Depending on where you are from, what you photograph will vary. For some, it’s beautiful towering mountain tops and crystal clear streams. For others, it’s glimmering cityscapes and the urban flow of a city. No matter what you love to shoot, we each have our own unique take on our favorite subjects. While the New England Surf scene isn’t quite the same as Hawaii or California, I owe my roots in photography to it. For me, the Atlantic served as a introduction to the joys of photography. While this may not be relevant if you are land locked, you never know where you may end up in your travels.
As I’ve mentioned various times, I’m a firm believer in working with what you have, but there are some basics that will help you out when it comes to surf photography. Having a good telephoto lens is always nice. However, that is not to say you can’t get away with using a shorter lens, it really depends on where you are shooting. I have definitely shot beach breaks with 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm primes on crop frame sensors. Using shorter lenses can give you more of an atmospheric shot and can be great for capturing lifestyle images. If you looking to get a little extra zoom out for your lenses, shooting with a camera that has a crop frame sensor can help you achieve this. While I normally shoot with a D750, sometimes if I’m shooting a point break or looking to get a little closer to the action, I will use my D7000.
While long, fast telephotos are awesome, they will put a serious dent in your wallet. For a long time I got away with using a very basic canon 100-300mm F4/5.6. While is wasn’t the greatest lens ever made, it was affordable and with the help of post production, it got the job done. More often than not, I have found that because you are outside, low light isn’t to much of an issue and when it is, use the opportunity to experiment with speed blurs and shutter dragging. Another way to get into the action is to shoot from the water. Most good water housing cost as much as a camera but if you are serious about getting into surf photography then the investment could be worth your while. I have used some cheap alternatives before, which are basically glorified plastic bags. Although, you have to be careful for fins and rocks and I wouldn't take the chance on taking one into any serious surf as to strong of a wave would most likely flood your bag.
Part of what I love so much about surf photography is how directly related to weather it is. Surf conditions are affected by so many factors including swell direction, height, wind, and tide just to name a few. And all of that only determines if there will be surf, now you have to add someone who has enough skill to to ride them and lighting conditions to make for a good shot. If you are interested in surf photography, I highly recommend that you start paying attention to the weather. Get use to waking up early for dawn patrol, as glassy conditions are often found early in the morning along with the best lighting. Websites like Surfline and Magic Seaweed are good places to begin learning about different breaks near you and when they are good. You can also look at tide charts and begin to pay attention to what the tidal conditions are when the surf in looking good.
Like anything else that you photograph, you have to have a knowledge of your subject to be able to create the best possible image. Just because you have a pretty girl to photograph, it doesn’t mean you will take a pretty photo. Surfing is similar in the way that you can have a great surfer, great waves and great lighting, but if you don’t time your shot correctly it will seriously take away from your image. Studying surf magazine and website are great ways to get a good understand of what a properly timed surf photo is. In my opinion, the best way to improve your work is to really get in tune with the ocean, what better way to do that then to surf or spend time in the water. Most of the time, the surfers that I photograph are my friends, after a session, I will go through the photos with them. Surfing and photography have always had close ties and most talented surfers know a thing or 2 about photography or at least what makes a good surf photo. Pick their brains, ask them what photos are their favorites and why.
Like anything you photograph, don’t expect to show up and instantly get things right. Surf photography is fun, you get to spend time outside in beautiful environments and hopefully hang out with friends. On the other hand, the conditions can be difficult, it is fast paced, you can miss shots or waves and the weather doesn’t always cooperate. Getting good shots takes time, lots of planning and self motivation. But if you are willing to put in the time, continuously learn about shooting, weather and how the ocean affects all of this, it can be a truly rewarding and eye opening experience.