Surf Photography with the EOS-1DX Mark II

July 05, 2017

This article was originally published on May 23rd, 2016 and has been updated to include current information.

I am a staff photographer for Surfer Magazine, and it allows me to travel the world, chasing swells.  I do not generally cover surf competitions as much as just finding the best waves that the world has to offer.

My specialty is in-the-water photography, utilizing an SPL Waterhousing and Canon cameras with a variety of different lenses, from the 8-15mm fisheye to the 70-200mm long lens, which are all accommodated into a custom-made port for each one.

I am currently using the Canon EOS-1D X as my primary camera when shooting in the water — relying on the camera’s 12 frames per second to get me that exact perfect moment of action as the waves break and the surfer flies by.  I generally use the Autofocus to shoot with my lenses, as my subjects are constantly moving and I am tracking as they approach me.  I use Al Servo AF when shooting in the water for this very reason.

I am enjoying the use of the new 4K video features of the EOS-1D X Mark II, and have been working on getting frame grabs with it as well as smooth 4K clips.  It has been absolutely amazing and very impressive; and especially easy for someone like me who has never used video before.  The ease of use and having the controls all very central and accessible have made it not as intimidating for someone that is primarily a stills shooter.  The low light capabilities have been mind blowing; I cannot believe how well it handles at high ISO.  Several times upon viewing the image on my computer, I had to look back at the metadata to see what the ISO really was because of how well it handled and how very little noise there actually was.

The low light capabilities are most impressive, and I could get very high and actually was able to push my ISO.  I shot in the dark one morning before sunrise; there were many people on shore wondering what was I doing in the pitch black. I pushed it to 51,200 ISO just to try it and it was amazing how well it held together what the camera was able to see.

With my 1DX, I don’t usually push past ISO 1000 unless I really have to.  With the new 1DX Mark II, I feel comfortable pushing well past that point.  One example:  I shot in the middle of the night in the waves using a Profoto B1 flash in a specially made housing to light up the surfer, at ISO 32,000 — it was incredible. By doing so I was able to expose for the buildings in the distance as well as keep my proper exposure with the light for the action in my foreground.

I have been using the EOS-1D X for the past month and a half and have been shooting with it around Hawaii for sunrises and sunsets, pushing the settings in various directions. 

I’ve found that the new 1DX Mark II works well with the all-new Canon 35mm f/1.4 version II lens.  There is amazing clarity, and its quick focus was impressive.  I have been looking for clean, clear water with complicated backgrounds to see how well the Mark II camera works with the focus points and exposure.  The new AF features and constant focus point illumination allow me to worry more about the composure of the image than about camera settings, and that’s a big help when a moment arises.

I shoot RAW images only to insure the best file and color when editing.  I have been using Canon Digital Photo Professional to edit my RAW images. It’s easy and seamless to use, and it gave me compatibility with the new RAW files from the EOS-1D X Mark II as well.

The big and important change with the EOS-1D X Mark II is the full-time red illumination of the AF points in the viewfinder.  It makes it a lot easier to see the active AF point at a glance, and makes it easier to compose my images.  For me, this was a much needed change and a great added upgrade.

This was my first experience with shooting video and I loved the beauty and clarity of the 4K video on the new 1DX Mark II. The ease of switching to video mode with a single control, and pressing the button to start and stop recording, was very nice for someone like me who is just getting used to the video function.  It makes it easy to switch over very quickly.

A note about exposure:  I typically set the exposure for the daylight surfing images on the sun or slightly over what it reads within the barrel of a the wave if it’s backlighted.  This is so that when there is a surfer, I can have the surfer exposed properly and he is not in the shadows too much.

The new EOS-1D X Mark II was what just what I thought it would be.  Everything about it was elevated and taken to several levels above its predecessor.  In the industry that I work in, one always needs to stay ahead with any edge you can get, so having the latest camera with the best quality and the option to switch to the gorgeous 4K video as desired is that next edge!

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