There are many reasons for wanting to take better surf photos. For most of us it’s all about preserving magic moments, so we never forget our adventures. That’s not to say that the best shots won’t get posted on social networks purely to make friends, strangers (and enemies) envious. Some budding surf photographers might have their sights set on getting published, or selling photos on stock image websites. Some might be learning so that they can capture their significant other doing what he or she loves, i.e. surfing. There are no bad reasons to improve your photography skills and a little bit of investment and effort can result in shots you’ll be proud to print on canvas and hang in your living room for all to see.
Table of Contents
Capturing the perfect surf photo is part luck, part skill, part persistence and part technology. Without all of these elements you’ll struggle to consistently take professional-looking surf photos. But you don’t have to master all of these elements before you can venture out there and get your pixels dirty. Getting a few of the basics right will mean that your chances of taking quality photos are greatly improved. After that, it’s all down to how much you practice and whether you get bitten by the photography bug.
Let’s get started on your photography journey by looking at the most important piece of the puzzle: your camera.
Cameras for surf photography
For excellent results you’ll need a solid piece of equipment. This generally means purchasing a DSLR, which has the ability to snap more than 4 frames in a second. The more frames your camera can capture every second, the more opportunities you have for getting the shot. This is imperative for action sports, where both the subject and the background are moving – often at high speed. Blurry images suck, unless you get skilled enough to capture intentional motion blurs… but that kind of thing is for another day. For now, we want sharp detail!
The benefit (and drawback) of a DSLR camera is that you need accessories. First on the list is a decent lens. For surf photography you’ll want a lens that zooms to at least 200mm. This will enable you to take relatively close-up images, especially if you’re shooting shore break action, or from a boat. Your ideal lens for surf photography is going to be closer to 500mm, enabling you to capture the facial expressions of your subjects as they grimace their way through top turns.
So you need a camera that can be attached to a zoom lens, which leads me to…
How to choose a camera
Despite what some camera store salesmen might tell you, don’t worry too much about megapixels. Any camera with 15 megapixels or more will be perfectly fine. What you need to prioritise is shutter speed (frames per second) and glass (photographer-speak for lenses).
The most well known DSLR brands are Canon and Nikon. Both offer extensive camera ranges that start with absolute beginner models and culminate in beasts suited for professionals only. If you’ve never handled a proper camera before, then you’d be best off starting at the low end.
When it comes to cameras the longer model numbers are usually the cheaper, simpler models. The Canon 1D is for pros, the 1300D is for beginners. The Nikon D3300 is for beginners, the D5 is for pros. There are a few exceptions to this rule, just to keep you confused.
But don’t feel limited to the “big two” brands – there are also amazing DSLR cameras on offer from Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, amongst others. Some of the world’s best surf photographers, like Chris Burkard, shoot exclusively on Sony.
Choosing your camera body is a huge decision. Once you’ve picked your brand you’re going to be using only lenses compatible with your brand’s particular lens mount. You can’t simply chuck a Canon lens on a Nikon camera (although it is technically possible using an adaptor, but the quality of your images may suffer). Many enthusiasts pick Canon because the company offers a wide range of cheap lenses, covering every conceivable photographic need. If you chose Sony, for example, you’re locked into a smaller brand’s ecosystem, with somewhat less choice. But if you only need one or two lenses then this shouldn’t bother you. Instead you can think about weight and camera dimensions.
Camera build quality
The cheapest DSLR cameras are made of plastic. As a surf photographer, your camera is going to get bashed around. It will fall into the sand. Your friends will treat it with less love than you do, especially when its their turn behind the lens. You may even drop it into a bowl of Mi Goreng (I did).
Salt water is not a friend to cameras either. This is why you might want to consider a more expensive body that is comprised of magnesium alloy (or metal and plastic blends), rather than plain old plastic. At the higher end, cameras like the Canon 7D are weatherproof, meaning they can handle more than a few inadvertent splashes and thundershowers.
Of course, it’s all down to your budget. If you look after your camera, even a plastic model should last you many years. I travelled the world with a Canon Rebel T2i (an old, sub $1000 model), took photos that were published in international travel magazines, and had no problems whatsoever.
My recommendation for an enthusiast is the Canon 70D, which has rugged construction, 7 frames per second shutter speed, awesome video capability, and is considerably lighter than some of the big boys with similar specs.
If you must start cheap, get yourself a second hand DSLR. Something with an 15 megapixel sensor and 4 or 5 frames per second shutter speed will be cool. Just do a bit of research into your lens options before you commit to a particular system (brand).
How many lenses do you need?
Two should suffice if you’re after optimal quality, but if you want ease-of-use you can get away with one. I’ll explain…
There are lenses out there that can zoom out to a wide angle, allowing shots of landscapes, then zoom right in on specific objects. These lenses are great if you only want to travel with one “all-purpose” piece of glass. The trade-off, of course, is quality.
To use a surfing metaphor, if you’re going on a worldwide surf trip you could take one “all-purpose” surfboard. Something like a 6’2″ thruster that will be ok on smaller days, great in head high conditions, and sketchy but useable when things get big. This board will keep you in the water, but there will be times when you’ll wish for the right equipment for the conditions. Wouldn’t it be better to have a little 5’4″ quad for beach breaks, a 5’11” hybrid for hollow Bali waves and a 6’6″ gun for when things get critical? Of course it would!
Same with photography. A zoom lens that covers ultra wide angle through to mega close up will sacrifice quality. But if convenience is what you need then it’s a worthwhile trade-off. Just don’t expect your images to be as sharp or rich as those taken through more specialised glass. When it comes to getting published, photo editors magnify photographs to pixel level to assess clarity. But if you’re not worried about publishing your photos in print then an all-purpose lens is great!
My recommendation for professional-looking shots is two lenses. One that covers a good wide angle focal range (example 18-55mm) and one exclusively for action shots (70-200mm is a good start). I’m not going to go into aperture settings for now but, basically, the more expensive lenses often allow more light through them, meaning faster functionality and better performance in a range of lighting conditions. Professional lenses are more likely to be weatherproof, have faster focus mechanisms and image stabilisation, which is an awesome thing.
Prime lenses confuse many beginners because they don’t zoom. They have only one focal length. This often translates to excellent performance (less moving parts) but also means that you’re going to have to move yourself around to get the perfect shot. If you were to get a 500mm prime lens you would be able to snap pretty excellent action shots.
Kit lenses and other Brands
When you buy a new DSLR you’ll often find a lens or two are included in the price. “Awesome!” you’ll think – but awesome it often isn’t. The kit lenses that come with many entry level cameras are basic and more suited to capturing family holidays than action sports. Placed in the hands of an inexperienced operator, this results in many sad photographs and disillusioned people quitting photography in frustration. Simply owning a nice camera doesn’t mean you’ll create great shots.
If you know what you want to capture (you do: surfing!) then you can take a more strategic approach to lens purchase. For example Canon have a range of “L” lenses, which are their professional, best quality models. They are regarded with great reverence for their ability to get the shot. I’d much rather be walking around with a cheap DSLR and a great lens than the other way around.
So consider buying a cheap body by itself (will be cheaper than a package with kit lenses) and then seek out a second hand “L” lens or similar that is perfect for surf photography. The Canon 70-200mm F4 lens is amazing. You can also purchase a 2x extender, which turns it into a 140-400mm zoom.
You don’t have to buy lenses from the company who manufactured your camera. There are specialist lens manufacturers like Sigma and Tamron who build excellent lenses, often significantly cheaper than the brand versions. You’ll also discover some really innovative products like the Tamron 16-300mm, which is about as versatile as a zoom lens can get.
Choosing your lens is very much about budget. If you’re shooting in bright daylight and use a tripod, you’ll get great images perhaps even with the kit lenses. So you can start there and upgrade when you require more sharpness and performance.
Autofocus and image stabilisation are essentials. If you go and buy old second hand manual focus lenses you’ll have lots of fun – but you will need to persevere.
Travelling with a DSLR camera
The thought of travelling with a hand luggage full of expensive lenses, as well as a heavy camera body, is enough to deter many potential photography enthusiasts. It’s certainly not easy and does give you a whole lot more to worry about from a security perspective.
But when you’re sitting on some tropical island listening to the whir of your camera capturing perfect waves with crystal clarity, your effort is quickly repaid.
The challenge is getting your gear to the island in one piece. Having a suitable camera bag plays a large part in ensuring this. Your standard camera bag options are no good for surf trips where you may be walking long distances, especially while carrying a board, wetsuit and who knows what else.
My recommendation is that you get a backpack like the Lowepro Fastpack 350. Firstly, this doesn’t look like a camera bag. It’s understated enough to look like any old rucksack you’d take on a trip. Secondly, it’s big enough to fit your usual hand luggage or excursion items, including a laptop. Thirdly, it is weather sealed and super padded, so you can rest assured your gear is protected. Fourth – you carry it on your back, not hanging over a shoulder, where it begs to be grabbed by the local opportunist.
The other thing I love about this backpack is that you can unzip the side for fast access to your camera. I went for a walk in the Himalayas and having quick access to the camera meant many magic moments were captured. You simply release your right shoulder, allow the bag to sling around to the left, unzip and snap. It’s also way more discreet than putting a normal camera bag down somewhere, unzipping, then extracting your $2000 device for all to watch. I remember seeing people’s faces drop when they realised that in this dishevelled traveller’s rucksack lurked such a fancy camera. But it was zipped up and gone before they had time to say cheese.
What else will you need?
A tripod is recommended if you’re going to be spending long periods of time shooting at the transient canvas that is the ocean. This is especially true if you’re mainly shooting friends or a loved one and don’t want to capture every surfer on every wave.
If you plan to shoot video then a monopod is a great investment as they allow fluid movement in a range of directions.
Camera cleaning accessories are a must-have. You’ll need a nice camera cloth (don’t use t-shirts, sunglass cloths, kitchen towels, etc). A dust blower, lens pen and some cleaning solution are also recommended. Search Youtube for camera cleaning tips and care for your camera!
Lens filter. This is a definite. Once your lens is scratched there’s no going back. So you screw a little lens filter over the top and protect it. The simplest filter to get is a UV filter. Look at the diameter of your lens (not the focal distance – the actual width of the lens) and buy a UV filter that fits. You’ll always see the correct diameter printed in text somewhere around the lens glass. You can get creative with other filters later.
Memory cards. SD cards are probably what you will be using. Look at the little numbers (called “Levels”) on the packaging and choose the highest you can find. Level 10 is great because it can write data to the card faster than a Level 1. This is especially important if you plan to shoot video.
5 Tips for Shooting Great Surf Photos
Shoot mostly in bright sunlight, especially while you’re using your camera’s automatic settings. Tricky light situations occur when shooting into the rising sun if you’re on the East Coast and into the sunset on the west coast. However, when you tweak your settings manually you’ll catch the most magical photos at dawn and dusk (also called “golden hour”).
Use a fast shutter speed – 1/1000 of a second is great! Faster is better if you want to catch the moment without blur. You can use a setting called Shutter Priority Mode on your camera, which means you set a speed and the camera figures out all of the other details. On Nikon cameras you turn the top dial to “S” and on Canon cameras you turn it to “Tv”. Then use the LCD screen and associated control buttons to select your shutter speed. On many cameras you can set shutter speed simply by turning a control wheel near the shutter button.
Use a tripod.
Move around – don’t just sit in one position. You’ll often find that a different angle brings creative opportunities you wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. Experiment also with the camera settings. Full auto setting will most likely leave you sad. Sports mode (on entry-level DSLRs) is generally acceptable, especially on bright, sunny days. Clouds make things a bit more tricky.
Use sunscreen, wear a cap, look after your eyes. You don’t have to stare constantly through the viewfinder with one eye closed. Take a break, stretch and watch the action away from the camera. If you’re set up on a tripod it will be easy to get quickly back into position. You can also try looking down the barrel while keeping both eyes open. Your brain will eventually ignore input from the non-viewfinder eye. It’s a little easier and you’ll avoid getting massive crow’s feet around one eye.
Take care of yourself – the beach is a corrosive environment and it will take its toll on both you and your equipment. But if you love what you’re doing, then time spent there will be worthwhile.