8 Tips for Stunning Surf Photography from the Beach

In Beginner Tips by Stefano CaioniLeave a Comment

Surf photography is a skill that takes years to learn and master. Apart from having talent and knowledge, becoming a great surf photographer also demands physical endurance and eye for detail. 

There are many unique challenges which surf photographers have to contend with on a regular basis. These include long exposure to unpredictable weather conditions, as well as logistical difficulties. In spite of this, surf photography is still growing in popularity across the world. 

If you are wondering how you can improve your skill as a surf photographer, you have come to the right place. In this article, we are going to highlight some useful tips and tricks that will help you create unique shots. You need not worry even if you are a complete amateur with little knowledge of photography. With some dedication and practice, you will be shooting like a seasoned professional in no time.

Well, let’s get started…

1. Use a Telephoto Lens

Having the right lens is absolutely crucial when it comes to surf photography from the beach. Whereas regular zoom lenses may get the job done, telephoto lenses usually produce the best images. This is because they are designed to shoot objects at mid-range and far off distance. With the right telephoto lens, you can capture impressively sharp images of surfers far-out at sea right from the beach. The good news is that telephoto lenses have become very ubiquitous, and it is now possible to find a decent one without spending a fortune. 

Take a look at the Nikon 70-300 mm and Canon 55-250mm for example. I can’t believe how reasonably priced they are on Amazon!

2. The Right Aperture

To produce visually-stunning surf photography from the beach, your camera’s aperture must be set appropriately. The aperture size usually determines the amount of light that enters the camera. If you are shooting in a beach environment, which typically has a lot of light, I would recommend setting the aperture size to mid-range. This will accord you more flexibility in terms of depth of field and hence you will be able to capture quality images. Something around f/11 will do.

3. Use Base ISO

ISO refers to a camera setting which progressively darkens or brightens a photograph depending on whether the value is raised or lowered. Camera ISO is very useful since it allows for photographs to be taken in dark environments. However, raising the ISO can also have an undesirable effect. Photos taken with a very high ISO tend to have a lot of grains (known as noise). It is therefore advisable to use the lowest native ISO (Base ISO) when shooting from the beach unless conditions demand otherwise. 

4. Keep Your Horizon Line Straight

In art and photography, the horizon line refers to the line which separates the sky and earth/ground. Almost every piece of art has a horizon line which serves several functions including:

  • Makes the scene in the artwork more appealing and realistic
  • Establishes a reference point for the viewer of the image
  • Provides the viewer with a perspective and helps them determine the point from which they are observing the scene.

Due to these critical functions that the horizon line serves in art, it is absolutely vital to ensure it is straight when shooting surf photographs from the beach.

5. Use Continuous Autofocus Tracking

Knowing how to use your camera’s focus modes is very crucial if you desire to capture the energy and dare-devil tricks of surfers at the beach. If you are shooting surfers on waves at high speeds, you can increase your success rate by using the continuous autofocus tracking mode of your camera. 

This feature allows your camera to adjust its focus appropriately when holding focus on a moving object. It is almost always better to use continuous autofocus tracking when shooting surfers. The only instance when I would recommend using manual focus is when shooting in water using a fish eye lens.

6. Use a Polarizing Filter

Polarizing filters are special glass filters designed to filter sunlight which is reflected towards the camera at certain angles. They are very useful in surf photography since they create contrast and improve exposure. Polarizing filters come in various diameters to suit different lens sizes. There are also plenty of polarizing filters to choose from. You should therefore conduct thorough research on their specifications and suitability before settling on a specific choice.

Check the Hoya 72mm or Tiffen 77mm Circular Polarizers. They’re a really good choice for new starters.

7. Lighting is Critical

Surf photography typically entails working in light intensive environments. For this reason, you need to critically evaluate the manner in which light is interacting with the ocean. If there is too much reflection on the water, it might be wise to shoot off the beach at an inclined angle in order to get the best quality photos. This means you need to develop patience and be able to make crucial decisions while at it. 

8. Follow the Rules of Composition

Most beginners tend to get carried away by the initial thrill. This often leads them to overlook the rules of composition in favor of unbridled experimentation. 

While there is nothing explicitly wrong with being experimental every once and then, completely disavowing rules of composition can be detrimental. It is therefore important to keep in mind and adhere to basic compositional rules like the rule of thirds.’ This will allow you to properly develop your skill overtime and eventually lead you to discover your style (artistic voice) as a surf photographer.


A Final Word: Hone Your Skill with Daily Practice

Developing skills for surf photography does not happen overnight. Just as with any other skill, it takes a lot of dedication, will power and self-drive to excel at surf photography. 

You will probably need to go through weeks or even months of rigorous learning and practice to become truly great at it. Nevertheless, the thrill and exhilaration of surfing is in itself something to be enamored by.

By applying these useful tips, you will be able to develop your eye for surf photography and improve the images you produce at the beach. You definitely, won’t become an award-winning surf photographer instantly. However, by diligently working towards improving your skills, you will develop a better understanding and appreciation of the adrenalizing sport of surfing.

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