Taking surf photos is so much fun. Whether from land or from the water, there are a few options for those looking for something simple to those looking for a more complete setup.
You don’t need a high end, expensive setup to take good surf photos. I like the expression “It’s not the arrow it’s the Indian.” I’ve seen photographers that have $10,000 worth of equipment but their surf photos suck (sorry!). I’ve also seen people take amazing surf photos with cheap cameras and iPhones. It’s really what you do with your camera and not all the bells and whistles.
I will lay out my recommendations for all types of photography here in this article. If you have any questions or comments, please leave a note below!
Land Based Photography And Video
This is the most common form of surf photography, and is the most accessible. It’s also the starting point for those who don’t surf but want a piece of the action.
There are three things you will need to take great photos from the beach: a good camera body, a telephoto lens, and a sturdy tripod.
A camera body is just that; everything but the lens. Many Digital SLR cameras have come down quite a bit in price but still have some amazing features and technology. One of the features that I think is very helpful for taking good surf photos is the burst mode or continuous shooting mode, which is how many shots per second the camera will take when you hold down the shutter button. This will enable you to catch the subject in the best looking position during whatever maneuver they are doing.
For instance, if you want to shoot a backside hack you will want the surfer and board in a certain position in the photo, otherwise it won’t look as great as it could. Some photographers might think of burst mode as a crutch, but don’t worry about that — this is very helpful if you don’t have your timing down when shooting (that’s something that comes with practice).
The best part about today’s Digital SLR cameras is that they can shoot HD video as well, so you can do both things with one camera. I have shot all of my films (check out www.leashless.tv) on Canon Digital SLR cameras.
If you are just starting out and don’t want to break the bank I highly recommend Canon’s Rebel series or the 80D. Depending on your budget you can go for the Rebel T5i, Rebel T6i, or 80D, in order of price. The 80D will give you up to 7 shots per second while the T5i and T6i do around 5 shots per second. You can also find used cameras on the lower end; I started with the Rebel T2i and took some great photos, however the continuous shooting mode was much slower at around 3 shots per second.
There are also higher end cameras if you have a larger budget. I currently shoot with a 7D Mark II, which fires at around 11 shots per second in continuous shooting mode.
In order to get good photos from land you will want a decent telephoto lens. Again as with the camera bodies there are several options for all budgets.
Lenses (also called “glass” in the industry) are more important to photography than the camera body, in my opinion. I would easily spend more on a good lens than to upgrade my camera body. It is very apparent when a good lens is being used. However, if you shop around you can still get lenses that hit the sweet spot between price and quality to fit your budget.
Prime lenses are those that have a fixed focal length. Although this can require more lens changes, prime lenses have the best image quality. Prime telephoto lenses, however, are rather expensive. Zoom lenses are those that can be adjusted between focal lengths, however they sacrifice image quality for versatility.
At minimum I recommend at least 300mm. Unless you’re shooting a very close beach break (think Newport), you don’t want to go below that or your shots will look too far away.
Best Bet For Low Budgets: The lens I started out with and recommend is the Canon EF 70-300mm IS USM. This is a very good quality lens for the price, and at 300mm you can get close enough to the action to make your shots look professional. An even cheaper option is the Tamron 70-300mm, however you will sacrifice some quality (although some people might not even notice).
Best Bet For Higher Budgets: If you have a higher budget, then I recommend jumping up to the “white” Canon lenses; the Canon EF 100-400mm is what I currently use right now, and there’s also a 70-300mm for a slightly lower price.
The prime telephoto lenses are much too expensive to recommend to hobbyists unless you are rich or going professional. It’s unfortunate. However, you might be able to find used ones at sites like KEH.
Ensure you get a UV lens protector for your lens! I don’t use them on all of my lenses, but I do use them for my surf telephotos because they need to be cleaned often due to the salt air that accumulates on the camera and lens. You don’t want to be constantly wiping your glass.
Because land-based surf photography uses such long lenses, you really need a tripod. It’s almost impossible to take steady photos by hand with a telephoto, plus the lenses are heavy.
Depending on what you want to do with your tripod, you can go low or high. If you ever want to shoot video, however, you should get a tripod that has a smooth head. Lower end tripods result in very jerky panning. This can also affect photography as you track your subject, however it’s less important.
For lower budgets: Just get something simple. I recommend the Amazon Basics tripod. It’s not a huge investment and it will get you started.
For higher budgets: I am a huge fan of Manfrotto. These are higher end tripods but will last and have excellent fluid heads that pan like butter. The MVH500AH is a great setup for hobbyists and professionals. If you’re trying to shoot video, I definitely recommend this tripod.
Sub $500 Kit:
Sub $1000 Kit:
My Personal Kit:
Water Photography And Video
Water shots are really fun, but require a bit more effort and equipment. The easiest way to start out with water surf photography is to use a GoPro or a waterproof camera such as the Fuji XP 120. A waterproof iPhone housing would also do the trick. Just something to get your feet wet.
If you’re more serious, you can get a housing for a DSLR camera. Housings range from cheap to thousands of dollars. However, a DSLR in a housing will result in the best and most professional looking photos.
The biggest and most popular action sports camera, the GoPro, is one of the best waterproof cameras on the market. With options for video and photo and a litany of attachments and mounts, the GoPro is also one of the most supported cameras to use for photos and videos. Add to that the small size and you have something that is very easy to use and fun.
The latest version, the GoPro 6, improves upon the camera in several different ways. The best thing for me is the color balance — it is much improved over other GoPros and can now be used without a ton of color correction. It also has built in image stabilization, but that would probably only benefit those shooting video.
The only downfall to the GoPro is that you have to be very close to the action due to the fisheye lens.
The Fuji XP 120 is a digital point and shoot that allows you to take more traditional looking photos without the fisheye or wide angle influence. I actually enjoyed using this camera a lot – and I preferred the photos I got from this camera vs the GoPro. However, it lacks versatility and mounting options. I would tie a string around the eyelet and hang it around my neck, and when I wasn’t taking photos I would tuck it in the back of my wetsuit to surf. It’s flat and is a perfect shape to snug between your wetsuit and body.
iPhone in a water housing
You already own a great point and shoot camera–your mobile phone. There are a few housings for your phone that will give you some great looking shots, all without having to buy a new camera. The only downside here is that if you drop or lose the phone, you’re kinda out of luck. It’s a tradeoff.
There are a few housings out there for iPhones at different price points, however the folks at Watershot do one job and do it very well. Their housings have conductive buttons and work extremely well.
The nice thing about doing it all on your phone is that you have all of your photos loaded on your device ready for editing and color correction. You don’t have to take them off a digital camera first. This saves you an extra step.
Polaroid Housings For DSLR Cameras
Polaroid has been making affordable housings for several DSLR camera models for a few years. I actually own one of these, and I really like it. I wasn’t sure how much water photography and videography I’d be doing, so I didn’t want to drop a lot of money on an expensive SPL housing. So I went with the Polaroid which is much cheaper and it allowed me to start dabbling with DSLR photography while out in the water.
Obviously this is bigger and heavier than the previous water shooting options. But the Polaroid housing is probably the lightest housing for a full DSLR camera out there.
The “Stabilisator” handle attachment isn’t the most ergonomic for surf photos, but it works. And, you really need it if you’re out swimming because the camera housing is just too hard to hold. Obviously it would be great to have a single gun handle with a trigger but again, this is a lower price point.
SPL Water Housings are the cream of the crop, and although they are expensive they deserve a mention here. These will run you around $1000 and up, and are what the professionals use.
These are custom made and come with a variety of bells and whistles. There are two lines, the A Series and the Splash. They also make housings for GoPro cameras as well. Getting a used one is an option, however I would caution against getting one from Craigslist as the owner might not disclose any leaks the housing might have.