Capturing the surfing experience has never been easier with quality, cheap video cameras available both for water and land-based videography. We’ve tested loads of options over the past 15 years and this article aims to provide a guide for surf videographers just getting started and for those wanting to up their game.
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Shooting surf videos from the water
Traditional water videography required placing a video camera inside of a water housing. This was an expensive and risky exercise with many water housings being custom made and many cameras lost to rogue waves and shore breaks. Modern DSLR technology has enabled videographers to purchase water housings that keep cameras safe and dry at relatively low cost. Then there is the action camera market that exploded onto the scene with the advent of GoPro. We’ve been spoiled for choice when it comes to quality waterproof action cameras that capture surprisingly high-quality photos and videos.
However, as people are becoming more technology literate many are happy to invest time and effort into obtaining the best possible photographic results. That’s where this guide comes in.
Budget waterproof video cameras
To capture surf footage on a budget with minimal hassle you’ll want a waterproof action camera. There are many options to choose from, beginning with quite blatant GoPro copies to entirely new devices with their own feature sets and unique designs.
With over 20,000 positive reviews on Amazon it’s hard to overlook the AKASO EK7000 4K Action Camera. This GoPro lookalike shoots 4k 30FPS footage from a fisheye lens that captures 170 degree panoramic shots. The camera can also shoot 16MP photographs at a rate of 30 frames per second. Most remarkable is the USD $55.99 price tag. When you consider that you’re also getting a wireless wrist remote control this a deal well worth considering.
Akaso is an eight-year-old company and they currently ship half a million cameras per year. There are many other cheap action cameras available for those on a budget – do your research and consider purchasing one that has a similar screw system to GoPro so that you can use the same accessories should you ever upgrade.
Mid-range waterproof video cameras
The GoPro lineup is packed full of options for the budding surf videographer. There are always lots of new models competing against older models, and an endless array of accessories, some genuine and well-crafted, others cheap and dirty. At the time of writing, you can choose between a Hero 7, 8 and 9 – or the Max, which captures 360 degree footage.
While GoPros are primarily video capture tools they are surprisingly good at photography, offering a number of burst modes and excellent image quality. Sure, you’re going to have that fisheye perspective, which means you need to be really close to the subject to get full-frame action, but anything is possible if you’re game enough. Getting a good shot with a GoPro is not difficult. Simply press the shutter – or use a remote shutter release – and aim.
The GoPro Hero 9 Black Edition – available for USD $399 – is an awesome upgrade to older models and features a full-colour touch screen on the back so that you can view your framing in real-time. The camera does not require a waterproof housing – simply pick it up and go. With three levels of stabilisation, you will enjoy best in class action footage whether you’re mountain biking or getting barrelled. You can also select from a number of modes like “Narrow” which give a more traditional angle.
For once, we recommend reading the instructions. I mistakenly swam out with the GoPro Max in timewarp mode and captured very weird clips of nothing at all.
360 degree cameras
The Insta360 ONE X2 available for $429.99 is more than a 360 degree camera – it is an amazing piece of equipment that produces some of the coolest video effects available to video enthusiasts today. You can shoot in crisp 5.7k which captures the entire world in high definition. This means that you can transition smoothly from one lens to the other, creating footage that looks like it was filmed using complex dolly setups or a drone. The app and desktop software make this kind of video editing a breeze.
High-end waterproof video cameras
Now we get to the fun stuff. To capture semi-pro footage you’ll need a quality digital camera and a water housing. You’ll also need to be meticulous about setting up your gear and have the discipline to clean it properly after use. You’ll be immersing several thousand dollars worth of photography equipment in a highly corrosive environment so do this at your own risk. However the rewards are plentiful for those who dare.
If you’re just getting started I recommend a mirrorless camera like the Sony A6400 plus a case made by Sea Frogs.
Remember, kit lenses – the lens that comes with your digital camera – are not generally that great. For example, if you purchase a Canon EOS 90D with EF-S 18-55 is STM Lens Kit the results might be a little disappointing. However, if you add a really good lens like the Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM Ultra Wide Angle Zoom Lens then your footage will start to look mighty fine. Our recommendation is to go for a mirrorless camera like the Sony A7III – at a cost of around $2000 – with a versatile lens like the 24-105mm which costs around $1000. You’ll need a water housing such as this model from Sea Frogs at a cost of $780. This combination $3780 kit will enable you to experiment with zoomed in footage or much wider perspectives. We used this camera and lens for our film Waves of Freedom.
If you’re shooting surfing from the land then you’ll need a video-capable camera equipped with a telephoto lens. There are cameras with built-in lenses that deliver good results. However, depending on your budget, you might like to explore mirrorless DSLR technology, which makes film quality footage possible on a reasonable budget. DSLR cameras have huge sensors that are amazing both for video and photography. From our perspective, it is a no-brainer to purchase a camera that enables you to effortlessly switch between photo and video capture mode.
So here are your options starting from the relatively inexpensive and landing up with a kit that would make Taylor Steele drool.
Budget video cameras
Get yourself camcorder and a solid tripod or monopod. This combo will enable you to base yourself on the sand and zoom close enough to get usable footage for social media or home video purposes. If you’re just getting started then opt for a OIEXI Video Camera 4K Camcorder Vlog Camera with 16X Digital Zoom which sells for less than $200. You’ll have no detachable lenses and the whole process is as easy as pressing record when the surfer is up and riding. Quality won’t be amazing but this is a simple and effective way to capture the moment with minimal hassle.
If you’re serious about capturing high-quality footage then go for a sports rig that captures both high quality video and photos. We recommend a mirrorless DLSR like the Sony A9 or Sony A7III with a 200-600mm lens. This $5000 combo will get you so close that you’ll almost taste the action. Remember that super shallow depth of field is not your primary concern when shooting surfing from the land. You want reach, sharpness and detail.
If the Sony A9 is a bit expensive then a camcorder like the Sony FDR-AX43 UHD 4K ($950) with built-in gimbal and 20x built-in zoom might be perfect for your needs.
Alternatively go for an enthusiast DSLR with a good telephoto. The Canon 90D with 70-200 F4 is a solid option that won’t let you down – available for around $1500. Browse second-hand cameras as you can find some real bargains – just make sure that they shoot 4k footage.
If money is no object and you want to capture the best possible surf footage then you could go for anything from a professional DSLR to a cinema camera and cinema lens. Our choice would be a Canon 1DX ($3200) plus the superb 70-200 F2.8 ($1800) lens as a versatile combo that will work for most videographers. As money probably isn’t your deciding factor consider the $10,999 Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM.
Drone technology has advanced exponentially over the past two decades. Only 5 years ago you’d need to buy a drone and attach a GoPro to it in order to snap a few aerial shots. We own a quadcopter purchased from a high street store. Aerial footage from our old GoPro 4 was somewhat wobbly and we weren’t delighted with our attempts at capturing surfing from above. However, new tech has ironed out the kinks and you’re more likely than ever before to capture amazing views of surfing from the air.
Budget aerial surf videography
The Ruko U11 GPS Drone has plenty of good reviews on Amazon and features 40 Mins Flight Time, 4K UHD, auto return, one touch take-off and more. For $229 it’s a bargain.
Mid-range aerial surf videography
DJI really own the air space in the mid-range. Check out the tiny DJI Mavic Mini Drone FlyCam for just over $320 or invest a little more for the DJI Mavic 2 Pro for $1599. The more expensive model features 4k video capture via the onboard Hasselblad L1D-20c camera with a 20MP 1” CMOS Sensor.
High-end aerial surf videography
If you’re after premium quality from your drone then the Autel Robotics EVO 2 will fit the bill. It features 8k video capability with a convenient foldable form factor. The DJI Phantom 4 Pro Plus for just over $2000 might also be a good option if you like DJI products.
If you want to launch your DSLR into your local airspace then check out the DJI Inspire 2 for over $3000. You’ll really want to hone your flying skills because in addition to the drone itself you’ll have a gimbal and your DSLR on the line. The integrated options like the Autel or Phantom 4 make a lot of sense.
Finally, you could always rent a helicopter and take yourself and your favorite video camera into the air for maximum control.