Surf Photography Guide for Beginners


So, surf photography interests you but you just don’t know where to start. What equipment to get and what to watch out for are all issues I would like to touch on.

  • Shooting from Land

We all see these guys standing on the beach with their monster lenses, snapping away at 10 fps when the waves are good. Not all of us can invest that much money on our gear. Realistically speaking you really don’t need that fancy 600 mm lens. Sure, it helps, but you don’t need that to get started. Stop focusing on equipment and just take photos, I really can’t stress this enough.

My Gear

I shoot with the Canon 100-400 mm lens currently when shooting surf photography from the beach or pier. I find this more that adequate for great closeup shots. The quality is great and you can pick these lenses up at a decent price second hand. Any telephoto lens can get you started with shooting from the beach. Rather get out there and shoot people surfing than worrying about better gear etc. Your gear doesn’t make you a photographer, your eye and your photos do.

Capturing a Moment

Always when shooting, you have to remember, you are showing a whole story in one image. Make sure to capture the right moment. While shooting surf photography, you need to consider that shooting a surfer going straight on a fading wave probably isn’t a great shot. Pay attention, anticipate what the surfer will be doing, you want to catch that huge turn or that massive air. You want to show movement, water spraying or some slight motion blur. If you are shooting surfers getting barreled, you need to be able to see them. Yes, this seems obvious, but even photos I have snapped, I sometimes lose visuals of that surfer. It essentially becomes just a picture of a wave. Personally I find the best tube shots have a bit of angle on, this is easy if you have a pier or point you can stand on and shoot down the barrel.Surf Photography Cameras

  • Shooting from the Water

Action Cameras

You have decided that you want to be in the action and shoot from the water. Here things get a little more complex, but there are still alternatives. Since small action cameras were introduced, it has opened up the game of surf photography to just about anyone interested. I have seen some phenomenal pictures coming from people who shoot on nothing but their GoPros. The only thing you may want to add your action camera is some sort of trigger handle. This will give you a better way to hold the camera rather than fumbling with the small form factor. You can also pair your GoPro/action camera with a dome port to get those epic under over shots.

DSLR and Housing

Maybe you don’t want to use a GoPro. Maybe you are progressing from a GoPro and getting more serious with Surf Photography. The next step would then be, assuming you have a DSLR camera, to get a good waterproof housing to encase your camera for use in water. I currently use an SPL A-Series Housing, but there are a whole host of housing manufacturers. You have more choices than ever before with great brands like Aquatec, Salty Surfhousings, Essex, and Dave Kolbitech just to name a few. The biggest thing you want to check is that your camera fits the housing you buy. Make sure to get the options you require, generally you can get a base housing with no access to cameras buttons. With this arrangement, If you set your camera up wrong and head out, you will be swimming in again to sort out the problems. Not ideal when surf is so fickle, you need to be out there shooting when the waves turn on.

Lenses for Surf Photography

When shooting DSLR in a housing you need to consider the lens you are likely to use.

Wide Lenses

A fisheye or wide angle lens is great for closeup action shots. They are a great way to give that feeling of being right in the barrel. Wide enough to show lots of detail in the wave, there are, however, a few disadvantages. These days you often get that ‘gopro’ look which you may not want, with a wide angle lens you need to be really close to your subject to get that great shot. I only suggest this if you are really comfortable in water, and are aware of surfers movements and abilities. When shooting wide, expect to get ridden into or hit by a boards or surfers from time to time. With a wide angle lens, you will want a dome port for best results.

Standard to Telephoto Lenses

A great alternate perspective is to use something like a 30 or 50 mm lens. Perhaps even step up to a telephoto lens like the 70-200 mm. This allows you to sit outside the main impact zone and get some great shots from a lesser used perspective. You will need a flat port for these lenses and need to consider which port size will be suited for the size of your lens. If you want the ability to zoom your lens while swimming you will need to ensure it has zoom ring functionality.

Propulsion aka Fins

Once in the water, unless you are shooting a really shallow shore break, you will have to have a good comfortable set of swim fins. You can have a look at my swim fin review over here Surf photography from the water is not for the lazy, you will need to be very fit and confident in the water in all conditions. You will often have to position yourself right in the impact zone. Knowing full well you will take a few waves on your head while trying to nail that perfect shot. Being a surfer certainly helps as this assists you in knowing where a surfer is likely to be, and where you will be able to get that great closeup turn, air or barrel shot.

Shoot shoot shoot, you only improve with practice.



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