TV set, boxing and fins – The basics of surf photography

For a beginner, surf photography may seem like an easy task.

It would seem that you take a camera, a larger lens, and go slap the masterpieces.

But every surf photographer will tell you that things are not as easy as they seem. Most of the memorable shots in surf history involve both the photographer’s skill and a bit of luck.

With the development of digital photography, entry into this area has become much more accessible.

Therefore, serious amateur photographers can easily compete with the masters of surf photography.

But to get a great shot, it’s not enough to point the camera at the surfer and flip the shutter button.

For a good picture, you need all the stars to converge: great waves, great light, skillful surfer, that very moment, movement, a wave section, photographer’s position, frame composition, camera settings.

Sometimes, you need to shoot tens of thousands of photos and hundreds of gigabytes to get a masterpiece.

Often, a single surfer in the ocean may not be enough for an interesting shot. Therefore, you need to learn to use light to the maximum.

And also, include something else besides the water and the rider in the frame. These can be dunes, boats, trees, rocks, stones, piers, animals, clouds, sun, and much more.

Plus, add to these different weather conditions: sun, rain, thunderstorm, cold, heat. The field for experimentation is enormous!

It is still much more complicated here when shooting from the water. The first time you get into the water with a box for underwater photography, you don’t understand anything at all.

Surfers are far away, it’s scary to move close to them, and after all, waves are constantly coming! But then, when it starts to work, you will feel like you are making great shots.

This illusion appears because the photograph taken in the ocean is very expressive in itself: here, you have a unique view of the waves, and the surfer is very close, and the camera is as compact to the surface of the water as possible.

However, it is worth remembering that most shots taken from the water are incredibly similar for different photographers. Therefore, keep experimenting, look for something new.

And, of course, don’t shoot mindlessly. Plan your shoot. Negotiate with surfers, discuss your ideas with them, listen to them. Set yourself a goal; what do you want to shoot?


The cost of a complete set of surf photography equipment can easily exceed tens of thousands of dollars. But don’t be upset.

You can always start with something more straightforward and then, as you gain experience and money, change the technique to a more advanced one.

So, you will need:

  1. High-quality camera, better SLR or mirrorless, such as Canon, Nikon, Sony.
  2. Wide angle lens. Use it to shoot from water (in pipes) or underwater and shoot spots from the shore.
  3. Telephoto lens. The longer and faster, the better.
  4. Tripod.
    A large, short telephoto lens camera can easily weigh over 5 kilograms.

    How long can you hold such a set in a canopy without support?

  5. A couple of high-speed memory cards. The faster and more voluminous, the better. Photographers often shoot the passages of surfers in burst mode. Such a series of dozens of frames very quickly fill the camera’s buffer and memory card.
  6. Photo bag/backpack. A specialized pack will allow you to transport equipment with full certification.
  7. Box for underwater photography. A good box can cost about the same as a good camera. Don’t be greedy. The miser pays twice – if the box leaks, you will almost certainly lose both the camera and the lens.
  8. Good, comfortable fins. Swimming in the ocean on a lineup without fins is very difficult and dangerous.
  9. Mask. For an amateur. Someone likes to shoot in it, someone without. But remember, it can keep your eyes safe from future problems.


Photography is an incredibly vast area. In the days of film photography, you had to shoot many films to get a high-quality frame, having previously re-read a bunch of literature.
With the advent of digital cameras, things have become much more accessible.

However, if you are serious about getting down to business, I advise you to start by learning the basics of photography.

Next, I will briefly outline the points that every photographer needs to know.

  1. Know your camera. Read the instructions. Let none of the options on the menu be a secret for you. Learn how your camera works. And shoot as often as possible.
  2. Master photography. It is a massive part of the photography business and is responsible for the technical side of photography. Namely, for how, with a given amount of light, to make a technically perfect frame (not overexposed and not too dark). Once you’ve learned the basics, use the settings to further your creative goals.
  3. Study the light. Photo, translated from Greek, means “light painting.”
    Light is the primary tool of the photographer.

    Where there is attractive light, there is a beautiful shot. Shoot in a wide variety of weather conditions and at different times of the day.

  4. Master the basic principles and rules of frame construction – photo compositions. Where should the picture’s main subject (surfer or wave) be located, in which part of the frame, on which plane (foreground, middle, or background), what else should be nearby, etc.?
  5. Experiment with the vantage point. Lower / higher, closer, further, right, left. Don’t be lazy to walk back and forth trying to find the perfect location (and don’t just stand in the shade).
  6. Read about the depth of field. Use it to convey the volume of the depicted scene and emphasize the frame’s depth.
  7. In the digital era, images need to be processed.
    However, remember that a wrong frame cannot be extended by processing.

    And remember not to overdo it.  Too flashy colors or too much contrast are horrible tastes.

  8. The right moment is the main thing. After all, a considerable part of surf photography is sports photography. We missed a little with the moment the surfer moved – the frame was not successful. A short moment can decide whether a shot will be a masterpiece or not. Even if you do not ride yourself, observe the surfers constantly: where they make maneuvers, in which parts of the wave, at what moment.
  9. Knowing and reading the ocean is as much a must for a surf photographer as it is for a surfer. If you can read the sea, you will know which wave the surfer will choose for his ride; you will understand how it closes, where, and when. It means you will be ready not to miss the magic moment.
  10. Surf photography is not just about shooting surfers on a wave. Shoot waves. Landscapes, Take portraits; try to tell a story with your pictures.
  11. Explore the work of masters of surf photography. Jeff Divine, Chris Burkard, Todd Glaser, Woody Gooch, Morgan Maasen, Roy Collins are a few masters. But don’t forget about the maestro of photography, classics of other genres!
As with any other direction of photography, practice is essential.

The more you shoot, the better you get, the more varied your shots will become.

The main thing is not to stop looking. And never stop loving the ocean, surfing. Good luck on this challenging path!



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