14 Surf & Wave Photography Tips You’ll Never Want to Forget

For some dramatic surf and wave photography, get into the action when the surf is up and the waves curl and crash, and shoot some surfers doing amazing things on their boards. To catch the best waves some photographer ride along with the surfer in a collaborative effort to shoot something fresh and special. The best surf and wave photographers always encourage weirdness and colour, whether it’s the surfer’s board shorts, their tattoos or crazy hair, the art that decorates the surfboard, or whatever quirky thing happens to be in the lineup – a floating seagull or anything that creates some diversity to spice up a mundane surf or beach. If you go down low, for example, you can make the wave in front of the surfer look enormous.

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1. Before You Begin to Shoot, Study the Light

Photographers are usually obsessed with light and study how it interacts with their subjects. With surf photography, there’s usually an abundance of light to work with, but before you line your shot up and begin, you should carefully examine that way the light hits the water. Look directly ahead, and focus critically on how the light bounces off the waves and the water’s surface. Then look left and right, and depending on what time of day it is, and where you are, you’ll see that in one direction, there’s probably a lot of light reflecting off the water, but in the other direction, there’s far less or even none. To get a good quality pic of the surfer, you’ll need to shoot at an angle from the shore, in the direction that has no (or very little) reflection.

2. Shoot in manual mode with a fast shutter speed

Surfing is by its nature fast and dynamic so it’s best to shoot in manual mode so you have total control over your camera. The best pics are those that stop the action dead in its tracks. If they’re sharp, the expression on the face of the surfer, or the surfboard spray will be much more dramatic. Of course, if you’re looking for a blurred or artistic effect then stay in a slower shutter speed, probably 1/640 or over.  

3. Use a long focal length lens

If you have the proper tools for any job it makes life much easier. For surf and wave photography, a lens with a 300mm to 400mm focal length makes a BIG difference. The results will be incredibly sharp and you’ll enjoy shooting with a longer focal length lens not only for surf and wave but wildlife photography. Sure, they’re expensive but very much worth it for the quality of the shot.

4. Keep your aperture in the mid-range

For an image of a surfer that’s super detailed and sharp, it’s wise to do some research and find the lens that’s going to provide the best sharpness and opt for an aperture set at mid-range if the light allows. A mid-range aperture gives more flexibility in the depth of field. Shooting with an aperture wide open narrows your depth of field, so your surfer could slide out of focus.

5. Keep ISO as low as it can go

Most photographers follow this advice all the time because the lower the ISO, the less noise you end up having to deal with in your picture. Working on a beach means there’s usually tons of light so your ISO can be as low as it can go.

6. Try a circular polarising filter

When taking photographs around reflective surfaces (remember light and water equals reflections) you can use a circular polarising filter for incredible results. Don’t use it on an overcast day though, because reflection is limited and the polarising filter will absorb a lot of light. A polarising filter is a great tool, and you can use the sky/clouds to test and adjust the polariser as well.

7. Don’t forget to expose for the skin

It’s challenging for surf photographers to find the perfect exposure setting. Most try to expose correctly for the skin. Use spot metering for surf shots, because evaluative metering can more often than not take into account the bright sky and waves so you will end up with a skewed exposure setting to the bright areas of the image, and the surfer or object of your focus ends up under-exposed. Exposing to the human skin means the background and the waves might come near to being ‘blown out’. Unless you mean to get a silhouette of the surfer, expose for the skin and make the person look right. Adjust other elements in post-production.

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8. Always apply the rules of composition

Don’t lose yourself in the dynamic images you’re creating. Photographs of the surf and waves have an amazing potential for looking fabulous, but there has to be a more deliberate intention if you want to move from good to great. Your composition has to balance the focus on the subject, and also the surrounding piers, waves, rock formations and beachgoers, for instance. If your surfer has a sail sticking out from the top of his head it’s an obvious mistake, so remember all the traditional rules of composition will absolutely still apply. Another thing, take into consideration the rule of thirds and be fully aware of the tension created when objects are awkwardly or too closely positioned at the edge of your photograph.

9. Maintain a level horizon

If the horizon will be in your shot, make sure the line is horizontal in the frame of your image. Photographers like to play around with that line for a funky or arty look so if your horizon line is anything but horizontal it should be intentional, not accidental and not overused.

10. It all depends on the location

Wave and surf photography will vary a great deal, depending upon the location. If you’re on Sydney’s Northern Beaches at Narrabeen, or up at Noosa, at Victoria’s Bells Beach or overseas at Hawaii where there are some iconic waves, they all offer a unique image. These images will differ from a beach where the waves are always flat, although every location will offer something different, depending on how imaginative, creative and good you are at finding opportunities for great photography..   

11. You’re telling a story

‘Every picture tells a story’, so the old saying goes. And ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. Both are true and what’s compelling is the story told in pictures. There are stories of crazy and beautiful wave formations or a stunningly executed surfing manoeuvre and at times, the most truthful moments of a story come from the calmest, most peaceful and natural moments.

12. Practice makes perfect

The learning curve applies to all artistic pursuits, including photography. It’s not as simple as going from learner to expert – it takes a lot of study, patience and persistence to climb up that curve and create some inspirational surf and wave images. There is something Zen about surfing, and also about capturing the split second grabs of time and activity that seems to defy gravity, so practice, practice, practice.

13. Think outside the box

Thinking outside the ‘box’ means getting an angle or image nobody else has been able to manage. If you’ve done your research, like most photographers do, and see the shots others have taken at all the best surfing places in the world, try to imagine something different. Start with that idea, whether you’re at home or travelling overseas, and look at the shot from your new perspective and try to mix it up. Try shooting from the water, rather than from the shoreline like everyone else is doing. Creating depth in your images, using piers or jetties, a varied coastline, beachgoers, surfers in the lineup, or the weather, adds more to the image. These aren’t always available, so you have to find a balance between the subject and the elements at hand. This will set your images apart from the mob, especially when everything comes together.

14. Hints and tips for post-processing

The quality of your images will be affected by the choice you make during the post-processing phase. Images straight from the camera are never complete. You need to make sure you know what causes the skin to look good at the same time as making waves and the rest look good. A lot of time is spent by photographers using brushes and masks on the surfer, e.g., and only the surfer, or the waves/landscape only. If that day on which you shoot doesn’t give you a fabulous sky, as an artist, you can swap a dull, overcast sky, with one that suits your vision for the shot. But if you do that, you should know that the issue is honesty and integrity, so never try to pass off an image with a replaced sky as a documentary photograph.

Author’s Bio

Alex Morrison has been an avid digital marketer for over 10 years. In this time he has worked with a range of businesses giving him an in-depth understanding of many different industries including health, travel and leisure.

As the owner of Integral Media he is now utilising his knowledge and experience with his rapidly increasing client portfolio to help them achieve their business goals.

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