Best Camera for Surf Photography
Capturing the perfect shot in surfing will serve as a fond memory. This article will answer your questions about cameras that you can use to snap the best shot of yourself riding the waves.
It’s one thing to go up against the tide when you’re on your board and learn from what the ocean has in store that day, but it’s a completely different scenario when you realize that the camera you’ve bought to capture the experience and the rising tides isn’t up to par.
The truth is that with the neck-break pace of new cell phone offerings, there is a lot of smoke and mirrors on the camera market today. Not only that, the market itself is oversaturated with products and gadgets that nobody really needs.
Not to worry—the OMBE team’s expertise isn’t limited to catching airs; we know a thing or two about capturing them as well. We’ve used plenty of cameras, and in this article, we will show you our favorites as well as the features you should look for. Moreover, you might even gain some insight into how cameras work, so buckle up, and let’s get started!
Features to Consider
First things first: when it comes to cameras that will be in close proximity to sand, moisture, heat, and sea salt, it’s paramount that the body of the camera is weather-sealed. We don’t want a camera that will be perfect for a week and then fall apart before our eyes.
Regardless of whether we are looking at cell phone cameras, DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, or waterproof cameras, certain parameters just have to be in line to make the whole purchase worthwhile.
Unless you’re surfing at night or in gloomy weather, the ISO is the least problematic parameter when it comes to outdoor action photography. The value of the ISO should go up in order to brighten the photograph in low-light conditions.
Nevertheless, we don't want to blow out the image by setting the ISO too high either, so it’s still a very important parameter to consider. Setting the ISO at about 400 or even 200 should do just fine for surfers, so look for cameras that have an ISO setting in that range.
In a way, the ISO is a last resort for when you cannot get the desired results by adjusting the shutter speed or aperture; only then should you reach for the ISO. Speaking of…
F-Stop and Aperture
The aperture defines how much light will come into the camera sensor through the lens. This makes it exceptionally important when dealing with moving objects and varying weather conditions.
The aperture blades open for a set amount of time to let the light in and then shut so that the photo can be taken. So, the lower the aperture, the smaller the opening, and vice versa. However, the aperture does not only influence how light or dark a photo will be but also has a lot to do with the depth of field.
This is where the F-stop comes in. The F-stop has more to do with the lens than the camera itself. In simple terms, it establishes the ratio of the focal length of the lens to the diameter of the aperture opening. “F” stands for fraction.
If you’ve ever shot surfers, you probably know that shutter speed is probably the most important parameter for surf photography and burst mode shooting. The shutterstop feature determines the light that comes in before the final snap and is responsible for the clarity or blurriness of the moving object.
This time that the shutter remains open is referred to as the exposure time. Slow shutter speeds make for long exposure, and long exposures make moving objects blurry. In regard to surf photography, unless we’re going for a blur artistic effect, we should stick to quick exposure times. To oversimplify things, it's sort of a motion-to-light ratio.
The foundation of a professional camera rig is the camera body. The body is paramount not because it’s the most expensive or the most influential part, but because it’s the base upon which everything else is built.
Of course, not all cameras are built the same. There are dozens of amazing offers for surf photographers in this day and age. Everything from mirrorless digital cameras at full-frame sensors to basic GoPro models is apt to get the job done. Even beginner and non-professional camera bodies are equipped with camera sensors that can deliver amazing surf photos.
Nevertheless, certain cameras fare better when shooting video or continuous burst mode shooting. All of our suggestions hold their own in those terms. The best part—they all occupy a similar price range and are quite affordable for what they can deliver. Rest assured, even if you choose to invest in a decent lens to pair them with, you won't be reaching for that safe lock pin anytime soon.
Let’s take a closer look at what you can get your hands on before your next surf trip.
Fujifilm is a company that is renowned for its robust and stable camera body builds. Surf photographers can find everything they need in the company’s flagship X-Trans line. The X-T4 is equipped with a 26.1 MP cropped sensor with IBIS or in-body image stabilization. This makes the camera suitable for shooting moving objects such as crashing waves and shiny surfboards at lower shutter speed rates without introducing blur.
The X-T4 is much improved over its predecessor, the X-T3, mostly when it comes to battery life, overall body weight, and feel. The depth of the grip handle is also a bit more accentuated, which feels a lot more sturdy but still keeps things in a compact size.
You can also expect to be carrying a bit more weight, as the X-T4 comes at 1.3 pounds when it’s fully equipped. The body has excellent build and sealing. The chassis is made out of magnesium alloy and is seal-wrapped to keep dust and moisture away from the sensor. Be careful, though—you will need to pair it with a weather-sealed lens if you wish to take it on the board with you.
The flip-out screen makes the X-T4 an excellent choice for self-portraits or those acrobatic high-up and down-low shots. Did we mention that it can deliver 60 frames per second on crisp 4K resolution and a super slow motion 240 frames per second when filming at 1080p? This is not only handy for videos, but photography stills as well.
The X-T4 is equipped with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for on-the-spot photo transfers and a silent shutter that can handle speeds up to 15fps. This thing was made for surf photography, that is, if you’re willing to deal with the cropped sensor.
With the long-anticipated Sony Alpha A7IV hitting the market in late 2021, the Sony A7III is more appealing than ever for photographers and surfers that are looking to get into the full-frame camera market but don’t want to break the bank. The Sony A7III is weather-sealed and comes with a sensor of 24.2 megapixels, which can deliver outstanding results.
Sony cameras are known for their excellent dynamic range, so get ready for that ocean wave shine to really come through.
Surf photographers will welcome the improved back-illuminated sensor, which can take in even more light via the LSI/BIONZ X processor, capable of delivering a superb noise to ISO ratio, stunning 4K on video, and 10fps on continuous shooting.
The AIII’s 5-axis image stabilization system works in coordination with a five-stop compensation system, which brings everything together and recognizes movements immediately. At 10fps, it’s not the quickest camera on the block. However, it makes up for it with its great AF points that can track over 90% of what’s on the screen. This is one of the best offerings across the whole market at this price point, so don’t hesitate to pull the trigger on the autofocus button.
When Sony announced that it would be featuring its S-Log3 mode profile that increases the dynamic range across the entirety of the sensor, they made a lot of photographers very happy.
Because the AIII is a mirrorless camera, it’s pretty lightweight and small in size for a full-frame camera. One aspect where the Sony A7 III took a hit was its tilting LCD screen. It can only move up and down and cannot be turned sideways, which might come as a setback for surfers looking to set the frame while they are in front of the camera.
Sony A7 IV
Photographers who don’t mind spending a little extra to get one of the absolute hybrid cameras on the market can skip the AIII and move on directly to the Sony A7 IV. The AIV comes with a 33MP full-frame BSI CMOS sensor, in-body stabilization, oversampled 4K video (7K), and two card slots. It’s basically an upgrade from the A7III on all fronts and upped to the nines.
That said, the Sony A7 IV isn’t just improved on the inside. Photographers will find it much more convenient to deal with and set up the preferred settings with the new dial that can access almost anything you might need on the fly. Now that the display has been upgraded to a vari-angle screen that has an OLED display at 60 or 120 hz refresh rate, it’s going to make those long Clint Eastwood squints in high sun a thing of the past.
The Bionz XR processing is still under the hood and can deliver suiting results in the form of 14-bit uncompressed files. The 15 dynamic range stops will ensure that even the most expensive of edits will bring out the ocean in all of its glory.
The autofocus is a bit better as well and delivers Real-Time Tracking. The dual card slots ensure that even if one of your cards gets compromised, you’re still all set. All in all, the Sony A7 IV is an excellent step up from the AIII, and in our eyes, it more than justifies the point of purchase.
Canon EOS R
The Canon EOS line has been a staple in the photography world for quite some time now. Namely, the Canon EOS R features a whopping 30.3-megapixel full-frame camera sensor that delivers crisp and clear shots in almost any conditions. The company’s Dual Pixel CMOS AF is the best autofocus tracking that money can buy.
Manually focusing on your objects can be a bit tedious, especially when following a surfer riding a wave at great speeds. Being able to go into auto mode and trust the camera with the rest is a godsend. If the entry price point on the Canon EOS R seems a bit steep, but photographers still want to go with the Canon system of lenses, then the entry-level EOS RP is still a great option to consider. The camera features 26.2 megapixels, a weather-sealed body, and a full-frame sensor.
However, users who wish to shoot in 4K video will have to deal with a significant 1.7x crop, which will impact their lens focal length and depth field. This is not to say that the 4k feature isn’t useful, but it’s not full-fledged full-frame 4K as some might be led on to believe.
This is balanced out by Canon’s industry-leading autofocus that can deliver -6EV and track subjects even in low light situations. This shouldn’t be a problem either way because surfers aren’t usually catching waves at night.
However, the construction and seal of the body are some things that have to be on par. Luckily, the Canon EOS R comes with a sealed magnesium alloy body which can be found on higher-end cameras and provides an excellent grip handle for quick and timely maneuvers.
By making use of the Control ring feature, users can access and set up the aperture, shutter, and white balance as well as ISO in the blink of an eye. Convenient indeed.
Nikon Z7 II
If Canon are renowned for their autofocus and Sony are the undisputed kings of dynamic range, then, when it comes to the quality-of-photography side of things, Nikon is the brand that delivers the most bang-for-the-buck performance.
The Nikon Z7 II camera offers great battery life and comes with an unheard-of 45.7-megapixel sensor which is supported by a state-of-the-art BSI (back sensor illuminated) technology. Users who primarily use their cameras to capture photos over video and don’t mind fiddling with the focus manually can just skip the pleasantries and go with the Nikon Z7 II. At this price point, it’s an absolute bargain.
The Z7 II has made quite the leap by packing not one but now two Expeed 6 processors. This puts it right on par with the offering from Sony when it comes to burst speed shots at 10 fps. Even though Nikon still needs to catch up with the best in the business when it comes to autofocus and tracking.
The Z7 II is much improved when compared to its predecessors. Eye detection is now a full-fledged reality, and the tracking covers a wide area of the screen. The low light offering isn’t the best at -3EV, but since we’re looking at the Z7 II as a surfing camera, this is hardly something that comes into consideration.
Users will notice that the camera is capable of delivering 4K at 60p at a small crop of 1.08x. In other words, in terms of performance, the Z7 II prioritizes day photography over everything else, and as such, it might be the perfect choice—the best surf photo camera on the market right now. But how does the battery fare?
Nikon have made strides on that front as well, so now the users are able to upgrade to two batteries as well as a dual card feature. The best part? The Z7 II can be changed via USB-C while in action. So, if you plan on a long shoot and don’t feel like investing in an added grip, just bring a battery bank to the beach, and you’re set for the day.
Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark III
The Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark III is another excellent choice for surf photography because it hits the sweet spot between features and lens compatibility. Users are able to make the most out of the IBIS frame and handle the camera for hours on end without feeling like it’s taking a toll on their performance. That being said, it is on the and of the spectrum when it comes to resolution, sitting at just 20 megapixels.
Granted, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark III won’t satisfy everyone’s appetite, but it just might hit the spot for a certain market looking for something different than what the big players seem to be offering.
The Olympus Live Composite and Live Bulb features take digital processing to the brink and composite multiple stacked shots to deliver the perfect lighting on dynamic surfaces such as the sky and the ocean. One of the camera’s best features is the USB charging compatibility because, let’s face it, at that size, your battery will be gone faster than a toupee in a hurricane.
Photographers that are used to hefty camera bodies might find it a bit awkward to deal with the light construction of the OM-D E-M5 Mark III. However, the OLED vari-angle screen makes it a lot easier to handle when working alone and ensures that everything is in the frame and in focus.
The Mark III has been purposefully designed to be compact, reliable, and stable from the ground up. OM-D E-M5 Mark III features one of the smallest bodies in production at the moment, but it still manages to afford a very impressive 5.5EV to 6.5EV compensation on shaking. It can work miracles on handheld shots when paired with the right lens. And on that note…
In many ways, the camera lenses are even more important than the camera body itself. The main distinction between camera lenses is that they are either primer lenses, which have a fixed focal length, or zoom lenses, which can extend to different focal lengths.
When it comes to surf photography, in almost all cases, surfers and surf photographers will want to go with a zoom lens that allows them to adapt to the conditions without having to change the lens. Removing the lens to insert another one subjects your precious new camera to risk of water, dust, and sand damage, and you definitely don’t want that.
If you are looking for the best of the best in lenses, Sony’s G Master series is an amazing choice and has the price to show for it.
Because surf photographers aren’t very close to the objects they are shooting, the best lens will capture the details from afar.
Best Low Budget and Affordable Options
For photographers that have subscribed to the Canon system of lenses, the Canon EF 70-300mm IS USM is one of the best bang-for-the-buck options, making it a great buy for surfers as well.
That being said, the fact that this lens is very competitively priced shouldn't fool you—this piece of glass can deliver stellar professional results. E-mount system users, such as Sony camera users, are able to make do with a slew of this-party lens offerings that will take it easy on their pockets.
If the Canon doesn’t do it for you, the offerings from Sigma and Tamron are also very nice for the prices they command. Entry-level surf photographers and surfers should not think twice—both of these brands are reputable, even if the quality isn’t among the salt of the earth.
Best All-Around Options
Die-hard surf photographers for whom budget is not an obstacle and want to get their hands on the best of the best while riding the Canon ship should look no further than the Canon EF 100-400mm.
Sony enthusiasts can take advantage of the pristine detail that the Sony FE 100-400 has to offer. When it comes to Nikon full-frame mirrorless cameras, the telephoto Nikon AF-P 70-300mm is one of the top choices on the shelves.
We won’t even go into third-party premium offerings because that list goes on forever. One thing that surf and beach photographers that carry high-end gear should always invest in is a UV lens protector and a robust camera bag.
Remember, there is no point in spending a fortune if the gear isn’t in optimal condition or gets buried in hot sand.
What makes a good surf photo?
There are two important factors to consider when framing a surf shot. The first and probably more important of the two is to set your camera at an angle that won’t reflect the sun rays on the lens. Remember, it’s not only the position of the sun above that counts; it’s also the reflections that come from the water.
The second thing is setting the right parameters for the environment that you are facing. When shooting outdoors, the light and the angles at which it comes down are always in flux, so as a surf photographer, you should ensure to change the parameters accordingly.
What lens do I need for surf photography?
If you’re bringing a single lens to the shoot, we recommend that you go with a super-wide zoom lens. Surfers that are photographers usually make do with a 8-15 mm to get everything in the shot.
Shooting exclusively from the shore can get a bit tricky. Naturally, the best choice would be to get a dedicated telephoto lens that will cover anything from 70-300mm, but depending on the camera system that you’ve chosen, telephoto lenses can get quite expensive when reaching for a quality one.
Is autofocus bad for surf photography?
Most professional photographers shy away from automating any parameters on their cameras because there is a stigma that if they move away from manual operations they aren’t true professional photographers. I beseech you. Please don’t let this get to you.
The most important thing when taking a photo is that we get the most out of the situation and capture the best image, and contrary to what they’d like you to think, the manner in which it’s captured doesn’t really weigh in the equation. This goes double when you are taking photos while surfing—automate all the parameters that will make your photo better and taking it that much easier.
A Few Words Before You Go…
Camera gear is more accessible and affordable than ever. Some of the best cameras for water photography on the market are digital cameras equipped with full-frame sensors. Of course, surf photographers don’t have to invest in mirrorless cameras with full-frame sensors. You can attain a great setup and image quality even with cameras that feature a cropped frame sensor.
Some know-how, a good tripod, and a good lens make all the difference in the world.