Editor’s Note: We’re excited to partner with longtime contributor and esteemed photographer Tom Woods of ST Images on the release of his new water photography course. If you’re interested in improving your surf and water photography chops, check it out here.
The beauty of the water housing setups these days is you can run almost any size lens inside them. I really am so grateful that I can be totally versatile with different focal lengths to get vastly different results from the same location, light, and with the same surfer.
I always recommend experimenting with different focal lengths inside your housing to expand on the look of your portfolio, so picking a favorite lens for surf action is a tough call.
My immediate thought is the straight 50mm lens, the lens I go to often when shooting at dawn or dusk. Its viewpoint is closer to what your actual eye sees and it has the ability to get a narrow field of focus, which really separates the background and foreground from the subject or focus point. To me, this gives a really honest feeling attached to the image.
However, I would have to say the wide-angle 15mm focal length is the winner for shooting surf action. The 15mm wide-angle forces you to get right in on the action, and when I really think about why I love photography so much and why I keep coming back for more year after year, it’s all about the experience I’m having. Being a part of the image means a lot to me and the wide-angle puts you right in the spot with the falling lip of a wave, and your senses are alive with the sounds, smell, and the energy of the ocean. Shooting with this lens gets my stoke firing just as much as if I’m surfing myself.
To make an effective photo with this lens you literally have to be one to two meters from the nose of a surfer’s board. When you’re this close, you become part of the image — right in the moment with that surfer. And if you are shooting barrel shots, this lens will sometimes force you into the tube together, sharing the most epic experience in the cocoon of a wave.
You will often do a lot of swimming and hard work to get into the perfect spot with this lens, but getting that hero barrel shot is a moment that stays in the memory banks and you have an image to look back on forever as well.
Getting a winning shot from the beach with a 400mm or 600mm lens is great, but you always feel like more of a spectator. The same goes for drones, where you’re left looking at a screen from the ground. You get the shot, but you never get the experience. And like I said, the experience is the reason I am a photographer, not the images that I stockpile on hard drives.
Shooting with 50mm lenses or 100 to 200mm lenses from the water still gives you the experience, I guess. But those lenses push you a little further back from the real action. But those 15mm wide lenses pack a ton of impact into an image. It really is a good storytelling tool, with the surfer so close to you but the wide-angle shot still providing a sense of location around them at the same time.
Of course, no single lens or style is perfect. My only knock on the 15mm wide-angle look is their over-saturation in the wide-angle world, thanks to the popularity of GoPro cameras. I love these little cameras, but with nearly every ocean-going human owning an action camera now, it’s made that wide-angle look less special than it was 15 years ago.
Having said that, I think the curved nature of the 15mm lens suits the curves of a wave. It gets you in closer to the action and is actually, in my opinion, the easiest lens to get consistently good results in the water. So for new water photographers, I think it is probably the first one to invest in.
Water photography is such a fun pursuit that has led me to an amazing lifestyle and career. The opportunities and creative outlets for this really are endless.
If you are keen to learn more and explore techniques for shooting in the water further, I take an in-depth look at using wide-angle lenses in other videos and tutorials within my various courses and social media outlets.