Surfing is one of the most breathtaking adventure sports, bar none. Ever increasing waves, surfers coming down huge wave faces, unforgiving Mother Nature vs human: are literally works like gold mine for photographers.
Not to mention, the thrill of throwing yourself into a wave with a surfer while being able to freeze that magical moment…is really something.
However, shots that remain engraved in the minds of people are extremely rare. Not only it takes years to master this skill, but also you need to have physical endurance and eye for detail. So, there’s no doubt that taking that kind of photo is also an enormous challenge.
Being a high rewarding art from, the number of photographers interested in this area has increased rampantly. So, in this article, I’ll try to point out some tips and tricks that will come in handy to you, to take that unforgettable shot that every surfing photographer wishes for.
Let’s get started…
Follow the Rules of Composition
Good photos come from good composition. Take time to compose your view point and your frame. Always keep in mind that your frame needs to tell something - a story, a feeling, a moment of joy filled with adrenaline.
Although, you mustn’t get carried away by the initial thrill. It might result in overlooking the basics, like the ‘rule of thirds.’
By taking that into your consideration, you shouldn’t just put your subject in the middle of your frame. The focus on your subject isn’t paramount.
Try to establish a connection between your surfer and the surroundings, like…wave shapes, surfing style and rainbow of spray coming off the back of the wave. They’ll add a dramatic flair to your shot.
To be able to do that, try to place your surfer surfing into the frame from either the left- or right-hand side. It’ll give the viewers a clear perspective of what lies ahead of your surfer, whether it’s a mounting wave or multiple waves slowly eclipsing the setting sun.
However, if you feel strangled by these technicalities, remember that there’s nothing wrong with being experimental every now and then. But if you’re completely oblivious to the compositional rules, then it can be detrimental. Learn the rules first, then bend them.
Shutter speed priority
The most invigorating images tend to be the ones that truly stops the motion, as if time stood still to let you appreciate every single detail…from water particles, spray from a surfboard to the facial expression on a surfer’s face.
To achieve that, you can use the shutter speed priority (TV mode). This particular mode creates well-exposed photos and gives you the power to “stop or blur” motion.
Now, this function works perfectly well, especially if you’re shooting from water. The thing is, when you’re on water, you’re constantly dodging waves after waves and swimming into positions to get your desired shot.
With this shutter speed priority mode (half-manual/ half-automatic) selected, you’ll be able to concentrate on all the other variables. You don’t need to constantly focus on locking in the correct exposure in full manual for each shot.
When you’re on the water, you can’t just stay in one place, you’re always on the move. As a result, your lens will incessantly point in different directions.
Naturally, all these different directions will have different exposure values. In this shutter speed mode, your preferred aperture will swing up and down. Hence, you’ll get a well - exposed photo.
Moving on, setting your shutter speed according to the light is very important. If the sun is in mood, go up to 1/2000th of a second. If not, set it at 1/800th of a second or higher. This will freeze that action and give you a super sharp photo.
But if you’re shooting from land, you might want to use longer lenses. They work nicely with this high shutter speed mode. In this case, another great option is to go Full manual. Because, when you’re in land, you don’t have to constantly fight with the waves. So, you should be able to select all of your settings without any real hassle.
Let’s imagine that you want to stick to TV mode. If you want an additional safety net, you can always select auto ISO, but it’s best to set the ISO value by yourself to have that little bit of “extra control.”
Anticipate the Action
The sea is an unforgiving place. When you’re on water, photographing surfers in action, you need to be fully aware of what is happening around you before it happens. Get your five senses involved in each shot to capture every bit of emotion and energy.
Basically, it means that, you’ll be able to anticipate the situation more accurately. Professional surf photographer Pat Stacy emphasizes on paying attention to surf conditions. If you have surfing knowledge, it’ll be easier for you to anticipate where you should be, in terms of proximity and camera angle.
It’s not mandatory that to achieve a compelling composition, you must be a surfer yourself. It’s an advantage nonetheless. But if you can anticipate the action even before it happens, you can still make magic happen with your camera…without getting wet.
If you’re new to this area of photography, you would want to keep an eye out for the “pocket of the breaking wave.” Line up your composition according to that and you will get a nice angle, because a good surfer will never be too far from the pocket of the wave.
In short, pick a good vantage point, judge a surfer’s action and movement and ultimately, keep framing around the moving pocket of the waves…you’ll be in the right spot for those intense action moments.
Water-Drop-Free Lens Ports
“Shooting from water can be challenging and sometimes a bit frustrating,” says Charlie Blacker, a passionate nature photographer. Because one stray water drop can ruin the whole shot. So, it’s a bit difficult to get clear pictures when you’re in the water.
Yeah, it’s important to implement the appropriate methods to keep your port, drop-free. There are two different ways to do that, Wet port and Dry port. However, remember to keep flat ports dry. It can be done by lightly buffing the port with candle wax.
On the other hand, keep the dome port wet. It’s best done by using the spit-technique. Before you enter the water, make sure the port is free of dust particles. Then you have to spit and lick. Don’t worry! This technique is widely used by many photographers.
Carefully spread the spit all over the acrylic element. After that, let it semi-dry before entering the water. Just wait for five to ten minutes. This method works so much better that it might highly increase your chance of getting crystal clear photo.
Servo Focus and High-Speed Motor Drive
Surfing is a fast moving sport and focusing on fast moving subjects can be very tricky. So, it’s crucial that you set your camera up to be as responsive and accurate as possible.
Always use high-speed motor drive option, if you have it in your camera. The perfect moment will be easier to capture if you’ve taken multiple shots.
It’s better to take 100 photos and choose one than to take 20 and not being able to find one good shot at all. Take multiple shots. Have as many options as possible to choose from. Later on, delete the photos that you don’t like.
Another important thing is to have servo focus set. Because by default, your camera will probably use “one shot” focusing. In this option, you have to manually lock the focus by half-pressing the shutter button. The problem with this is that, your subject can move before you have chance to take the photo.
Instead, use Continuous Focusing (called AI servo on Cannon cameras) - this will track the moving subject by continually refocusing and keep them nice and sharp all the way through.
The focus tracking systems in the latest cameras are unbelievable. Keep your photography-arsenal updated and use all the technology you can in your advantage.
Light is photographer’s best friend. It’s also the hardest to master. In surf photography, you can use light for creating different effects, naturally. This type of photography requires working in extremely light intensive environments.
Which is why, it’s vital for you to understand how the light is interacting with the ocean and the surfer. Study the changing weather patterns carefully.
Keep track of several points…like: would your photos look boring if there are clouds in the sky, or whether the angle of the sun would cast harsh shadows on your subjects…would the photos be underexposed or overexposed…
Another challenge of surfing photography is, to be able to work with natural light and the high contrast between unbroken wave and water spray. Using manual settings will offer you more control and comfort in this matter, if you’re comfortable enough to do so.
Now, there are two possible outcomes when you’re shooting in manual mode. One, the shots might appear too bright. In that case, choose the lowest ISO and use a higher shutter speed. You also need to tweak the aperture to a higher setting. But be careful not to cross f/16, or the crispness of the image will be lost.
The second outcome is that, the pictures might come out too dark. If that’s the case, select the lowest aperture your camera is capable of and adjust the shutter speed to about 1/500th of a second. But don’t go any lower because it’ll be difficult for you to control the blur of the camera.
Remember, lower sun angles offer great opportunity for taking an eyegasmic shot. The sun kissing the horizon…your subject riding the flaming waves… silhouette of the surfer doing stunts against the boiling sun.
Go crazy with your camera! And don’t hesitate to shoot directly into the sun, use the backlight to your advantage. It’ll add more intensity to your photos.
Let’s not ignore the midday sun. It has its own perks. If you have a waterproof camera or water housing, then midday is a great time to go underwater and shoot surfers gliding through the waves from underneath.
At first, you might struggle with underwater surf photography. It requires you to have a compilation of fitness, confidence and technical skill. So, it’s okay if you find it hard to get it right in the beginning.
But, shooting surf in the line-up is not an impossible mission. Study and analyze the works by some of the world’s greatest photographers and keep practicing to fine tune your own style. Hopefully, you’ll find the sweet spot where you can bring everything into a perfect balance while shooting from underwater.
Having a drone is also an advantage. You will get to see what is happening from above, thus giving you a better perspective. Also, the top-down photos of surfer drawing white lines on the dark-blue surface of the ocean at noon are also great.
Expose for the skin
Working with bright lights can always cause difficulties. Especially when you’re at the beach, you’ll constantly have to work with bright sun light unless there is some clouds. This’ll cast harsh shadows that are very hard to fill in later.
So, the solution here is to expose correctly for the skin. It can be done by using spot metering. Simply use your subject’s skin as your metering point. To do that, choose spot metering option on your camera. It’s a small dot in a square.
By selecting it, you’ll be able to meter for just a small portion of the scene, which in this case is the skin. Set your metering point over the subject’s skin. While doing so, try to expose for the mid tones, not a highlight and obviously not a shadow.
If you’re wondering what would happen if you use evaluative metering… Well, this function doesn’t leave anything outside. It takes everything from the bright sky to the darker waves into its account.
As a result, your exposure settings will be through the roof regarding the bright parts of your image. Not to mention, your subject will be very under-exposed too.
On top of that, if you expose for the skin along with the sky, background and wave, then your shot will be washed out. As a surf photographer, you don’t want that. So, remember to use spot metering and expose for the skin.
Therefore, it’s highly recommended to use full manual mode, where you can control everything that is happening with your camera. Even if this doesn’t promise to deliver perfect photos every time you press the shutter, but the odds of getting a perfect photo will surely increase by a lot.
Foregrounds and backgrounds
A brilliant surfing photo isn’t necessarily a snap of a surfer performing a complex manoeuvre. It’s not enough to please the viewers these days. To really captivate the viewers, you have to create a meaningful story within your frame.
If you don’t pay attention to the foreground and the background elements of a scene, you will be missing out on stuffs when you will review the photos later on. By that time, it might be too late.
That’s why, the context matters. It can add a unique layer of meaning to your photo. Just make sure to bring the surroundings into your composition in a natural way. Everything counts, if you have the eye for it. The trees, the cliffs, the piers, the wondering clouds…pretty much anything can be used as a stunning context.
Also, keep yourself in check. Don’t get lost in the foregrounds or backgrounds more than you need to. Because, too much contrast between the foreground and the subject can be distracting.
It’s crucial to understand your goal while shooting surf photos, as well as having the knowledge to know what gears to use to achieve that very goal.
Back in the 2000s, pro surf photographers had a weak spot for massive 600mm lenses to capture compact action-packed photos, which was the trend in that time. This wasn’t possible with lenses that had lesser focal lengths.
By 2005, the necessity of having massive lenses grew weaker for action-packed photos were not the sole purpose of surf photography anymore. Instead, pulled back photos were becoming more and more popular.
Now, getting those intense adrenaline-filled photos with 400mm lenses is rather easy. Also, in this style of photography, you can bring in the foregrounds and the backgrounds to play…if you wish.
The crop sensor cameras like the Canon 7D, presents you with another advantage. With this, you can turn a 400mm lens into a 640mm. Where the half-frame cameras like the Olympus OM-DE-M10 Mark IV, can turn a 400mm into a whopping 800mm!
These gears don’t cost much. But, if you feel the need to spend big bucks, DO…provided that, you have the passion to commit to learning about photography on a higher level. Also, purchases like this, will only really need to be made once.
Use a Tripod
If there’s one item that helps in taking better shots, it’s the humble tripod. You might think that, image stabilization has come a long way…so is it really necessary to use that? Well, tripod brings stability to the camera and avoids even the slightest camera shake by the operator.
On the other hand, when you’re shooting using telephoto lenses, it can be very difficult to keep it steady. Their long focal length amplifies any sort of vibration caused by the wind, or by the photographer themselves. Try to use tripod…hopefully your photos’ quality will be much better.
Steady panning is absolutely vital in taking action photos. Tripod allows you to do that by making panning easier and more fluid. Here’s a tip: use a large elastic band on the arm of the tripod’s head. When you’re panning, pull on the band. It’ll reduce any jerkiness of movement and give you a satisfying result.
It’s always easier to make delicate changes to your framing, once your camera is mounted on the tripod. You can also get your camera into places you sometimes can’t. Many tripods have the ability to let you place the camera anywhere from just inches off the ground to way above eye level.
Now, it’s understandable that, you may find using tripods a bit of nuisance to carry around. In that case, consider a monopod. Just be careful not to get stuck in one spot only. Always keep moving to add variations and different flavors to your photos.
Create a Story
A beautiful surf photo isn’t necessarily always about the surfer in action. Sometimes, the truest moments of storytelling come from the most relaxed, natural, comfortable moments. Try to portray the surfer living his dream.
Be on the lookout for everything that can bring more closure to your composition. Make your shots more than just a shot of the surfer riding the waves…make it a story that has a purpose…a feeling. Establish a deep connection between your subject and the sea.
Every artistic pursuit comes in unsteady bursts of learning. You can become an amateur from a novice very easily…But to create magic with your camera, you need to become a master. Stay true to yourself and keep practicing with dedication.
Next time you hit the beach, try to remember these tips. Hopefully, they will help you to capture that perfect photo which will forever be engraved in the minds of a million.