7 tips for beginner underwater surf photographers

June 23, 2021 | Surfing
Underwater surf photography: the art of getting in tune with the ocean and the surfer | Photo: Shutterstock

Underwater surf photography could be as exciting as riding a perfect wave. Here are a few tips on how to shoot surfers from and below the surface of the ocean.

Photography and surfing go hand in hand.

Believe it or not, taking an iconic picture could be as hard as becoming a world surfing champion.

Shooting surfers looks relatively easy, and it could be. Actually, taking great photos is not necessarily complicated.

However, getting "the shot" is a rare thing.

Just think about memorable surf photos that are stored in your mind forever. Can you identify five shots you will never forget? It's difficult, isn't it?

So, if you really want to get into under and in-water surf photography, get ready to go with the flow and move with the waves.

The secret lies more in keeping your eyes and creativity wide open and less in equipment and photography composition rules.

Underwater surf photography: observing Nature and the wave run their course | Photo: Shutterstock

Getting Ready

Talk with the surfers and plan shooting strategies that keep everybody safe and comfortable. That's a good start.

And check your gear before getting out there.

Make sure everything is set and ready to hit the water - the batteries, the lenses, the filters, the waterproof housing, and the memory cards.

A pair of bodysurfing fins are always helpful and will help you move around faster and spare energy.

Positioning and timing are two fundamental skills you should master if you're getting into underwater surf photography.

If you're shooting surfers in a point break with fast-breaking barreling waves, you will need to find the spot where most riders are getting pitted.

Otherwise, you'll miss the magical moment when the cylinder of water is peeling down the line with the surfer inside the tube.

Finally, get out there before sunrise - shoot the landscapes through the waves before surfers step in and perform their dance.

The following tips will help any beginner underwater surf photographer capture their first unforgettable pictures.

For more information, discover the ultimate guide to surf photography.

Surfing: a beautiful sport to shoot from underwater | Photo: Shutterstock

1. Choose Your Equipment Wisely

If you're a beginner photographer wanting to take your first underwater shots, don't spend huge amounts of money on expensive cameras and photo gear.

Take it step by step.

Start with a quality waterproof action sports camera and a grip handle or wrist strap. Today, these portable cameras come with great lenses and shoot at 5K.

Once you've got used to swimming in the surf zone, diving, finding the best angles, and creating your first masterpieces, then think about evolving and upgrading your photo and video equipment.

2. Wear a Helmet

While you're waiting for the best moment to shoot the surfer, you've got to pay attention to all the variables that are actually taking place around you.

There might be dangerous rocks, reefs, multiple surfboards floating with sharp fins, marine life, kelp, boats, jet skis, jetties, etc.

And surf photographers wipe out hard, too.

Sometimes, they get caught inside, go through multiple wave hold-downs, and are thrown down at the ocean floor while still having to hold their equipment.

So, wear a helmet - it is always a good idea.

Underwater surf photographer: always wear a helmet | Photo: Shutterstock

3. Read the Ocean and the Lineup

If you're going to shoot surfers riding waves, pay attention to the lineup before going out.

Analyze the ocean conditions.

Where are the best waves breaking? What's the surf forecast for the next couple of hours? Is the tide coming in or out?

Will there be changes in wind speed and direction? Where are the rips going? Is there any channel nearby?

While you're observing the ocean and the waves, pay attention to the best performers. Who are they, and what are their positioning patterns?

Where are they sitting in the lineup? Which way are they going?

The more you study the lineup, the better your shots will be.

4. Invest in a Quality Camera Water Housing

In the early days of surf photography, people used to build their custom-made water housings.

However, they quickly became obsolete, heavy, and would not always keep the camera and lens dry.

Today, photo gear is too expensive, and you've got to protect it.

So, whether you're shooting with a Canon, Nikon, Sony, or any other professional photo camera, make sure you buy a reliable waterproof housing.

The most popular water-housings for surf photography are from SPL, CMT, and AquaTech.

Surf photography: shift between manual focus and auto focus depending on the type of shot you want to capture | Photo: Shutterstock

5. Shift Between Manual Focus and Auto Focus

Manual focus and auto focus exist for different purposes, so you should learn when to use them in the surf.

For instance, if you're in a relatively steady position where you know you'll get the best shot from a surfer riding the barrel, preset the manual focus for five, seven, or ten feet, and then push the trigger whenever you want.

When you swim into a fixed position, you don't want to be checking the focus all the time - it's all about presetting your focus point and just shoot in burst mode.

Nevertheless, if you plan to shoot underwater, adopt auto focus, change your focus points, and embrace continuous shooting mode.

In the end, there's nothing like experimenting, making mistakes, learning, and improving every time you get back to the water.

6. Adjust Your Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is a very relevant variable when shooting action and fast-moving objects.

You'll have to decide on the length of time the camera shutter will be open, exposing light to the camera sensor.

In other words, it's all about the time spent by the camera to take the picture.

A long/slow shutter speed exposes the sensor for a significant period, resulting in a motion blur effect.

You might want to do that in some cases, but oftentimes, you want a crisp, sharp, and perfectly frozen moment of a surfer riding the barrel or throwing himself into the air.

So, for an average action shot, it's safe to set your shutter speed to 1/1600.

Remember that you'll also have to combine it with the other two fundamental features - aperture and ISO.

Aperture is the option to enlarge or shrink the diameter of the lens opening to allow more or less light to reach the camera sensor.

ISO is the setting that allows your camera to take a brighter or darker photo.

In-water surf photography: adjust your shutter speed to your needs | Photo: Shutterstock

7. Stay Fit and Manage your Breathing

Are you a confident swimmer?

You must be. You've got to be prepared to face the harshest conditions, freak waves, tricky currents, and unexpected turns of weather.

Can you hold your breath for 20 or 30 seconds?

Whether you're trying to shoot a surfer from a couple of feet below the water or getting pounded by a heavy wave, you must know how to control your breath underwater.

Are you fit to stay in the water for an hour or two?

Swimming and diving take considerable energy and require a level of physical fitness that is not compatible with inactivity and sedentarism.

Are you comfortable with swimming fins?

Fins will not only allow you to move faster but can also help you get away from a current or escape the guillotine of a breaking wave.

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