Tag Archives: surfing

My views on shooting better surf photography

Yesterday my friend John and I were talking about some general photography topics while at an art & wine festival in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He asked me what settings I use and I gave an honest, brief answer: “They’re all different.” I thought to myself “Self, that was a lame answer.” The response was true enough, a longer answer would have gone on all day. I thought I’d try to write a brief answer for the subjects I tend to shoot. The plan was to write something short and introductory. Naturally that turned into something long and introductory. I broke it up into 3 topics (Landscape, Surf/sports, and portraits). Let’s start with my favorite: Surf


I shoot a lot of surf. You probably already knew that. I recently read a blog about how to shoot better surf photographs. I disliked that article loudly and had many, many points of disagreement. So, rather than rant about that I thought that I would write my own thoughts.

I use shutter priority as my main setting. Things happen so fast that there’s just not enough time for manual mode. I keep it to 1/1000 of a second or a little faster to freeze the action. There’s not a lot of added value in shutter speeds faster than 1/1600. Sometimes the extra blur in a wave tells a great story about motion so there are times when a slower shutter speed may be exactly what you want.

Shoot RAW. This should need no serious explanation. You have options when editing the RAW photo. Those options mostly go bye bye if you’re shooting in JPEG.

Longer lenses are generally better. A 70-200mm telephoto is great. I prefer my Canon 70-200mm f/4 because the autofocus is fast, smooth, and silent. The quality of the lens is very high while still being affordable. I also like to use my Sigma 150-500mm  (check out Gordon’s review of the lens). Both have their moments when they are the right tool for the job. Both have their moments when they are just wrong. I think this can only be learned with personal experience. Bringing your most expensive lens might be a mistake because of the wear and tear that happens in this environment; leave the Canon 70-200 f/2.8 at home.


Faster autofocus is better. My Canon and Sigma lenses are perfect. My Tamron 70-300 is a pig. I’ve found that even the consumer level Canon telephotos are pretty good.

My ISO tends to be higher which catches more light and allows for faster shutter speeds. This will vary depending on the conditions, but consider a range of 400 to 1600 as a good target. Allow for noise in the image, but honestly with today’s cameras it will still be OK.
I try to keep the aperture from f/8 to maybe f/13. F/8 works well for a couple of reasons:

  • Most lenses are optimized for f/8. My Sigma 150-500 will get a sharp image at f/8 but will be rather soft at something more open than 7.1.
  • F/8 will also yield a decent depth of field. Let’s face it, your subject is usually a single surfer with a wave behind her. That’s usually a distance of a meter or so. That’s more than enough depth of field usually.

Shutter priority adjusts the aperture automatically to keep as close to your set shutter speed as possible. If you find that you’re getting apertures smaller than f/13 (f/13 to f/22) then consider reducing your ISO because your camera thinks that it has plenty of light.


Focus: AI-Servo for Canon. I think it’s Continuous Servo for Nikon (feel free to correct me on that since I’m a Canon user). Your subject is moving so you need a focus mode that tracks the moving target. “One Shot” mode will get you a photo of where your subject was, not where she is. Setup your camera for back-button focus if it’s available.

Focus point: I keep focus on my subject’s head. If you find that her face is smaller than the focus point then you may be too far away. I set that focus point manually with a few things in mind but I can summarize like this:

  • If she is moving towards your left, then set the focus point on the right and give her some room to move left in the frame.
  • Pan with her as she crosses your field of vision. This creates a more visually interesting photo because it tells more of a story than if she was dead-center.
surfing, Santa Cruz
Give your subject room in the frame to move

Set up for burst mode. More shots per second is better (not quite “spray and pray”). Things happen fast so give yourself the opportunity to choose the best moment out of a selection. I like the Canon 7D, 7D mk II, and 1D because I’ll get 7-10 shots per second (the Canon 70D also looks like a good bet). I have heard that the latest Nikon D500 is killer. Faster cards are better so that writing to media from the memory cache happens quickly enough so you can shoot again in a second or two. Plan well if your camera gets 4 frames per second or fewer.

SMC_2802 SMC_2803 SMC_2804

Use a lens hood. This keeps some of the crud and sea spray off of your glass. I prefer this to a UV filter “for protection” any day. (Again, I loathe UV filters. I think they’re better at earning a salesman a few extra bucks than they are at doing anything useful for you). If you really need to clean off your glass, do so with great care. Chances are you’re making sand paper. Blow it off first with a Rocket Blaster or similar first. Honestly I’ve found that gunk on the lens itself doesn’t impact the image nearly as much as gunk on the sensor does, so I kind of let it go.

Turn off any image stabilization features. At these shutter speeds there’s really no need for it and it can result in blurry or missed shots. Image stabilization is there to help you keep still. With sports you are shooting a moving subject and you need to move. Image stabilization works against you here.

Use a monopod if you’ve got a super telephoto (> 200mm) or if you find holding a telephoto to be difficult and heavy. I will hand hold my 70-200, but I’ll use a monopod for my 500 after a while (that Sigma is over 4 pounds, so swinging that guy around for more than a couple of hours is a workout). Be very aware of people around you because it’s easy to follow the action and smack the person standing next to you. This is extra true with longer lenses. I don’t like using a tripod for this and here’s why:

  • It limits your ability to follow the action quickly.
  • It limits the angles that you can get (the idea of a tripod is to hold your camera still for a highly planned composition)
  • It takes more space. I’ve mentioned that I prefer the cliffs. If I’m turning on the tripod then chances are that I’ll trip over one of the tripod legs. If this happens then at best everything gets knocked over. At worst everything goes into the ocean. There’s also a likelihood that somebody else will trip over it and you never saw him coming.
  • It’s one more thing to carry. You need to move fast and this slows you down.

A buddy of mine played “devil’s advocate” to my assertion regarding tripods. His point was that for very expensive glass then a more sturdy platform is better. Generally I agree with that, but man, that shot had better be worth it. I’m not bringing a $10k lens unless I have a very, very good reason.

A rule of thumb for shooting hand-held: Hand held photography is prone to blurry images due to camera shake. This can be minimized with a faster shutter speed. The inverse of your focal length in terms of fractions of a second is a handy rule. So, if I am shooting at 200mm then I’ll get my best results starting at 1/200 of a second. There is some argument about if this works with crop-sensor cameras which have the visual effect of making the focal length look longer. I haven’t found that to be the case but I have no objection to the idea. When you’re shooting at 1/1000 sec then this is a non-issue.

Be extra aware of your surroundings. I can’t stress this enough. It’s easy to get too comfortable and then be in grave danger before you know what hit you.

  • Never turn your back to the ocean. Note the sets as they roll in. Even when you think you know what’s coming a sneaker wave will eventually come and clobber you.
  • I prefer to stick to the beach or cliffs. Cliffs are dangerous, and more so than you realize. You don’t know if you’re actually on an overhang or over a cave. Heck, I didn’t realize that one of my favorite spots was an overhang until I saw footage from a drone.
  • If you see gopher holes along the cliff then back off because that’s weakened ground.
  • Dorsal fins: this should need no explanation. Get out of the water. Again I prefer to stick to the beaches and cliffs.
  • Look around for other opportunities. Backstory often says more than the surf action does. Look for it.
surfer, sunset, Santa Cruz, California
A surfer hurries runs ahead of a dazzling sunset

Water housings: I don’t have a lot to say about this topic because it’s not my thing. Higher quality is clearly better. If you’re going this route then spend the money on higher quality gear. Dave “Nelly” Nelson, Clark Little, and more get some incredible results from being in the water.

Drones: I have mixed opinions. They get unique photos at a time when we really need something that looks different. I also believe that they are an unwelcome distraction to the athlete. Let’s just see where this goes. Bring popcorn.


Avoid shooting right into the sun. This will result in lens flares that distract from your subject. Some people like this look. I generally don’t and consider them an error. Break this rule occasionally for fun.

Tell the story. This is essentially photojournalism. Get names if you can.


Watch for a while before shooting. Get to know who’s going to do something interesting. Watch what he does and when. Look for the bottom turn — a key, decisive moment. He may shoot across, up, and get some air. This can be your best shot of the day, so pay attention.

surfer, Nat Young, Santa Cruz, Steamer Lane
Nat Young at Steamer Lane, Sept 2015

Lighting: Shoot when the light is good. A complete discussion on this is beyond the scope of this blog post. Just consider that light from the side and at an angle results in a better photo. Shooting at noon will have light straight down resulting in shadows that make a person look like a raccoon.

Our water is pretty cold around northern California, so our surfers are almost always wearing wetsuits. The practical upshot is that you have a dark subject (the surfer) against a midtone (the wave). The photo’s histogram can have a tendency to lack detail in the darkest darks and the lightest lights. Adding some black and pushing the whites up in post add a lot of pop the photo. Then go about recovering shadow areas on the surfer as needed via Lightroom.

surfer, photo editing, lightroom, surf photography
An unedited photo from Pleasure Point, Capitola. A dark subject against midtone waves.
histogram, lightroom
The histogram for the above image. Note the bump in the middle indicating the midtones, the edge at left for darks, and almost nothing for brights to the right. This has a rather narrow dynamic range and will need some editing to bring out details.

Planning: This is a doozie. Don’t just go to the beach and expect to shoot some surf. Plan for success.

  • Check the surf reports. I like Magic Seaweed, but will sometimes use SurfLine .
  • Check for good surf early and late in the day. The light is best at these times.
  • Check the weather reports.
  • If the weather lines up with the good surf on the report then you may be golden. One exception might be overcast skies — overcast works as a great natural diffuser so push that ISO and have fun.
  • Check for events. I like SurfingAmerica . Maybe there’s a contest going on and some rock stars will be there.
SMC_5205, Autumn Hays, Santa Cruz, Sean McLean Photography
Autumn Hays, local superstar competing at a Surfing America scholastic event. Feb, 2016

Don’t be a jerk: I usually avoid photos of surfers wiping out. My general thought is that if they don’t look good then I don’t look good. But once in a while it is really funny. Season to taste but don’t be a jerk. I also don’t reward surfers acting badly. If somebody’s mistreating somebody out there then he’s ignored. End of story.

I try to avoid taking photos of children. Kids surfing in an event is a different story, but I’m a parent and I totally get it. If I catch a creep taking weird pictures of my daughter I’d be that dude in his face making him reconsider some life choices.

What’s legal to use for print depends on local law. In most cases in California it falls under “public person”. Sometimes if I have something that will be used commercially then I ask permission and may even have a model release form handy (there are apps for this). Most people are stoked about it and happily grant permission.

Pick up some trash while you’re out. See some cigarette butts? Plastic bags & wrappers? Pick them up so they don’t end up in the ocean. Others notice, comment, and start doing the same. Treasure these places.

Break the rules: So many surf photos look so similar that it’s hard to tell the difference between them. Look for something unique. Look for something that you can call your own. It’s the most amazing feeling when somebody can flip through a set of surf photos and identify one as being yours because of how it looked.

surfing, surfer, long exposure
Break the rules by using a slow shutter speed

West Side Street Scene

These are the kinds of images that move me, but it’s not just a snapshot. I have lived in coastal areas almost all of my life. The kinds of images that you see in Endless Summer, Surfer Magazine, or half of the travel magazines out there have been the things I see around me almost every day. To me, this isn’t “surf photography” it’s just photography. There’s not a lot of money to be made in this genre, but it’s my favorite topic to shoot and share.


This particular image is one that you’d think would be a simple snapshot — a street scene in a beach town. You’d be close, but it’s not that simple. I was shooting surf near Indicators on the west side of Santa Cruz, California and I had my longer telephoto mounted. A friend of mine was surfing and the light on her was spectacular. I turned around and these other two beautiful girls were walking back  to Steamer Lane. This is exactly the kind of scene that I love the most: people experiencing — living — the coastal lifestyle together. I can’t pass these moments up.

So here’s my situation: The closest focal length I can use is now 150mm. To frame up the photo with the gear I have ready I have to move, and move fast. I’m setup for surf at 500mm in somewhat ambient light. I’m also setup for fairly high ISO and a rapid burst of frames (my Canon 7d Mk II will get around 10 shots per second in RAW depending on the speed of the cards used) . Now I have to adjust to this moving subject that’s lit from the side. I had to jog backwards setup my monopod again, frame the shot and go. (In non-photographer jargon that means that I was setup to shoot serious distance with a pro camera designed for sports. To get them setup the way I wanted I had to plan quickly.)

Editing was a little more involved and I needed to put a lot of thought into it. There was distracting cruft to the left and to the right, so a bit of cropping was needed. I like to bring out detail in the dark wetsuits, so I masked them and brought up the shadows selectively in Lightroom. The general ambiance was warmed some, noise toned down, then the girls were sharpened. Other smaller distractions were removed in Photoshop in one last sweep.

Could I have just gone with the shot as it happened? Maybe, but I’m not looking for snapshots. I want to make art. Why spend the time on a photo that I’m positive won’t have any return on the investment? The same reason I studied Art instead of Computer Science. I wanted to.