1. Know your camera settings
Shutter who? Aperture what? ISO? Most cameras nowadays come with a completely “green” mode, meaning all these settings are completely automatic. This is usually fine for holiday photographers who just want to take snap shots, but if you really want to get serious about photography, and get full control, you need to know what these settings are. Luckily, it’s super easy:
The biggest two are shutter speed and aperture.
Shutter speed is the amount of time the cameras sensor is exposed to light. A shutter speed of 1/500 means the shutter will be open and exposed to light for a 500th of a second. If you are photographing in bright daylight, you need a quick shutter speed to avoid overexposure (a picture that is too bright). Similarly, if you photograph at night, you might need shutter speeds of up to 30 seconds to get enough light in your sensor.
Aperture is the size of the hole in the lens, where light enter the sensor. The shutter speed controls the time the aperture will stay open for an image to appear in the sensor. Logically, a large hole will provide more light to the sensor, and a smaller one will provide less light. This will in turn affect the shutter speed, as different times will be required for enough light to enter and make an exposure that is balanced. A low f number (i.e. f/2.8) is a large aperture and a big number (i.e. f/16) is a small aperture. A large aperture will provide a shallow depth of field whilst a small aperture will give a longer depth of field.
Good settings for surf/wave photography would be to use a fast shutter speed to really freeze the action, with a high enough aperture or f number enough to balance that shutter speed. For close up wave shots, a very large aperture gives a cool effect, but you have to be really careful with where you place the focus.
- Low budget: Any cheap point-and-shoot camera with an underwater housing will do for getting started. The downside of the cheaper cameras is that there is usually a delay between pressing the button and the camera actually taking the picture. In action situations, this can make it really difficult to take the picture in the right moment. With practice, this delay can be accounted for, making you click it in the right time anyway.
Gopros are also a cheap and easy way to get started but are limited with their fixed fish-eye lens.
- Medium budget: Sony A6000 with underwater housing is a very popular choice. It’s small, has the ability to change lenses and both the camera and the housing do not cost a fortune. To have a look at the Liquid Eye Housing for the A6000, which we at actionpics personally vouch for, check out the excellent Learning Surf Photography website. This is one of the more affordable high-quality housing producers. Sony's later models A6300, A6500 for a little extra cash give you better video options.
As for compact the compact action cameras, another great option is the Sony RX0, which, although more expensive, is giving the GoPro a run for its money.
- High budget: Any high-end DSLR with underwater housing (I would personally go with Nikon or Canon) and a large aperture (f/2.8) lens around 30mm. Beware that housings for DSLR’s are very expensive if you want to get one of good quality ($1000-$1600 is not uncommon). More expensive cameras generally have a good frames per second rating (usually 7 FPS) which is perfect for surf photography. The most popular housing for high-end DSLR cameras are made by Aquatech.
3. Use lighting to your advantage
This also goes for photographing on dry land, dawn and dusk more often than not provide the most interesting light conditions. Bright day light is way more forgiving in surf photography, as the wave or surfer usually is the main focus in the picture. But the same object taken as the sun is about to set could make the shot way more interesting. Just beware of your exposure in darker conditions (if you are not using a flash) and use your ISO setting wisely, too much on cheaper cameras makes the image very noisy). It is important to practice in all light conditions to get to know your gear and how it performs in a particular environment. But especially important, don’t go swimming alone just before the sun sets. This is very dangerous, even for professional surf photographers and swimmers. Know your limits, no picture is worth sacrificing your personal safety for.
4. Be creative
Surf and wave photography is a very experimental type of photography. The trained eye can have an idea of what a wave will do, but no one in the world knows for sure exactly how it will behave, as each wave is different. Similarly this will affect the surfers riding the wave, they have to make adjustments in the moment to suit the style of that particular wave. Get creative, take as many shots as possible in different light conditions and angles. Going to a shorebreak and getting bodyboarders in barrels is a great way to capture amazing images. Try different shutter speeds and apertures for different effects. Maybe a clear barrel shot with your city’s skyline nicely peaking through the eye of the wave at sunset? Or a slower shutter speed picture of a surfer wiping out on the biggest set of the day in gloomy rainy conditions? Take as many shots as you can, and practice in small waves. There is a whole culture now of people photographing mini waves, it's crazy fun and you should do it too. Some people even photoshop surfers in these mini waves as a gag (not that we are encouraging docting .
5. Stay safe
Before you venture out as a surf photographer, you must read up on tides, winds and wave forecasts, and really understand these concepts and how they relate to your home beach. Some surf spots for example will have a dry or close to dry reef in low tide, which could be really dangerous if the waves are big (they usually get more powerful in shallow low tide so keep that in mind). Also understand that wind and tide conditions will affect the waves. Glassy wave conditions are seen with very light or zero wind, or mild offshore breezes. Stronger onshore wind makes the wave face lumpy and bumpy. High tide waves are generally less powerful and low tide waves more powerful, as a shallow depth makes the wave face jack up more coming from deeper sea. There are many spots which still has powerful high tide waves though, so really read up on your surf spot before you go out, and, if you can, go with a buddy so you can watch out for each other.
One of the most important things to understand for any swimmer or surfer is rip currents (they should teach this in school in my opinion). They are the cause of most drowning cases each year, mainly due to panic/exhaustion from the unawareness of what they are. A rip current is a narrow, fast moving current of water going out to sea, ending past the breaking waves. The mass of water that travels to the beach will find the path of least resistance to get out to sea again, usually in a deeper channel. The area where the rip current flows will have less or no waves, which often attracts unknowing swimmers. On beaches with sand bottom, rip currents move with the sand. It will often be different in colour from the surrounding water, and could be foamy, bubbly and have debris floating on the surface.
The way to escape a rip current is to swim parallel to the beach until you are out of it, and letting the breaking waves push you towards the beach. Alternatively, you could relax and let it take you past the breaking waves where the current dissipates, and signal for help.
Always go with a friend and go to a beach that has lifeguards on duty, and start out photographing in small waves. Look for warning flags, and be very careful of surfers and surfboards in the water. Do not be in front of them and do not be in the way. Photograph surfers from more of a distance until you are confident with handling yourself in surf conditions. Remember that the fins on a surfboard are sharp, so dive deep if you find yourself in a situation where a surfer is coming towards you. I recommend wearing a helmet for when photographing surfers, you will know if you have ever got hit in the head by a surfboard.
Obviously, stay healthy and fit. Go swimming as often as you can, go body surfing, body boarding or surf to get familiar with being in the water. If you can, take a surf class to learn more about waves and ocean conditions.
Go get some!