Having a good camera for surf photography is key, but having the right lens is an equally important part of the equation. Similar to building a quiver of surfboards to have the right board for every condition, a professional photographer will often travel with a quiver of lenses. When they’re in the right place at the right time, they have the right lens to capture the moment as well.
I caught up with a few different pro photographers, all at the top of the surf photography game, to see what lenses they use and what situations they use them in to help you make informed decisions – whether you’re trying to decide what lens to buy with your first camera, or are just hoping to pick the brains of some of the world’s best as you compile your own quiver of surf photography lenses. Read on for the best lenses for surf photography, and be sure to check out our buyers guide to get some insight from the pros.
For more surf photography advice from the same pros, as well as the camera bodies that they use, check out our guide to the Best Cameras for Surf Photography. We’ve also covered a lot of other topics in surf photography like the best drones, best water housings, and the other bits and bobs of surf photography gear necessary for nailing that perfect barrel shot that surfers salivate over. We even covered the best waterproof phone cases for surf and underwater photography.
What are the Best Lenses for Surf Photography?
Fisheye 8-15mm Zoom/Prime
A fisheye is what Todd Glaser calls “a collaborative lens” as it requires some level of communication with the subject because of how close you need to get. “But I love the effect a fisheye gives to the photos,” he added. Fisheye lenses are great for barrel shots that capture both the wave and the surfer due to their wide field of view, and are also capable of doing the “over-under” shot that’s partially in and out of the water.Rokinon 12mm F/2.8 Canon 8-15mm F/4 Nikon 8-15mm F/3.5-4.5
Wide Angle 16-35mm
This is another great lens for close-up surf photography, that can also produce amazing landscape and vista photographs as well. You could use it from land if you’re not too far away, and are looking for a more zoomed-out shot, but the next option (24-70mm) will probably go as wide as you would want to go when shooting from land.
This lens covers a very wide variety of distances and uses, going from a wide angle at 24mm to a slight zoom at 70mm. “I use this lens about 80 percent of the time when I’m in the water,” Brent says. It’s also the lens he recommends as the “if-I-had-one-lens-for-the-rest-of-my-life-it-would-be-this-one.”
This is kinda the do-anything lens. Basically the same zoom factor as the human eye, there are photographers that have spent their entire careers using just this one lens. Without a zoom, you’ll have to move yourself closer or farther depending on the shot you’re trying to capture, but the lack of zoom comes with the advantages of a fast shutter speed and very wide aperture, as well as being physically lighter (all the better for maximizing your water time). The Inertia’s own Jordyn Romero says: “it just feels good to shoot with a 50mm – although it’s only one focal length it’s actually pretty versatile.”
This is generally a do-everything zoom lens that also isn’t too big and doesn’t have to break the bank. I started out with a similar lens for shooting from the shore on my crop-sensor Sony (a 55-210mm zoom lens). If you’re strictly using it to shoot from shore, it might be worth it to get a bit of a longer lens, such as the 100-400 below. But the 70-200 hits a great sweet spot of being short enough to take good portraits, and long enough to get some action from a distance. If you only have the cash for one longer lens, this might be the one to get, especially considering that you can add an extender to the mix to increase focal length.
“This is the lens everyone is raving about,” says Todd. Going up to 400mm lets you get really tightly focused on the subject, even when shooting at a far-from-shore break, and being able to back it up to 100 lets you get more of a landscape feel. It’s a beast of a lens (see “heavy”), but it covers a ton of ground and it’s unlikely you’ll need a longer lens for any surf photography (unless you’re trying to shoot close-ups of surfers at Jaws from one of its many far-away vantage points or something like that).
In lower-light conditions it’s a good idea to get a tripod as well, because when you’re zoomed in so far it’s impossible to keep it totally still. The higher-priced lenses have built-in stabilization, which is an important factor to consider when sizing up if it’s worth shelling out extra for a premium model. Spoiler alert: it’s almost always worth it if you can scrounge up the cash.
Words of Wisdom From The Pros
“All the lenses I have, I try to keep the f-stop as low as possible, which helps me shoot in a wider variety of conditions – most of my lenses are f/2.8. You can get lenses that go lower, such as f/1.4, but when you use a lens with the aperture that wide open almost everything is blurred so I don’t find it very useful. I mostly shoot with what’s called the “trinity” of lenses: a 16-35mm, 24-70mm, and a 70-200mm. If you have those three lenses, you can handle almost anything, surf or otherwise.
“Bring less gear to the beach. It forces you to be more creative with what you have, and your chances of catching the perfect shot are higher when you’re not changing lenses all the time.”
Morgan Maassen (on shooting from the water):
“I keep the ISO low and shoot at high shutter speeds, unless I’m shooting for that morning/evening motion blur effect. I love [shallow] depth-of-field, and usually favor my 35mm and 50mm f/1.4 lenses.”
“The best piece of advice I ever learned is from my dad: ‘Shoot loose and edit tight.'”
What Type of Lenses are Used for Surf Photography?
Note that the sizes of lenses in the article are referring to lenses made for full-frame cameras. As mentioned below, different sized sensors require different focal lengths, but since I was talking to pros who will naturally be shooting on only full-frame cameras, the suggestions that I was receiving were all full-frame lenses. Different camera bodies have different lens mounts—even within the same brand. So be sure to double-check that the lens you’re getting matches the right mount on the body.
In the Water
When shooting in the water, smaller is generally better to get as wide of an angle and nail that classic down-the-barrel-shot. But to do that, you’ll need to be close to the action. If you can’t get that close, a zoom lens will help, but you’ll need to make sure your water housing has the right port for the larger lens (and you have to be willing to cart said larger lens around in the water).
What Type of Lens Should I Get for Surf Photography?
Now that entirely depends on where you’re at in the photography game. If you are just trying to get your feet wet, check out our suggestions for beginners in the Best Cameras for Surf Photography article. You’d be surprised at how far a GoPro or an AxisGo Water Housing for your smartphone can take you.
Todd Glaser says: “If I had one lens for the water and one lens for land, I would get a 16-35mm for the water if you want to go the wide angle route (if not, maybe a 50mm instead) and a 100-400mm for the land.” The 100-400mm is a do-anything lens for shooting from further away, covering a wide range of distances, and a 16-35mm is far more versatile than a fisheye, and also capable of taking beautiful landscape imagery, capturing the feel of wide vistas as well as being able to zoom in a bit to cut out less-desirable parts of a view.
Brent: “If I had one lens to shoot with for the rest of my life it would be the 24-70mm lens.” It’s the lens he uses 80 percent of the time when in the water, and as long as the break you’re shooting at isn’t too far from shore you can usually get plenty tight enough when focusing at 70mm.
Another great lens that can kinda do anything when it comes to surf photography (and photography in general) is the 50mm lens. As mentioned above it produces the same level of magnification as the human eye, and due to its prime nature has fast shutter speed and can shoot with a very wide aperture to produce a shallow depth of field, giving a unique feel to your photographs.
What Is Important When Choosing a Lens?
This is the main difference between different lenses, and describes the focusing length, not the actual length of the camera lens. The focal length of a lens determines both how wide the shot is, and the magnification of the different elements within the shot. Longer focal lengths produce narrower shots and more magnified elements within the image. 50mm (35mm for a cropped sensor) is generally the magnification that a human eye sees. Wide-angle lenses, generally up to that 50/35mm size, produce a field of view that is wider than the human eye. Lenses bigger than that 50/35mm size will produce an image narrower than what we see, but with the elements in the image more magnified, and is generally referred to as a telephoto lens.
Aperture is basically a measure of the amount of light that is let in through the aperture of the lens when a photo is being taken ranging from f/1.4 to f/32 and higher, called the “f-stop.” It’s a confusing one, but here’s a few details on what that means. Think of how your pupil changes from going inside to outside. Essentially, the aperture is the pupil of the lens. The lower the number, the larger the aperture, which lets in more light. This helps a lens perform in lower-light conditions, but also reduces the depth of field around the subject you are focusing on, which has its pros and cons (lower depth-of-field creates more background blur, which can be great for drawing attention to a subject i.e. a surfer, but tricky to deal with if you want the wave to be in focus too). The f-stop can almost always be adjusted upwards for a larger depth of field (and a darker photo), an advantage of Prime lenses (below) is that they usually have lower maximum f-stops than their zoom counterparts.
Prime Lenses vs Zoom Lenses
Prime lenses have a fixed focal length, meaning you can’t adjust the zoom of the lens. “For a long time, I shot all prime lenses which was really nice and helped create a consistent aesthetic,” Todd Glaser says, “but any time I can consolidate my gear it makes it easier to travel lightly.” Prime lenses are generally sharper than zoom lenses, but zoom lenses are much more adaptable meaning less gear to carry and less gear to buy.
Is Your Camera Sensor Full Frame or ASP-C?
This matters, especially as you try and plot a gradual equipment-upgrade trajectory. Cameras with a full-frame sensor need full-frame lenses, whereas cropped/ASP-C sensors can use both cropped/ASP-C lenses and full-frame lenses. But, in using a full-frame lens with a cropped sensor, the focal length will be adjusted upward (around 1.5x for Nikon and 1.6x for Canon). For example, this 8-15mm fisheye lens would produce a 12.8-24mm fisheye effect on a Canon cropped sensor. Some full-frame cameras (such as the Nikon D5) are now being equipped with a “cropped mode,” reducing the amount of the sensor used to allow the camera to work with a cropped lens. As far as technical terms go, the Nikon FX means full-frame, DX for cropped sensor cameras and lenses. Canon full frames are designated EF, whereas their cropped counterparts are called EF-S. Sony is a little harder to tell the difference, but the info on full vs. cropped will always be somewhere on the product listing.
What’s a Lens Extender/Teleconverter?
An extender (more commonly referred to as a teleconverter) is mounted in between your camera and your lens, functioning to extend the focus length of the lens you have mounted, producing a tighter and more zoomed-in image. It is a cheap and effective way to get more range from a lens you already own, but there are a couple downsides. First of all, the simple physics of adding more pieces of glass in front of your sensor will reduce image quality a bit, although it’s definitely better than zooming in with Photoshop later on. More importantly, adding a teleconverter will narrow the aperture, letting in less light, which can make shooting in low-light conditions a bit more difficult. So if the lens already has a higher F-stop (4.0 and above) then it’ll automatically become a 5.6 or higher. This isn’t a big deal outdoors in the full sun, but might become an issue when you’re underwater or on a cloudy day. Also, keep in mind that a higher f-stop means a larger depth-of-field, which puts more of the frame in focus, but loses the blurry background bokeh effect.
What about other (cheaper) lenses?
As you may have noticed, Sony, Canon and Nikon aren’t the only cats out there making lenses. Companies like Rokinon, Samyang, Sigma and others also have lenses for sale (and often at a much lower price point). Should you trust them? Well, as with anything in this world, you get what you pay for. Those cheaper lenses just aren’t going to produce quite as high-quality images as a nicer lens, which isn’t the biggest downside if you’re just looking to build a setup to get in the water without breaking the bank. Another caveat is that lenses that aren’t made by the manufacturer of the camera you’re mounting them on simply wont communicate as well or as quickly with the camera for features such as autofocus, etc. Again, not the biggest deal, but if you’re looking for a fully-optimized setup and are willing to spend the extra cash, lenses built by your camera’s manufacturer will work better.
The other side of that equation is getting premium lenses from some of the masters like Zeiss, Leica, or Hasselblad, which have all been in the game for a very long time. Those come with a huge price tag, but hold their value for decades. They often provide a classic look but can be hard to find, as people like to hang onto them. Still, stories are not unheard of for finding an old set at a garage sale, so it’s worth keeping an eye out.
Editor’s Note: For more gear reviews and gear features from The Inertia, click here.