Golden hour! Remember, when shooting surf, you’re at the mercy of the sunlight, and the best times of day to capture this magic lighting is sunrise and sunset. Shoot when the waves are good, but shoot more when the light is incredible. You’ll refill your inspiration bucket and will be surprised with how great everything looks when the sun is glowing.
Shooting the very best waves will always produce a more defining moment. The biggest and cleanest surf you can find will show the drama of the session through wipeouts and the triumphs of making a big clean tube. Start your wave check early and wait to find the sandbar or reef pass that’s working best at your location, you’ll see your ratio of keeper photos climb.
My favorite view of surfing is shooting from the water. Whether I’m up close and personal with a wide angle lens or pulled back a bit with a telephoto, I’m happiest making pictures in the water with my Canon 5D Mark III stuffed inside a carbon fiber waterproof housing. To make these images it’s just me free-swimming through the waves with a pair of fins, my camera, and a wetsuit. Often, what makes or breaks the perfect surf shot is the photographer’s position relative to the subject. Think Robert Capa, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” When shooting wide angle, get as close at you can without getting hurt. Fins on surfboards can be incredibly dangerous, waves will pummel you, but the main goal is to be in the wave with your subject. This is the coveted perspective in surf photography.
Point of Difference
Shoot outside the box. Surf photographers are privy to some of the most beautiful moments on this earth. Not only can we see our friends catch awesome waves, but we ourselves can see the beauty of the ocean with front row seats. My suggestion is to put your own touch on it, shoot empty waves, slow shutter, lifestyle. Shoot everything that catches your eye at the beach. Remember that capturing waves is as interpretative as riding them.
I started shooting surf in New Jersey! Before you laugh, let me remind you that the East Coast gets world class waves a few times a year and rivals many surf destinations around the world. It’s quite fickle and many times you score the peak of the swell for a few short hours before the tide drains and winds shift. During periods of flat spells or during the summer season, I’ll often take a trip to somewhere totally different. This will keep your stoke high, your eye trained, and portfolio looking fresh.