Our blog starts on a Sunday morning at 4 am (photography can be a cruel beast), with my phone alarm blaring. I wake up with a sense of excitement for the day ahead and after a quick surf check, I head along with a few of the CameraPro crew in tow to one of the several beautiful beach locations we are blessed within Australia.
After a day of sun, surf (and seafood), we put together this blog in the hope that it can help you on your own journey with surf photography on land, or even out amongst the waves. We couldn’t thank our wonderful partners AquaTech and Canon enough for helping us put this blog together. Surf's up!
Like landscape photography, conditions can make or break the outcome of your images, so it’s important to do your research to give yourself the best chance possible to capture something you are proud of. If you are planning to enter the water, you also have to factor in the amount of risk involved - as without proper planning, situations can turn very dangerous.
Monitor popular weather/surf forecast websites and apps such as Swellnet and Windy (remember to check days in advance as well as the morning before, because Mother Nature can change in an instant!)
The hours after sunrise and before sunset (commonly known as Golden Hour) provide beautiful lighting for your subjects, whether that be surfers or the landscape. A quick Google search can provide you with times to aim for!
You don’t need to be a meteorologist to understand Mother Nature and its effect on photography, but understanding the direction of light during the hours of your planned shoot is a huge plus! As a general rule, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Experiment with front and back lighting and see what works best for you.
If you are just starting out and want to venture into the water, just make sure the location is undaunting and not heavily populated. This can help you learn more about your gear and build up your comfort levels.
Even if the location can seem flat, watch out for any strong currents or rips that can occur. If you notice yourself being pulled around without control out there, head in. It is not weak to bail on a spot.
Just remember - Weeks of research can come undone in a simple visual check of your location upon arrival, so keep in mind a backup location (or several!). In producing this blog, we encountered this issue first-hand when we arrived to unsuitable and unsafe surf conditions. We were lucky that just around the bend we were greeted with a much more desirable scenario!
For this article, we were lucky enough to be provided with some great gear by two of our wonderful partners, AquaTech and Canon. We made a single request on behalf of our customers - that the gear that they were providing be attainable and affordable for photographers starting their journey, but also considered and well rounded for photographers who have various levels of experience.
The solution we came up with is a culmination of the level of care and understanding that both of these brands have for their client base, and the team at CameraPro was very appreciative of their efforts.
One underwater housing unit - AquaTech Base Housing (Includes Pistol Grip, P-65 Lens Port & Instructions)
Shooting from the shore is the most accessible way to get into surf photography and can be a great place to start! Without the limitations that can come from trying to manoeuvre yourself around the water to get to your spots, you can often achieve epic shots that are only limited by your creativity. Locations with submerged rocks or headlands can be a huge advantage when it comes to vantage points (just be conscious of safety hazards).
When shooting from the shore, we recommend using tele to super tele lenses to give you as much reach as possible to access your subjects without hindrance.
Shooting from the water
Shooting in water is certainly a rush like no other. Everything unfolds very quickly, so you have to be aware of your surroundings at all times to ensure your own, and other surf-goers' safety. Don’t expect results to come straight away when starting out, as it can take years of practice to get consistent results.
Huge factors influencing on your images are the location you have picked and the surf on the day. Try not to be discouraged as most of the time this is out of your control. What you can control is your safety in the water, and that is paramount. When shooting in the water, we couldn’t go past the fun and the results of using wide angle lenses with the AquaTech dome port. The trade-off with using wide angle lenses is your proximity to your subject has to be tight to get consistent results, so ensure your ability to locate the best position to achieve this without being in the wave of danger.
I could honestly dedicate this whole blog to writing about shooting from the water, but there are other many other important points to cover, so I would highly recommend researching some of the other great references online covering this subject.
Camera & Lens Tips
For a beach shoot, it is an absolute must to be using a tele or super-tele lens to get the most out of your desired location. A majority of image taking will be with focal lengths of 100mm+, so if you are serious about your craft and if you haven’t done so already, now is the time to look at investing in one of the plethora of options within that lens category. Pairing this with a camera body that has ease of use and a great autofocus system can be a huge advantage. For the beach location shoot, we picked the ultra versatile 6D Mark II.
Our team of photographers found the following worked best when taking photos of surfers from the shore.
Study the light before you start shooting (watch for glare and distracting elements, backlighting and front lighting)
Middle of the road apertures (f5.6-f11) give you the ability to get your subject in focus consistently, without missing any of the action!
Set your camera in TV or AV mode with a fast shutter speed (aim for 1/1000th of a second) to freeze the action and get sharp images
Create some visually interesting effects by shooting past objects in the foreground
Monopods can be very handy for longer shoots with bigger lenses
With its own unique set of challenges, surf photography can be intimidating at first. If you are new to surf photography and are not confident swimmer - take it slow. Our photographers were armed with fins and a wetsuit to keep them warm and give them the best chance to succeed on the day.
Our team of photographers found the following worked best when taking photos of surfers from the water:
A wide angle lens can add a sense of ‘depth’ and points of interest to your images
It can be difficult to move around and get your spots so bring a pair of fins with you to assist with this
It can be intimidating to focus lenses while battling with the waves, so to start with try manually focusing your lens to a distance you feel comfortable with
Partner manual focusing with a narrow aperture of f11 or lower so you give yourself a wider margin of error in your depth of field
Keep your shutter speed high to prevent blurry shots, but with your aperture set at f11 your shutter speed should be forced to remain fast
If you choose manual focus as your preferred method, shoot on continuous shooting mode - but we found single shot mode had a higher chance of success with the autofocus drive when using autofocus!
Make sure the lens port of your housing is clean and free of water spots - we found the best method was to dunk the housing and keep it under water until the moment you bring the camera to your eye to shoot
Purchase a wrist strap. Especially during bigger surf days, a few extra dollars can save you a lot of heartache
Aim to shoot in RAW to help with highlight and shadow adjustment in the editing room
Spot metering and exposing for the skin tones worked well as our metering method
With the results on the day, we found it best to take alongside a buddy to shoot with and be a subject on the day. Definitely bonus points if they are a surfer, bodyboarder (or even a hand planer!). The action in the water is exhilarating, so it was good to slow down and have someone alongside you to build up your comfort with the housing and the conditions.
Experimentation is key when it comes to surf photography, and that was no more evident than when shooting for this blog! Given we were on a limit for the shoot itself, this forced us to try several different shoots and locations. It was helpful to take a break and brainstorm before heading back out. So if things are not working out for you, don't be afraid to try something different!
The Importance of Inspiration
To hone your craft, I have cultivated a list below of five Australian surf and underwater photographers that inspire us here at CameraPro in a variety of different ways. Each of these photographers is unique in their experimentation, so we hope there is someone for everyone to enjoy and give you ideas of your own!
Time vanishes quickly when you are out there in the water. Before we knew it, our time was up and we headed into shore for the final time. As we drove home that golden afternoon it gave us a chance to reflect on our own processes and techniques, which have helped us shape our blog. Ultimately we understand your efforts don’t stop there; as professional photographers will all tell you, the actual image taking might only be a fraction of the process, but when that process is doing what you love out in the sun and the water, how could you really go wrong?
We hope that you have enjoyed reading this blog as much as we enjoyed putting it all together, and now you've got the basics - get out there and give it a go! We’d love to see your surfing images so feel free to send them through!
Written by Jackson Seebohm
Images by Alexander Wootten, Robert Mynard, Louise Wright & Jackson Seebohm