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Mastering Surf Photography: Top Tips for Beginners

In the world of photography, one genre that bridges the gap between extreme sports and pure aesthetic appreciation is surf photography. The vivid portrayal of surfers’ exhilarating rides and the rampant raw beauty of the ocean waves create an unparalleled spectacle for the viewer. However, capturing this spectacle demands more than just pointing your camera at the waves. It calls for a comprehensive understanding of the camera settings, intimate knowledge of the ocean, skilled use and maintenance of equipment, as well as a strong grasp of composition and editing directives. This discourse aims to shed light on these critical aspects that will facilitate the transformation of an enthusiast into an accomplished surf photographer.

Understanding Camera Settings

Understanding Camera Settings for Surf Photography

Understanding the basic functioning of your camera is essential to capture the perfect moments that surfing offers. It’s important to know about shutter speed, ISO, white balance, and aperture, and how you can manipulate these settings to improve image quality. Below are some essential surf photography tips focusing on these elements:

Understanding Shutter Speed

The shutter speed is a critical setting in action photography. It controls how long the camera’s shutter is open and affects how motion is captured in your photos.

For capturing quick movements, such as a surfer riding a wave, you’ll need a faster shutter speed (like 1/1000th of a second) to freeze the action. Try beginning with a shutter speed around 1/500th of a second and then adjust according to the surfing speeds and light conditions.

Understanding ISO

ISO controls the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor to light. A lower ISO setting (like 100 or 200) means less sensitivity and results in finer grain with more detail. A higher ISO setting (like 800, 1600, or higher), makes your camera more sensitive to light, helpful in darker conditions but it adds more grain, or noise, to your photos.

For surf photography, use the lowest ISO setting possible to keep noise to a minimum. If you’re shooting in bright, sunny conditions, an ISO of 100 should suffice. In darker or overcast conditions, you may need to bump this up to 200, 400, or higher.

Understanding White Balance

White balance is a setting that ensures the colors in your photos look natural regardless of the color temperature of the light source.

For surf photography, in daylight situations, set your white balance to ‘daylight’ or ‘sunny.’ If it’s cloudy, set it to ‘cloudy’ to warm your shots slightly. In post-processing, you can also tweak the white balance to add specific color tones to your photographs.

Understanding Aperture

Aperture controls the size of the hole in the lens through which light enters the camera. A large aperture (f/2.8, f/4) lets in more light but results in a shallow depth of field, focusing on a small part of the scene. A small aperture (f/11, f/16) lets in less light but increases the depth of field, keeping more of the scene in focus.

For action shots like surf photography, it is better to have a larger depth of field. Hence, lean towards a smaller aperture like f/8, although you can adjust this based on your specific creative vision.


By learning and understanding these crucial camera settings, you can enhance your surf photography significantly. Remember, these are just starting points. Feel free to experiment with various settings to capture the best surf photographs in different lighting conditions and scenarios. The beauty of digital photography is that you can take plenty of shots to test different settings, and see the results immediately, providing an ongoing, instant learning experience.

A surfer riding a wave at sunset with a yellow and pink sky in the background

Photo by ivntsa on Unsplash

Surfing and Ocean Knowledge

Understanding Surfing Patterns

Understanding surfing patterns is crucial for surf photography. Photographing surfers requires knowing beforehand which waves the surfer might choose and their likely path on it. The most experienced surfers will often ride the bigger and more complicated waves, which can make for compelling photographs.

Observe surfers in the ocean to predict patterns and movements. Learn how surfers approach waves, how they paddle into the wave, stand, turn, and ride. By understanding these patterns, you can anticipate the actions of the surfer and be prepared to capture the most exciting moments.

Knowledge of Tides

Understanding the tides is vital in surf photography. High tides can bring larger waves, which can make for stunning visuals. However, low tide can reveal features of the ocean floor that create unique breaking patterns.

Taking note of the tide times is crucial. Tide times can vary from beach to beach, even in the same region.

You can use apps or online tide charts to help keep track of tide times in your area. It’s best to shoot at low tide, which usually occurs early in the morning or late in the afternoon, to capture the most dynamic and visually interesting conditions.

Ocean Safety Knowledge

Ocean safety is paramount in surf photography. Strong currents, tides, and waves can pose immense risks.

If you are shooting from within the water, it is vital to be a confident swimmer and to be familiar with the beach’s safety protocols. It might be necessary to wear a wetsuit, depending on the water temperature, and to use a flotation device for this type of shooting.

Knowing how to read a beach’s signage is an essential part of ocean safety, as is staying aware of local marine life and weather conditions. If you’re ever uncertain, talk to local lifeguards who can provide you with invaluable local knowledge.

Knowing the Best Times to Shoot

Dawn and dusk tend to be the best times for surf photography. This is when light is most dynamic, creating deep shadows and vivid colors in your photos. However, at these times, there might be fewer surfers in the water.

The middle of the day can also yield good results. The overhead sun can illuminate the colors in breaking waves, creating a satisfying contrast with the white foam.

Understanding Surfers’ Movements

Observing and understanding surfers’ movements can drastically enhance your surf photography. Look for the moment when the surfer springs up from their board, known as the “pop up,” or when they neatly turn the board, drawing lines along the wave.

Memorable shots often capture the interaction between the surfer, their board, and the wave. Patiently wait for the right moments, such as a surfer riding in the barrel or when they make a dramatic wipeout.


Remember, the more you understand about surfing, the ocean, and safety, the better your surf photography will be. Patience and practice are the keys to improving your skills. Use these tips as a guide to learn and improve your surf photography.

A person stands on a beach with their camera and looks out over the ocean towards a group of surfers in the water.

Equipment and Maintenance

Essential Equipment for Surf Photography
  • Camera: The most important tool for a surf photographer. There is a diverse range of cameras from DSLRs, mirrorless cameras and action cameras like GoPro which are all suitable for surf photography based on your preference, need and budget. High-end cameras like the Canon EOS 1DX Mark II or Nikon D5 could be your choice if you plan to go pro.
  • Water and Surf Housings: To protect your camera from harsh salt water and pressure, you’ll need a waterproof camera housing. Your choice of housing should ideally provide full control of the camera, be robust, and buoyant in water. Brands such as Aquatech, SPL and Sea & Sea offer water and surf housings for a variety of cameras.
  • Lenses: Lenses can significantly influence the quality and perspective of your surf images. A wide-angle lens (e.g., 16-35mm) is great for up-close action shots in the surf. Telephoto lenses (e.g., 70-200mm) are perfect for getting close-up shots from the shore.
  • Tripod: A steady tripod is essential for capturing sharp photos, particularly if you’re shooting from the beach using a telephoto lens.
  • GoPro and Mounts: If you prefer to be in the middle of the action, a waterproof action camera like GoPro with various mounting options (e.g., board mount, mouth mount, or pole mount) could be a great choice.
  • Drone: Drones can provide a unique perspective to your surf photography. Just make sure to follow local regulations when flying drones.
Maintaining and Protecting Your Equipment
  • Cleaning Gear After Exposure to Salt Water: After a surf photography session, rinse your equipment thoroughly with fresh water to remove salt which is corrosive and can cause damage over time. This includes your waterproof housing, mounts, and any other gear that has been exposed to salt water.
  • Preventing and Cleaning Sand and Dirt: Be cautious when changing lenses or memory cards to avoid sand or dirt getting onto the sensor or into the camera. Use a dust blower or brush to remove any sand or dirt that has made its way onto your camera or lens.
  • Regular Inspection and Repair: Over time, housings and equipment can show signs of wear, particularly with frequent use in harsh conditions. Regularly inspect seals and replace them if they start to show any signs of wear.
  • Storage: When not in use, store your gear in a dry and clean case to protect it from humidity, dust, and accidental bumps or drops. You can use silica gel packs to keep your equipment dry.

A person standing on a beach, holding a camera with a long lens attached, looking out to sea. A drone is hovering in the sky and there is a surfer riding a wave in the distance.

Photo by paipai90 on Unsplash

Composition and Editing

Understanding Surf Photography Composition

Capturing the perfect surf photo, filled with action and atmosphere, requires understanding a few essentials about composition. Here’s how to frame your surfer, position waves and utilize lighting effectively.

  • Framing the Surfer: Framing your subject is essential. To create a powerful shot, use the rule of thirds. Divide your frame in thirds both vertically and horizontally and position the surfer or the action at any of these intersections.
  • Wave Positioning: The positioning of waves plays a significant role in determining the effect of the photograph. Try to include the wave in the foreground to signify the surfer’s challenge/action or place the wave in the background to focus on the surfer’s skill. Don’t just focus on the surfer; incorporate the power of the waves into your shots.
  • Utilize Lighting: Early morning and late afternoon often provide the best light for surf photography. These times offer softer, more dramatic lighting. However, remember bright midday sun can cast harsh shadows, but it can also create dynamic and contrasted images. You can also back-lit waves to create a silhouetted effect.
Post-Processing and Editing Surf Photos

After you’ve captured the perfect wave and surfer, your job isn’t finished. Enhancing and cropping your images during the post-processing phase can take your shots from good to great. Here are a few editing techniques that can significantly improve surf photography:

  1. RAW Format: Shoot your photos in RAW format. You’ll have a much broader range of colors and light to work with when you edit the images afterwards.
  2. Correction and Enhancement: Use editing software like Lightroom or Photoshop to correct exposure, contrast, and color temperature. Aim to bring out the rich blues and greens of the ocean and the bright colors of the surfboard or wetsuit.
  3. Crop if Necessary: Take advantage of cropping to improve the composition of your photo. If the surfer is too far off to one side, you might crop the image so they’re positioned according to the rule of thirds.
  4. Sharpen the Images: Surfing photos look great when they’re sharp and detailed. Use sharpening tools in your editing software to make waves appear crisp and to highlight every droplet of spray, but avoid over-sharpening as it can degrade image quality.
  5. Use Filters Sparingly: While filters can enhance some photos, they should be used sparingly in surf photography. You don’t want an over-processed look that masks the natural beauty of the surfing scene.

Remember, post-processing is there to enhance a good image, not to salvage a bad one. So, make sure you invest time in understanding the basics of photography and your specific equipment first. Happy shooting!

A surf photographer captures a surfer riding a big wave with the sun setting over the ocean in the background.

Above all, remember that surf photography, like all art forms, is a continuous journey of learning and evolution. As you grow more comfortable and adept at manipulating your equipment, reading the ocean, and perfecting your composition, your unique creative voice will start rising above the thundering waves. So, go forth, make mistakes, learn, and always push the boundaries of your creativity. By doing so, you will not only evolve as a killer surf photographer but also contribute to the ever-growing and breathtaking field of surf photography, one brilliant wave at a time.

Originally posted 2023-06-17 01:30:24.

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