Starting Out Surf Photography Set-Up – Fuji XT-1?

I had an e-mail recently asking about kit that would be suitable to start getting into surf photography, and specifically if the FujiFilm XT-1 would be a good choice, the question that really made me think was:

If you were starting out again, what would you consider essential?

I did some research into the camera and this was my reply:

If I was starting again knowing what I know now I’d definitely consider the Fuji as an option, but I’d probably end up with something else personally, here’s my decision making process:

A weather proof, small body with decent autpfocus and frame rate could be ideal for surf photography
A weather proof, small body with decent autofocus and frame rate could be ideal for surf photography

Some pro’s and cons for surf photography:

Pro’s:

  • 8fps – really good frame rate, with autofocus tracking
  • 16MP – plenty of resolution
  • APS-C sensor – 1.6 crop, pretty standard sensor size for fast shooting cameras and bigger than a lot of other mirrorless cameras
  • Compact & Weatherproof – ideal for taking to the beach
  • WiFi – increasingly useful for many things
  • Big electronic viewfinder – I’ve found the bigger viewfinder on the 35mm EOS 630 a big benefit for land shooting so this will help

Cons:

  • No Stock Housings – you can’t buy a surf water housing off the shelf (or even a dive housing as far as I can tell) for this camera – it’s small enough to fit inside one if you are keen to do some modification, but this is not going to be ideal (although I think it uses the same shutter release port used by the Canon consumer range of cameras – a simple 2.5mm plug, if this is the case you can use many existing pistol grips to release the shutter) this is the big drawback for me for using this as a water set-up for surf photography
  • No second hand availability – as it’s pretty new you can’t pick up a second hand one, so no chance of a saving there
  • Limited Lens choices – compared to Canon and Nikon you’re a bit more limited in the lens department, especially if you want to go second hand

I use a Tokina 10-17mm fisheye, Canon 28mm f2.8, 40mm f2.8 and 50mm f1.8 primes and a Canon 70-200mm f4 zoom in the water, I’ve got a Canon 70D with the same size APS-C sensor as the XT-1, so I’d be looking at getting a similar range of lenses for surf photography (I personally like the 28mm best in the water and mostly use the 40mm for everyday portrait style stuff now so if it’s just for surf shooting I would omit the 40 and 50mm’s).

Here’s my kit list for still surf photography with the XT-1 (you’d need a couple of extra bits if you want to shoot video too):

Body & Lenses

  • Fujifilm XT-1 body – £956
  • Samyang 8mm fisheye lens – £230 – it gets good reviews and the price is good, you’ll need this if you want to shoot close up barrel shots.
  • Fujifilm XF55-200mm lens – £540 – fairly fast telephoto zoom, good reviews, there’s a cheaper 50-230mm option for about £275 but it’s slower again and I use my 70-200 f4 a lot so I’d be happy to pay the extra.

Plus either:

  • The kit 18-55mm f2.8-4 lens – (buy the body and kit lens together for £1300) this looks like a great lens, it’s fast and has stabilisation, it gets good reviews for image quality so I’d happily use it for shooting surf in the water, probably set to around the 28mm length as I’ve found that to be my favourite focal length on the 70D.
  • Or the Fujinon 27mm f2.8 pancake lens – £380 – I’ve got the 40mm f2.8 pancake lens for my Canon and it’s great, and I’ve got the old 28mm f2.8 lens too and I love shooting with it in the water, so this would be the best of both worlds, a tiny, lightweight, fast normal length lens with good image quality and autofocus, if I didn’t want to shoot video I’d get this and not bother with the kit zoom.

That’s a total of around: £2106

Water Housing

You’ve got no option but to get one made up for you, this will probably cost around £1000 for a basic model or closer to £2000 for one with all the controls you want and a couple of ports and will likely involve sending your camera and lenses away so the manufacturer can build the housing around it, you will have an awesome set-up though.

You could scour eBay and surf forums and grab a bargain second hand housing and modify it yourself if you have the skill and tools, that would cost about £400 I’d guess, but it would never be the same as a custom made housing.

Total with a good custom water housing – £4000

That sounds like a lot of money, but it’s a complete set-up.

What Would I Do?

Your alternative is to do what I’ve done and assemble your kit over a few years, waiting for a good deal on each item and buying second hand or refurbished gear whenever possible, you’ll need to go with Canon or Nikon so you have the most chance of getting a good price for glass and housings, but it will cost you less than half the price for kit with a very similar specification.

Conclusion

The XT-1 looks like a very capable action sports camera, the lenses are limited but there are enough options to have a reasonable range, so the big drawback is the housing – if I was in Simon’s position, looking at his style of photography and the fact that he’s looking at the XT-1 as a backup anyway, I’d get one with maybe the kit zoom and the 55-200mm and start taking more surf shots from the land, then get a GoPro or a rugged waterproof point and shoot to ease into water photography and see if you enjoy it enough to make it worth going for a dedicated housing for the XT-1 (or maybe a cheaper EWA or AquaPac plastic bag style case).

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