be kayaking? What type of kayaking will I be doing- shooting rapids? Multi-day tours? Gentle easy outings? Will I be doing other things than photography from the kayak, like diving? The more you know what you will be using your kayak for, the more informed your final choice will be.

Happy shooting and paddling,


About Galen Leeds Photography

Nature and wildlife photographer, exploring the world on his feet and from his kayak. Among other genres, he is one of the leading kayak photographers in Northern California. To learn more about him, visit him on his website- www.galenleeds.net
This entry was posted in How To, kayak photography, nature photography, photography, safety, wildlife photography and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to What to look for in a kayak (for photography)

  1. Dave Hales says:

    What type of kayak do you recommend for photography? Sit in or sit on. I see adv/disadv to both.

    • The type of kayak really depends on the style of kayaking you will be doing- flat water, ocean, river, etc, and on an individuals preferences. For me, a sit on top works best, especially for allowing camera access. I don’t like having to do spray skirts on and off to get at my camera, or to have to lean forward to free it from an awkward case on the far side of the cockpit. feel that with a sit on top the camera is more accessible, making it easier to get those unexpected shots. That being said, most of my kayaking is on fairly flat water- lakes and bays where the waves rarely get more than two and a half feet tall. (When the waves get taller, I might head out kayaking, but without my camera.

      I would not try to take my main sit on top on an outing of more than thirteen or fourteen miles in a single day however. It’s not designed for longs distances- too much effort for the distance traveled. I would prefer to have a true sea kayak in such a case. Similarly I would not take my sit on top into the open ocean, although I will occasionally take it out of the mouth of Tomales Bay if the waves aren’t more than three or four feet. For such outings I would want a sit in side ocean worthy kayak. I would also use a sturdier camera protection system than a padded dry bag.

      Truly there are trade offs, and so it becomes necessary to decide what kayak you are comfortable taking your camera in for each type of situation or outing.Mine is very versatile, but does have limitations.

  2. Great read, thanks! I’m looking for a fishing kayak mainly but a good photography platform is also very useful

    • Kayaks can be a great multi purpose tool. I do a bit of diving from my kayaks also- spearing fish and collecting abalone. Also very nice for camping trips. Always nice when something can serve in several ways

  3. daemonsgpa says:

    Galen- I found answers to all my questions in your responses and posts. Thanks for sharing your insight and experience!


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