Photography from your sea kayak

DSLR waterproof bag

Canon d10 waterproof compact

With the overwhelming popularity of digital cameras, more and more of us are taking photographs on dry land. For some of us that may involve using a cheap compact camera, whilst at the other end of the scale it may involve a professional DSLR camera with several lenses and filters.

In order to take better photos while on the water, we are placed into a predicament, with only a few options open to us –

  1. Take a non waterproof pro-sumer/compact or digital SLR out without protection
  2. Take a non waterproof pro-sumer/compact  or digital SLR in a water-tight bag , or perhaps custom plastic waterproof housing
  3. Take a waterproof compact camera

Nikon D70 SLR waterproof housing

The majority of us will end up making the compromise of convenience and ease of access of the waterproof compact cameras over the other two options. Let’s face it, if we are spending time faffing about with large cameras and/or camera enclosures, including their storage on deck, we are not spending as much time enjoying kayaking! There is also the risk that we may also be spoiling  our paddling companions’ enjoyment of a trip.

Having said that, it is always desirable to be able to take DSLR quality images while we are out on the water, even if we only have a waterproof compact to achieve this! Obviously there are many compromises and limitations with using compacts over DSLRs from a photography perspective the following table compares the tradeoffs:

DSLR / Pro-sumer/Compact
Waterproof Compact
Risk High risk of water damage, even damp hands on buttons will eventually cause corrosion or salt buildup. Used in housings this may be better, but the tradeoff is size. Low risk of water damage.
Features Access to full features if not in waterproof housing.Only a subset of features are available if in housing. Full set of compact features available. Obviously this doesn’t equate to a full set of DSLR features!
Size/ Weight Bulky, heavy, cumbersome. How do you store it? On deck? In cockpit? Compact, light and easily stored and tethered.
Housing Housing can be a bag with a transparent lens ‘window’. What is the optical clarity/ quality of this window like?Housing can be a custom hard plastic casing that has buttons that access a subset of the cameras features. Really optimised for diving – very bulky. Self contained, small, fits into BA/PFD pocket.
Accessibility Slow to access, may miss a shot. Easy to access.
Image Sensor Larger image sensor per megapixel count. Bigger sensor. Smaller image sensor per megapixel count.Image sensors lack quality, they are usually smaller and capture far less light and tend to be far noisier than DSLR sensors. 

Auto focus may be slow due to image sensor’s small size.

A good article on image sensors can be found here

Optical Quality Larger lenses, better optical quality. Small lenses, lesser optical quality. Small lenses can vary considerably in quality and will never match DSLR camera. Distortion will be present.
Filters Ability to use filters, although anything more complicated than a polariser may be a bit of a task in a kayak! Very few possibilities for filters.
Lens Options Would you want to change lenses in a kayak? You can certainly pick from a wide range of lenses before setting out. Stuck with single lens that comes with camera. Limited focal lengths
Lens Speed/ Quality Wider lenses = more light entering camera = faster lens in lower lighting conditions = good autofocus. Smaller lenses = less light entering camera = give poorer autofocus and noise performance in low lighting conditions.
Zoom Capability Bigger zoom lenses are an option Limited zoom capability.
Image Stabilisation Only sometimes available, housed in certain types of lenses. Widely available, housed in camera. IS is arguably a necessity in sea kayaking.
Auto Focus Better focusing ability in low light, user controlled. More limited focusing ability esp in low light, no/limited user control.
User Control Manual control over everything. Primarily automated control, minimal manual control.
RAW Images RAW files + high quality jpegs both an option. Only jpeg files available – at mercy of manufacturer’s JPEG compression algorithms.
Movie capability Limited, although more models are supporting movie modes. Movies are supported most likely on all models. Not all compacts record movies of great quality.
High ISO performance Acceptable higher ISO performance. Higher ISO shots can be very noisy, which shows up as coloured speckles on images.
Turn on time Acceptable power-on times. Variable power-on times, some have quite a lag
Shutter response time No shutter release delay. Variable shutter release delay, some models have quite a lag!
Viewfinder type Optical viewfinder. No viewfinder, just screen. Can be hard to see in bright light. Screen being on is also a drain on batteries.
Write Speed Fast writing to memory, can use bursts (rapid sequence of shots). Slower writing to memory, can be a problem with fast sequence of shots.
Exposure control Better auto exposure, less blown highlights. Auto exposure biased toward producing overall bright pictures, blown out highlights can be common.
JPEG Quality Less compression of jpeg files. Jpeg files can be more compressed to optimise memory card space.
Power Larger battery size, potential longer duration, depending on lens type and IS usage. Small compact batteries, shorter duration of shoot times, typically 1 day at 150 shots a day.
Intangibles/Enjoyment Factor Can you still enjoy a kayak trip with an unprotected DSLR on board? Or even with a protected one on board? Are your paddling buddies prepared to wait while you stop and take your SLR out all the time? Camera is out and used so fast and with peace of mind, and minimal delays for paddling buddies.


Expensive DSLR

So how do we get the best out of a waterproof compact on the water whilst living with the above compromises?

  1. Go for a high pixel count compact camera so that we can at least downsize the images and iron out small visual imperfections
  2. Limit the ‘Auto’ ISO function to be a max of 400-800 range (many compacts are noisy/grainy at ISO > 200). Changing this setting is a compromise between image quality (grainyness) and blurred images (too slow a shutter speed) at lower ISO.
  3. Underexpose by 1 to two stops eg -0.3eV to -0.7eV. Most compacts allow you to do this by switching to a more manual mode. Compensate for underexposure by adjustment on computer at a later stage. You can always brighten an image up, but you can’t ever get back blown highlights!
  4. Switch your jpeg settings to highest quality available. A lot of manufacturers default to a setting that has less jpeg quality so as to increase the number of shots storable on a memory card.
  5. Switch off face recognition priority for auto focus. When out kayaking, faces may not be the priority of the camera, and there’s no point in wasting processing power hunting for them.
  6. Power down when not taking shots in order to save battery power. The screen view finders eat lots of battery power.
  7. Turn auto flash to ‘off’. Sometimes to compensate for a dull scene, the flash will go off, which is pointless for anything > 10 ft away.
  8. Make sure Image Stabilisation is always turned to ‘on’
  9. Turn off  ‘digital zoom’ there really is no point, you can just crop your images later.

Nion Aw100 waterproof compact

There really is no comparison between pro-sumer/DSLR cameras and waterproof compacts, but the waterproof cameras’ versatility, storability, readiness  and associated peace of mind will always win me over any day out on the water.


  1. Terry says:

    Hi couldnt agree more always take my wee olympus waterproof camera tethered to my pfd and lying on spraydeck funny enough the purists that say its all about the paddle and experience always appreciate a set of pics of them in action downside rarely do I ever get a pic of ME ! Occasionally good pals aye you and Pam 🙂 will reciprocate always surprised to see me in a kayak pic Used to take a dslr up the hills but worried too much about damage much more relaxing to just have a bullet proof waterproof compact not a disater if it gets dropped or broke got mines 4 years ago on ebay for £70 bargain even if it leaked tomorrow would just replace it btw youre right flash waste of time on the water :b

  2. alanf says:


    good point about buying second hand waterproofs on the cheap, obviously you don’t get the waterproof warranty, but there’s no worry like you say, and we don’t use them much for underwater. Even new waterproof compact cameras only come with a 1 year warranty before officially being required to be sent back to the manufacturer for seal replacement.


  3. Hi Alan, a very nice, helpful comparison, thank you.

    You might add that a DSLR is easier to hold than a waterproof compact and that a DSLR optical viewfinder really does beat an LCD screen, if you are trying to compose in bright conditions. I have been using non waterproof cameras in a waterproof deck bag for 10 years without a single failure. In the same time, I have gone through three “waterproof” compacts that have all failed through corrosion.

    In our little group, Jim Wallis and I both use Nikon and Canon (5D Mk2) SLRs and keep them in a deck mounted Ortlieb aqua zoom bag. Phil Toman uses an Olympus DSLR in a conventional dry bag in the cockpit. I am not aware of ever having held any of the others up nor has it ever spoiled my enjoyment of kayaking.

    Recently my Canon escaped unscathed when my kayak was left on a beach and the tide and waves gave it a trashing for about 20 mins. When I returned the kayak was capsized with the camera bag (still on deck) in the water and the cockpit full of water and sand.

    Douglas :o)

  4. alanf says:

    Hi Douglas,

    I can’t make any arguments about DSLR quality for those of you who make the effort we have been enjoying the results of your risky behaviour for many years!
    Just one or two points –

    DSLR easier to hold – I’m not convinced, they are about 2-3kgs! I can hold my compact with 3 fingers and take a shot!

    Re viewfinders, I agree, I think I mentioned the downsides to using the screen as a viewfinder in the article.

    Re holding people up – sounds like you all have DSLRs so maybe you are all held up collectively! 🙂 Wouldn’t want to be the only person in a group with a DSLR.

    Sounds like your luck is holding with the waterproof bags, good luck and please continue to let us enjoy your photos, the article just refers to my own personal preferences!


  5. Soeren Brink says:

    Does the DSLR waterproof bag fit Nikon D80

  6. Soeren Brink says:

    When talking waterproff compact cameras this is the best and cheapest solution £57,-

    Have a look at some pictures taken with it

  7. alanf says:

    Hi Soeren,

    Nice and cheap solution! Haven’t seen that model before. As for D80 waterproof case, sorry, but I have no information on this case.


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