5 tips to take good surfing photos

If you are a keen surfer or you enjoy snapping surfers in action, you may wonder what equipment and skills can make your surf photography more dramatic and eye-catching. With summer fast approaching, you will feel more inspired to get out there and feel the sand between your toes. Before you do, have a read through our 5 tips on how to take good surfing photos.

1. Use a telephoto lens

While we generally believe that you should think outside the box and experiment with different equipment to produce unique photography, when it comes to surf photography, you quite simply need a camera lens with a long focal length. If your lens isn’t long enough, you won’t be able to frame your surfers in action and will have too much foreground in your photos.

As to what lens is best, it will depend on how far away your subjects are. However, a 300mm telephoto lens is a good starting point. As to prime versus zoom, prime lenses will produce sharper results and give you faster apertures, but zoom lenses are more versatile and allow you to adjust framing on the go.

Top tip – In our experience, we find a circular polarising lens to be an essential addition to the best camera for surf photography. As well as reducing reflections that are coming off the surface of the water, these easy-to-attach accessories improve contrast for more dynamic surfing photos.

2. Use a sports-ready camera

Surfing, like any sport, features exciting moments that happen in the blink of an eye. If you are not prepared with a suitably speedy camera, you will miss out on these moments.

A DSLR or Mirrorless camera with fast continuous shooting speeds and fast and accurate autofocus will make your job much easier. These cameras also have more options when it comes to manual adjustments, so you can use the best camera settings for surf photography. More about that in a moment!

3. Use the best camera settings for surf photography

The trickiest part of good surfing photos is dealing with the lighting conditions. While some photography styles require you to make the most of minimal light, surf photography is quite the opposite. There is generally plenty of light to work with, which means there is a significant risk of over-exposing your photos. To prevent this, and to be best prepared to capture excellent surfing photos, use the following tips:

Use a low ISO setting – There is plenty of light anyway, so keep noise at a minimum by setting the ISO to its lowest setting. You can always raise it if need be.
Use a moderate aperture – Moderate aperture lets in a bit less light, so you don’t overexpose your photo. The greater depth of field also gives you a bit of margin for error when focusing.
Use a fast shutter speed – A fast shutter speed, say 1/500th of a second or greater is best for capturing moments before they pass.
Use spot focusing – The light meter of your camera aims to balance everything, so if there’s too much sky in the frame, the camera will likely automatically counteract this by giving you a dark image. Conversely, the harsh shadows that are sometimes caused by this can cause your camera to overexpose. To overcome this, use spot metering and expose for your surfer’s skin. This can be a bit tricky to manage, however, and the results will not always be perfect, so getting the best camera settings for surf photography often requires a bit of trial and error.
Shoot in RAW – As mentioned above, it can be tricky to get a good exposure, so RAW capture is your best friend. You can tweak your settings during RAW conversion with greater accuracy and with less detriment to your image’s quality.

4. Don’t forget your photography basics

With surf photography being relatively technically demanding and physically exerting, it can be easy to forget what makes photography go from just “okay” to special. Once you’ve done some solid learning about surf photography and have the settings somewhat mastered, put the other aspects of photography you know and love into practice. We recommend these pointers:

Aim for interesting compositions – Employ the same tried and true techniques you usually use: rule of thirds, negative space, leading lines, etc.
Take note of distracting elements – Is the background or foreground of your image taken up by unessential elements? Consider changing your location and recomposing. You don’t want anything else taking the attention away from the key subject of your surf photos.
Keep your horizon level – This rule is often ignored by pros who are intentionally skewing their horizons, but like every rule, you need to master it before you can break it. When you are starting out, a skewed horizon looks clumsy and distracting, so keep it straight!
Consider the direction of the light – There’s not much you can do about this once you get out there shooting, so it will require a bit of forethought. It is extremely tricky to get great surfing photos when you are shooting directly into the sun, except if you are trying to capture silhouettes, so try to position yourself with the sun behind you. If you can do this during the early morning or the late afternoon, you will also be gifted with the soft, warm light and beautiful colour palette provided in those golden hours.

5. Get amongst the action

While all of the above tips are directed at those that will be shooting from the comfort of land, there is something special and personal about surfing photos that are captured from the water itself. If you are game, don’t be afraid to get in the surf for a closer view. If this sounds like you, here are some tips for attempting surf photography from the water:

Use suitable gear – Please don’t rush into the water with your camera and then blame us! You will obviously need to take precautions when taking your camera gear in the water. Either use a dedicated waterproof or action camera, or invest in an underwater housing for your existing camera, so it lives to see another photoshoot.
● Get your settings right early – it’s harder to make adjustments in the water, so take a few test shots and get things close to perfect.
Make the most of your close-up position – Make it obvious that you have the best seat in the house by emphasising your position with tight crops. This will differentiate your shots from the work of other surf photographers.
Safety first – The safety of your gear is important and your safety is even more so. Slip, slop, slap and swim between the flags! Also, remember to stay out of the way of the surfers, for your own safety and to ensure they don’t object to your presence and call an end to your shoot.

Now that you know our top 5 tips on how to do surf photography in the most prepared and cutting edge of ways we hope you can get out to your favourite beach spot and start snapping like a pro. If you need to build your collection of photography gear first, we recommend browsing Ted’s Cameras’ website. It’s said that a worker is only as good as their tools, so give your surf photography kit the boost it needs.