Tim Nunn world renowned surf photographer of the plastic project brings us a breakdown of the best cameras for taking surf snaps. Take your time to read through his expert advice on which cameras are best for our sport and why they are so good. Tim also provides a helpful loose price guide so there is a guaranteed to be something in here to suit your budget. Check out the plastic project and Tim’s adventures online and see why we support this great cause. https://theplastic-project.com
Words by Tim Nunn.
The Plastic Project is essentially a photographic project and I’m not sponsored by any camera brands. We have had some support from all major camera brands in the form of lens loans etc. but I pay full price for every bit of gear I own so this is a real analysis. I’d also say, if you already have a bunch of lenses for one system, probably best to stick with that system so you don’t have to re-invest all over again. The real world difference especially between the top end cameras is very negligible. As the old saying goes as well,
“The best camera is the one you have on you.”
I was a real Nikon fan boy for years and they make awesome cameras, so I have had the joy of owning and using all of these.
Money No Object
The Nikon D5 is an awesome camera, if you have 4k + to burn and Nikon lenses, it’s awesome for shooting surf. It ticks along at 12fps and the low light performance is pretty epic. It still isn’t truly revolutionary, it’s an upgrade on the D4s, but Nikon still haven’t captured the massive step up and revolutionary performance they had when they released the D3s. Having said that, it will work in anything, so is a very good surf camera.
The Nikon D3s used to be the best full frame camera for sports in the world. Low light performance which is critical in Northern Europe is awesome, frame rate ticks along nicely at 9fps, you can happily shoot at ISO 3200 and beyond and it is practically indestructible. If you want a top end pro camera for under £1k this is an awesome option. Couple it with the Nikon 16mm fisheye and a good water housing and you have a good water rig.
I’m talking £800 – £3000 here, what the manufacturers like to call semi pro setups. When I first wrote this Nikon didn’t really have a semi pro camera when it comes to shooting surf/sports which is what we’re all about in ether full frame or APSC, but that has all changed.
The Nikon D500 is basically a baby D5. It clocks along at 10fps, and has a 200 shot RAW buffer, and it is compatible with every Nikon mount lens. Modern APSC sensors are also good. There is a question of why you need to go full frame, there are only a few occasions where you need that resolution. Couple that with the extra reach it gives, and the incredible Nikon 10mm f2.8 fisheye and this is an awesome sell camera.
Nikon have also released the Nikon D850, again it ticks along at up to 9fps, and has an incredible 45 megapixel full frame sensor, if you want to be the next Ray Collins, the is not only one of the cameras he uses, but s probably the one for you.
In the rest of the full frame lineup the D610, 750 and 800 are all very good cameras, they do really good in low light, but their frame rates are a little lacking. Six and six and a half frames per second isn’t sluggish, and don’t be ruled by frame rates, but especially when shooting fast action in and out of the water they are important.
When it comes to the other mid range up to date APSC sized sensor then Nikon went from having the market leader to a very good but slightly restricted offering in the D7000/71000/7200. The image quality and low light ability, as well as the autofocus on these is very good, the frame rate however is a little low at 6fps, and the buffer depth in RAW, is also poor. (that’s the number of shots it takes to fill the memory before the frame rate slows down).
Bargains – Sub £800
Nikon kill it when it comes to bargain cameras. First the full frame D700 is an epic camera, with a grip and dedicated battery it will burn along at 8fps for three seconds, has amazing low light ability, decent autofocus and great ergonomics. It’s essentially a non weather sealed baby D3s, and if you hunt around, you can pick one of these up for £450-600, a housing for about the same, and you have a pro rig for very little. Granted the resolution and overall image quality isn’t as good as a modern model, but this thing will spit out double page spreads until its shutter fails, which will be a while.
If that’s a little pricey, how about the same camera except with a smaller APSC sensor? The Nikon D300 with a booster is a weapon. I just checked on ebay and there is a tatty one going for £150, in five years at Wavelength this was both mine and Ben Selway’s weapon of choice. I only upgraded two years ago, and at 8fps, with great autofocus it’s a bargain sports camera to get you going in and out of the water. Downside compared to modern cameras is the resolution and ISO performance, I wouldn’t use over ISO 800, and it’s best at 200-400.
Money no object
The Canon 1DX2 is currently the best DSLR for sports in the world, no two ways about it. Autofocus, low light performance and frame rate (14fps), coupled with a full frame sensor smoke everything. Whilst Nikon were high fiving that the D3s was the best camera in the world and laughing at Canon’s inability to make a full frame sensor sports cam (the 1d 1/2/3/4, are all APS-H), rather than figuring out they could make the D4/5 amazing, Canon went away and smashed them with first the 1dx and then the mark 2.
At this moment it is the best DSLR for sports in the world, and the video is pretty good as well. If you have £4k + to burn and don’t own loads of Nikon lenses get this, it won’t make you a better photographer, but it will allow you to do things easier and more efficiently. In the real world I doubt a D5 is that much different, but having used them both I just feel this has several notches up on everything, hence why I own mark one.
Personally I’m not a fan of the 1d Mk1/2/3 you can pick them up for absolute bargains, as little as a few hundred pounds, but their low light performance is terrible and there are autofocus issues in all of them from my experience. The Mk4 is a different kettle of fish, good autofocus, decent low light ability, fast and decent video, it just sucks it hasn’t got a full frame sensor in it, but is still a good camera and pro level and goes for around £1k new!
Then there is the 5d1V, it’s an awesome camera, decent low light performance, decent autofocus, and a useable 6 fps, make it a solid pro alternative to the 1DX. Being full frame you can utilise the amazing Canon 15mm lens in the water, and it makes for a good all round filming and photographic body. If you want full frame, and don’t have the pockets for a 1DX get this.
Canon changed the game really by introducing the 7D Mk11, the 7D has issues, but the Mk11 is a pretty sick bit of kit. It is essentially a baby 1DX, 10fps, very advanced autofocus, and critically Canon have sorted out the image quality which plagued the Mk1. It’s still not perfect as the sensors in Sony’s APSC sized cameras outclass it in image quality and low light ability but it is an awesome camera, and having that crop factor when shooting from the beach is a huge advantage over a full frame. This is essentially a pro camera.
Bargains – Sub £800
The 7d MK1, awesome camera, good autofoucs, good frame rate at 8fps, great ergonomics, small in size, but it sucked even at relatively low ISO for image quality. I owned one, we used to cringe when we got files shot over ISO 320 at Wavelength, and this really lets these cameras down in my opinion. Having used one, for about 8 months, I would advise to stay clear. Having said that the video is pretty sick.
So at a lower end I’d go a Canon 70d/60d – Little slower frame rate wise at 7fps, but the 70 has incredible autofocus, great video and awesome image quality, I really like this camera and would go for it over the 7d MK1 any day.
A few years ago I knew little about the full frame Sony’s but recently it has been the only thing I have used, up until the MK3’s of the A7 and A7r were released they suffered from an underwhelming frame rate and buffer and truly shocking battery life, which meant for water shooting it was a massive pain in the arse. But all of this has changed.
Money no object
The A7111 is probably the best value full frame camera you can purchase, at just under £2k new, it cranks along at 10fps and and the mage quality is as good or better than the top end Canon and Nikons in the same price range, and more expensive and its low light performance is borderline magic. I’d say its autofocus is not quite as good as the pro level Canon and Nikons, but it’s not far off.
The A7R3 is even more incredible its megapixel count, 10fps, and battery life make it a high quality dream. It blows away the Nikons and Canon top end cameras for around £1500 less, but just lacks very slightly on autofocus, and out and out speed, but if you’re looking for quality, this your camera. A lot of pros use this, for example legendary Carve magazine Ed Sharpy shoots both stills and vid with it.
Then there is the A9, a camera that’s borderline witchcraft, incredible image quality in all light, ridiculous autofocus, and it ticks along at 20fps for 220 frames at full quality, which makes it a surf photographers dream. It doesn’t have the battery life of the Canon or Nikon pro series cameras, but it is good enough, and it comes in cheaper than both canon and Nikon flagship models. The downside? Although weather sealed this just does not seem to be as bomb proof as the Nikon D seres or 1d for canon, other than that it is the best camera in the world for shooting action.
Bargains – Sub £800
Personally I love the A6000 camera, it doesn’t cost much, sub £500 new, it ticks along at 11fps, the image quality is insane, the autofocus whilst not as good at the 7d mk11, 1dx or Nikon D, is still more than respectable. I own one, it’s my back up to a 1DX. I love this camera! If you don’t believe me, check out Burky’s review of it here to see what it can do.
Battery life is a downside and the weather sealing is zero, but for the money it is epic. If you want a little more, skip the A6300 and go the A6500, it has the advantage over the A6000 of better image just and an almost unlimited buffer depth but is three times the price.
Anyway hope this helps, it’s not full reviews just my personal thoughts on cameras, in summary, get what you can afford, it’s better to be shooting with a cheap camera than saving for an expensive one, good photos come from the photographer’s creativity not the price tag.
Money no object – Canon 1DX2 or If you want to go Mirrorless the Sony A9
Bargain Pro Level Camera – Nikon D700, but the Nikon D3s is in this category now
Best APSC DSLR – Nikon D500
Best Bargain – Sony A6000
What do I shoot with, well I do love the A9, and got one secondhand and it died, which sucked. So as I do a lot of shoots in really crappy conditions I switched back to a Canon 1DX, and it is bomb proof, and you can pick one up now for around £1,500, then have a Sony A6000 as a backup.
I haven’t shot too much with any of these but a lot of guys do, Ben Selway and Russell Ord both shoot with the Fuji XT2, and it is epic and has epic glass.
Pentax, pretty good as well, if you’re invested in their glass, excellent cameras. Panasonic – awesome micro four thirds performance, but more for video than stills.
I hope this has helped you in the camera buying process, we all know the marketplace is huge and shooting surfing presents us with difficult conditions.
Please check out The Plastic Project and thank you to Circle One for their continued support.
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