Surf photography is still just photography, but water can complicate things. 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.
This first article will discuss the camera bodies that they use, as well as some more approachable options for getting your feet wet (while keeping your camera dry) We’ll also be releasing articles in the upcoming weeks that cover the best lenses for surf photography, both from land and in the water, and the other bits and bobs necessary for nailing that perfect barrel shot that surfers salivate over.
TLDR: What Are the Best Cameras for Surf Photography?
“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.”
Zak Noyle couldn’t get back to me in my tight window, but that’s hardly surprising considering he’s one of the most well-known surf photographers on the planet, and probably a very busy man. But he’s done his fair share of interviews, from which I was able to glean plenty of solid info and advice. Here’s one nugget. “Get in the water before you take a camera out there, get comfortable with the break and learn where the action is.”
What Should I Look for in a Surf Photography Camera?
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. More in our upcoming lenses article.
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.
Best Surf Photography Cameras
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 (more on that in the upcoming Lenses and Accessories features).
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.
For cheaper options, check out the:
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 (what I really need are some photography classes). And 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. It does everything you need for action photography, and the mirrorless gives plenty of advantages to a beginning photographer such as high FPS, incredible autofocus and ease-of-use, and I’m a massive fan of the wireless connectivity, which lets me import photos straight to my iPhone 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.
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).
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 A7iii (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.
If you’re looking for something closer to a pro-level mirrorless camera, check out the Sony Alpha a7 III, 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’ above). It also has a wickedly high continuous shooting FPS, UHD 4k video, 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).
Sony’s flagship model kinda does everything amazingly. With a full-frame sensor, insanely fast autofocus and 30 FPS continuous shooting, this is one hell of a camera. And as far as video goes, it’s capable of recording in 8k, which is damn impressive. The battery life is great, still not quite as good as the pro-level DSLRs above, 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 (remember, window vs TV).
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 very fast continues shooting speeds (for a DSLR), takes incredible 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.
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.
Editor’s Note: For more gear reviews and features on The Inertia, click here.