Which camera should I buy for surf photography – September 2019 Update

Summary: apsc is still the best sensor size for surf photography, and Sony make the best apsc cameras for surf photography

There have been several new cameras announced recently which would be suitable for surf photography. I do an annual update to my recommended surf photography gear page, and hopefully by the time I do the 2020 edition I’ll have had a chance to try out a few of these new cameras and make some recommendations, but I thought it was a great time to put down some thoughts on these new crop of cameras.

The best sensor size for surf photography

I’ve written about why I’m using an apsc, or ‘cropped’ sensor camera, instead of a full frame camera, read more here, and it’s all still valid. But… since then there’s a new, very compact, full frame camera available, and several bigger apsc cameras, so it’s worth revisiting.

I still believe apsc is the best compromise of image quality to size and cost for surf photography, especially in the water. You get more bang for your buck with an apsc camera than a full frame, right now at least. The majority of surf photographers will be better off with a smaller camera (and therefore smaller housing and lenses too), and the improvement in image quality is not worth the extra expense and size of a larger format.

You could go for a smaller sensor, like Micro Four Thirds, or one of the enthusiast point and shoot cameras with a 1 inch sensor, like the Sony RX100, but you sacrifice the versatility of a lens system that works with both full frame and apsc.

If you want to take a specific type of surf photo, and aren’t going to do much else, then there’s probably a better option than an interchangeable lens camera, and I cover all the options at the start of the Learning Surf Photography course. I’m interested in taking most types of surf photo, so I need the versatility of an interchangeable lens system.

So, I’m going to look at the latest apsc, interchangeable lens camera models and see which one I’d go for right now.

The best interchangeable lens, apsc sensor cameras for surf photography

These are the latest generation of cameras I’d consider for anyone who’s a keen amateur surf photographer like me:

  • Canon M6 II
  • Canon 90D
  • Canon 7D II
  • Nikon D7500
  • Nikon D500
  • Sony a6100
  • Sony a6600
  • Fuji X-T3
  • Fuji X-T30

The Canon 90D, 7D II, both Nikon cameras and the Fuji X-T3 are bigger than the other options, and don’t offer a significant advantage in other areas that are relevant to surf photography. If you are thinking of one of those, The X-T3 looks like the best option to me, but I’d also look into full frame cameras for a similar price.

Here’s a table comparing the things that matter most for surf photography in my experience, I’ve added the Sony a6000 as it’s still the benchmark for budget friendly surf photography:

Sony
a6000
Sony
a6100
Sony
a6600
Fuji
X-T30
Canon
M6 II
New price $399 US $750 US $1,400 US $899 US $849 US
2nd hand price $329 US N/A N/A N/A N/A
burst max 11 11 11 30* 30*
burst full res 11 11 11 8 14
dimensions/mm 120 x 67 x 45 120 x 67 x 50 120 x 67 x 69 118 x 83 x 47 120 x 70 x 49
weight/g 344 396 503 383 398
resolution 24 24 24 26 33
Max video res 1080p 60pfs 4k 30fps 4k 30fps 4k 30fps 4k 30fps
AF great great great great great
Native lenses Y Y Y Y Y

*The Fuji X-T30 uses a cropped mode to achieve the faster burst rate, it means you get 16.6 megapixel images, which is actually useful for shooting from the beach, but you probably wouldn’t use it for shooting fisheye in the water for instance. The Canon M6 mark II has a similar mode that crops to 18 megapixel resolution and has some clever pre-shot mode, again, useful for land shooters.

Clear winners or losers are marked by green or red in the table.

The Canon M6 II looks promising, but it lacks a built in viewfinder, which I find important when shooting anything but fisheye in the water. You can get an optional extra viewfinder that attaches to the top, but it’s a bit clunky and would require a bulkier housing than necessary.

The Sony a6100 has everything you would want in a surf photography camera, and it’s a worthy upgrade to the a6000.

The Sony a6600 looks great, but the few advantages that it has over the a6100 don’t have a significant impact on what surf photos you can take with it, so I’d save the money and buy a housing or lens instead.

The exception is – if you’re running into problems with battery life, usually this means you’re out int he water shooting for many hours at a time, then the a6600 is a great option as it has a bigger battery. In my experience, if you fully charge your battery, and you aren’t swimming for more than 2 hours at a time (I never do personally), then the standard battery is fine for me.

Which is the best camera for all round surf photography?

It comes down to the Sony a6100 vs the Fuji X-T30. Both are great, with the Fuji having the edge in pure specifications, but there are far more options for water housings for the Sony range than the Fuji, so it’s a simple choice for me.

The Sony a6100 is the best option, and if you’re on a budget, a second hand a6000 is an absolute bargain and does everything you need to take amazing surf photos.

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