Surf photography is still just photography, but water can complicate things. Salt water, even moreso. It can affect your camera (break it) and, of course, alter the way one deals with light. Since the gear to deal with such problems is highly specialized, it’s worth getting some advice before hopping in the deep end.
I’ll be honest; I’m no expert on surf photography, but I know a couple of people who are. I hit up Brent Bielmann, Todd Glaser, Morgan Maassen, and Zak Noyle, four of the world’s best-regarded professional surf photographers, to learn a bit more about what they do. They were gracious enough to share what equipment they use as professionals, and, more importantly, what equipment they recommend for those of us (myself included) trying to get into the surf photography game.
Here, we take a look at the cameras that they use, as well as some more approachable options for getting your feet wet and mid-level options for those who don’t want to break the bank, but are interested in a camera that offers aspects of higher-level photography, like a full-frame sensor.
If you’d like to see how all the cameras stack up against one another, view our Comparison Table. And for more information to help you make the best purchase decision, check out our guide on What to Look For, below, as well as some tips from the pros we interviewed for the article.
What Are the Best Cameras for Surf Photography?
We’ve also covered a lot of other topics in surf photography like the best lenses for surf photography, both from land and in the water, 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. Even the best waterproof phone cases with options for surf and underwater photography.
As Brent says above, “anyone with an iPhone can take great pictures.” And he’s not wrong. Chances are the supercomputer in your pocket has plenty of power to get started with surf photography, especially in-water photography where a longer-range lens isn’t required as opposed to capturing images from the shore.
That being said, one thing the supercomputer in your pocket doesn’t have (even if it claims to be “water resistant”) is enough waterproofing to protect it from the ocean. That’s where, just as with a regular camera, the water housing comes in. While on the camera side of things most pros either use Nikon or Canon, as far as housings go, the industry standard is AquaTech. The AxisGo Water Housing brings the reputation of Aquatech to your iPhone, allowing for underwater pics and video in a bite-sized unit that photographers a generation ago would not be able to believe. It also has a wide range of accessories from pistol-grips to fisheye lenses. We’ve had plenty of time in the water with this option, and have yet to be disappointed.CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON
Brent: “I know everyone talks about them, and it’s just like GoPro, GoPro, GoPro, but for the size and price you simply can’t beat it for getting POV stuff. I’m not sponsored, I don’t get them for free, but I use them all the time. I was just shooting a commercial and some of the coolest footage we got was with a GoPro.”
It’s just about the best option to start with (especially for shooting video). Brent, like many other water photographers, will even use a GoPro mounted on his camera water housing to capture video while he’s shooting photos, a pretty sweet combo in my opinion, and it’s great to see that despite their entry-level reputation, they’re still extremely useful at the professional level.
The latest iteration of their Flagship HERO line, the HERO 11, has some huge upgrades to the in-camera stabilization and night modes, especially when shooting time lapses. Also great about GoPro is their subscription service. Aside from discounts on their gear, a subcription gives unlimited cloud storage for your clips which upload automatically every time you plug the camera in to charge. It will even do a quick edit for those who are used to files just sitting on a hard drive. It’s one of the best deals going for file management and peace of mind, especially if you’re using the camera regularly.
Also worth looking at is Gopro’s HERO11 Black Mini, which has most of the features of the full-sized version but in a much smaller package.
Older models are also available at a discount, so if budget is a concern try getting these:
Hero 10 ($350)
Hero 9 ($250)CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON
Recently, I’ve been puttering around with a Sony A6000, cutting edge tech five years ago, and the new A6100 brings the same user-friendliness with some updates based on the most recent technology. It is by no means a professional piece of equipment, but that’s not what you need at my stage. It’s fully capable of lasting all the way up until you decide to invest in pro-grade equipment. It shoots great photos and solid video without too many confusing bells and whistles, and is just about the most cost-effective and user-friendly camera you can buy.
When it comes to action photography the mirrorless build gives plenty of advantages to a beginning photographer such as high FPS, incredible autofocus, and ease-of-use. I’m a massive fan of the wireless connectivity, which lets me import photos straight to my phone and from there to the internet (all the better for actually making use of the photos I take instead of letting them sit on my computer). The battery life is definitely something that has improved with the A6100 compared to my A6000, but you can likely find the A6000 for about $200 bucks cheaper.
Take Nikon’s pro level D6 and bring it down a few notches. I’d probably place this as a step above the Sony A6100 in terms of performance. That being said, the mirrorless will always win out when it comes to continuous shooting speed, an important action-camera metric.The D500 benefits from Nikon’s incredible build quality, has a compact but powerful CMOS sensor (not full-frame), fast FPS for continuous shooting (10), and DSLR-level battery life (especially important for in-water photography).CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON
As far as Canon goes, this is a step down from the 1DX, but by no means an ‘entry level’ camera. I’d say this is a step above the D500 and on par with the A7 III (below). Plenty powerful enough for everyone but the pro-est of pros The Canon 5D benefits from a full frame sensor that works in basically any light, great autofocus, 7.0 FPS continuous (solid for a DSLR), and 4k video.CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON
If you’re looking for something closer to a pro-level mirrorless camera, check out the Sony A7 IV, which brings a full-frame sensor to the table, critical for getting a more complete dynamic range of light (see ‘Full Frame vs ASP-C’ below). It also has a wickedly high continuous shooting FPS and UHD 4k video at up to 60p. The lightning-fast processor is the same one Sony uses in their more advanced models, That means blazing fast autofocus and image recognition, something that is super helpful in the ocean’s fluid envioronment. The camera also includes an upgraded viewfinder as well as a weather-sealed housing (no, that doesn’t mean you can jump in the water without an actual waterproof housing). If the price tag scares you off a bit, the slightly older yet still awesome model A7 III ($1,700) is also available.CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON
Sony’s flagship model does everything with panache. With a full-frame sensor, insanely fast autofocus and 30 FPS continuous shooting, the A1 is one beast of a camera. And as far as video goes, it’s capable of recording in 8k, which is more than most people will ever need. The battery life is great, still not quite as good as the pro-level DSLRs below, but that can be mitigated with a Sony VG-C4EM Battery Grip, which gives you more battery life and a comfortable grip to boot. I’m really impressed by the electronic viewfinder, which has such high resolution and speed that it acts like a DSLR optical viewfinder, but with the bonus of being able to zoom in and recognize what’s in or out of focus.CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON
Photographer(s): Brent, Todd, Zak.
This is the king of action photography cameras, and does well at shooting video too. “Obviously for bigger jobs I’ll use a more video-focused camera, but those can reach upwards of 100k for a setup so for my own surf videos the 1DX gets the job done,” Brent told me. The 1DX shoots at incredible continuous shooting speeds (for a DSLR), takes impressive photos with its top-of-the-line full-frame sensor, and excels in any and all light conditions, perfect for shooting from sunrise to sunset on the water. The Mark II and Mark III are both the same great camera, with the Mark III adding on a few more modern features and a smaller and lighter frame.
Morgan Maassen says he prefers Nikon for their “small prime lenses, unique image look, and overall build quality for dealing with weather.”
Photographer(s): Morgan Maassen, Clark Little
As Morgan says, Nikon has “incredible full-frame action bodies, small prime lenses, unique image look, and overall build quality for dealing with weather,” but they come at a higher cost and with a more limited selection. Canon definitely has more options in terms of both camera bodies, and, more importantly, lenses. The D6 is the most recent iteration of this highly successful and powerful camera, but from what I’ve heard it doesn’t introduce anything groundbreaking over the D5 so it can definitely be worth saving a bit of that cash for some awesome trips where you can actually put that gear to use.
|Model||Price||Megapixels||Frames per second||Notable Features|
|AquaTech AxisGo iPhone Housing||$219||n/a||n/a||Waterproof Housing, Industry leading reputation|
|GoPro Hero 11||$399||27 MP||10 FPS (Burst Mode)||Stunning stabilization, great night mode, unlimited cloud storage (with subscription)|
|Sony A6100||$740||24.2 MP||11 FPS||Auto-tracking in autofocus|
|Nikon D500||$1,500||20.9 MP||10 FPS||4k UHD video|
|Canon 5D Mark IV||$2,500||30.4 MP||7 FPS||Built-in GPS|
|Sony a7 IV||$2,500||33 MP||10 FPS||Real-time fast autofocus|
|Sony A1||$6,500||50 MP||30 FPS||4k Video up to 120p|
|Canon 1DX Mark II/III||$6,500||16.1 MP||10 FPS||Super-precise autofocus|
|Nikon D5/6||$6,500||20.8 MP||14 FPS||Nikon’s most advanced autofocus|
Photography Advice From The Pros
“Don’t use zinc products on your lips,” says Glaser. Licking your port is a tried and true method to keep water droplets from ruining your shot, and zinc anywhere near that will turn your port into a streaky mess.
“Don’t buy used gear from a surf photographer,” Glaser recommends. Over time, saltwater and sea air are simply going to do damage to delicate electronics and finely tuned lenses. Buy your used gear from a wedding photographer in Kansas who’s never seen the ocean.
“Anyone with an iPhone can take great pictures,” says Bielmann. “It’s about what you do with them afterwards that counts.” Before going all-in on a new camera, lenses, water housing etc., first decide what you want to do with the photos afterwards – if they’re just going to sit on your camera roll or hard drive and never see the light of day, maybe take a smaller step towards full-on surf photography such as an iPhone/smartphone water housing (below).
(On pursuing a career in photography)
“Shoot photos everyday, of everything – rain or shine! Define your style/message/look/body of work consistently. Update your website, blog, and social media as much as possible…Learn both the front-end and back-end. Create work that is new and unique… this is the best free marketing tool. Reach out to magazines and websites to sell and share your work, followed by brands. Continuously network with people who inspire you, can help you, and you can grow with. Patience, perseverance… give 110 percent, and remember: you can sleep when you’re dead.”
Canon 1DX Mark III
It’s the industry standard for a reason. Need we say more?
What Should I Look for in a Camera for Surf Photography?
Frames Per Second: FPS (not to be confused with f-stop, or video FPS which is usually a much higher number) is the measure of, when shooting at a continuous speed, how many photos per second the camera can take, a crucial measure for action-photography. It can be the difference between capturing the split second in which a surfer is at the height of their snap, or missing it completely. The lowest you should consider is about 5-7 fps, but 12 or higher is solid.
Megapixels: This is basically the image quality or resolution. More megapixels = better quality photo (kinda).
Full Frame Sensors vs ASP-C (cropped) Sensors: Size — Full frame is bigger, which means more room for the above pixel count to spread out and gather light. More light means you can capture a fuller dynamic range of tones/colors in your photo. A full-frame also does better at wide-angle photos because of tricky physics perspective stuff, and the literal fact that the sensor is wider than a cropped sensor. The camera sensor also matters as you look to purchase lenses. Full-frame sensors require full-frame lenses, whereas cropped sensors — while they definitely work best with cropped lenses — can sorta work with full-frame lenses.
Manufacturer: Almost every camera accessory from lenses to water housings and spare batteries are manufacturer or even camera-specific, meaning once you start down the path of one manufacturer it’s hard to stop, so choose wisely. Canon has an unparalleled hold on the camera industry, Nikon’s are wonderfully well-made but higher cost and with a more limited lineup. Sony’s mirrorless cameras are cheap(ish) and easy to use while producing incredible imagery.
Mirrorless vs DSLR: *Sigh* this is a tough one, and changing constantly. At first, mirrorless cameras were an exciting new technology, allowing for smaller and faster cameras, but they weren’t quite optimized for professional use with poor battery life and Electronic View Finders (EVF) that simply didn’t measure up to a DSLRs Optical Viewfinder (think looking at a TV vs. looking out a window). Mirrorless technology has since made up plenty of ground on those issues, and there are now plenty of mirrorless pro-level cameras on the market today such as the Sony A1.
Editor’s Note: For more gear reviews and features on The Inertia, click here.