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Choosing a Canoe for Wildlife Photography (for use with a 500mm lens)

Joe Kegley | E-Mail | Posted 07-25-09


One of the best ways to position yourself around wildlife is from the water. All living creatures rely on water in some form or fashion. Many bird, amphibian, reptile, and mammal species breed, nest, and forage near water. Land bound dwellers come to quench their thirst and predators hunt for prey found in or near water.

It's no secret that many wildlife photographers use a canoe or kayak. The unobstructive view, reprieve from insects, silent approach, eye-level viewpoint, and opportunities for wildlife encounters, are just some of the advantages these self-propelled watercraft have over traversing by foot.

Choosing a canoe (or kayak) can be a challenging task. There are hundreds of models from various brand names to select from.

Canoe top view
Canoe front view

Canoe side view

General Canoe (and Kayak) Information.

Some characteristics to consider when deciding on a canoe (or kayak) include:

  • Stability
    How far can you lean over the sides before you turn over? Does it feel wobbly? Generally, wider and longer boats have better stability than shorter and/or narrower boats. Realize that the weight and height of an individual also plays a part in stability. A tall heavy person will have a higher center of gravity making a boat that is suitable of a shorter lighter person, seem unstable.

  • Performance (speed)
    Generally, the longer and narrower the boat, the faster and better tracking the boat will be (at the expense of maneuverability).

  • Maneuverability
    Generally the shorter the boat, the quicker and more responsive to turns the boat will be (at the expense of performance).

  • Capacity (and/or Size)
    How much weight do you intend to carry? How much floor space do you need? Do you need enough floor space for a standing tripod setup? Will you be using the watercraft for camping or expeditions or just day use?

  • Durability
    What is the canoe made of?

    Three Layer Superlinear Polyethylene and rotomolded Polyethylene boats are extremely strong, can take a beating (resilient to impact and abrasion), and are cheap. Polyethylene boats are very heavy.

    Royalex ABS boats are strong, resilient to impact and abrasion, and are lighter than Polyethylene. Royalex boats are usually about the same price (or just a little more expensive) than Polyethylene boats.

    Kevlar and Graphite composite boats are strong and very lightweight. Both are very expensive and not near as resilient to impact and abrasion as Polyethylene and Royalex. If you are going to be canoeing or kayaking around lots of rocks or stumps, then Kevlar and Graphite are probably not for you.

  • Seaworthiness
    Do you plan on paddling in choppy water and/or in areas with a lot of wind? If you plan on going out in very large bodies of water such as ocean bays, you will need a canoe designed to cut through waves and track well. Most kayaks will handle this type of environment better than a canoe.

  • Tandem or Solo
    One or two people in the boat?

    If you are doing photography it is best to have just one in the boat. A second person may block your view and also may shift causing unwanted movement when you are focusing on a subject. Additionally the unanticipated movement may cause an unbalanced situation if you are paying attention to framing your subject instead of maintaining your center of gravity.

    Don't rule out tandem canoes though. Many canoes that are designed for two are excellent solo boats also. You can have the best of both worlds and really get your money's worth out of them. Occupy the boat with two people during excursions, camping trips, and family fun. Use the same boat solo when photography is the objective.

    Kayaks are always better solo. I don't suggest a tandem kayak.

  • Weight
    How are you going to transport your watercraft? a pickup truck? a trailer? a car top? If you are going to transport your boat via the car top, then you are going to need to be able to lift the boat to get it there. Usually I can manage anything 60 pounds and below for car top transport, though I prefer 50 pounds or below.

    Size and the materials used in construction are the major factors that contribute to weight. See the "Durability" bullet for materials used in construction.

  • Cost
    How much are you willing to spend? Expect the lighter materials such as Kevlar and Graphite to double (maybe triple) the cost of the boat.

Canon 500mm mounted on tripod in an Old Town Camper 15

Canon 500mm mounted on tripod in an Old Town Camper 15

Before you decide on the necessary characteristics you're looking for, you'll need to decide what kind of environment you'll be paddling in and what will you'll be using the boat for.

Do you want a boat for quiet lakes, ponds, swamps, and slow moving rivers ... or ocean surf ... or down river whitewater ... or competition racing? Will you be using the boat for days trips, expedition camping, fishing, or photography?

There is no canoe or kayak design that excels at everything.

To re-emphasize some the the characteristics of a canoe or kayak ...

A fast boat is usually long and narrow which is not good for changing direction quickly.

A shorter boat will turn on a dime, but will track poorly and take longer to reach a destination.

Larger boats carry more gear but are heavier to portage on land.

Canoes hold a lot more gear than kayaks, but canoes don't handle the wind near as well. Canoes have much more surface area above the waterline than a kayak. This exposed surface area acts like a sail, making navigation particular difficult on windy days.

Kayaks have much less surface area above the waterline so they handle wind much better. Kayaks also handle waves much better because the center of gravity is lower. Generally kayaks can't carry as much gear as a canoe.

Choosing a canoe specifically for use with a tripod and 500mm lens.

Canon 500mm mounted on tripod in an Old Town Camper 15

Canon 500mm mounted on tripod in an Old Town Camper 15

Old Town Camper 15 with 500mm lens

Old Town Camper 15 with 500mm lens

Choosing a self propelled watercraft for use with a 500mm lens and tripod definitely narrows down the field a bit. While I own and enjoy photography from a kayak, I eliminated that type of boat right away. I didn't feel most kayak cockpits had the room for a tripod setup like I desired (large lens).

I found the following properties most important for what I was wanting to accomplish (using a tripod and 500mm lens):

  • Stability - The most important property for my purposes was stability. No one wants to drop an expensive lens and camera into the water.
  • Capacity/Size - The boat must have the room to spread out tripod legs on the floor of the watercraft.
  • Weight - I needed to transport and launch the boat by myself.
  • Cost - If I can't afford the boat, then the previously mentioned properties don't matter.

Other characteristics were also taken into consideration, but emphasis was placed on the above.

I needed a canoe for quiet lakes, ponds, swamps, and slow moving rivers. The canoe should be lightweight, yet have the capacity (size) to set up a tripod with a large lens and be stable.

Note that 'seaworthiness' was not a consideration because I had/have no intention of taking a large 500mm lens out to heavy seas in a canoe.

Canoe manufacturers generally categorize their products in the following fashion:

  • Recreational (or General Touring) - Recreational canoes are made for stability and family fun, an all-around boat, not good at any one trait but not bad either.
  • Expedition (or Tripping) - Expedition canoes are made for hauling lots of gear. They usually track well and have decent speed, but they are not easy to turn.
  • River Expedition - River expedition canoes are made for hauling lots of gear downstream. They usually have a fair amount of rocker to make the canoe more maneuverable. "Rocker" is the curvature from the keel toward both ends of the boat. It allows ease in pivoting, enhancing the canoe's maneuverability, at the expense of tracking and speed.
  • Sport - Canoe manufacturers use the term "sport" to refer to extra stable boats, generally for fishing or hunting.
  • Performance Touring (or Racing) - These canoes are generally narrow and built for speed.

For my needs a medium to larger recreational, some smaller expeditions, and sport canoes fit the bill, as long as they met the desired characteristics.

While you can somewhat judge a canoe by its white paper specifications, nothing replaces actually taking the product for a test ride. Unfortunately there are few resellers where one can test multiple brands and sizes of canoes in the water.

With that said, I choose to stick to the canoe brands I knew best: Old Town and Wenonah.

I considered the following models listed in order of size:

  • Old Town Pack - Tested.
    Length - 12' ; Width (at waterline) - 31.75" ; Depth - 11.5" ; Weight - 33 lbs (Royalex)
    Solo. I tried this one out at Lake Jackson Florida in the Three Lakes WMA. What a mistake that was. This is the most unstable of the boats listed (when a tripod and 500mm lens are inside). I was scared to death and the only angle I felt comfortable aiming the camera was straight ahead. It felt tippy enough that I only stayed out about 15 minutes. This canoe would have been a great fit if it had been more stable, the boat is very light and easy to carry.

  • Wenonah Fisherman - Considered but not tested.
    Length - 14' ; Width (at waterline) - 37.5" ; Depth - 14" ; Weight - 46 lbs (Kevlar Flex Core), 57 lbs (Royalex)
    Tandem. I have seen this boat on display at one of the local shops. The Kevlar model is very light and easily lifted. Unfortunately this boat cost about $2000 so I never tested it. Also there is the concern that the Kevlar may crack if it hits a rock or stump.

  • Old Town Camper 15 (originally known as the Pathfinder) - Tested.
    Length - 14' 10" ; Width (at waterline) - 35.5" ; Depth - 13.5" ; Weight - 57 lbs (Royalex)
    Tandem used as solo. I tested this boat on a small lake at Cheraw State Park in South Carolina. The boat proved very stable, even without ballast. To use a tandem canoe solo you need to sit in the front seat facing the rear of the boat. The stern becomes the bow. This puts a solo paddler a little closer to the center of the boat for stability. The boat is light enough for a single person to car top. The only downside is tracking during a decent wind. This is generally the case for most canoes, especially when the extra surface area of the tripod and lens is added to the equation.

  • Old Town Discovery 169 - Tested.
    Length - 16' 9" ; Width (at waterline) - 35" ; Depth - 15" ; Weight - 85 lbs (Three Layer Superlinear Polyethylene)
    Tandem used as solo. I tested this boat with a tripod and 500mm lens on an Okefenokee camping trip. Concessionaires love the Discovery 169. It can take a beating from non-caring renters and will last for years. This boat was extremely stable, the most stable of all the boats listed, but I did have it weighted down with camping gear, food, and water. There are two downsides to this canoe. The weight of 85 pounds is too much for me to car top by myself and the seats are molded to fit the contour of a person sitting in one specific direction. Because of the molded seats, this canoe is somewhat uncomfortable when sitting in the front seat and facing the rear. Adding some padding (like a pfd) on top of the seat helps make the reverse stting arrangement tolerable..

  • Wenonah Encounter - Tested.
    Length - 17' ; Width (at waterline) - 29" ; Depth - 14" ; Weight - 48 lbs (Kevlar Flex Core)
    Solo. I tested this boat on the Catawba River in North Carolina. It did fairly well, though the width was a little tight for the tripod legs. The only reason this boat was considered is because I already owned it. The stability, with a tripod and large lens in the canoe, is not as good as the Old Town Camper 15 or Discovery 169. But if you are comfortable with canoes, the stability is tolerable. This canoe is made for expeditions and carrying a lot of gear. It is not very responsive to turning. The length would make it troublesome in tight spaces such as weaving around cypress trees/knees in swamps.

Out of the canoes listed above, I settled on the Old Town Camper 15 for use with a tripod and 500mm lens setup. It was the most stable and responsive of the canoes I tested (when paddling solo and sitting in the front seat facing the rear). Plus it is light enough for me to car top. I expect paddling with wind to be difficult.

Important Tips and Notes (specific to canoeing with a tripod and large lens setup)

Overhead view of 500mm mounted on tripod in canoe

Overhead view of 500mm mounted on tripod in canoe.
Note leg placement in relation to yoke.

Pay particular attention to where the seats, yoke, and/or thwarts are located in relationship to each other before purchasing a canoe.

Since the goal is to use a tripod with a 500mm, you may have to negotiate the tripod leg placement around a thwart or yoke. If you can't actually make a test run before purchasing, then at least bring your tripod (with camera and lens) into the store and see how it will fit in the canoe.

If you do have to negotiate the tripod leg placement around one of these braces, then pay attention to how far away the tripod will be from the seat. Is it too close, too far away, or just right for viewing through the viewfinder?

Having a yoke or thwart to negotiate the tripod legs around can be an advantage, if your tripod will fit. One or more legs next to the brace can add stability to the tripod. In fact, one could clamp one or more legs to the brace. Though if you turn over your camera and lens are going down with the canoe.

The most dangerous stage is entry and exit when canoeing with a camera, 500mm lens, and tripod setup . This is the most likely time you will tip the tripod over and dunk your camera. I rarely clamp the tripod to the brace, so I pay particular attention to my entry and exit.

Stay away from molded seats. You may want to sit in the bow (front) facing the stern (rear) and paddle for added stability when using a tandem canoe solo. Molded seats are a bit uncomfortable when you sit in them backward.

Use your life preserver as a seat cushion for added seat comfort.

Use a kayak paddle instead of a single blade canoe paddle. The tripod and camera will be in the way of switching sides with a single blade paddle.

Take a towel and a heavy weight plastic garbage bag. If strong weather (especially wind) come upon you then dismantle the tripod/camera setup. Place the camera in the garbage bag and lay on the towel on the bottom of the canoe.

Add ballast for stability. If you want a little better stability and possibly tracking, you can add ballast in the canoe. Popular items for ballast include sandbags or 5 gallon water carboys laid on their sides.

Specific to the Old Town Camper 15 -
Realize my size and weight is about 5 ft 11 inches and 200 pounds. Someone larger may not find the Camper 15 as stable. It is always best to test a canoe yourself before purchasing.

The Camper 15 has very good stability for one person with camera, tripod, and 500mm lens, when seated on the front seat (bow) facing the rear (stern) and basically paddling the canoe backward. That is not the case with two people sitting in the canoe as designed. It's a bit wobbly when you sit in the rear with the camera rig in front of you and another person in the front seat. I purchased this canoe for use as a solo only.

Important: Traveling in a canoe with a large lens and tripod is for still water such as swamps, lakes, and very slow moving rivers and creeks (all with very light or no motor boat usage in the area). Water with a decent current which may contain snags (deadfalls or fallen trees in the water), can pose the very real potential of tipping. Negotiating a canoe against a snag in a current is trouble enough without an expensive piece of equipment to be concerned about.

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