The Ultimate Tips for Surf Photography with a DSLR / Mirrorless Camera 2023
Start taking exciting surf images with the following basic advice on focus, settings, and camera equipment.
There's something to be said for locking oneself into a barrel with a surfer, slowing time, and capturing that perfect moment on camera while riding a breaking wave and trying not to drown at the same time. Surf photography definitely is a difficult art form that needs not just technical expertise, but also physical endurance and a thorough comprehension of the environment both in and out of the sea. When it comes to engaging with a surfer, timing is important.
Here are five pointers to help you get started on the right foot.
1) First and foremost, safety.
Although it isn't a specific camera method, a striving surf photographer's safety and grasp of their surroundings are important assets. We've seen it time and time again: first-time surf photographers getting seriously injured or nearly drowning after crashing into the waves, eager to test out their new gear.
When out in the lineup, be careful of rip currents, shallow sandbars, and a strong undertow, to name a few things. I would strongly advise beginning in smaller waves to gain a feel for the weight of your new setup in the water as well as what you can and cannot do in the ocean.
Like this image above, some of our favourite surf shots were taken in beautiful glassy conditions with only a foot or two of wave height. It's not a bad idea to start modest and get to know your gear before trying to go large right away.
Another important aspect of becoming a surf photographer is being a good swimmer. If you want to get into bigger surf photography or photographing and working with surfers in the sea, you'll need to be an accomplished ocean swimmer. I defiantly suggest using a decent set of fins when shooting, it makes a massive difference!
Mastering surf photography takes time! Only skilled surf photographers can select where to compose themselves in a barreling wave as a surfer is coming at you in the blink of an eye. The only way to improve is to get out there and shoot.
2) Set it and forget it is the second tip.
People new to surf photography frequently ask us what camera settings they should use, particularly when photographing shore break. Our go-to / standard piece of advice, which I still follow is to "set it and forget it".
Set your shutter to 1/1000 of a second in shutter priority mode (or "TV mode"), your ISO to Auto, and your exposure correction down 2/3rds of a stop (see tip #4).
Especially after sunrise and before dusk, this setting is likely to produce outstanding results. With this setup, we have produced some of seriously impressive photographs.
Trying to figure out settings in the ocean while trying to capture the beauty of a curling wave is one of the most perplexing things a newcomer to the sport will face. As a novice, this basic setting keeps things fun until you feel confident and want to try various techniques of shooting in the water. Do not try to run before you can crawl, enjoy the learning phase of surf photography.
3) Hyper Focus is the third tip.
"Where do I set my focus?" is another frequent question we receive all the time.
Starting with a wide-angle lens, is strongly recommended. The rationale for this is because once you've found the exact location where everything is in focus, you can simply switch the lens to manual. A pro tip is to lock it down using painters tape to ensure that it stays exactly where you set it. Then you're set to go for the rest of the session and don't have to worry about staying focused.
This hyper focusing technique can only be used at these broader angles of vision. Any focal distance greater than 20mm, produces a false impression of focus and is better suited to auto focusing.
3 feet is the magic hyper focus distance. It has previously worked for us and continues to do so now. Obviously, if you shoot at a higher Fstop (like F11), you'll get a deeper depth of field than if you shoot at f2.8.
4) What is the procedure for adjusting the hyperfocal distance?
To begin, set your camera to Aperture priority mode (also known as "AV mode") and the aperture to f7.1. On crop sensor and full frame cameras, this is an excellent aperture for capturing surf photographs.
Take a 3 foot measurement from a large object and place the camera at that exact distance. Then I take a picture and zoom close to make sure everything is in focus and to my satisfaction. If everything looks good, you can then simply tape it down. You may test your focus on any detailed object, with a lot of information in the highlights and shadows, so it will give you a good idea of how crisp your image is.
When you use hyper focusing instead of autofocus, your camera will be able to shoot faster and with less focus delay. It removes the confusion of focussing first and then fire for a novice and adds to the fun part of why you wanted to get into surf photography in the first place.
5) Compensation for Exposure
In tip 2, we briefly mentioned exposure compensation. When shooting directly into the sun, lowering your exposure compensation by 2/3rd of a stop or even a full stop works wonders! It helps you capture a less blown-out image by retaining more detail. And if you're shooting underwater the amount of shadow and highlight recovery you can get with this simple approach is incredible. Dropping your "expo comp" can also help you raise your Fstop, especially in low-light situations like the early morning before the sun rises. Because of the decrease, you may need to shoot at f4 with a shutter speed of 1/1000 instead of f2.8.
6) Use a Reliable Surf Housing
Make sure you choose a proper surf housing and be sure to properly water test it before your first use. In the water, water damage to your camera is the last thing you want on your mind. Take a look at the GDome XL Surf Edition housing if you are looking for an affordable surf housing.