A surfer performing a maneuver on a beautiful wave is always a photographic inspiration. Every wave is different and every surfer has his or her own unique style. As a photographer, the elements of surfing make it both enjoyable and exciting to capture.
You don't need to be a surfer to enjoy being a surf photographer and take great images. But there are things you need to know to get started. Understanding the kinds of surf maneuvers to capture is number one. There are off-the-lips, floaters, cut backs, barrels, bottom turns, snaps, and nose rides among others. Knowing the best moments of action is crucial.
Being ready and reacting quickly to capture surfers' maneuvers is one of the most important aspects of surf photography. If you don't know what you should capture, you might not get the best photos. If you don't anticipate what's coming, you could miss some great shots.
When surfers start gathering speed, pay attention. This means they're setting up a maneuver. Start shooting just before they perform a trick and continue shooting a few frames after. Professional surf photographer, Larry "Flame" Moore, says he captures the action by "getting the shot before the moment of peak action and the shot right afterward."
If you're not already a surfer or if you don't have any introduction to the sport (but still want to capture the action), I suggest viewing surf photos taken by the pros. It's a great way to take note of the kinds of moments and maneuvers by surfers that are best captured. A poor photographer can make even a good surfer look bad at the wrong moments.
Use a Telephoto Lens
A telephoto lens is a must for shooting surfing. Not only will it allow you to actually get close enough to your subject, the look of compression a telephoto lens achieves is excellent for surfing. I recommend having at least a 200mm lens. Surfing is about action, so you'll want your images to make an impact.
A long lens better captures the action and gives photos a more intense feel. Another good option lens is a 100-400mm because it will allow you to capture a surfers entire wave as they ride closer toward you. Moving up though, a 500 or 600 mm lens is absolutely ideal for surfing.
I also recommend using a monopod. A monopod allows you freedom to move around and get the right angle, while not having the hold the bulk of weight from the lens for long periods of time. On a side note, if you go into video mode on your DSLR, then a tripod with a good video head for panning would be a good option too.
Have a Fast Camera
Waves can be long, but surf moves are quick. A fast camera is the only way to ensure that you're getting the kind of images you want. A Canon 5D MKII or III or a Canon 7D are excellent choices for shooting action like surfing. Set your camera to burst mode and don't be afraid to hold the shutter down at the opportune times. I've hesitated with holding the shutter for too long but then later looked at my images and realized there were pockets of action I missed because of my hesitation. It's better to delete photos than it is to kick yourself for missing a shot.
There are so many ways to photograph surfing, but one thing is constant. Great images only happen when you get creative.
Shoot from different angles and vantage points. Walk up and down the beach, stand on a pier, move closer or further from the waterline, go on top of a cliff. Aim to create a well-rounded set of photos.
There are several different kinds of surf breaks you should be aware of. Each will have different ways you can go about shooting.
Point breaks are long waves that break off a point of land. Surfers drop in far from your lens and end up much closer when they pull out. For this kind of break the longest lens you have (or can get) will be the best option. Start out by standing down the beach near the end of the wave. This way you can get a good perspective of surfers riding toward you at about a 45 degree angle. After you get to know the spot from this view, move up the beach and shoot the surfers as they surf away from you. Remember to look for anything you can include in the shot like a bird flying by, people walking along the beach, etc.
Beach breaks are waves that break very close to shore. Surfers get much shorter rides than a point break. You'll still want a telephoto lens for this break, but it doesn't need to be as long as say, a 500mm. Most beach breaks only give a surfer enough time to perform a couple maneuvers, you'll need to think extra fast to capture the action. Be prepared to swing your camera around to your left and right because waves at a beach break come in as different peaks and surfers will be spread out to find their own little wave. What's great about this is that you can stand in one spot, pivot your camera, and get completely different perspectives.
Reef breaks are common to tropical places. Reefs that surround an island have waves that break so far from shore you need a boat to get there. One of the most dangerous reef breaks in the world is Teahupo'o, and is only accessible by boat. Photographers like to show the surreal setting by framing the boats in the foreground of these massive waves.
It's best to be well aware of the type of wave you're about to shoot. That way you can determine the kind of equipment you'll use, think about safety precautions, and have a rough plan of composition before you shoot.
Get in the Water
Swimming into the lineup with a water housing gives you an awesome perspective. Some of the best shots from the water have the surfer riding straight towards the camera - either in the barrel or throwing spray to the lens.
Of course, the first thing you'll need is a water housing for your camera. Protective gear such as a wetsuit, fins, and a helmet is also a must. But the most important thing about shooting surfing from the water is that you know your limits. Only shoot from the water if you are highly experienced dealing with the ocean.
If you're ready for the challenge, make sure you give surfers their space. Watch a surfer's movements ahead of time to predict what they will do. Good surfers will sometimes even give you a shot by performing a move right in front of your lens. Experiment with different angles, such as holding the camera as high as you can or swimming underwater and shooting through the wave (need clear water for this) or shooting perpendicular to the surfer (as opposed to being in the path of the wave).
Time of Day and Conditions
I'm sure you already know this, but early morning and late afternoon are the best times for taking photos. When it comes to surf photography, these golden hours of the day are pure magic. It also happens to be the time surfers like best, too.
Remember that you're going to be in the sun for long periods of time. The position of the sun constantly changes so your position on the beach will need to change too. Keep your back to the sun to avoid subjects being back-lit in your images.
Surfing isn't like most sports. The weather and surf report determines if surfers will be out or not. If you go to the beach when the waves are small, you probably won't achieve the spectacular shots you want. Always check the surf report to see if any waves are breaking before you decide to shoot. Also, it's a good idea to look in advance when a swell is coming so that you can be prepared.
Shoot the Scene
A great thing about shooting surfing is that you're in an environment filled with other great photo subjects. Birds, sunsets, waves, palm trees, and boats are just a few examples. When a surfer isn't riding, turn your camera and capture the scene around you.
Get creative by walking around and setting up shots. If you see a tree that would be great as a foreground subject, compose an image and wait for a surfer to ride into the frame. Incorporating other subjects into your surf photography is a good way to portray the lifestyle of surfing - not jut surfing itself.
Put Together Sequences
Often the best way to capture the action of surfing is to put two or three photos together as a diptych or triptych, or even a longer sequence. An image of a surfer doing an aerial is great, but showing your capture of the entire move from launch to landing can be even better. A sequence like this tells a story. It puts viewers in the action and along for the ride.
For example, if you capture a surfer doing a turn off the top of the wave, you can include three images that show the sequence of his move. The first would be setting up the turn, the second would be the most powerful part of the snap, and the third would be the end of the move.
New places and talent will always provide photo inspiration. Many surf photographers spend the winter in Hawaii because it's the most epic time for surf there. Other great places to travel to for surf photography are Indonesia, Mexico, Australia, and France. Traveling the globe is a rewarding experience on its own, and to follow surfing as a subject of photography makes it even more enjoyable.
If you're already a serious traveling photographer, try adding famous beaches to your itinerary. Remember to check the surf report wherever you go. You should also look at a schedule of professional surf contests, as they travel around the world visiting new spots throughout the year. Exotic places are an excellent way to build a portfolio of surf photos.
Learn from the Pros
Check out the galleries of pro surf photographers, Sean Davey and Aaron Chang. Notice how each photo in their portfolios is a work of art. From different camera angles to shooting at different times of the day to traveling to new places, the creativity of their work is endless.
Professional surf photographers apply artistry to their photos. Their work isn't just about the surfer. It's about enhancing something about the surfer or wave he's riding. The power of a surfer doing an aerial is enhanced when a dramatic sunset is framed in the background. A desolate surf break feels more exotic when a physical feature is made the main subject.
For example, a famous wave in Costa Rica has a giant rock in the water near where surfers take off. Pro photographers enhance this location by shooting wide and capturing the unique setting as surfers ride by in the foreground.
Hopefully these tips give you a good understanding of surfing and how to best photograph the sport/lifestyle. Surfing is about style, power, flow, nature, and action. It's rewarding as a photographer to go out to every swell and capture something completely different. The elements of surfing are in constant flux, which makes it always exciting to be a surf photographer. Follow these tips, add your own style, and understand surfing and surfers to capture the best photos you can.