kayaking photography

Non waterproof cameras on sea kayaking

Over the last few years I’ve spend lots of time evaluating various cameras on my guided sea kayaking trips. With almost one sea kayak expedition every month I’m lucky enough to have a large field of practise my photography skills and the various cameras I’ve used over that period.

kayaking photography
Photo taken with Nikon D7500 and 10-24 Nikkor lens

Before I get into more details I would like to state that I just like taking pictures; I’m not a professional photographer nor have any interest to became and what I’m writing in this article comes from my personal experience.

I’ve discover over the years that I do need to read and learn more about photography to take decent photos as the weather conditions that we get here in Crete (too much sun) put on extensive test the focus system of the modern digital cameras. This is how I start reading a couple of books nearly a year ago.

kayaking photography
Photo taken with the Sony a6000 with 18-55 lens.

The cameras that I currently own and use on my trips are all non waterproof apart from a Gopro which I use only when the sea gets rough. To be more specific the camera models that I use are:

  1. Nikon J5
  2. Sony a6000
  3. Nikon D7500
  4. GoPro 5

All above are interchangeable lens cameras apart of course from the Gopro. Below you can see each camera size with a lens attached (18.5 for the J5, 18-55 for the a6000 and Samyang 10 for D7500).

Sony Nikon
The Nikon J5 on the left, the Nikon D7500 in the middle and Sony a6000 on the right side.

I’ll give a quick review of each camera based on my experience taking them into kayaking trips; that means I’m always shooting with wet/salty hands.

The Nikon J5 has one huge advantage from the rest; it is tiny.
When I’m doing a kayak expedition during the winter it means I usually need to carry more staff and same applies when I’m paddling in a location that I need to carry food and water for several days. On both cases I’m always taking with me the Nikon J5 with the NIKKOR VR 6.7-13mm f/3.5-5.6 wide lens, the 18.5 1.8 prime lens and or the 10-100mm f/4.5-5.6 along with 5 batteries!

Nikon J5 10-100 lens
Photo taken with the Nikon J5 & 10-100mm lens with a polarised filter too.

As you can imagine from the last, the major flaw is the battery life of this camera. There is no way to charge the camera with any kind of source (like a solar panel) apart from its charger. Having said that, with the 5 batteries (all apart from one are 3rd part) I can take up to 500 pictures including many during the night which is where the power goes. For shooting in day light only those 5 batteries are more than enough to take more than 1000 pictures.

Sea kayak Nikon J5
Photo taken with the Nikon J5 and 6.7-13mm lens

It is worth to mention that the available lenses for J5 are very limited and very expensive. You can get however an adapter where you can mount normal Nikkon lenses but then is too big.

Last but not least, the Nikon J5 is so tiny which fits perfect in my custom made front hatch of my NDK explorer and also the NDK Romany Surf kayak. All I did is a small custom foam case which I put in the camera. The only thing I’m doing when I want to take a picture is to open the hatch, take the camera and that’s all. The hatch of the NDK boats are 100% dry. I’ve done hundred of Eskimo rolls, paddled in big seas and never had a piece of drop in the hatch. I do however test the hatch every few months just to be sure that there is no water coming in.

Nikon J5 review
Taken with Nikon J5 & 6.7-13mm lens

Let’s move to the next camera which is the Sony a6000. I bought the camera used a month ago (April 2018) with the 18-55 lens and the amazing Samyang 12mm f2, all together for nearly 550 euros. I must admit that I’m impressed by the camera. It is a great combination of size and quality of images. On top of that with the Samyang fast lens (f2 aperture) I’ve finally manage to capture some great night photos.

Kayak camping night photography
Taken with Sony a6000 & Samyang 12mm F2 lens.

A huge advantage of the Sony a6000 is that I can charge the camera direct from my solar panel (a goal zero model) in less than an hour (fully charged from nearly 10% power). On my last expedition (8 days) I took  roughly 800 pictures including many during the night (long exposures) and I’ve used only one battery (not the original) as on every lunch spot I was able to charge the battery.

Goal Zero solar charger
The goal zero solar panel/charger in duty charging the Sony a6000. Photo taken with a Nikon D7500 and the Sigma 18-300 lens.

The Sony a6000 takes better pictures than the Nikon J5 but honestly speaking, when shooting in raw you can correct those from J5 to nearly match those from a6000. Where the J5 fails compared with the a6000 is in fast lenses. There is no wide lens available with an aperture lower then 3.5 apart from one prime which cost nearly like a kayak. The above and also the small sensor leave you with nearly no possibility to capture a decent night picture with the Nikon J5 like the one below.

Sony a6000 Samyang lens
The Milky way as seen from our camping spot during our classic 8 days expedition in south Crete. Taken with Sony a6000 & Samyang 12mm f2 lens.

Back to Sony a6000 and a very frustrating fact is that sensor gets very easy dust when swapping lenses. It is a pain to clear it while on a kayak trip. I had to spend 2 hours taking pictures of the blue sky at f22 to spot all dust and clear it afterwards inside the tent to minimise the extra dust from the outdoors.

Sony a6000 panorama
4 photos merged into a panorama, taken with Sony a6000 and 18-55 lens.

Last but not least is the Nikon D7500. What a great camera!
Its focusing system is superior. Even though it shoots at 8fps instead of 11fps of the Sony a6000 I’ve manage to get much more pictures properly focused taken from the kayak than any other camera.
With a fast card you can shoot so many pictures which is nearly impossible to miss a picture with a kayaker on it.

Nikon D7500 Sigma 18-300
Photo taken with the Nikon D7500 & Sigma 18-300 lens

I was able to take more or less 50 raw images before the buffer of the camera gets full and that was inside a cave which I was struggling to keep the camera stable due to swell. From those 50 images I’ve manage to have 3-4 very well focused.

Cave Kayak Nikon D7500
Taken at f8, iso 100, 20mm with Sigma 18-300 and Nikon D7500

Add on top of this the huge variety of lenses which they cost nearly 3-4 times less than the Sony and the D7500 is the winner in terms of value but…..why on earth Nikon didn’t include a way to charge the camera from a mini usb?
Battery life is great but once starting shooting long exposures (during the night) the battery easily loose its power and you will need to charge it after 2 or so days. The charger is also big and heavy (always relatively with the kayaking needs) and there is no way to use it with my solar panel as it only exports a usb cable. You can however buy after market batteries at a cheap price. Bare in mind that those tend to last roughly half compared with the original battery.
With 1 original and 2 after market batteries I’ve taken 1280 pictures during an eight days sea kayaking expedition in south Crete before they got empty. You can check a few in my Facebook page.

The lenses I found that work great for sea kayaking are:

For Nikon J5

  1. Nikkor VR 6.7-13mm f/3.5-5.6
  2. Nikkor 18.5 f1.8
  3. Nikkor 10-100mm f/4.5-5.6

For Sony a6000

  1. Sony E 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS
  2. Samyang 12mm f2 (superb lens, a must)
  3. Sigma E 30mm f2.8
  4. Sigma E 19mm f2.8

* I’ve run out of money otherwise I will get the 18-135 from Sony.

For Nikon D7500

  1. Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 10-24mm f/3-5-4.5G ED
  2. Samyang 10mm F2.8 ED AS NCS CS (superb lens, a must)
  3. Sigma 18-300 F3.5-6.3 DC Macro OS HSM
  4. Sigma 17-70 f2.8

The Samyang lenses are superb for night photography and very cheap compared with those from Sony or Nikon. They are manual lenses however and forget about getting fast pictures from a kayak with proper focus. Even if you set the focus to infinity the pictures are not very sharp if you don’t focus more precisely.

Waterproof case & cleaning

I use the Pelican 1120 case for Sony a6000 & Nikon J5 and the Ortlieb Aqua Zoom for the Nikon D7500. The Ortlieb can be used in other activities as well. On both cases I got them inside the cockpit of the kayak. Every time I take a picture I have to take the spray skirt off, take the case, open it and take the picture. It sounds a lot but at least I can get some decent pictures as I gave up shooting with waterproof cameras and deleting most of the pictures either due to water drops in the lens or foggy lens.

kayaking photography
Taken with the Sony a6000, 18-55 lens in burst mode

After each trip I clean the cameras and the lenses with cleaner gel sticky. You can get this from any eshop for 6-12 euros and last for a long time. With the Nikon J5 I taken more than 20k pictures, all with wet, salty hands and everything works perfect. With Sony a6000 more or less near 3k and no problem and roughly about 10k with the D7500 and also no problem. The last has a weather sealed body so I guess it will last more?

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Happy paddling,