Kayaking Camcorders with Simon Willis

Ex-BBC Videographer Simon Willis, who shot and edited the new DVD, Sea Kayak with Gordon Brown, offers suggestions for videoing sea kayaking.

Kayaking Camcorders with Simon Willis

Cameras and water don't mix. Sadly that goes double for camcorders. A tiny amount of moisture can trigger the internal sensor inside and you'll not be able to shoot a single frame. Even taking a camera from a cold car into a warm room can generate enough condensation to halt filming for a couple of hours until the moisture evaporates. Taking one into a swimming pool environment can be equally traumatic.

I worked for the BBC for 25 years, during which time I learnt a few tricks. In hot humid climates, if I was staying in air conditioned hotels, I'd run a steaming hot shower, then leave the cameras in the bathroom overnight with the door closed so they'd be ready to film outside in the morning. Or, provided I was on a high enough floor, I'd leave them on the balcony.

If you're going to shoot kayaking, you must keep the water away from the business parts of the camera. While I was shooting the DVD Sea Kayak with Gordon Brown I sought advice from Bryan Smith, who made Pacific Horizons and Eastern Horizons. I also shared information with the highly talented film-maker Justine Curgenven who makes the This Is The Sea series of sea kayak DVDs.

One of us would buy a camera, we'd study the results, then see that the other would find something better. It's like friendly arms-race of kayak filming technology.

Because there are so many camcorders out there, I won't attempt to advise you which to buy. Indeed, by the time these words are published, a few more camcorders will have hit the market. Instead, I'll guide you through the factors I considered when making my selection. When you start looking online or in a specialist store, you'll have a clearer idea what options you may need for the type of video you intend to shoot.

Waterproof camcorders

In an ideal world, someone would make a fantastic, all-round camcorder and it would be waterproof. They don't. At best, the waterproof camcorders are to their larger cousins what compact stills cameras are to SLRs. They're a compromise, with a smaller lens, automatic focus and exposure, and limited override. However, they are waterproof, and for kayakers that is a huge advantage.

I'm impressed with the Sanyo Xacti range of waterproof camcorders. I use them just as I would use my waterproof compact stills camera, on a leash tucked inside my PFD, ready to whip out and grab a quick sequence. The colours can be over saturated and the contrast seems rather high, but these can be tweaked in the edit. They record onto a high capacity memory card, so there's no fiddling about changing tapes.

In conditions where I wouldn't wish to remove a spray deck or use a 'good' camera, these are ideal and the results cut well into other footage.

I have the CA9 model, a 'pistol grip' shape, which is easy to use close to the water and can be very effective when a wave breaks over it. It can also clamp onto the bow of a sea kayak pointing back to see the paddler, producing images like these. The CA9 also shoots still images.

Kayaking Camcorders with Simon Willis

It's a pity the lens doesn't have a wider angle, or it would be a perfect sea kayaking camera. http://sanyo.com/xacti/english/products/vpc_ca9/index.html

In her next production, Justine has used the larger Sanyo Xacti WH1. http://sanyo.com/xacti/english/products/vpc_wh1/index.html

Both cameras are ideal for kayak coaching, as you can video a sequence, whip the HDSC card out, pop it into a card reader plugged into a laptop on the beach, and instantly replay the action on a larger screen.

It's difficult to say whether these are 'broadcast quality' as that that definition varies depending upon which broadcaster you're talking to and the amount of material shot on these cameras. They claim to be 'full HD', but again, that standard varies. If they're used to grab dramatic shots, which otherwise wouldn't be achievable by conventional cameras, then few broadcasters would object to the sequence appearing within a longer, higher quality movie. The cameras would not, however, be suitable for shooting an entire broadcast production.

Non Waterproof pro-sumer camcorders

The choice of cameras is overwhelming and I'm not going to steer you towards a particular model.

I am going to suggest that there are only two routes to follow. You either use your camera from within a waterproof mount (in which it will be harder to use), or you use it exposed to the element and risk damage. I have two cameras, one for each of these possibilities. Which I use depends on the weather, the sea conditions, how confident I feel and whether I'm in my tippy Nordkapp or my more stable Cetus. Yes, the platform from which you shoot makes a huge difference.

In calm weather I use relatively cheap HD camcorder, an old Sony DHR-HC3, with no protection other than a towel to dry my hands. A wide-angle attachment gives a great effect when filming kayak-to kayak up close, and a separate Sony clip-on top mic improves the directional sound. In Sea Kayak with Gordon Brown, the sequence of Gordon singing in the cave (which took me totally by surprise!) is shot entirely on this little camera and I have been astounded by the results. When not in use, I store the camera in a Reed simple dry deck bag (not the one with the window in it – that leaks over time) along with a towel to dry my hands.

Kayaking Camcorders with Simon Willis

I bought this camera second hand on e-Bay for 400 ($660), following Justine Curgenven's recommendation. Her multi-award winning New Zealand documentary was shot on the same model. If I did drop this camera into the sea, it would not be as bad as loosing one of my larger more expensive cameras. In low-light conditions in the cave, or in strong light conditions when approaching the dramatic Macleod's Maidens, the images were superb.

Kayaking Camcorders with Simon Willis

Sony has since brought out newer versions of the same camera (up to HC-9 at the last count) which have manual over-rides for focus and exposure, but I believe Sony has now switched into hard drive only recorders at this level. I wanted a tape-based recorded because all my larger cameras, like the Sony Z1, record onto tape. This is because the BBC, for whom I also work, still require their material to be delivered on tape. When I input the material to edit, I play the tapes off the smaller DHR-HC3 to reduce the wear on the video heads of the expensive Z1.

If I was looking to buy a brand new camera at around this level then, although my entire kit is Sony, I would consider straying into the Canon range and looking at the HV30. It has one major advantage for kayakers, a video input socket.

Hey, is that a big deal? Well, you can use it to record the output of a bullet camera. These tiny, wide-angle cameras can be strapped in interesting places (front of the boat, side of a helmet) and the cable run back to the Canon sealed in a waterproof pelicase.

The new Sony cameras I've found don't have this video input. Only the older ones do, so it was yet another e-bay purchase which allowed us to achieve our high shots, looking down on Gordon, giving a unique perspective on the strokes he demonstrated.

Kayaking Camcorders with Simon Willis

Top of the Range

If you're looking for a top-or-the-range, small camera for shooting video then my favorite is the Sony HVR A1E. Strip it down and it looks like a regular camcorder, so it's great for undercover work. Fasten on the top mic, splitter box and radio-mic housing and you have a superb little broadcast camera.

In good light, the results are, to my eyes, indistinguishable from those produced by my Z1. I've edited them into broadcast reports for the BBC and no one spotted the difference. It's not cheap (about $2,500 new) but with a wide-angle attachment, radio mics and a decent tripod you have a broadcast ready set-up. I keep mine in a Watershed drybag, under my spray deck between my legs. However, it has to be flat calm before I get it out on the water, unprotected.

Kayaking Camcorders with Simon Willis

Waterproof Mounts

Because these cameras aren't waterproof, you either take the risk of using them without protection or mount them in waterproof cases. Bryan Smith recommended I try a set of cases made by Epic (http://www.epiccam.com/) and they do look superb. They're tricky to source here in the U.K., so they're on my shopping list for the next time I'm in the US.

I have tried a Sony divers mount, which produced good shots, but not good sound. I suspect the built-in electronics interfered with my radio-mic system, so I had to devise something else.

Kayaking Camcorders with Simon Willis

In the end I adapted a German made EWA Marine Bag http://www.ewa-marine.de/. It's a little like a Zip-lock freezer bag, except the plastic is much thicker, and the zip lock is two pieces of metal which screw down together to create a seal. After a great deal of experimentation, I found a way to use the Sony A1E in this bag with a radio mic. This allowed me to hear and record what Gordon was saying, even in the roughest weather, creating some of the most powerful sequences in the DVD.

This system was put to a most severe test in the rock-hopping sequence. I was clinging to a rock, being pounded by waves and trying to hold the camera steady while Gordon was in the white water ahead of me talking about how to kayak in such conditions. The roar of the crashing sea meant he couldn't hear any instructions I gave, yet I could hear every word of his coaching through the radio-mic system. This allowed me to pan onto the vertical cliff-face when he spoke about it.

Kayaking Camcorders with Simon Willis


I cannot claim to be up to date with every camcorder out there because the market changes too quickly. What's more, I still shoot mainly on tape, simply because U.K. broadcast organisations like the BBC for whom I also work, still prefer this format.

Yet the recording format doesn't really matter. What's important is to work out how you're going to use your camcorder; to anticipate the conditions you might face; and then research this fast-changing market. And remember, there is only two good times to buy technology – yesterday and tomorrow. You have to make the decision – and shoot.

Sea Kayak with Gordon Brown is available online from 16th November $29.95 at: