I remember when I first started surf photography, I used to endlessly google tips and advice in order to learn as much as I could. Now I would like to return the favour and offer up my advice to anyone who is keen to explore this magical world.
Know the Surf and the Ocean
This is probably the most beneficial piece of advice. Get to know your local surf spots and learn where to swim out and where to sit in the lineup: observe the water and the surfers and try to be fluid with them. The ocean is such a unique subject that is always changing, the more you learn about it the better your work will become. You can’t expect the shots to just appear in front of your eyes. You need to be able to swim into the position you want and anticipate what’s about to unfold. If you want a closer shot, get closer! Knowing your limits is very important. The sea doesn’t consider how experienced or fit you are in the water , so if you feel the conditions are too big or challenging, don’t swim out.
When I first started started photography I was using a very basic housing on which I couldn’t adjust the settings. I’ve actually only recently upgraded. The best gear in the world is not important when starting out. All you need is the basics and you can grow from that. If you are not ready to invest in a proper water housing, then using a gopro or even an iphone in a smaller housing is a good way to get started. Currently, I am using a Nikon d750 in a LiquidEye water housing. There are so many good camera bodies out there it’s hard to recommend any particular one. Lenses, however, are where you can really mix up and create variety in your surf photography. I typically use:
50mm f1.8 - This lens is a workhorse and should be a part of any surf photographer’s kit, and it’s pretty cheap too! 50mm can offer many different shots in one session. It’s wide enough to sit fairly close to surfers and breaking waves to produce dynamic action shots, and similarly suits taking more drawn-back scenic shots.
85mm 1.8 - Despite being renowned for portraiture, I believe this lens holds its own in the water. I often use it when the conditions are big and I want to get tight action shots. It really allows you to compress the subject and I love using it to create strong contrast between a wave and a moody sky in the background.
15mm Fisheye - I don’t use fisheye too often as it plays a very specific role. If you are looking at getting those ‘in the barrel’ shots then a fisheye lens is key. You need to get as deep as possible in the barrel to achieve the desired effect. I also use this lens for all of my underwater work and for ‘half over half under’ shots.
There are many different ways you can set up your camera for surf photography. When starting out it’s always good to remember the following:
Use a high shutter speed, 1/1000 or faster. This ensures action shots are sharp and crisp.
Use shutter priority mode. It’s often hard to change settings in the water, and seldom possible with budget housings. Using shutter priority and setting the shutter speed fast will often result in your shots being keepers.
A small aperture of around f11 will result in most of the shot in focus. A large aperture of f2.8 will create a more abstract shot, with a shallower depth of field.
If you can’t change your ISO in the water, set it before to 400 if the conditions are varied or gloomy. If its super bright and staying that way then you can get away with using 100 or 200.
Here are some tips I have picked up on over the past few years:
If you are shooting with a flat port, use candle wax to make sure you don’t get water spots. Before heading out, rub a small amount of regular candle wax onto the front of the port and buffer with a cloth until it seems to have disappeared. This works for me 95% of the time.
On the flip side, if you are using a dome port you want water to be sticking to the dome. Sounds gross, but spitting on the dome and rubbing it around the port creates a thin layer that makes water stick. You may attract some funny looks, but your shots will benefit!
Focusing….often a tricky thing to grasp in surf photography. If I’m using regular lenses like 50mm, I often use 3d tracking. I will lock focus onto the wave or surfer and follow it whilst shooting. Your camera will most likely have a similar setting. If using a fisheye over water, I manually focus to around 3 feet. If under water I manually focus to 1ft roughly, as the camera focuses on a virtual image created by the dome as opposed to focusing on the actual subject (this always confuses me). If I want to shoot both above and under the water in the same session, I will opt for autofocus which has surprised me with good results.
Play around with shutter speeds to create unique and abstract shots. Going down to around 1/10 1/20 etc will open up a new world of surf photography. Experiment with speed blurs and using slow shutters to emphasise motion. I often use this method when the light is dimming and doesn’t allow for a fast shutter.
Shoot in interesting light. This is my main priority in my photography. If the light is dynamic then my shots are 100% more interesting. I will always aim to shoot at sunrise and sunset. If the sky is stormy, then perfect!
Use exposure compensation to underexpose by a 1/3 or 2/3 of a stop. Your camera will often overexpose due to the bright white water and sky. This technique can help preserve those highlights.
Practice, practice, practice. For every 500 shots I take in the water I’m usually only stoked with around 3-10 of them. The more you get out there and shoot the more likely you are to get the results you want.
I hope this helped! Remember, the most important thing is enjoying the moment and having fun with surf photography. Once you pick it up it’s hard to ever stop.
Don’t hesitate to get in touch via email or social media if you have any questions :)