A Guide To Surf Photography: Tips and Techniques

A Guide To Surf Photography: Tips and Techniques

It always takes time to really master any craft that you choose, and the same rings true for surf photography. I have spent countless hours in and out of the water over the years with the aim to improve my surfing pictures each time I enter the water. I find that no matter how much you think you know, there is always more to learn.

If you’re just getting started in surf photography or you’re fairly experienced and just looking to improve your techniques, this article has something for everyone. It contains and range of surf photography tips and techniques which will have you shooting like a pro in no time.

Understanding Your Equipment

Before we begin to get into the camera settings its worth discussing the type of equipment you will need. Just like camera lenses, different pieces of equipment have different uses. So if you have a particular type of surf picture you would like to take then this is worth noting.


It goes without saying that the camera is easily the most obvious piece of equipment that you will be needing. Unfortunately, there isn’t a go-to camera for surf photography, so it’s at your discretion which camera you decide to use. If the camera your using takes photos then your off to a good start but if you’re looking to purchase a new camera, I would personally aim for a camera which has a good focusing system and has a high frame rate per second.


Just like in any other genre of photography, the type of lens you choose to use is going to have an impact on the type of photos you come home with. When it comes to surf photography there are a few other decisions which may impact the lens you decide to shoot with on the day but I’ll talk about that a little later in the article.

Wide Angle

Depending on if you are using zoom lenses or prime lenses, a wide angle can offer a great deal of versatility. A wide-angle lens can range from 15mm all the way up to 24mm. I like to shoot with Canon’s 16-35mm f/2.8 because the focal length gives me a little more range to play with when it’s in the housing.

A wide angle will allow you to take shots from in front of the barrel or shoulder of the wave as well as any underwater shots that you have in mind. I’m guessing that your thinking the wider the better right? If that’s the case, it’s worth noting that wider lenses will push your subject further away in order to fit more in the frame which means you will have to sit closer to your subject.


If you want to sit inside the barrel and get everything in the frame then the fisheye is your go-to lens. You will need to be about 3-4 meters away from your subject to really utilize these lenses full potential. In addition, they can also take some pretty nice underwater shots when the wave passes by.


Although they are bigger and a little more comparison to swim with, telephoto lenses are perfect for those long-range shots. Using a telephoto lens will also give you the ability to shoot a little more artistically.


The housing is one of two pieces of equipment that will ensure your camera stays dry when using it in the surf. The housing is what the body of your camera will sit in.

When deciding which housing to buy it’s worth paying close attention to the type of controls your housing will come with as these can vary from model to model. It’s important to understand this because once you are in the surf, you cannot pull your camera out to change the settings. Essentially you want to be able to control the exposure, aperture, and ISO while in the water as well as being able to zoom and move your focus point around.


The port is the second piece of equipment which goes together with the housing to keep your gear dry. The port will go over the lens and attach to the housing, sealing your equipment in. There are two main types of ports and each one will have a different use, so I’ve had listed them below to help you get your head around it.

Flat Port (Dry Port)

Probably one of the most common ports, this port is designed specifically for shooting above the water. Although it can take nice underwater shots its intended use was for above-surface shooting.

Dome Port (Wet Port)

The dome port is designed to be used below the surface or for obtaining those split shots (above and below). The dome port pushes that water further away from the front of your lens and this is what makes the above and below shots possible. It’s for this reason that it will also keep your images sharper while shooting underwater.

Shooting Location

In a similar way to how a lens governs the type of shots you take, where you position yourself in the surf will have the same effect. Once you have an understanding of your equipment you will need to decide where you plan to position yourself when in the water.

I usually like to also analyze the size of the surf before making this decision. This will usually come down to how confident you are in the surf. For example, if it’s quite big and you aren’t that confident in big waves, I would probably avoid shooting with a fisheye.

Inside the Barrel

If you plan to shoot from inside the barrel with the surfer then you will need a fisheye lens with a dome port and that’s all there is to it. I recommend a lens in the range of 8-15mm.

From the Channel

If you are going to be shooting from the safety of the channel then you will be needing a telephoto lens and flat port to really zoom in on the action. In this case, I use Canon’s 70-200mm f/2.8.

In Front Of the Barrel

I like to refer to this location as being somewhere in between the channel and sitting inside the barrel. Sitting in this location, I find a wide angle or short range telephoto lens with a dry port to be the most effective. Anything from 16-70mm will do nicely.


For the best underwater results, I would probably lean towards using a wide angle lens, anything from 16-24mm or fisheye at about 8-15mm coupled with a dome port.

Shooting settings

The type of conditions you will be shooting in and the amount of available light (Sunny, cloudy or time of day etc) will have a direct impact on the settings you use. It’s for this reason, I cannot give you an exact setting that will work in all conditions but I can give you a guide to the settings that I use when I’m trying to achieve a certain photo.

Sharp Image with Everything in Focus

Because waves move very quickly, it’s important to shoot with a very fast shutter speed if you want your image to be tack sharp. In this scenario, I would normally shoot with a shutter speed of 1000th- 1250thof a second. If you plan to keep everything in focus I would aim to use an aperture of no less than f/7.1.

In order to always achieve an evenly exposed image, I would set my ISO to auto. The reason we do this is because the amount of light can vary incredibly from when the wave is far away compared to when it is directly on top of you. If it’s a sunny day, I will often set my exposure compensation to minus 2/3 in order to protect the details and highlights in the white wash.

Creating Movement with an Image

In contrast to creating a sharp image, an image which conveys movement means that parts of the image will be blurred. When trying to achieve this shot it’s best to shoot somewhere in the range of 16-24mm while sitting as close as possible to your subject. Sitting far away from your subject will not only mean that your subject is moving slower but it will also mean you need to use an even slower shutter speed to create the same amount of movement and this can introduce addition camera shake, especially if your shooting with a telephoto lens. It’s for this reason that it’s best to sit as close to your subject as possible and use a shorter focal length.

Keeping all this in mind, if you plan to keep your subject in focus while showing movement in the background, then pan with your subject while taking the photo. If you aren’t using an ND filter, a shot like this will only work early in the morning or later in the afternoon when there isn’t much light around. You can really get some nice results shooting the back of the wave from underwater when it passes as there is often limited light beneath the surface to.

For the above-mentioned shots I would shoot with shutter somewhere in the range of 20th– 30th of a second and set aperture so as to keep the ISO as low as possible. Another alternative would be to set the camera to shutter priority (TV) using the above-mentioned shutter speeds which would allow your camera to automatically determine the aperture. Additionally, I would still recommend using auto ISO, as the camera will determine an aperture which keeps the ISO relatively low. For both of these scenarios, I would still recommend shooting with an exposure compensation of minus 2/3rd’s.

Shallow Depth of Field

Whether you are trying to isolate your subject, highlight some details or create that bokeh effect when shooting in the surf, a shallow depth of field can really make your images sing. Before I say it’s as easy setting your aperture to as low as it will go, it’s important for you to understand what factors actually affect your depth of field.

1. Your aperture
2. The distance from your subject
3. Your focal length

As an example, your depth of field will vary greatly if you have an aperture of f/2.8, your subject is 2-3 meters away and you are zoomed in to 200mm compared to if your subject if 30 meters away and your using the same aperture and focal length.

Keeping this in mind, I normally set my aperture somewhere in between f/2.8-f/4 as this can leave you with some really nice effects. Using a wider aperture will also mean that you have more light coming through your lens which gives you the opportunity to shoot with a much faster shutter speed. Set your shutter speed as desired and continue to use auto ISO.


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