When it comes to surfing photography, I am no Brian Bielmann. I’ve never even been on a surfboard, even though I have lived in San Diego for nearly 20 years.
However, many of us have friends or family who surf and it would be nice to capture a picture of them that doesn’t resemble a dark speck in a vast ocean. With these photographers in mind, I set out to the ocean one morning to see what it takes to capture something acceptable.
Get at close as possible
The closer you can get to the action, the more the subject will fill your viewfinder. This means the subject (surfer) will be made up of many more pixels in the image, so it can be blown up or cropped without becoming pixelated.
As ocean surf often breaks quite a distance from the shore, it can be a challenge to get close enough. A pier is ideal in that it goes out into the water, while offering a firm base from which to shoot. I went to Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach to shoot for this article.
Use a big lens
A 300mm zoom lens on a APS-C or DX sensor will give you plenty of reach. On my full frame DSLR, I used a 150mm – 600mm zoom lens.
Support your camera
I’ve been able to hand-hold a big lens for short periods when shooting with fast shutter speeds, but it gets tiring. On the pier, I could use my tripod to support my camera. I also used a gimbal tripod head attachment that allowed me to swing the camera around to follow the action, while holding my camera steady. Gimbal heads are great for wildlife and sports photography. If you use a big lens on a tripod, you can turn off image stabilization on the lens, if it has it. On some lenses, this can make your image sharper.
Shoot with fast shutter speeds
You will need to use a fast shutter speed to capture the action and freeze the water, I was shooting at around 1/1000 of a second, which meant I had to raise the ISO slightly, even though it was a bright day. I mostly shot with the aperture wide upon to let in as much light as possible.
Shoot fast continuous shooting
If you can see it in the viewfinder you’ve missed it, so put your camera in fast repeat shooting mode and try to anticipate action with a burst of pictures. You may need to shoot jpeg, so as not to bog the camera down by filling the buffer memory.
Set your camera to continuous focusing (AF-Servo or AF-C) so that the camera keeps the moving surfer in focus and use an expanded number of focus points (I used 9 points) to keep the focus on the surfer. You can try focus tracking (3D tracking) if your camera has the feature.
Shoot faces not butts
When it comes to the composition, wait for surfers to be facing you rather than turned away from you. Generally, it’s better to photograph faces than butts.
Keep backgrounds simple
Unless it helps your composition, you can leave the horizon out of the shot. Show the surfer surrounded by the boiling waves for a more dramatic shot. In San Diego, we don’t often get big waves, so this also helps emphasize the height of the waves.
Look for interesting wave shapes
It’s nice when the surfer is striking an athletic pose, but the shape of the waves and spray can add a lot to the picture. When a surfer carves a turn, the water sprays up behind the board in an interesting way.
Get the light behind you
When shooting from a pier, hopefully the action will be north of the pier, so that the light is behind you and the surfers don’t appear as silhouettes.
Lastly, take a lot of pictures! The action happens fast and not every picture will be a keeper.
I liked this one for the shape of the wave around the surfer. The pose also looks dramatic, even though he got dumped into the spin cycle about half a second after the shot.
This one I liked simply because it was sharp and clean and showed the surfer's face.
This one I liked because of the water droplets splashing around the surfer and the front of the board raising out of the water. I was also impressed by his ability to sport a sharp hairstyle while surfing!
I like this one because of the way the carving turn was caught in the water by the fast shutter speed.