Best Camera For Surf Photography
It's eerily quiet and still pitch black, that pre-predawn time of day when you cannot sleep and the sunrise is still at least an hr+ away. Somewhere water is boiling; perhaps in a kettle, the impact zone or better yet both.
The pre-coffee jitters of anticipation, coupled with high hopes of a good swell, crisp light, and calm conditions effectively render the need for an alarm obsolete.
A faint bzzzzzz is audible from the other room; Instagram dm's, "where we headed today?" Now staring out the window with a freshly brewed cup of caffeine speculating about waves can distract from where our focus should be because documenting swells is some of the most fun in the world; plus capturing and sharing moments unique from any other for yourself and whomever else you wish to share with is sweet, but having the right equipment dialed in is paramount to success in this otherworldly landscape surrounding what we know as the sea.
So sit down, strap in, and let us review everything you'll need, to achieve being the best surf photographer you can be.
Although it is inherently true that great captures are in most part thanks to those who compose the frame and fire the shutter; not their equipment itself, I'd be remiss if I didn't make clear that the gear in your camera bag is fundamental to capturing the best photo or video clip you can possibly get. See a camera bag is like a construction workers' toolbox, you don't have to be a professional to have one and yet all professionals do. That is because, in order to achieve the best possible results, you need to have the right tools for the job at hand.
A Lesson on Preparedness: You see it was probably sometime around the summer of 2015, back when I traveled the Baja Penninsula in a two-car convoy of friends and family. Barring all the late-night shenanigans of Squid Roe, the wandering zig-zag of desert crossings without a map, middle of the night flat tires and camp security confrontations, plus the hurricane; this trip was nearly doomed in the beginning courtesy of a faulty CF card.
Fortunately, a fellow photographer by the name of Willie Kessel was sitting on the same beach and he gave me two of his prehistoric-looking 2GB cards for the rest of my travels under the pretense of paying it forward; and at that moment I was taught the value of always packing a little extra/having a backup.
And although this story strayed a bit from the meaning I intend to deliver, it serves as a nice segway because much of this trip wound up being documented via GoPro and even more so, on our phones.
You see I have forgotten exactly, who lays claim to the saying, that the best camera to have is the one that's with you; because you could easily spend 2 weeks traversing semi-untapped coastline searching for greatness but if your memory card is fried and you can't whip out your phone in time, well then when that perfect set marches in you'll miss your shot.
And now to start, let's take a look at how you'll actually transport your cameras and lens to wherever it is you may be going in the first place.
Best Backpack/Case Combo
The SKB i-Series, Hard-shell rolling case with a removable backpack is without a doubt one of the best investments a serious surf photography professional can make.
Designed to be watertight, with wheels, and capable of being stored in the overhead bin above you, I can say that this has made my life immeasurably better because I know that my gear is protected.
In fact, it has relegated my smaller Pelican brand cases to be used solely within the confines of my storage unit. I love this case because it gives me confidence heading into shoots that the tools of my trade will arrive in good working order, which in turn allows me to worry less and prepare more.
A helpful mindset that I've found tends to lend itself to better shoots(and life) in general.
I once had the opportunity to assist on a production that was involved with capturing and telling the story of various professional surfers and their quest to win the Volcom Pipe Pro. While I did get to spend a few fleeting moments with the Arri Amira camera system, the thing that stuck with me most
(besides the turtle traffic speeds of Kam highway and free Banzai Bowls), were the backpacks we used to transport gear from location to location. The quality and functionality were better than anything that I have ever seen, still to this day.
The main compartment was accessed from the back, a noteworthy feature because in crowded areas it provides great security.
Knowing that pickpockets can't dig through as they please while in, let's just say on a motorbike in the streets of Kuta or a crowded chicken bus leaving Managua, brings me right back to that whole piece of mind that I just mentioned above.
The 3 Best Surf Lenses
A lens can come in varying shapes, sizes, and variety; and to truly narrow the entire array of competing lens systems down to the best 3 would be an entirely feckless task, if not impossible altogether. That being said, as a lifelong Canon shooter(currently not recognizing his film pursuits on the Minolta platform) I intend to provide you with three types of lenses to use as examples for building out your own surf photography kit.
The Telephoto Zoom
Absolutely essential to any serious surf photography hobbyist or professional is a quality zoom lens to capture the action happening in the water whilst far away onshore. While cropping a well-focused shot on a full-frame camera can help with zoom in a pinch, the truth is that a good zoom lens is a necessity to get crisp photos from far away without sacrificing or degrading the quality. A great example of a zoom lens is the Canon 70-200 f2.8 L,
I've seen it frequently on beaches around the world, and the thing I like most about it is that the 2.8 aperture is extremely versatile, and allows you the ability to keep shooting should you ever find yourself indoors(let's just say during a Gymnastics meet, to pay the bills, in an environment that doesn't allow for flash).
If you need more range than that because you truly like playing with angles and not just capturing from whatever view is closest, get yourself telephoto extender.
Or better yet;
This 400mm lens is an all-around workhorse for outdoor, action sports photographers. With double, the zoom capabilities as the aforementioned 70-200, the Canon 100-400mm lens means you'll be getting cool backdrops and unique angles that others simply cannot.
Speaking of double;
If long walks down the beach, across the street, and up the mountain are your thing. Well, I reckon this absolute cannon of a lens(pun only semi -intended) will bring you great joy and success in your photographic pursuits.
The Wide-Angle Close Up
Primarily used in establishing location or providing different details about an image's surroundings, wide-angle lenses are often found in waterproof housings around the globe because the details in a wave's features make all the difference in the world. From a true fisheye like the Rokinon 12mm 2.8 to the Sigma 10-22 Ultrawide 3.5 you'll find that having a wide-angle lens makes getting great surfing shots fun.
Meanwhile; this Canon lens gives you even more range while still retaining that cool fisheye look.
Somewhere between telescope and fisheye lay a vast landscape known as the midrange; it's not in your face, nor is it quite a distant view, but it's somewhere in the middle where the creativity of it all lies with you. From just out of reach at 24mm, to narrowing in on a subject at 135mm, the field of play here does have boundaries but fortunately, you get to use your creativity to set them yourself.
The nifty fifty as it's most commonly known, this 50mm lens is one of my personal favorites that helped me capture this shot below:
As you can see, the nifty fifty, when paired with the crop sensor of my 7D can lead to some cool perspectives that are neither close up nor zoomed in; which in this case allow me to share a bit of perspective regarding the landscape around me. Additionally, the same lens allowed me to walk(swim) away from that session with this shot as well:
Extremely versatile and widely available, a 50mm lens paired with a creative approach to surf photography is all you need. If I had to choose just one lens to travel the world with this would be it because it allows for great portraits, landscapes, and mental lifestyles as well.
And then there's this trusty kit lens:
A mid-range lens that generally comes stock with any camera body when purchased as part of a camera body/lens/bag bundle, this beaut is capable of getting shots up close and yet is still plenty capable when getting shots with that pulled back view.
I used this lens personally for a handful of landscape style surfing shots when first starting out in Baja. The ease of use was something I loved straight away as the lens was very forgiving when shooting odd jobs and lifestyles to help pay bills. Wanna shoot a late night-long exposure around a fire with trucks and surfboards?
Maybe you need it's versatility because you were hired to shoot for a swimwear line so that you could afford to get another tank of gas and a week's supply of tacos? Yup, used it there too;
Point being, hold onto this lens if it comes with your camera for as long as you can. A 55-200 or 18-55 are entirely antiquated in comparison because the midrange is about versatility, not doing one thing semi-ok.
Which speaking of-versatility that is, not semi- ok, this lens was my favorite for video projects and still would be if it's hadn't gotten drenched that one day shooting an overly complicated ice bucket challenge(Remember, the moment you think you've planned for the biggest wave of the day to come and you make that leap of faith, be prepared for said wave to come right after when you can no longer do anything to prevent the fate that mother nature has dealt you.
I lost a great lens that day but at less than USD 300, I learned an even more valuable lesson).
Lastly; feel free to check this out.
Perhaps not the best lens on the page by any means, but the range this could give your cameras(mirrorless) is noteworthy.
Right, But Which Camera is Best for Me?
Chances are you're here because you have already spent countless hours, perhaps days or weeks even, scouring online forums and cycling through YouTube videos attempting to decipher which camera is best for you to buy; and chances are that you've already narrowed your focus to a few options based upon your specific needs; Mirrorless vs DSLR, Full Frame vs Crop Sensor, Photo vs Video, Sony vs the World...
I'm sure you have already done the research; and therefore, have already decided which way you're leaning in regards to which camera you prefer; but since you're here and I get to throw in my two cents, I would like to provide what I think is invaluable, real-world insight before finding a shady spot to perch your tripod or kicking on your swim fins and diving into the life-consuming pursuit us surf photographers are oh so passionate about.
The Best Cameras for Surf Photography
Starting with the Sony s6500 is a smart investment if one is serious about becoming a surf specific photographer because it's not just the camera the makes the shots but also cool locations and good surfers; both of which tend to cost money either directly or not; because gas, food, and beers don't buy themselves.
That means having leftover funds because you didn't blow them all on the latest, most expensive camera body, which will immediately put you a step ahead in the quest to capture the best surf photo you can.
After all, the potent little package can leave you funds for a surf trip while still capturing your local break at 11 shots a second. These cameras also have the ability to record 4K video internally, as well as, Full HD video at 120 frames per second; meaning that you can get high-quality slow motion played back at speeds 5x slower than reality itself.
Combine that with the 5 axis IBIS(in-body image stabilization) system this camera has and you are looking at a truly capable machine when it comes to producing a surf movie with a budget. In fact, as I sit here writing this, I'm browsing online forums and contemplating why I haven't added one to my toolbox/camera bag yet.
Another clear standout in the, "Why don't I have one of these yet?" category is Panasonic's GH5. A 20+ Megapixel DSLR, this camera again stands out in the video department for its ability to capture 4K footage and high-quality slow motion at a fraction of the price that other professional cameras cost.
This cam features in-body stabilization too, but the rugged design of this body offers more protection to someone constantly playing in harsh environments like salt water and sand.
Another Sony worth noting is the powerhouse a9. With a world-first, stacked CMOS sensor; and an upgraded magnesium alloy body capable of taking a few lickings(minor lickings), dual memory card slots, blackout-free shooting at 20fps, and much more,.. this camera is a true weapon in the hands of a professional and was built for a day at the beach shooting surfing contests or filming video parts.
Additionally, Sony finally got the battery life thing right on this one because there's nothing worse than having to swim in when it's pumping because you've already exhausted your entire battery after just 90 minutes.
Continuing the trend of expensive cameras that, when used correctly, can capture stunning surfing shots for a fraction of the price as true commercial grade equipment; we have the newly released Canon 1DX Mk iii.
A great DSLR by the looks of it, capable of using its full frame sensor to get 20 shots per second, the specs speak for themselves. If I had seven grand laying around, B&H Photo would have one less in stock.
Now, that is the what; as in it's what you should be doing now 'cause you see I reckon you're sick of reading words like surfing and photography and are more interested in getting out there and putting whichever camera you've decided upon for your photography passion to great use. So get out there! Or in there, if shooting surfing stills and video from the water is what you're about.
Just never forget that in photography it doesn't matter your frames per second or video capabilities, but what does matter in surfing photography is the desire to jump into the water so to speak, line up a composition, and execute.
That desire right there will elevate the surf photography world as a whole and lead you to capture some stunning surf pictures capable of inducing memories and inspiring appetite for generations to come.
Personally; I still shoot on my trusty(and only slightly rusty) 7D, but I've got my eye on the Canon R5 due to be released this summer.
P.S. Be careful buying used, always check the lens contacts and be wary of high shutter counts.