How to take amazing surfing photos every time / by Hannah Prewitt

Surfing was one of the reasons that I got into photography. Even though I’m now a surfer myself, I still love to shoot surfers. Especially good ones. Admittedly, when I first started taking photos, I would shoot on auto sport mode and think I was taking good photos. A couple of them were okay, I suppose. As my knowledge of photography has progressed, so has my ability to take great surfing photos. So now I’d like to share my top tips with you.

Just to be clear, this is not a beginner’s guide to surf photography so I’m assuming that you understand you’ll need a fast shutter speed, and a long lens. Also, these tips are NOT water-specific. They are aimed at those shooting from land or a boat, but can obviously be applied to shooting in the water as well.

Firstly, let’s go back in time to four years ago, before I even owned a camera and have a look at some of my very first surfing photos…

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This is a shot of my husband, who is an amazing surfer and an absolute pleasure to shoot when it’s pumping. So it’s pretty easy to get a decent photo of him. And I think you’d agree that this one looks half decent. I’m sure most surfers would be fairly happy with this shot to post on their social media. But when we zoom in, you can see that the image isn’t sharp, the white water is pretty blown out, and it’s not very easy to make out his face.

Compare that with this shot taken much more recently, and you can see a noticeable difference in quality.

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So how do you turn your surfing photos from average to ones people are willing to pay for?

Here are my top tips :)

Tip #1 - Use back-button focus

I randomly read about this somewhere and decided to try it for myself, and since making this adjustment to my camera I would never ever go back to using shutter-button focus. Even for general photography. The way your camera focuses now (unless you’ve changed it) is by half-pressing the shutter button. Which means that when you stop shooting, you then have to re-focus on the subject before you can shoot it again. When photographing surfers, this could easily mean that you miss the money shot. When I used to use shutter-button focus, probably only 60% of my shots were in focus. Once I switched to back-button focus, 95% of my shots were in focus.

So what is back-button focus? Well, it’s basically where you assign another button (ideally one on the back of the camera where your thumb naturally sits) to focus for you, leaving the shutter button to just take the photo. Which means that you can keep your focus button pressed ensuring your subject stays in focus while you choose when to press the shutter button and take a shot. Try this out and I promise you, it will totally change your surf photography.

Tip #2 – use 3D-tracking focus

This is another tip to help you focus on your subject but not all cameras are capable of it. I shoot with either the Nikon D750 or the D7200, both of which have this focus mode. You’ll find it under the continuous focus options and it basically tracks the subject for you as it moves. Very clever! Again, this will help to get almost all of your shots in perfect focus!

Tip #3 – shoot in high speed burst mode

This seems pretty obvious but if you shoot in single shot mode, then you have to keep pressing the shutter button every time you want to take a photo, which can waste valuable time and can mean that you miss the best action. Shooting in high burst mode means you just hold the shutter and your camera will take lots of photos split seconds apart from each other, giving you a nice sequence of a turn and ensuring you get the moment with the most spray.

Tip #4 – use a fast SD card

I used to think that all SD cards were the same, just different sizes. I was wrong. If you want to shoot in high speed mode (which you do), then you’ll need an SD card that is fast enough to write the images to it as quickly as you’re taking them. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself holding down the shutter but not actually taking any photos! Some brands are also more reliable than others. The last thing you want when you’ve made the effort to go somewhere to shoot is for your SD card to give you an error message. I would recommend SanDisk over every other brand. This card linked below is extremely affordable and writes more than quick enough for the needs of most surf photographers.

Tip #5 – have a basic understanding of surfing

In order for you to shoot great pictures of surfers, you need to understand what it is that surfers are looking for in an image. This is why most surf photographers do, or used to, surf themselves. It really helps to understand the sport. But, if you’re not quite there yet, then here are a few examples of surfing money shots:

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A great bottom turn – you’re looking for the board to be on its rail as much as possible. If you can see fins or spray coming off the board, you’re winning.

Spray – if a surfer pulls off a great turn, they’re probably going to want the shot with the most spray in it.

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Deep in the barrel – it doesn’t matter if they make it out or not – get a shot where they look super deep and they’ll want that photo.

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Airs – if you see a surfer gaining some speed, chances are they might be headed to the air. It doesn’t matter if they land it or not, just that you get the evidence.

It’s also great to shoot the entire sequence of someone’s wave because they can use it for coaching purposes and a fast sequence acts like a video but with better stills. Plus it gives the surfer more options to choose from so they’re more likely to buy from you.

Tip #6 – if possible, get the surfer to wear something bright

Your camera’s autofocus works using contrast. Most surfers like to wear dark colours, which means #1 it makes it difficult for you to pick them out of a busy line-up, and #2 it can make it more difficult for your camera to focus from a distance against the dark water if the sun isn’t out. On that note, if you’re a surfer, be conspicuous and you’re more likely to get photos!

Tip #7 – try to avoid shooting into the sun

Unless you’re looking for arty shots that are silhouetted, try to avoid shooting at the time of day where you’re going to be shooting into the sun. So if the wave faces west, sunset might not be the best time shoot if you want crisp clear images.

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Tip #8 – consider the white water in your exposure

If you’re shooting on a big day, you might want to consider how much white will appear in your image quite quickly. You won’t have time to change your exposure mid-wave, so just bear in mind that you might want to underexpose the image to start with, to ensure that you don’t massively blow out the highlights. You might not be bothered about seeing the details in the white water, but it can sometimes make for an interesting shot, like this one below that I can see all sorts of faces in!

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Those are my top tips that hopefully will help your surf photography. If you’ve got any of your own that I haven’t mentioned, please leave me a comment. I’m always looking to keep learning and improving.

How to take amazing surfing photos every time