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Best Lens for Surf Photography (Water Shots)

          The most common question I get about shooting surf in the water is, “What’s the best lens to get?” While there’s no easy answer because everyone’s shooting style is different I will try to give some advice on all lenses in order for you to pick which one fits your style. Before choosing a lens though you need to figure out what type of port you have, is it a dome port (wet) or a flat port (dry)? Dome ports are shaped like, well a dome and are meant to be shot wet, meaning they should have a thin layer of water on them at all times to keep them free of droplets. (Usually spit does the job to keep them wet) If you are using a dome port it is generally for a wide angle lens like a fisheye that needs space on all sides to avoid vignetting. A flat port is usually for prime or zoom lens like a 50mm or 70-200mm and it is meant to be shot dry meaning the water should be removed from the port before shooting. (I use a squeegee to remove the water from mine) While you can shoot a zoom in a dome port and a fisheye in a flat port it is best to avoid it. Shooting a zoom lens in a wet port can cause focusing issues and shooting a fisheye in a flat port you may see part of the port in your shot.

Fisheye and Wide Angle lenses

          I have found that most people that start out shooting surf go directly for the fisheye because it gives you that surf magazine feel of an in the barrel shot. I did the exact same thing and I can’t blame anyone for going that route. Fisheye’s create a really cool perspective of getting an entire scene either looking into or out of the barrel. The downside to fisheye lenses is that unless you are within 5 to 10 feet of your subject, (preferably 5) your entire shot is going to look like you shot it from a mile away. While fisheye lenses produce really cool shots, in order to use them effectively you need to be a very strong swimmer and also be extremely comfortable sitting in the impact zone as that is where you must be to get a good fisheye shot. The best fisheye shots will come from being close enough to high five the surfer as he passes by in the barrel. While I love shooting fisheye shots I will admit my success rate for good shots is very low compared to other lenses. This is mainly due to current, if there is any kind of current pulling you down the beach it is going to be very difficult to link up with someone on a shot. Also, for me I only shoot fisheye if the waves are hollow. Shooting someone blasting airs or doing turns can looks really cool with a fisheye, but with how close you need to be more often than not they end up to be a blurry mess with all the water that gets shot in your direction. So if you are a seasoned veteran when it comes to swimming taking lips on the head, the fisheye would be a great lens to go for. If you are dipping into surf photography for the first time you might want to go for something with a bit more range.

Sam Seeland Spring 2015

Shot at 10mm (Fisheye)

          This brings me to wide angle lenses which are just a bit more cropped than fisheye. The distortion of the fisheye lens is one thing that makes it very difficult to shoot but with a wide angle lens you get the wide field of view without the distortion. I recently got rid of my fisheye in favor or a 16-35mm wide angle. For me it works great, while I can’t shoot anything really far away, but I can get shots that just wouldn’t come out with a fisheye if I shoot at 35mm. I can also maintain that wide angle looking out of or into the barrel shot at 16mm. Not all ports/water housings support zooming though so that is something you need to keep in mind when looking for a lens. If I couldn’t zoom with mine I would probably lock it around 24mm to give me a good in between range. Depending on how wide your lens is will depend on where you need to be to get a shot. If you are shooting at 16mm you will need to be almost in the exact same spot you would need to be for shooting fisheye and therefore in the impact zone. If you are shooting at 35mm you still need to be close but you can get away with being a little further away and more on the shoulder of the wave. A wide angle is a good choice if you want in the barrel shots but don’t think you will be able get right on top of the surfer. You should be able to get a slightly higher success rate than with a fisheye since you can be a little further away and still get a shot.

Mid-length Lenses

          The mid-length lenses in the 40mm to 85mm range would be my suggestion for anyone just starting out with water shots. You can be a decent distance away from the surfer/wave and still walk away with a usable shot while also being able to get some what close to fill the frame with the wave. My go to lens for years was the 50mm, they don’t call it the nifty 50 for no reason. My success rate for good shots sky rocketed in comparison with shooting fisheye. While shooting fisheye I would walk away with 1 maybe 2 shots I liked from each session. With the 50mm that went up to 30-40 shots I was stoked on. When shooting with a mid-length lens you can get away with being a lot further away than you could with a wide angle or fisheye. You can also crop the photo a decent amount which just doesn’t work as well with fisheye/wide angle due to the distortion. One of the main reasons the 50 is also a good lens for beginners is you can get one for significantly less money than a wide angle lens. I believe I paid around $600 for my original fisheye lens and my 50mm 1.4 retails now for $350 while the 1.8 version you can get for $100. As you can tell I am a big fan of the 50mm for a good general lens for surf photography. While I do love my 50mm lens, there have still been times where I’ve been too close or too far away to get a shot. There have been many times where I saw that the current was really bad but at the time the 50mm was the longest lens I had and I had no choice but to give it a shot and accept that there were going to be shots I was going to miss. If you aren’t the strongest swimmer an 85mm might suit you better. The 85mm lens is fairly long but generally you can find a version of it that isn’t very heavy to the point where it will weigh you down like some zoom lenses. The one other caveat that makes the mid-length lenses great is that they are fine to shoot turns and airs. Since you have more zoom you don’t need to be so close to the surfer that it guarantees you will get sprayed in the face. Also, since you will be looking through the view finder you have time to compose your shot to include the part of the background you like versus the arm out spray and pray that comes with shooting fisheye.

Long Lenses and Telephoto Zoom Lenses

          I love long lenses in the water. Long before I had a port to use one I was admiring my friends 70-200 shots they took from the water. I recently got a new port and picked up a 135mm lens for the water and it has quickly become my favorite lens to use. If there is a roaring current the long lens is the way to go hands down. Previously I had missed many shots on days with bad current but the long lens changed that immediately. I have found that the best way to fight the current is having the ability to shoot from further away and a long lens will accomplish just that. While I love long lenses in the water I have to acknowledge some of their down falls. First, they can be very heavy. If you are someone that struggles to swim with your water-housing a long lens will not make that any easier. The 70-200 f2.8 IS from Canon weighs around 3lbs, which may not sound like much but keep in mind that’s on top of the weight of your camera, water-housing, and port already. If you are already in a wetsuit it will be even more of struggle. If you compare that to the Canon 50mm 1.4 that weighs less than a pound, you are adding a decent amount of weight to your gear. Another thing you should consider, wakes and parts of waves getting in your shot. This is not something I ever thought about when shooting 50mm because I was still relatively close to the action, but when I started shooting 135 I often found myself kicking as hard as I could to get my camera higher out of the water to prevent the shoulder of a wave from blocking my shot. This can be remedied by shooting from a surf board or a boogie board, but you will need to be comfortable doing so as it is a lot more difficult to duck dive while holding a water-housing. Also, while many times I’ve found myself at the perfect distance to shoot something far away, I can’t say I also haven’t found myself missing shots because I was way too close to the wave or surfer.

          There are a few different ways you can go when choosing a long lens. One of the first things you need to consider is the focal length/range. The best option would be a 70-200 lens with the capability to zoom. This gives you an extremely large focal range that should cover almost every circumstance other than a wave that is right on top of you. The next thing you would need to consider is Image Stabilization. While not completely necessary it will vary by person, if you can’t keep your hands still to save your life image stabilization is going to be a must in order to take sharp photos. I have gotten some great shots with my 135 which does not have IS but I have also blown some shots because I didn’t have IS and didn’t hold the housing still. If you plan on shooting slow shutters IS will also be a huge benefit to have as slower shutter speeds make the slightest camera movement more noticeable. You can still get great results shooting slow shutters without it but your success rate will be much lower. Choosing whether to get a lens with image stabilization is also going to come with choosing how much you are willing to spend on a lens as lenses with IS usually run about $400-$500 more than their non-IS counter parts.

Final Thoughts

          Choosing a lens for water shots can be daunting, but now that you know the strengths and weakness of each type of lens hopefully you can make the best decision for your shooting style. At the end of the day it will come down to how comfortable you are in the water, what lenses fit your camera and housing, and which lens fits your price range. All lengths of lenses are capable of taking amazing shots you just need to pair the right one with your abilities and the conditions on the day you shoot. If your budget and setup permits a 16-35mm, 50mm, and a 70-200mm you should be covered for any day of waves in the future as long as you judge the conditions correctly. If you can only get one or two lenses, your best bet is to choose the one that fits your comfort level and shooting style in the water. Stay safe out there and feel free to ask any questions below.

Nicaragua 2016

Shot at 10mm (Fisheye)

Lenses I use/have used.

Here are some of the lenses I use/ have used in the past.


Canon 50mm 1.4


Canon 16-35 F/4 L


Canon 135 F/2 L


Tokina 10-17 Fisheye

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 All Photos Copyright of Dave NIlsen Photography 

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