Surf photography is quite similar to actually learning how to surf. While it may seem daunting to begin with, once you get the hang of it, you’re in for the ride of your life. Like all sports photography, it’s about capturing that amazing moment in a split second. However, there is another element you have to deal with – the ocean. Its unpredictability can make it rather difficult to plan ahead, but can result in awe-inspiring shots you never thought you could capture.
Photographed with Nikon D7100 and AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4D IF-ED at 300mm, ISO 100, f/4, 1/200 seconds
Photographed with Nikon D850 and AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR at 500mm, ISO 400, f/8, 1/1000 seconds
Firstly, there’s the question of staying dry or getting wet. This is really up to you, but for the purpose of this article, we will focus on staying dry to avoid getting into the intricacies and details of aqua photography.
The first thing to look at is your equipment.
As you’ll be shooting from afar, it is essential that you select a powerful telephoto lens. Something with a focal length of 300 mm or 400 mm will give you a greater advantage. The next item of course, is a sturdy tripod. As you’ll be shooting object in the distance, avoiding camera shake is paramount. Finally, anything that can protect you and the camera from the elements is a huge plus. Remember that sea water is more corrosive than fresh water, so be sure to take extra precautions near the sea.
Now that you’re in the right place, you need to adjust your shutter speed. As surfing is incredibly fast, you’ll need to adjust your shutter speed so you can keep up with all the action. You will want a shutter speed that will allow you catch the movement of the surfer, along with the spray and texture of the water. To do this, try to stay about 1/640 or above. Obviously, this isn’t a strict rule. If you’re seeking a nice blurred effect, you will have to go down. Experiment to find what works well for you.
While it’s easy to get lost in the heat of the moment, the rules of composition still apply. Remember not to neglect simple composition techniques, such as the rule of thirds. While your environment and subject will automatically yield an exciting and dynamic picture, it’s important to properly frame the shot in order to give the whole composition a sense of balance.
Be aware of the horizon at all times and try to keep it level. Keeping the horizon level helps to give context and guides the viewer’s eye over the image. In the same vein, rules were made to be broken, so feel free to experiment and discover new techniques while you’re on a shoot.
Finally, as we’re talking about surf photography, it’s important that you know how to time your shot. Waves mostly come in sets, with surfers often waiting for the biggest wave of the set to catch. Be ready and waiting when the next set comes in and anticipate their actions.
Another tip is to take notice of the way the wave breaks. If the wave has a longer break on the left, then the surfer will most be surfing down the line to the left. This way, you can prepare your shot in advance. Remember that you’ve only got a small window to capture your shot, so do the best you can to follow your subject as they catch and ride the wave.