How To Photograph Surfing, An Introduction

There is so much to love about surf photography: salty fresh air, the beauty of the ocean, the excitement of watching young and old catch a wave, the athleticism and grace of the surfers, the power of the ocean, and the amazing surfing community. Here are my tips about how and why you should photograph surfing.

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Photographing Surfing Well is Challenging.

Shooting surf photography well is challenging and incredibly rewarding. Sure, anyone can take a shot, but to REALLY nail the focus and composition of someone on a moving mountain takes practice. Look at the image on a large screen or print, not your tiny iPhone screen, it’s quite different. I shoot a lot of sports photography, particularly soccer and MMA. Those are also challenging sports to shoot, but they really only happen on one plane of movement. Surfing happens on three planes, left to right, up and down and back to front. The best images happen when the photographer understands the sport, the particular surfing break, and anticipates well. You must understand your focus points, your auto focus zones, shutter speed, ISO, have good timing and seek a composition that gives perspective to the size of the waves. A really great shot may also capture the water color, texture, background elements and the expressions on the surfer’s face or others nearby. Try to find a vantage point where the surfer will come towards you, rather than away from you. Does your subject tend to surf to their right or their left? Depending on the break, there may not be a choice. You’ll want to know so you can position yourself accordingly.

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The Gear You Need for Surfing Photography

You will need a very long lens, and a camera with great auto focus. My go to combination is the Canon 7DMk2 and the Tamron 150-600mm G2 for action shots from the beach. You will want a very fast memory card when shooting 9 frames a second or more! The Tamron 150-600 is an incredible value proposition at around $1200. For comparison a Canon 600 f/4 is about $12,000. If you have cash to burn like a money launderer, then go for it. If you are shooting for a long time, you’ll want a tripod and perhaps a gimble. Don’t miss the action ON the beach either. There are lots of great images to be had out of the water as surfers prepare, and spectators react. Recently I’ve been using my Fuji XT-4, and the Fuji 50 mm f/1.0 which is great in dawn low light. If shooting later in the day, and an ND filter by Nisi Optics USA. The 5-9 stop ND filter let you shoot the 50mm f/1.0 nice and wide open for that blurry bokeh, even in the bright sun. I’ve recently purchased a water housing and started shooting IN the ocean which is incredible. I’ll talk about that in another post/video.

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The Surfing Community is Amazing

The community around surfing is amazing. People of all ages enjoy the water and cheer you on as you surf and improve. Anyone who has been to a surfing competition or surfed at Old Man’s at San Onofre knows what I mean. Personally, I enjoy longboarding because of the style and chill vibe. I’ve surfed in some locals only places, and I find that if you are respectful of the local norms, and patient, you can surf almost anywhere. I’ve been surfing for 25 years (I ought to be better but I have a lot of fun) and photographing surfing for over 10 years. My whole family surfs and my wife and I love it when we can surf with both kids. Lately, I’ve been watching my daughter and her friends grow and improve as surfers, and now she is introducing me to HER awesome surfing friends. She’s started competing a bit and the stoke of the surf community is palpable. It’s really fun to experience the coaches, the students, the parents all cheering the kids on as they catch waves and wipe out. They are there for the joy. It’s one of the few sports you can do for your entire life, 7 to 75.

Frank - Surfing coach, surfer, writer, bon vivant and his classic surf van!

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Photographing Surfing with a Water Housing 

Recently, I added a water housing to my photographic arsenal. I LOVE the images of surfing and water that can be taken IN the ocean! I plan to do a video/blog on this soon, in the meantime check out this image! The warm afternoon sun, the ocean texture.....amazing. 

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Toes almost on the nose in the finals at the 2021 Kick Off Classic Surf Competition. Over 200 boys and girls from South Bay High Schools competed in long board and short board. Despite the tough competition she got 1st place.

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P.S. Don’t forget your sunscreen!

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