Since I started surfing over 10 years ago, I’ve spent a lot of time traveling the globe in search of warm waves and epic beach towns. Combine this with a passion for photography, and I’ve ended up spending a large chunk of this time documenting surf and surf culture.
It got to the point where my degree in Documentary Photography pretty much focused on nothing else, much to the dismay of my lecturers!
So how do you go about capturing a life of waves, babes, and bad decisions?
I’m going to chat you through what kit and techniques I use to capture my experience of the sport of kings.
First off, I need to tell you that photographing surfing is bloody expensive! Unless you’re lucky enough to break into the realms of professional surf photography (which is pretty much impossible these days,) it’s a complete labor of love that will suck up a lot of your spare cash.
I’m not talking hundreds here, I’m talking thousands!
Kit-wise I lug the following around with me on my surf travels:
- Canon EOS 7D camera
- Canon EOS 40D camera
- Canon 17-55mm f2.8 lens
- Canon 10-22mm lens
- Sigma 50-500mm lens
- GoPro Hero action camera (Black Edition) plus Wi-Fi remote, pole attachment, and mounts
- SPL Underwater casing
- Swim fins
…and all the usual extras like CF cards, hard drives, filters, etc etc
That’s a lot of stuff to be carrying around hey?!
It basically results in my carry-on camera bag weighing almost as much as my actual rucksack. That can be a total pain to deal with if you’re unlucky enough to have the check-in staff weigh your baggage!
The easiest place to start shoot surfing is without a doubt being on land. It’s a constant battle with your own personal restraint to opt-out of a surf session and shoot it instead.
I know full well that I’ve missed out on some amazing photo opportunities simply because I’d rather be surfing than shooting! Still, if you can tear yourself out of the water for long enough to get snapping, it’s well worth it.
The sheer range of the Sigma lens is great for shooting from the land. You can get some nice beach portraits down at the 50mm range, but also crop in close enough to the action at the 400-500mm end.
This lens has a hefty amount of weight behind it too, so you’ll need to have a good tripod in tow to steady it and give your arms a rest!
When it comes to positioning yourself, it’s all about being on the move. It’s very tempting to sit yourself on the beach slap in front of the action, but the chances are it won’t lead to any really striking images. Get to high ground, shoot from the side, get on a boat, basically experiment heaps!
Depth of field comes into play a lot here too and you can get some great perspective shots with a crisp surfer in the background and a slightly out of focus bikini-clad lovely in the foreground!
Settings-wise, I almost always opt for shutter priority, and depending on the lighting conditions I push this as high as I can whilst keeping a good range of focus.
The 7D body allows me a generously high shooting rate and great tracking autofocus, so I play the numbers game a lot when shooting. It means a lot of post-shoot editing, but means you’ll have a good range of images to choose from for each action shot.
One of the best tips I can give you for shooting surfing overall though is: surf yourself!
If you don’t know how to read the waves or what you’d do on a wave, the chances are you won’t be aiming at the right person, wave, or location when the action goes down. You should spend as much time watching as you do shooting!
In-water shooting can serve up some amazing pics but it’s tough as hell, especially on a beach break!
Making sure you’re in the right place at the right time can be an absolute nightmare, and swimming with a full SLR housing is a massive pain in the arse. Make sure your fitness is up to it, and that you feel comfortable in the waves.
Having the semi-fisheye 10-20mm is great for getting up close to the action, but you do need to be super close. Sometimes a bit more zoom allows for an easier time in the water.
It’s not just the action shots that are key to shooting in water, though. You can use the lulls as a great opportunity to capture some portraits too. Life in the water is as much about the peace and quiet of being in the ocean as it is slashing around on the waves.
The in-water side of things is also the most expensive. The housing alone set me back well over £1000 ($1500,) and it’s a lot of trust to put in a small box with all your equipment inside it!
Still it’s the most pure way to shoot the surf, and something that can be heaps rewarding when you finally snap that money shot. I was stoked when I grabbed this pic of my buddy Pat getting slotted in Byron Bay a few years ago, and it made fighting a rip current and getting absolutely smashed around totally worth it.
But with all this shooting everyone else, where the hell are the shots of you getting some epic waves?!
That’s where the GoPro comes into play! Before I bought it I had literally no shots of myself actually in the water surfing, but it has been a great addition to my camera kit simply because I can now shoot my own sessions!
Grabbing a surf mount is the easiest way to get started. You simply use the adhesive pad to attach the mount to the nose of the board, let it set, and away you go.
If you’re in less of a rush, I highly recommend getting your local shaper to smash in an FCS plug on the nose. It makes for a much more secure footing for your expensive GoPro.
I have 2 tips when it comes to positioning this mount:
- Get it as close to the nose as you can (both for a good wide-angle shot, and so it’s out of the way!)
- Make sure you don’t mount it directly on the stringer of the board, because the GoPro lens is off-center.
When it comes to the settings of my GoPro I tend to opt for photo over video, simply because I don’t use video much these days.
Depending on the type of session, I’ll have it set up to take a shot once or twice a second to get the most out of the action. I have tried using the Wi-Fi remote to shoot in water while surfing, but I’ve found duck diving and splashes can interfere with the signal, so it’s not something I tend to do anymore.
You’ll need a pretty big SD card in there, and you’ll get a lot of images that are trash… but that one epic shot will give you a pretty cheesy grin, and make all your buddies back home heaps jealous!
If you want to get something a bit more out of the ordinary, then try hand holding or using a pole whilst surfing instead. It takes a bit of practice, but can lead to some amusing shots. If you have a patient friend, mount the camera on an extra-long pole and get them to swim into the lineup with you!
Read more on taking kick-ass photos with your GoPro, on land or sea.
As with any type of photography shooting the surf is something that’s best learned in practice, so get out there and start shooting. The joy of the digital age is the fact it costs nothing to keep shooting, so experiment with your own style and settings and see where it takes you.
Who knows, you could end up being the next Clarke Little or Tim Nunn!
This article is part of Travel Photography Month, with tips and tricks, gear reviews, and advice from several great travel photographers.
Main image by Andry Richardson