Full frame mirrorless cameras for surf photography

Summary: The Sony A7iii or A9 are the obvious choices for full frame mirrorless surf photography now, but Canon, Nikon and Panasonic’s entry into the market bode well for the future.

I shoot surf photography with my Sony a6000 and a6500 cameras, they use an APS-C sized sensor, which is smaller than a 35mm film frame. A ‘full frame’ camera has a sensor that’s the same size as a 35mm film frame, and they generally offer better low light performance and overall image quality.

Until recently, a full frame camera meant sacrificing the fastest frame rates for still photography, but that’s starting to change with the latest generations of cameras.

One thing that won’t change is that a bigger sensor means a bigger camera body and bigger lenses. Full frame camera bodies and lenses are usually more expensive than a camera system with a smaller sensor.

A DSLR camera has a mirror in it to reflect the light into the optical viewfinder and perform focusing. In a mirrorless camera focusing is done on the sensor and you look at the picture that the sensor is seeing live on the LCD screen on the back, or through an electronic viewfinder.

If you’re doing research into a camera for surf photography, you’ll be reading a lot about ‘full frame mirrorless’ cameras in the next couple of months. That’s because Nikon, Canon and Panasonic have all announced mirrorless cameras with full frame sensors within a few weeks of each other. Sony has had a range of full frame mirrorless cameras available for a few years already.

Should you buy a full frame camera for surf photography?

My test for buying new gear involves this question: “What new types of photo can I shoot with the new kit, that I cant already shoot with my current kit?”

Recently, New Zealand surf photographer Rambo Estrada did a Q and A via his Instagram stories. He shoots amazing surf photos with both full frame and cropped sensor Sony cameras. I asked “Which surf photos can you take with full frame that you couldn’t with a crop sensor?”

He was generous enough to answer my question (and many others, make sure to follow him on Instagram, he’s definitely one of the most valuable accounts to follow for surf photographers). Here’s his response:

“There aren’t any surf photos that you can’t take with crop sensor. In fact for surf photography a crop sensor can have its advantages, like if you’re shooting from land you won’t need such a long lens as the crop will give you more reach. A crop can also give you better depth of field and lenses can be cheaper. A lot of my surf images have been shot on a crop sensor. But a full frame sensor can produce better image quality. Each pixel will be bigger so it will gather more light producing a cleaner image with better dynamic range.

Good crop sensor camera for shooting surf is the A6300 &A6500

Good full frame for shooting surf is the A7III, A7RIII & A9”

As this is a close as you can get to a professional surf photographer’s expert opinion on the full frame vs cropped sensor decision, I’ll go through each part in detail.

1: “There aren’t any surf photos that you can’t take with crop sensor.”

Given the right lens and settings, you can re-create any surf photo shot on a full frame camera, with a cropped sensor camera. This was what I was expecting, and the main reason I haven’t used a full frame camera for my own surf photography.

The Sony a6500 has been announced, but is it the best option for surf photography?

2: “In fact for surf photography a crop sensor can have its advantages, like if you’re shooting from land you won’t need such a long lens as the crop will give you more reach.”

There’s a lot to unpack here if you’re not familiar with crop factors and equivalence. Basically, the full frame sensor is 1.5 times bigger than the cropped sensor, so you’re effectively ‘cropping’ in to the image created by the lens, so you just see the centre portion. Practically, this means that if you put a 400mm lens on a Sony a6500 (aps-c sensor) and took a photo, then you wanted to take the same photo with the surfer and wave appearing the same size in the frame on an A7iii (full frame), you’d need a 600mm lens.

So you can get very similar results (there are other factors, mainly noise and depth of field differences) on a cropped sensor body with a smaller lens, to a full frame body with longer lens.

3: “A crop can also give you better depth of field”

When he says ‘better depth of field’, he means that the depth of field will extend further, so more of the scene will be sharply in focus around your focus point. A ‘better’ depth of field for surfing action shots means more of the action is sharp. If you want a very ‘shallow’ depth of field where the foreground and background are very blurry and there’s only a sliver of the scene that’s in sharp focus, like you might for an abstract shot of water, or a portrait, then it’s easier to get with a full frame sensor.

4: “and lenses can be cheaper”

generally lenses designed specifically for cropped sensor cameras are cheaper as they’re smaller than full frame lenses. This isn’t as true for long lenses, which are generally not designed for crop sensor cameras anyway as there’s no real size advantage once you get over 200mm or so.

You can also find very expensive lenses designed for crop sensor cameras from big name brands like Zeiss. Generally though, if two lenses have the same focal length, aperture and perceived quality, the aps-c lens will be cheaper.

Three Sony telephoto zoom lenses, the middle one is designed for full frame sensors

This image shows three Sony telephoto zoom lenses, the middle one is designed for full frame sensors, the other two are for aps-c sensors.

5: “A lot of my surf images have been shot on a crop sensor.”

You can see plenty of examples in his Instagram feed which were shot on the a6500 and a6300. Here’s a recent example:

6: “But a full frame sensor can produce better image quality. Each pixel will be bigger so it will gather more light producing a cleaner image with better dynamic range.”

A bigger sensor means a lower noise level (for a ‘cleaner’ image). Everything else being equal (settings, lens quality, equivalent focal length etc.) the full frame image will be better quality because of the bigger sensor area.

This is a problem if your image quality isn’t good enough with a cropped sensor. As a professional photographer, image quality is often critical, and poring over the tiny details of images is common practice, so this can be a big factor in the decision. For me, as an amateur who enjoys printing his surf photos for the wall, and sharing them online, the image quality of a modern aps-c sensor is much more than enough, so it’s not an issue.

7: “Good crop sensor camera for shooting surf is the A6300 &A6500”

I’d add that the Sony a6000 is still an amazing camera for surf photography, and is very easily and cheaply available second hand. I still use mine for shooting fisheye and small primes in the water with my Liquid eye C6000, although it has been relegated to a spare on the land as the a6500 has better focus modes and performance.

8: “Good full frame for shooting surf is the A7III, A7RIII & A9”

The A7iii seems to be the new favoutite all round full frame body of many surf photographers and videographers. The A7Riii is a high mega pixel specialist camera for capturing the most detail possible, so if that’s what you want, then it’s a good option. The A9 is an insanely fast sports specific camera body but costs loads more than the A7iii.

I haven’t used any of them but I definitely trust Rambo’s opinion on which full frame bodies work well for surf photos.

The Sony A7iii is becoming the most popular choice for full frame mirrorless surf photography

That answered my question, and went lots further into the debate too, but there are other factors to consider beyond the scope of that question.

Obviously if you haven’t got a camera at all yet, you’ll want to consider all the alternatives, but I think aps-c sensor cameras, and Sony’s a6xxx range in particular, are the best value for surf photography right now.

Some other factors to consider when choosing whether top go fro a full frame camera for surf photography include:

Battery life

Full frame cameras often have a higher capacity battery, so you can take more photos before recharging or swapping batteries.

I don’t really have a problem with battery life. My circumstances mean that I don’t usually shoot for that long in one go, it’s unusual to be shooting for more than an hour, so it doesn’t really affect me that much. I can understand it being an issue if you shoot for hours and hours and take hundreds of photos, and if that’s the case, it’s worth considering a battery grip or a full frame body with a bigger battery.

Value

You can’t beat Sony’s aps-c range of cameras for value. The bodies and lenses are so much cheaper than full frame equivalents that as an amateur with limited funds to spend on hobbies, it would almost be insane to go full frame. If you’re regularly getting paid to take photos, or you have a surplus of disposable income, then full frame becomes a reasonable option.

I choose to get the cheaper camera bodies and lenses and spend the difference on holidays so I can use them.

Size and weight

Alongside value, the other main factor for me is the size and weight of the kit. Full frame cameras and lenses are bigger and heavier than aps-c cameras. When you’re shooting in the water a smaller camera means a smaller housing which allows you to get more and better shots (providing you don’t run into battery life issues).

Just walking to the surf spot is a lot easier with less kit, and it’s a huge advantage when getting on a flight.

Would I ever change to a full frame camera system for surf photography?

Yes.

I’d definitely consider it if one of the two main advantages of aps-c went away almost entirely, and if both went away then I’d be the first person ordering a full frame setup.

If I were able to get a full frame body and suitable lenses which offered the same performance (with better image quality) as my aps-c setup, for about the same price, I’d probably switch. This is the most likely scenario.

If someone released a full frame body and suitable lenses which offered the same performance as my aps-c setup in a similar sized package, then I’d be very tempted. This is less likely as the sensor is physically bigger – so there would have to be a lot of very clever electronic and optical design changes made to make this happen. (It might happen eventually, but I expect some new sort of computational photography advancement will re-create and then overtake the performance of ‘full frame’ bodies before it does.)

If someone releases a small, cheap full frame system with the lenses I need (fisheye, 50mm equivalent, normal zoom and telephoto zoom), then I’m in.

Is the first generation Nikon, Canon or Panasonic full frame mirrorless camera body a good choice for surf photography?

Will they take great surf photos – yes, obviously. But would I recommend getting one for surf photography? No.

The main reasons are:

  • Not many options for native lenses yet
  • There will be a bit of a wait for a dedicated water housing (although if any of them prove popular for surf photographers I’d expect to see Aquatech release a new back plate for one of their top end range fairly quickly, and Salty Surf Housings are probably already prototyping designs and will have a housing available in no time too)
  • The first generation of any product often has a few rough edges

If I was in the market for a full frame mirrorless body for surf photography, I wouldn’t consider these options. Not when you can buy a Sony A7iii (or an a6500 if you don’t need full frame) right now, and get all the lenses and water housings you need to shoot any surf photo.

If I had a lot of Nikon or Canon lenses and wanted the most compatible system, then it would make them slightly more attractive. But they have new lens mounts anyway, so I’d need an adapter, or to buy new native lenses, so it’s about the same hassle sticking with them, than it is moving to a Sony full frame mirrorless body.

If I was sponsored by Nikon, Sony or Panasonic then I’d be on the phone getting hold of one as soon as possible because there are advantages over DSLR full frame bodies, although they might not be that big in this first generation.

 

Sony are already on the third generation of their 3 main full frame mirrorless bodies (the A7iii,  and A7Riii are out now, with the A7Siii expected soon), and the first generation on their highest level pro body (the A9). Once Canon, Nikon and Panasonic enter the market and competition really kicks in, it’s going to mean even more amazing cameras for us photographers.

For now, I’m very happy with my a6000 and a6500 bodies and the aps-c e-mount lenses I use with them, and there’s even rumours of a new higher-end aps-c camera body coming soon from Sony, so I can’t see myself jumping to full frame for a while yet.

If you’ve ordered one of the new full frame mirrorless bodies for surf photography, or if you’re already using one of the Sony’s, let me know in the comments below, I’d be really interested to hear your point of view. I am always ready to be convinced, but I can’t see a good reason to go full frame at the moment.