Published: 15 June 2020

Improve your surf photography with some basic techniques and insight

Surfing is undeniably beautiful. In sport the symbiotic relationship between humans and nature has never been more apparent than when art and athleticism coalesce in the form of a surfer dancing down the line; showcasing the magnificent power of mother nature, and the incredible ingenuity of human beings. 

As a photographer though, with great beauty comes great responsibility. You owe it to surfing to produce high quality photos - especially, if it's your intention to publish them.

It’s not enough to rest on your laurels and let the subject do the work for you. The age-old equation: Good subject + Good camera = Good photos has long been proven to be incorrect.

Still, the availability of cameras to the general public, in a niche which possess so much natural beauty, means that if you want to stand out against the noise, you need to do a little more than just point and shoot.

The good thing is, there are some really simple things you can do to improve your photography. I'm convinced that some of the things are so simple, that even if you don't publish your photos, you'll probably implement some of these to improve your personal photography!

Know the surf

Being a surfer helps, but is not essential. Having some of knowledge of the ocean and the conditions is essential though. If not to increase the prospect of getting the shot you are after, to keep safe.

You need to know if the tide is coming in or out, where its going to come in to. You do not want to get cut off by the tide.

Knowing what the surf's forecast to do can help you decide how desperate you need to be to get the shot too. If it's getting better, you can go steady on how many photos you take at first. On the other hand, if it's getting worse, be trigger happy early on.

Straight Horizons

Straight horizons are a staple of strong photos. Always have been and always will be. However, I believe it's now more important than ever. In the golden age of Instagram, wonky horizons will stick out like a sore thumb - it's an inevitable result of small images being displayed in a grid next to each other.

Whilst no one is going to like your photo simply because the horizon is straight, plenty will cringe if it's wonky. 

Think about the light

Contrary to popular opinion, bright, sunny, “beautiful” days are not necessarily beautiful for photography. 

I personally love a sun rise or sunset, and I’m not alone. Just check out the hashtag #GoldenHour on Instagram and you’ll see why this is such a great time to shoot. 

Golden hour is an hour before and after sunrise or sunset; a time when you get a beautiful golden light cast across the scene. In reality, the precise duration of golden 'hour' will vary depending on where you are in the world. So do some research on your location if you're looking to plan ahead.

If sunrise or sunset doesn’t work for you, a little cloud cover really isn’t going to do you any harm. Neither will a lot of cloud cover for that matter - I personally love the vibe that dark moody clouds add to a photo.

Basically, anything that diffuses the sun. This will make the shadows softer and your images more evenly lit. Which will in turn make your images easier to consume

Include features in your photos

I almost always prefer a photo with something in it other than just surfer and/or wave. 

It could be something significant.

This is Surfing on the East Coast of England

I took this shot at my local beach break. There are surfers paddling out, and a local monument in the background. These things tell a story and help the viewer form an internal narrative around what they're looking at.

It’s worth noting that the photo was taken on a telephone lens too - which make the castle appear much closer. Another thing to be conscious when shooting. 

Others times it could be something small.

The Kid are Alright

I shot this photo with the sand visible in the foreground. It adds depth and a complementary colour to the shot. It also hides the fact that the wave was quite small.

A feature does not have to be extravagant and beautiful. It could be. But simple works too. Little things like depth and colour have a big impact on the final product.

You know the expression “rules are there to be broken”? Well this is one of those.


I actually like this shot for the precise reason that it is sparse. There is nothing in it. No features. It lacks colour. Just a flawless wave. But counterintuitively this in itself tells story; or at least helps the viewer shape their story. Surfing on the east coast involves flawless, dreamy waves, which are isolated and cold. The lack of distraction also encourages focus on the subject - and I personally can't help but start mindsurfing the wave.

Shoot manual

This makes a huge difference. Not only does it allow you total creative control over how to your final image looks, but in surfing it allows you to to expose properly, by factoring in the bright white water (which could throw the automatic settings off). 

*This doesn’t just apply to DSLR shooters. Most cameras - including the one on your phone - have the ability to go manual nowadays. 

Don't get me wrong, the technology in modern cameras is phenomenal at assessing the scene and adjusting accordingly to the environment. But surfing isn’t your average environment.

The reason for this is that when the camera tries to gauge the lighting, it sees all the reflection from the water (particularly the white water) and can interpret it as being a lot brighter than it actually is. This can result in it producing a final image which is darker than you'd like.

The extent to which this is actually a problem will vary from camera to camera, as will the amount you can rectify it in post-production. But why leave it to chance when you can guarantee that you get the shot - or at least ensure it’s your fault if you don’t. Shoot manual.

It is possible to shoot successfully in some of the auto modes though. I love the work of Adam King on instagram. He shoots mainly in shutter priority. This gives you control over the shutter speed and lets the camera do the rest. However, his photos have a moody vibe, so won’t be harmed by the camera thinking that some of the detail needs to be darker than you might want. He also shoots with a Sony A9, which has about as much dynamic range as you can get, so allows for a lot of adjustment in post-production. 

Fast shutter speeds

If you do opt to shoot manual - and another reason to choose to shoot manual in the first place - is to think about your shutter speed. Waves and (some) surfers move fast, so to freeze the action you’ve got to crank that shutter speed - unless of course, you’re going for that blurred look.

Do what you’ve gotta do to achieve this. High ISO (artificial light), lower the aperture (which will result in a shallower focus - but I’d rather have a shallower depth of field than a blurry photo).

I won’t go into detail on the fundamentals of shooting manual now, as it’s a whole blog in itself, but you’ll need something pretty fast. I don’t normally risk less than 1/500. And I have no problem at all being even faster. You’ll only find out how far you can push your camera by trying it. So go out and shoot; make mistakes and learn form them.

The best advice for shooting manual is to take a few test shots of empty waves before shooting the shots you're aiming to get. There's no reason not to with digital photography.

A note on aperture

It feels amiss, after telling you to shoot manual, and talking about shutter speed, not to at least mention aperture… 

Rather than give the typical advice of saying 'shoot so things are in focus' - which would need a double digit f-stop to give some level of focus to all but the extreme distances, I’d say just be mindful of your environment and know what to expect.

If you want the background and foreground to be in some level of focus, I start playing around from about f7-9, which should give some level of focus to most of the frame. The higher you go, the more of the frame will be in focus.

On the other hand, if you’re submerged in something you’d like to be out of focus, to add depth to the image, play around with smaller apertures. The joy of photography is playing with things like this. Don’t let the trends and what other photographers do dictate your style. 

There is no right and wrong. Sometimes having everything in focus, at f16 or so, is great. You can show off the beautiful scenery surrounding the subject.

Other times, this can be distracting. In which case, a larger aperture (smaller number), like f2.8 can work nicely to isolate your subject.

I love depth in my images and aperture is a great tool to emphasise depth.

Although I don't think there is a 'right' aperture, it's important to know what you expect  at each level, but bear in mind that your outcome will be determined by your lens, your camera sensor and the aperture.

Again, experiment. Make. Fail. Learn. Repeat.

Sometimes you'll have the choice of depth taken out of your hands though. If you’ve got your shutter as low as you dare and have already cranked the ISOs as far as your camera will allow, you might have to sacrifice a bit of depth to get some extra light in. Don’t let it worry you too much. You're better to get a well lit shot, in my opinion.

Always be prepared

In every way and at all times. 

Before the session: Prepare. Clean your gear, charge your batteries and empty your memory cards. I’m actually a proponent of setting everything out the night before a shoot. Even then I still manage to forget stuff. But it minimises the risk. The more you do beforehand the less you’ll mess up. At the very least it allows more time to recognise and rectify your mistakes.

On the beach: Stay prepared. If you’re stood speaking to people, you might make friends, but you will miss shots. Even in lulls between sets, be productive. If you’re not repositioning, is there anything which might make a good picture - even if it’s not an action shot. Surfers speaking in the lull, walking down the beach, or even just a scenic landscape. When you publish your photos, these images all help to tell the story.

The exact same principles apply if you are shooting in the water.

I personally take this to the extreme. After having missed shots, you could say I learned the hard way. Even when you’re walking down to the ocean, or back to the car afterwards, be prepared.

Be patient

Don’t expect to nail the shot you want straight away. Surf photography relies on so many variables to line up: surfers, your positioning and the right wave to name just a few. It’s all these things which make it so rewarding when you pull it off, but don’t expect it to happen straight away. It might even take more than the one session!

Tom Magliozzi said that “happiness equals reality, minus expectation”, so set your expectations properly to avoid disappointment.

Be mobile

There’s two benefits to keeping mobile. Firstly, you don’t want to get home with a heap of the same photo, and secondly, it will help you grow as a photographer. Even if you take some shots which aren’t good - at least you know this angle doesn’t work for the future. Likewise, you’ll know which shots do work and be able to use this knowledge. 

I’m personally pretty trigger happy too, in the sense that I shoot a lot of different waves, including empty ones of the lineup. 

When the surfer is up though, I’m on the other end of the spectrum. I’ll get a few shots of someone trimming down the line, but I won’t just slam the shutter for the duration. I’ll lift the finger at the less interesting parts of the wave and fire again once I know they’re setting something up. If you’re not a surfer you might not have this privilege, but if you can read waves and  read surfers, use this knowledge to your advantage. Save your self memory card space and time when editing. 

Pro Tip: Think about your metadata

Any photograph you take, whether on your phone, or a pro DSLR, will have attached to it, what’s known as 'metadata'.

Metadata can be really useful. It will include info about the camera settings, the time and date and crucially - to be aware of - sometimes the location.

I add metatags in Lightroom too. These tags label the photo and enable me to search for it - and others like it - in Lightroom. Things like who’s in the shot, where it was taken, what is in it. That way, if I want to search for a surfing shot, I can literally search “surfing”. 

But my real reason for mentioning metatags is to warn you. You should be conscious and careful of what they contain. I’ve discovered secret spots due to people uploading photos metadata which gives it away. Basically, if you don’t want people to know where you’ve been shooting remove it. You can do this in Lightroom - you can even set it so certain metatags do not export. 

© Chris Kendall 2022

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