Choosing the right long lens for surf photography

Written by on 15th February 2014
Published in How To, Photos, Surfing
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If you go down the route of an interchangeable lens camera to take on your surfing missions, then you’ll probably get a kit lens with it. This will be a lens which will be great for taking all the lifestyle and lineup shots, but when it comes to shooting action shots you’re going to need something with a little more length. This is a tricky subject as there are a lot of options, zooms, primes, super zooms etc. It’s a bit of a minefield, but, hopefully this will help you sort things out. (If you want detailed reviews check out Ken Rockwell, he gives good in-depth and honest reports.)

It is an area where money talks, in an ideal world you’d have a prime pro long lens for every length, but obviously none of us have that sort of cash so it’s all about compromises and working out exactly what you need to get the job done for the amount of cash you have to spend.

First off do you need a super long lens? If you’re going to be mostly surfing on trips, then really just stick with the kit zoom that came with the camera and just shoot crazy lineups to taunt your mates with when you come home. But if you want to get some closeup action, then you’re going to have to go for one of these options.

So first up the expensive primes

(Prime lenses are fixed length, no zoom)
The Nikon and Canon 300-600mm pro series primes are the gold standard in lenses. This is what you get if you have the cash, the 300mm f2.8 Nikon or Canon would be the best, it is just about hand holdable and not too big as you can sneak it on as hand luggage with even the tightest budget airline. You can stick a 1.4 x convertor on it or a 2x and get really good results still and used on a DX or APS-C sensor you are unlikely to need any other lengths.

600mm

They are also just about attainable when it comes to financing, the 400, 500 and 600 mm are all amazing lenses, if you have the spare cash laying around get one, you may only use it a handful of times a year, but having owned a Canon 600, I can say the few times it was used it did it’s job incredibly and I would love to still own it. These are the lenses to think about if money is no object and you’re more serious about your photography than your surfing.

The slightly less expensive primes

So Canon and Nikon have a couple of small primes which are epic, the 300mm f4 for both makes is an awesome lens, small, easy to hand hold it is a great lens to wander around with and get good angles. It is sharp as hell and the autofocus on both models it swift. You can also stick a 1.4x convertor and retain autofocus. These 300mms are awesome lenses for portability, I’d go one of those over the more expensive big apertured models any day unless you absolutely need that reach.

300mm

Canon also do a 400mm f5.6, I have only used it once but I know Ben Selway and Roger Sharp carry one of these, pin sharp, fast autofocus and portable, another epic lens. If you are serious about getting really good shots on your trip, and have a modest amount of cash to spend then these are for you.

The Super Zooms

So down to the zooms. Zoom lenses are versatile and you’re essentially getting a lot of lenses in one, which is handy, especially for the roaming surf photographer trying to nail good angles. They come in various flavours, Canon and Nikon are joined but third party makers Sigma and to a lesser extent Tokina and Tamron in this category as well.

At the top of the tree is the Nikon 200-400 f4 lens. It is the ultimate surf photogs lens. The reach is perfect, it’s pin sharp, if you put a few hours a week in the gym it is hand holdable (just), and it is just lovely with it’s Vibration Reduction tech and everything I love this lens. Sadly it costs between 6 and 10k and thus I do not and probably will not ever own one, but if you’ve got that sort of cash buy it. Canon have just launched their own, with a built in 1.4x convertor, it’s expensive and I should think easily as good.

70-200

So back to the affordable, if you want this sort of reach and have £1200 then Canon’s 100-400 is a pretty good option, like with all zooms at the long end, things soften up a bit but this is a good all rounder for a canon shooter although the push pull zoom can cause dust on sensor issues. Nikons equivalent the 80-400 f4.5-5.6 is an average lens, used it once won’t ever again. Sigma have several cheaper options in this realm as well, they do a 100-300, 120-400 f4.5-5.6, 150-500 f5-6.3 and a 50-500 f4.5 – 6.3 for both Canon and Nikon and for half the price of the two previous lenses. Are they any good? Well having used a couple of these, they have without fail let me down every time especially at the longer ends.

The price tag is appealing but I’d look at other alternatives, the main reason they let me down was I was using them at the very long end. If you buy one of these zooms when you need a 400mm or a 500mm really then buy a prime instead. As I said zooms are compromises and on big zooms they generally have worst quality at the longest end. Tamron and Tokina do lenses int here ranges as well.

The 70-200s

In a perfect world you’d own a long prime lens in 3-600 range and then a 70-200 for walking around getting different angles etc. It is the lens of choice for a mid range zoom for all surf photogs. For Canon you have two choices the f2.8 version in its many versions, they are good, sharp, you can stick a 1.4 or a 2x convertor on them and turn them into super zooms with little loss in quality. They are quite pricey, and quite bulky but are worth every penny. Canon also do a very good f4 version of the lens more or less half the price, sharp, and a lot more portable. This is an awesome lens, and at only £400 it is a very good all round zoom.

Nikon do the same excellent f2.8 version, it’s very good, shots below using various convertors, can’t go wrong with it, but pricey. Nikon though dropped the ball here and until this year have not done a f4 version (there is an older f4 version but it is slow and shit). Nikon do have a couple of older very good 80-210 lenses as well, autofocus not so fast but they are f2.8 and work fine. They also have the ultra portable 70-210 f4-5.6 D, it’s a push pull zoom from the last millennium, it has surprisingly fast autofocus and you can pick them up on ebay for under £100, I love it, and on a cost to shot selling ratio it is the best lens I have ever owned.

Sigma also do an excellent 70-200 f2.8, way cheaper than the two big names but a very good lens, I had one for a year and it worked good, did the job, and it’s definitely a good option. Tamron also make a decent version of this lens.

The 70-300s and the like.

Canon do a 70-300 f4-5.6 L series lens, I gave one of these a go just to demo and it looks like it could be an awesomely versatile lens, for the same price as the 100-400 I reckon it is better and for under the price of the 70-200 f2.8 it could be worth a look.

70-300s

I also used a canon 70-300 f4-5.6 non L  and it’s every bit as good as the L series sharpness and speed wise for almost £900 less. A good alternative to the Sigma mega zooms for sure. Nikon do a 70-300 f4.5-5.6 like the previously mentioned Canons it is image stabilised and has very good glass, I shot a US Open using this and from 70-250mm it’s an awesome lens, like a lot of zooms though you get close to the long end and the quality falls off a cliff. Both the canon and Nikon versions do a job, and could be a good alternative to the 70-200s if you want a little bit of length. Canon also do a 28-300 L series lens, it’s expensive!

The DX/APS-C cover everything zooms

If you have a full frame camera or an APS-H camera stop reading here. Both Canon and Nikon do these crazy zooms 18-200s and the like, they all come image stabilised, they are designed specifically for cropped sensors and are on the whole pretty darned cheap, so you’d expect shit right? Well Canon and Nikon have piled some serious R and D into these lenses and they carry a lot of good glass and tech in them that you would not expect.

DXzoom

Yes they often ship with entry level cameras but they should not be discounted. I just used a 18-200 f3.5- 5.6 lens in Iceland and shot a lot of action with it in bad light and got perfect results. These are decent lenses to start off with if you need a one lens does everything, they are good. I suspect as both the big companies made these well as they want you to get better than expected results and get you hooked so you make more purchases down the line, which is good.

To Summarise

If you have the cash – Buy lovely expensive primes
If you have some cash – Buy a 300mm f4, in either flavour they are good.
If you want a versatile set up – Buy a prime and and a 70-200
Superzooms – you get what you pay for be careful, remember zooms tend to fall apart in quality at their longest ends, which is often what you’re buying them for.
If you’re starting out – read the last two segments, there is an affordable and decent lens in there for you.

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