Capturing great surf shots starts with the advice you'd get for any sport: know what to expect so you'll be able to anticipate the action.
The thing is, you can't ever count on the behavior of the next wave, so with the sport of surfing the scales are tipped toward the unpredictable. There are, however, ways to level things off a bit.
"Any photographer who does the research and keeps practicing is going to pick up any sport," says pro photographer and surfer Jay Watson. "But there's an inside culture to surfing, and knowing and getting to be friends with surfers gives you better access to better surfers, and you're going to get better photos."
If that kind of access isn't immediately available to you, not to worry. We all start somewhere, and if your start is at a local beach shooting amateurs or beginners, make the most of that opportunity to develop your skills and to network. "There are always good guys around," Jay says, "and if you share your images with them, they'll likely tell you about other surfers." Plus the local beach might offer an advantage when it comes to shooting positions. Jay shoots a lot of competitive surfing events and good vantage points can be hard to come by. "It's best if I can shoot parallel to a wave that's breaking, and I'll set up anywhere—the beach, docks, jetties, cliffs, and sometimes I'll be in a boat."
A word about safety here: it should always be your first consideration. On the beach, pier or jetty, stay aware of what's going on around you; don't bury yourself in the viewfinder. If you're just starting out, it makes sense to shoot from the pier, the beach or the bluff until seriousness, skills and the right circumstances suggest it might be time for a boat ride. If you've hired a boat or a jet ski, it's the pilot's job to keep you out of danger and out of the way of the surfers. The professionals who provide these services are experts; as Jay says, "I'm not going to grab my next door neighbor and ask him to take me out there." In all cases, the bottom line is that the idea of surf photography is great images, not great risk. Besides, Jay says, "Get in the way of a surfer and the least that's going to happen is you're not going to be welcome to come back."
Any photographer who does the research and keeps practicing is going to pick up any sport...but there's an inside culture to surfing, and knowing and getting to be friends with surfers gives you better access to better surfers, and you're going to get better photos.
Key elements of surfing photography
If you can get parallel to the wave right where it's breaking and shoot over the top of the surfers, you've got a great spot. With, say, a 70-200mm zoom, "It's a lens a lot of photographers have in their kits," Jay says, you can shoot from a pier or a jetty and the surfer is going to be big in the frame. Sometimes you can even get a bit of the back of the wave. "The challenge is finding a spot that gives you a lot of options," Jay says. "The surfers will come into the beach on an angle, and you'll get the best pictures if you've found a spot where you can cover where they're going."
If the surfer isn't sharp, the picture isn't good, simple as that. Like other sports, the success of the shot is judged by the sharpness of the subject. "I do a lot of testing of lenses and focus modes, and I'll most often use dynamic area autofocus, set to the camera's 51 focus points, and continuous tracking."
As you might expect, Jay favors continuous high speed advance to achieve high frame rates, but he thinks in terms of capturing chunks of action, not ribbons of images. "I try not to just ‘spray and pray’ because I don't want to end up spending a lot of time at the computer because all I did was hold down the shutter release. I think about frames per second in terms of getting into a rhythm to catch a good chunk of the action in front of me."
"If you want to be a better photographer, in any field, learn to shoot sports," Jay says. "Shooting sports teaches you to know all the ins and outs of your camera and how to quickly operate the functions, the buttons and menus." In a nutshell: stuff's happening; don't be fumbling with camera settings.
"A good tip is to make sure your subject is bigger in the frame than one of the camera's focus points in the viewfinder," Jay says. "If the surfer, in motion out on the water, isn't any bigger than one of those points, you're too far away. You need to get closer or get a longer zoom. I always like to have a couple of focus [points] fitting on the surfer—that'll give me some overlap of focus points, and that's especially important if I'm shooting from a boat. The boat's moving, the surfer's moving, I'm moving—I need every advantage."
Jay most often sets his cameras for shutter priority, then makes test exposures and checks the histogram to make sure he isn't clipping the whitewater's highlights. If he is, he'll set -1/3 exposure compensation as a starting point and, if need be, keep going until the whitewater is no longer clipped. "You want detail in the whitewater," he says, "so always rely on the histogram [rather than] the image on the LCD screen for exposure."
Just starting out? It's a cool idea to check out some surfing magazines to see what's being done. "Surfer and Surfer's Journal have great photography," Jay says. "You can get ideas for pictures and learn about camera positions, vantage points, framing, lighting and proximity to subjects. A photographer doing any sport needs to find out how that sport translates itself to photography."
Jay doesn't use an underwater housing or a skylight or UV filter, just common sense when it comes to keeping his cameras and lenses in the game. He's not overprotective, but takes "reasonable caution and care" to keeping the cameras and lenses clear of salt water. It's obvious, but we'll say it anyway: splashing water is a signal to pay attention to what's going on with the gear.
You'll see from Jay's photos that he likes to vary his coverage. He'll take the camera away from the water from time to time for shots of shadows, silhouettes and boards on the beach.
"Those kinds of shots round out the coverage, and give people a greater feel for what the sport, the culture and the lifestyle's like. You definitely want the atmosphere, the ritual, the details—they're all part of the story."