There’s always been a bit of irony in surfing about the difference between the simple, laid-back lifestyle that is the general perception of the pursuit, and the actual fact that there’s a lot of bits and bobs that go into it. Well, photography has no such pretensions about the amount of gear needed, in fact, it’s often seen as a gearhead’s dream. Surf photography is more like photography than it is like surfing in that way.
Not only do you need a camera and a lens (check out our guides to the best cameras and lenses for surf photography), but you also need a waterproof housing to get in the water (our guide to those is right here). And beyond that there are some pretty important items that should be on your list if you’re seriously thinking of shooting surf from the water, both to help you get the shot, and to keep you and your gear safe. Read on.
TLDR: The Essentials
There’s a reason why every professional surf photographer uses one of these – treading water or trying to reach over the lip to snag a barrel shot with a side grip (which is really intended to be held with two hands with your eye in the viewfinder), just doesn’t cut it. It’s far easier to hold the camera one handed, and a pistol grip lets you feel like a gunslinger as you hold down the trigger and shoot away. Far easier to spray and pray while in the water and choose the good photos afterwards.
When you take a camera into the water with you, you’re basically saying goodbye to a quarter of your swimming potential. While you could invest in something like a Buell Float Suit (check out Brent Bielmann’s testimony here), the most common option to keep your head above water is a pair of swim fins. If you’re wondering what the pros use, Morgan Maassen uses Churchills, whereas Todd Glaser, Zak Noyle, and Sarah Lee are all on the DaFin squad.
Check out our guide to The Best Swim Fins here.
I think wearing helmets is about to become a thing in surfing, but even now, they’re certainly popular amongst surf photographers. “If I wasn’t wearing a helmet this winter, I guarantee I wouldn’t be sitting here,” Bielmann said in a 2016 interview. “I really believe it saved my life. There are huge gashes in my helmet from when I hit my head on the reef this winter. I still got a concussion, and on and off for the next five days I couldn’t remember my friend’s names.”
Gath Helmets have become industry standard for surfers and surf photographers alike, but there are plenty of new options hitting the market as the surf world wakes up to the fact that our noggins are at pretty high risk while in the water.
While taking your camera into the water is an obvious liability to its longevity, just being around water or bringing your camera gear to the beach can be risky. One rogue wave and your entire setup could be drowned. Not to mention the dangers of spilled drinks in the car or at home, busted plumbing, or the beers your younger siblings have been stashing in your closet finally exploding. Rather than staying up at night worrying about your precious camera gear, invest in some solid waterproof storage options. Pelican cases are without a doubt the industry standard, and the Pelican Air 1535 Case specifically is one of the most popular choices among photographers for its wheels, carry-on potential and padded dividers. But there are plenty of other options to choose from as well.
As photographer Sarah Lee points out, “Fogging can happen if you’re shooting in cold water where the air is warmer but this can be mitigated by sticking a fresh desiccant pack inside of the housing before swimming out.”
After a day of holding down the trigger on your pistol grip, you’re going to have a lot of photos to sort through. And after a couple days of shooting, you very well might be looking at a couple days of sorting, best done when you get back home from whatever exotic location you’re shooting at, rather than wasting time you could be spending in the water. To that end, it’s worth investing in some external storage. I’m a big fan of LaCie hard drives – they’re rugged, compact, and you can split their memory to handle both Mac and PC storage at the same time. As another added bonus, saving your photos to multiple locations means less chance of losing them all when disaster – such as a spilled soda at the airport – strikes.
Buy LaCie 2TB storage here.
Unlike surfing, when you’re out in the water taking photos, almost your entire body is submerged underwater. And as I learned in high school physics, conduction is a much more efficient means of heat transfer than convection – in other words, cold water makes you colder faster than cold air. So if you’re shooting in a cold water location, there’s a chance your normal suit for surfing isn’t going to cut it. “A really warm wetsuit makes a difference,” Todd Glaser told me. “I use a 5/6mm hooded suit during the winter in SoCal, and I’m not afraid to double-suit if I need to.”
For the best and warmest wetsuits on the market, check out our guide to The Best Wetsuits for Winter.
Even if you’re “way beyond shooting with a GoPro” they can still be useful – many housings come with a GoPro attachment, and as Todd and Brent both told me, basically everyone in the biz (themselves included) mount a GoPro on their housing and just let ‘er roll to shoot video while they’re shooting photos. A pretty damn good idea if you ask me, I’ve always been a big fan of getting more done without any added effort (I mean, who isn’t?).
Editor’s Note: For more gear reviews and gear features from The Inertia, click here.