It always takes time to really master any craft that you choose, and the same rings true for surf photography. I have spent countless hours in and out of the water over the years with the aim to improve my surfing pictures each time I enter the water. I find that no matter how much you think you know, there is always more to learn.
If you’re just getting started in surf photography or you’re fairly experienced and just looking to improve your techniques, this article has something for everyone. It contains and range of surf photography tips and techniques which will have you shooting like a pro in no time.
Understanding Your Equipment
Before we begin to get into the camera settings its worth discussing the type of equipment you will need. Just like camera lenses, different pieces of equipment have different uses. So if you have a particular type of surf picture you would like to take then this is worth noting.
It goes without saying that the camera is easily the most obvious piece of equipment that you will be needing. Unfortunately, there isn’t a go-to camera for surf photography, so it’s at your discretion which camera you decide to use. If the camera your using takes photos then your off to a good start but if you’re looking to purchase a new camera, I would personally aim for a camera which has a good focusing system and has a high frame rate per second.
Just like in any other genre of photography, the type of lens you choose to use is going to have an impact on the type of photos you come home with. When it comes to surf photography there are a few other decisions which may impact the lens you decide to shoot with on the day but I’ll talk about that a little later in the article.
Depending on if you are using zoom lenses or prime lenses, a wide angle can offer a great deal of versatility. A wide-angle lens can range from 15mm all the way up to 24mm. I like to shoot with Canon’s 16-35mm f/2.8 because the focal length gives me a little more range to play with when it’s in the housing.
A wide angle will allow you to take shots from in front of the barrel or shoulder of the wave as well as any underwater shots that you have in mind. I’m guessing that your thinking the wider the better right? If that’s the case, it’s worth noting that wider lenses will push your subject further away in order to fit more in the frame which means you will have to sit closer to your subject.
If you want to sit inside the barrel and get everything in the frame then the fisheye is your go-to lens. You will need to be about 3-4 meters away from your subject to really utilize these lenses full potential. In addition, they can also take some pretty nice underwater shots when the wave passes by.
Although they are bigger and a little more comparison to swim with, telephoto lenses are perfect for those long-range shots. Using a telephoto lens will also give you the ability to shoot a little more artistically.
The housing is one of two pieces of equipment that will ensure your camera stays dry when using it in the surf. The housing is what the body of your camera will sit in.
When deciding which housing to buy it’s worth paying close attention to the type of controls your housing will come with as these can vary from model to model. It’s important to understand this because once you are in the surf, you cannot pull your camera out to change the settings. Essentially you want to be able to control the exposure, aperture, and ISO while in the water as well as being able to zoom and move your focus point around.
The port is the second piece of equipment which goes together with the housing to keep your gear dry. The port will go over the lens and attach to the housing, sealing your equipment in. There are two main types of ports and each one will have a different use, so I’ve had listed them below to help you get your head around it.
Flat Port (Dry Port)
Probably one of the most common ports, this port is designed specifically for shooting above the water. Although it can take nice underwater shots its intended use was for above-surface shooting.
Dome Port (Wet Port)
The dome port is designed to be used below the surface or for obtaining those split shots (above and below). The dome port pushes that water further away from the front of your lens and this is what makes the above and below shots possible. It’s for this reason that it will also keep your images sharper while shooting underwater.
In a similar way to how a lens governs the type of shots you take, where you position yourself in the surf will have the same effect. Once you have an understanding of your equipment you will need to decide where you plan to position yourself when in the water.
I usually like to also analyze the size of the surf before making this decision. This will usually come down to how confident you are in the surf. For example, if it’s quite big and you aren’t that confident in big waves, I would probably avoid shooting with a fisheye.
Inside the Barrel
If you plan to shoot from inside the barrel with the surfer then you will need a fisheye lens with a dome port and that’s all there is to it. I recommend a lens in the range of 8-15mm.
From the Channel
If you are going to be shooting from the safety of the channel then you will be needing a telephoto lens and flat port to really zoom in on the action. In this case, I use Canon’s 70-200mm f/2.8.
In Front Of the Barrel
I like to refer to this location as being somewhere in between the channel and sitting inside the barrel. Sitting in this location, I find a wide angle or short range telephoto lens with a dry port to be the most effective. Anything from 16-70mm will do nicely.
For the best underwater results, I would probably lean towards using a wide angle lens, anything from 16-24mm or fisheye at about 8-15mm coupled with a dome port.
The type of conditions you will be shooting in and the amount of available light (Sunny, cloudy or time of day etc) will have a direct impact on the settings you use. It’s for this reason, I cannot give you an exact setting that will work in all conditions but I can give you a guide to the settings that I use when I’m trying to achieve a certain photo.
Sharp Image with Everything in Focus
Because waves move very quickly, it’s important to shoot with a very fast shutter speed if you want your image to be tack sharp. In this scenario, I would normally shoot with a shutter speed of 1000th- 1250thof a second. If you plan to keep everything in focus I would aim to use an aperture of no less than f/7.1.
In order to always achieve an evenly exposed image, I would set my ISO to auto. The reason we do this is because the amount of light can vary incredibly from when the wave is far away compared to when it is directly on top of you. If it’s a sunny day, I will often set my exposure compensation to minus 2/3 in order to protect the details and highlights in the white wash.
Creating Movement with an Image
In contrast to creating a sharp image, an image which conveys movement means that parts of the image will be blurred. When trying to achieve this shot it’s best to shoot somewhere in the range of 16-24mm while sitting as close as possible to your subject. Sitting far away from your subject will not only mean that your subject is moving slower but it will also mean you need to use an even slower shutter speed to create the same amount of movement and this can introduce addition camera shake, especially if your shooting with a telephoto lens. It’s for this reason that it’s best to sit as close to your subject as possible and use a shorter focal length.
Keeping all this in mind, if you plan to keep your subject in focus while showing movement in the background, then pan with your subject while taking the photo. If you aren’t using an ND filter, a shot like this will only work early in the morning or later in the afternoon when there isn’t much light around. You can really get some nice results shooting the back of the wave from underwater when it passes as there is often limited light beneath the surface to.
For the above-mentioned shots I would shoot with shutter somewhere in the range of 20th– 30th of a second and set aperture so as to keep the ISO as low as possible. Another alternative would be to set the camera to shutter priority (TV) using the above-mentioned shutter speeds which would allow your camera to automatically determine the aperture. Additionally, I would still recommend using auto ISO, as the camera will determine an aperture which keeps the ISO relatively low. For both of these scenarios, I would still recommend shooting with an exposure compensation of minus 2/3rd’s.
Shallow Depth of Field
Whether you are trying to isolate your subject, highlight some details or create that bokeh effect when shooting in the surf, a shallow depth of field can really make your images sing. Before I say it’s as easy setting your aperture to as low as it will go, it’s important for you to understand what factors actually affect your depth of field.
1. Your aperture
2. The distance from your subject
3. Your focal length
As an example, your depth of field will vary greatly if you have an aperture of f/2.8, your subject is 2-3 meters away and you are zoomed in to 200mm compared to if your subject if 30 meters away and your using the same aperture and focal length.
Keeping this in mind, I normally set my aperture somewhere in between f/2.8-f/4 as this can leave you with some really nice effects. Using a wider aperture will also mean that you have more light coming through your lens which gives you the opportunity to shoot with a much faster shutter speed. Set your shutter speed as desired and continue to use auto ISO.
Another important factor to take into consideration before sealing your housing and jumping in the water is the focusing system that you use.
For all lenses with the exception of a fisheye its best to use autofocus. The first thing you want to do is change your cameras setting from One Shot to AI Servo for Canon or AF-C for Nikon users. This means that your camera will continually focus on your subject as it gets closer to you.
Then you want to set up the focus parameters, I personally find the best results are achieved when using the center point with four surrounding assist points. I find this more beneficial than using a single focus point when in the water because the four assist points give your camera a greater area to focus on which in turn means that it will achieve focus faster. The last thing I would want is for a single focus point to miss my subject and focus on something else.
If you plan to shoot with a fisheye then it’s best to shoot with your focus setting on manual. Shooting with a fisheye means that you are always going to have to sit within a few meters of your subject in order to achieve the best results. To set your manual focus prior to placing it in the housing, stand 3 meters away from a wall or object then focus the camera. Once your camera achieves focus switch it from auto to manual and then place your camera in the housings. The reason for manual focusing is because your subject will move very quickly when shooting this close and you don’t want to miss a frame while your camera tries to find focus.
Removing water Droplets
When shooting with both flat and dome ports it’s important to understand the different techniques that are used to prevent water droplets from building up on the front of the port. The last thing you want when you get home is to discover that your shots aren’t sharp or there was a giant blob of water on your port which completely ruined your shot.
Dome Port (Wet Port)
When it comes to shooting with a dome port the best thing you can do to prevent water beads is using saliva from your mouth by spitting on the perspex and rubbing it all over with your tongue or finger. Once done, wash the saliva off and inspect the port to see if the water continues to bead off.
You may need to do this a few times before the water stops beading. The saliva from your mouth will create a very thin film of water over the port for you to shoot through. To keep the saliva on the dome port for as long as possible, try to keep it submerged beneath the water. You will need to repeat this process every five minutes or so throughout your time in the surf to prevent water beading.
Flat Ports (Dry Port)
To prevent water beads from forming on the front of your flat port its best to do some preparation before entering the water. Take a non-scented candle and draw eight or so lines on the perspex. Once done, take a micro fiber cloth and rub the wax in until it’s not visible anymore. When you enter the water try to keep the perspex that you just applied wax to above the water. This will ensure the wax remains on the port for as long as possible. Prior to taking a shot, make sure you shake the housing or blow any water droplets off the front of the port.
Before taking your expensive equipment in the water, it’s very important to make sure all your gear and equipment is insured. There are always a number of risks that are associated with taking your equipment in the surf, so it always pays to have it covered. I have heard too many stories in the past, from leaky housings to impact damages resulting in drowned cameras.
Insuring your gear means that you will be able to put yourself in harm’s way to get the shot and know that if something goes wrong your not going to be out of pocket at the end of the day. Personally, I would never enter the water without it!
I feel that surf photography is one of the best categories of photography to shoot because its so much fun and at times can really get your adrenaline going. If you follow this article and do it right, you’ll come home with some incredible imagery. But don’t forget to also think about safety, not only for yourself but for others around you when you’re in the water.
P.S. Some of the prints seen in the images above and many more are available for purchase through the online print store at Lonely Hunter.
About the author: Richard Johnston is an award-winning Australia-based freelance photographer who publishes under the name Lonely Hunter online. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Johnston’s work on his photo site, wedding photo site, Facebook, and Instagram. This article was also published here.