***This post has seen no end of visits and associated queries. For this reason (and because I’m becoming a sad camera gear geek) I’m submitting an updated version. I still need to get around to writing a basic ‘how-to’ on paddling photography, bear with me…***
I’ve had a fair few enquiries about the equipment used for photos in the blog and in the book South West Sea Kayaking. So humour me, I’ll try to cover this stuff in a single blog post.
Basically, I now always use a digital SLR. I carry it in a Watershed Ocoee drybag with internal padding. Watershed drybags are 100% dry (if sealed properly), but not cheap. Whilst paddling, the bag lives between my knees and is quickly opened/closed for photos.
The only protection for the camera whilst in use is a rubber Camera Armor cover; this at least protects the camera from damp salty fingers. Incidentally, ignore the lens condom thing that comes with the rubber case – this is useless and looks ridiculous, it goes straight in the bin.
The photos for South West Sea Kayaking were mostly taken with a secondhand Olympus E500. It’s conveniently small and light.
Looking back over the photos from the Olympus with hindsight and a little more knowledge, the quality is clearly lacking; most notably in terms of sharpness. I think the main culprit here is the cheapo kit lenses.
I subsequently decided to go a bit more seriously down the SLR route, and spent far too much money on toys from Nikon. For the last two years I have owned a Nikon D80 (Nikon have now replaced this with the improved D90)… this is a fantastic camera which does a much better job of exposing colour and light effectively (compared to the Olympus E500), and (something of a Nikon speciality) handles low light and high ISOs very well. If I were only ever to own one ‘decent’ camera for everything, it would be this one.
Late last year, I went temporarily insane and acquired a Nikon D300s; this expensive housebrick of a camera doesn’t really do anything new that my D80 doesn’t (apart from video, which I don’t want/need), but it is a noticeable step-up in certain respects, e.g. really fast accurate focusing and blisteringly fast frame rate (7 shots per second). The main advantage of the D300s is being able to adjust/ control pretty much everything; this is either a great bonus or the road to insanity, depending upon your viewpoint.
Like any camera geek, I have all sorts of lenses, not all of which I am entirely sure I understand what they do. However, pretty well all my on-the-water shots are taken using the awesomely versatile Nikon 18-200mm VR lens … the zoom range covers pretty well all possibilities, and the VR (image stabilisation) is obviously of benefit whilst your boat is moving up and down. Note that after I smashed/ wore out the first one (ouch), I bought a replacement which was actually the MK II…this has a useful zoom lock that prevents ‘lens’ creep; important as the lens is more vulnerable to damage when extended.
For wildlife/close-up shots, I was lucky enough to acquire a Nikon 80-400mm VR lens on eBay. This hefty lump of a lens is only really practical for use on dry land, and I’ve spent many happy hours lying on rocks and sand, pointing it at obliging seals and seabirds.
Two other lens have recently been added to my kitbag, courtesy of eBay and a flexible overdraft facility…
This monster only has a modest zoom (80-200 mm), compared to the beast above but I’m rapidly learning that it’s the highest quality bit of photography kit I own. Focusing is fast, photos are amazingly sharp and due to its fast aperture (f2.8 at 200mm for those who care…) really high shutter speeds are practical. The upshot is less wobbly pictures. Looking forward to making heavy use of this with the wildlife in the Shetland Isles. Obviously it’s not practical for use from a kayak…probably.
The other new toy is a macro (i.e. close-up) lens. It’s clearly a very high quality bit of gear, but there is a definite knack to macro photography that I need to work on; in particular, depth of field is a major factor to take consideration of and also any hint of wind (i.e. being outdoors) completely screws your pictures. Watch this space, hopefully I’ll learn more about how to use it.
Final item in my bag worth mentioning is actually virtually indispensable. I’ve played around with various tripods, monopods and suchlike; mostly they are a pain, awkward and slow to assemble and use. If you’re going to photograph wildlife on dry land, you really must get yourself one of these…looks daft but is amazingly useful. They come in two sizes, the bigger size is better but is only just practical to carry by sea kayak. Makes a great pillow, though!
Hopefully that’s useful, for those who want to know the technical side of things. At some point I might find time to pen something about how I take photos, but I admittedly know a lot more about buying toys than using them …
PS If you feel a sudden desire to buy any of this gear for yourself, please use the links on this page – I get a small commission, enabling me to waste even more money on camera gear!
PPS Did you read this article expecting to be told what to buy? Well, if you have a moderate pile of money to spend, want to begin to take professional quality photos and want to be as versatile as possible, it’s simple – buy the Nikon D90 and the 18-200VR lens. Job done. However, don’t blame me if you eventually find yourself addicted to buying more and more expensive and arcane gear…