The Complete Guide to Surf Photography

Words and Surf Photos by Ben Battell

Part 1 - Shooting Surf Photos From the Land

The Breakdown

These guides will have you taking surf photos in or out of the water like a seasoned surf photographer.

Part 1 here is all about what kit you need and setting up your camera for the best results when shooting surf photos from the land.

It includes a basic overview on all the main settings you will need to shoot surf photography on manual mode on your DSLR or mirrorless cameras.

Surf photography and let’s face it videography can really be dropped into two basic camps, on land or in water, for this example I will include land as anything where you are not physically in the water so yes on land or for on a boat, as this dictates what equipment you will likely be using in any given situation.

So here we go, Part 1 land based surf photography.

What camera and kit do you need to take surf photos?

Essentially there are no requirements, you can as we all know take a photo of someone surfing using the phone on your camera, digitally zoom in and you may just be able to make out a grainy block of pixels that is your mate surfing. However to take the highest quality surf photos you will need something a little more specialised. You will want a camera with interchangeable lenses and most likely a tripod to balance it on, let’s get into the details.

Cameras

If you are reading this article then the likelihood is you are already into photography and either have a camera or have read a whole load of reviews on cameras and are about to take the plunge and get some new toys.

The cameras you have been looking at or even the one you may have sat next to you will likely fall into one of these two main camps, mirrorless or DSLR. I am not going to go into the differences here but will just say you can get amazing surf photos with either. The one requirement really is that you want a camera with an interchangeable lens, details on which we will get to in a moment.

Cropped sensor or Full Frame

When on the hunt for the perfect camera for surf photography or with your existing camera you will come across some jargon, cropped sensor (or APS-C etc.) or full frame. These are describing the physical size of the sensor which captures your photo when exposed to light. When shooting telephoto surf photography the type of sensor you have can really impact the photos you are taking as a cropped sensor adds a multiplication factor to the lens you are using depending upon its size. For example a full frame camera using a 300mm lens will provide a zoom equivalent to 300mm however a camera with an APS-C sensor provides a 1.5x crop factor and so that same 300mm lens will actually be the equivalent to a 450mm lens on a full frame camera, ie the surfer will appear closer.

You may be thinking now that since you want to get as close to the action as possible why would you choose a full frame camera, well there are a few advantages. Full frame sensors are generally found on higher end cameras, their size means that they can take in more light and have superior performance in low light, they can also provide images with a shallower depth of field. They have a reputation for producing better quality images, however with today’s sensor quality the differences will be fairly marginal to the general user.

Do I have any recommendations?

Well I shoot with and love Fujifilm cameras, they are very tactile and produce beautiful images and have excellent high speed burst rates.

I use and would highly recommend the Fujifilm X-T3, its smaller sibling the X-T30 is also excellent. 

If you want save some cash and go second hand fantastic cameras despite their age are the Fujifilm X-T1 or X-T2.

Here are a few of the many options you may wish to consider.

Mirrorless

Sony’s, very popular cameras from their top of the line full frame A7 series to their cropped sensor but very popular A6000 series come highly recommended.

DSLR’s

Lots of options to choose from here the most popular manufactures being Canon and Nikon, larger form factor and fabulous image quality. 

Personally I would recommend getting a mirrorless camera as they are smaller but still fantastic and that means that you will be more likely to take it with you everywhere and therefore shoot more!

Remember that when budgeting for your camera body you will need some extra cash for a lens, few cash conscious tips in the next section about those.

Lenses

Quick word of warning, not all lenses fit on to all cameras, each camera manufacturer will make their own lenses, and there are manufactures that make lenses to fit on other brands cameras know as third party, so when buying a new (or just new to you) lens make sure it will fit your camera.

When standing on the beach watching the surf, first obstacle in the way of you getting those epic surf photos is the distance from you and the surfers in the water. I am sure you may have tried to take a photo of the surf on your phone only to realise that despite its size or proximity in reality, it does look disappointingly small through the lens of your phone.

With an equivalent to a full frame camera (one with 36x24mm sensor or a 35mm film) of about 28mm your phone has a very wide viewing angle and such fits a wide landscape in there but lacks the details you are after for surf photos from the land. As humans our vision is the equivalent of 43mm so somewhere between a 35mm and 50mm lens on a full frame camera.

What we need to know moving forwards is that the larger the number in mm of your lens the closer that lens will bring the subject of your photo to you.

If you are photographing surfers from somewhere relatively close to them, a pier like Huddington beach or a beachbreak like the heavy shorebreak in Hossegor, La Gravier you will be able to get by with the common all garden 70-300 lense and end up with some pretty decent results.

If like Fistral Beach, or Watergate Bay and many other breaks here in the UK the surfers are a lot further away you will need to upgrade your kit to something a little more substantial and start trying to get closer to equivalent of 600mm. These larger lenses can start to get very expensive very quickly so here is where I give you a few little tips if you don’t want to spend £1000’s straight away! Essentially length is your friend here (Weeyooo)! You don’t want to end up with a photo where the surfer is a tiny spec in the ocean, well perhaps you do, but let’s make that a conscious choice!

Money saving tips

Tip 1

Get a cheaper 70-300mm (50-230mm for the Fuji crew) and an extender, be aware that yes the teleconvertor will lose you some light to the sensor, but you will likely be shooting in daylight anyway and will be much close to the action.

Tip 2

Buy second hand, a really obvious one but there are so many great lenses out there on Ebay and Facebook Marketplace that need new homes, keep hunting and you will find some gems.

Tip 3

Buy old vintage lenses, yes these old lenses originally used on film cameras will be manual focus, but you can get a whole lot of lens for a lot less than its autofocus equivalent. I love shooting with manual telephoto lenses as they can give a really unique feel to your images. Be aware when buying them to avoid ones with mist, fog or fungus though! You may also need to get an adapter for your camera like this one below, which is the one I use and is available for Canon, Sony, fujifilm and Nikon etc.

Tripods and Monopods

You have made it all the way to the beach so I am assuming you are planning on snapping more than one or two surf photos, especially if you have invested in some decent heavy lenses you are going to need some support. Not only does using a tripod or monopod give your arms and back a break, it keeps you focused on the right patch of ocean ready for the next wave.

Tripods

These three legged beasts give you the best support and to get a really steady shot holding-fast the heaviest of gear. Super useful if you are rocking a huge lens! Allowing you to be both hands free and check your instagram between sets.The disadvantage is they are often larger and heavier themselves I would advise making sure you have one with a smooth tracking system on top otherwise following a surfer along a wave can be a little tricky. I really like Neewer gear, its affordable and good quality. If i didn’t have a tripod already ,I was given an old one that serves it’s purpose for now, I would go for one of these two.

Monopods

One leg that screws to the base of your camera or lens, these provide you with the most basic support, and do require at least one hand or balancing against your body when you are not shooting. When shooting surf photography I actually prefer a monopod as you can set up and move more quickly and I find that it’s easier to track a surfer too. I use Amazon’s own brand one, shown below and for something cheap and cheerful it feels sturdy and does exactly what I need it to.

Camera Settings for Surf Photography

Shutter Speed

Shutter Speed is how long your camera exposes the sensor to light for when you take a photo.

Ok so you have your lens up and running and the surfers are large enough in your frame, what’s next, how to capture the action in a sharp and exciting way. Unless you are deliberately slowing your shutter speed down (this will be another article all together) then you want to be capturing the action in focus and as sharp as you can. Too see the difference this makes check out the two images below one shot at 1/30th of a second and the other 1/1250th of a second.

The typical adage with telephoto lenses is you want to shoot at a speed of 1 over the length of your lens i.e. with a 300mm lens at least 1/300th of a second. In reality to capture sharp surfing photos with the speed of the rider and the movement of the sea you need to be at a minimum 1/1000th of a second or faster in your shutter speed. 

So crank up your shutter speed and lets move on!

ISO

ISO is the speed at which your camera reacts to the light that comes through the lens.

A higher ISO the faster the camera sensor reacts to the light, this does come with some drawbacks however the faster the reaction the lower the amount of detail that the sensor can capture. This may not be too noticeable at the lower end ie ISO 200/400 but when you start to push beyond ISO 1600 you will start to notice significantly more grain within your photos. Typically you want to be trying to keep your ISO as low as you can, maxing out those details.

But be aware to keep that shutter speed high on an overcast day with pumping surf just like here in Cornish winters, you may have to pump up the ISO a little bit more.

F-Stop

The F-Stop is how much light your camera lets in to your sensor when the shutter is open.

The fabled f-stop, ever seen those photos with a delicious creamy background and the subject in focus in the foreground, that style is achieved with a low f-stop, the higher the f-stop the larger the plane of focus will be.

In the business of surf photos it does come down to your lens and the available light as to how many options you have on the day. When shooting from the land in the UK light is not always on my side so I end up keeping mine down around f4 I actually prefer to be up around f8 as I know then that if the focus has slipped a little then the image will still be pretty damn sharp!

When keeping your shutter speed high above that 1000th of a second it becomes a game of balance between f-stop and Iso depending on the conditions of the day.

On super bright and sunny days you may need to boost the shutter speed up to perhaps 1/4000th and keep the f-stop high too, with a low ISO.

On over cast days the opposite shutter to 1000th ISO to 1600 and f-stop as low as it goes!

Check out my handy chart below.

DRIVE Mode for surf photography

How fast and how many photos will your camera take when you press the shutter.

You could choose to just fire off a single shot every time but I like to set my camera to its fastest burst mode, yes some see this as the hit and hope option and had we still been back in the film days I would agree and say hold off to get the timing for the perfect shot but as we have storage at our fingertips get that burst on and see what you capture. Plus you can get an epic sequence then.

Anyway that folks is essentially it for now, I hope you found some useful tips in here, good luck!

Please give me a follow on Instagram @benbattell to see my latest work and tag me in your photos you take using these tips!

Drop me a message or email with any questions.

There are a few affiliate links in here that help support my Open Sessions so thanks if you use them!

ben@benbattell.com

Cheers,

Ben

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