Creating Painterly Surfer Photographs With a Slow Shutter

Creating Painterly Surfer Photographs With a Slow Shutter

Recently, I've gotten into surfing. I'm quite possibly the worst surfer in the world, but through surfing, I met some great, artistic friends. I acted as the DP on a super fun all-women's surf film this summer. I had no idea how to shoot surfers, so it was a huge learning experience. Now that I know a little bit more about it (and I stress the "little bit more"), I thought I would try and shoot a personal project just for fun to test out an artsy-fartsy idea. 

One of my favorite periods in the history of art is impressionism. Near the end of the 19th century, some painters got a little crazy, and I like that; Crazy is good. Of course you all know Monet, Renior, Cassatt, and if you don't please stop reading and just Google them. Better yet, head to an art gallery. I love this genre and time of art because of the lines, or almost the lack thereof. One of my very favorite series of all time is by Monet (I know you're thinking, "Wow, that's original, Chelsey"); Monet had a pond dug in his yard and filled with water lilies. And the dude was a maniac and painted them, literally hundreds of paintings of his pond. Talk about discipline.

Water Lilies, Monet, 1922

I know this style isn't everyone's cup of tea, but man I love it! The fact that the brushstrokes, when looked at individually, look as though they are carelessly thrown on the canvas, and then to look at the image as a whole, and realize, "Those six strokes make a lily!" It got me thinking, how can I add an impressionist style to my photography, something painterly looking, without being too on the nose (And yeah, I hate when photographers Photoshop their images to look like paintings. It doesn't look like one, nor does it look good. There, I said it.).

My surf buddies were more than happy to get their photos taken, so we headed out to Folly Beach. Unfortunately for the surfers, the waves were, well, shit, and it was overcast and cold. I set up my tripod, and shot with my very old and trusty Canon 7D (purchased in 2010, the newer version here), and a new lens, the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM. Now I knew the basic idea of what I wanted to do: capture the surfer sharply, or as sharp as I could, while dragging the shutter and following the surfer to create lines in the water. I failed tremendously for a good 30 minutes. How did photographer Cameron Spencer make it look so easy?

The above image is SOC, I personally think it's pretty cool, but it's just not what I had in mind. This was a pretty good exposure, shot at 1/10 s, ISO 125, and f/32. But the exposure isn't what is tricky about getting the shot. Yes, there is a sweet spot with dragging the shutter speed, but the real sorcery in capturing the images is how you move the camera. I say sorcery, because if I am honest, it was just luck that I got any of those girls in focus. Basically, I'm magic.

I finally started to get the hang of it, moving the camera at the right time and speed. The waves were not great, but it was awesome for me to test out the shoot. I plan on shooting more like this, because it's fun. Has it been done better? Well duh, but this project helped me have a little bit of artistic fun, where I usually shoot more "commercial" style images and videos for Fstoppers. The decision to turn the images black and white was purely due to the fact that the South Carolina coast is not the pretty blue that you see in great surf; black and white added to the style, I hope helping the viewers imagine the water was blue. I edited the color using multiple gradient map layers, and masking out here and there to make sure the surfers were still the most prominent subject in the image.

Overall, I really love how these images turned out. Do you shoot high-speed sports with a slow shutter? What are some of your favorite photos shot like these? Post them in the comments below, and any tips are helpful.

Also, remember, it's important to have a good assistant on hand, makes waiting for the sets a little more bearable.

Chelsey Rogers's picture

Chelsey Rogers is a commercial video editor. She's done work for Walmart, Hallmark, and many other Fortune 500 companies.

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I'm a big fan of panning shots. This is one I did for a magazine. It was the first time that tried panning, and like you it took me about 15 minutes before I found the right settings to show motion while still having a relatively clean vehicle.

This is one of mine... River waves are easier! Its a 2 shot composite!

wow!!! love love love the water, how did you do the composite?

Its on a river wave so the wave is always at the same place! I took one shot with ND filter on, after without moving the tripod i removed the nd filter and shoot several images on the kayaker. Then i just layered my two shots and painted the kayaker back in!


he does well with keeping the birds out of the frame!

The article had me at, "Recently, I've gotten into surfing..." and I say, "good for you!". The most you'll ever learn about yourself will come from it.

I don't shoot a lot of sports, much less, high-speed sports with slow shutter speeds, but the 7th shot down (in case I'm off, the one just above the trusty assistant shot) was my favorite. As both, not necessarily a good surfer and an obvious amateur photographer I won't go on and on about how to make it better.

As for Cameron's shot... I think he got a little lucky, and there's nothing wrong with that. ;)

thank you!! and yes, sometimes luck helps!

Hitch Haller dropping into the halfpipe in Laax, 2015.

nice!! love the black and white too :)

I've been doing something very similar for a couple of years now, but mainly nature and a few cityscapes (samples here: It's interesting to see it used in a different context. Many thanks for sharing.

wow this is beautiful! I love all the colors!! I wish the water was nicer here :)

It's nice to pan occasionally.

ok WHAT!! You had to add a little blur to this!! Amazing shot!

Apart from colour correction, this is straight out of camera.

WOW amazing!