UK-based fine art photographer Paul Cooklin specializes in black and…
Shooting surfing photography is a thrill. It starts with searching for the perfect spot, often found in some remote location that no one speaks of aloud. Then housing your gear and jumping into the surf, while your surfer buddies await the swell, getting ready for the big break. You’re never quite sure what the ocean might throw your way – rip currents, crowds, heavy waves, and shallow reefs are all part of the adventure in waiting for the sublime wave. Then there’s the pressure (and fun) of getting it all on camera.
“There are a lot of things involved when shooting from the water that can make or break your shots,” says watershooting pro Aaron Schmidt. Aaron has adventure in his blood: before graduating from Brooks Institute and taking on the job of photo editor/photographer at Canoe & Kayak Magazine, Aaron spent his time backpacking and fighting wildfires.
Aaron has a killer surfing photography portfolio called “Chasing Waves”. Impressed by his detailed and storytelling shots, we asked Aaron to share a few of his top tips for beginner surf photographers.
Locate the impact zone
Perhaps the biggest challenge in getting a great surf shot is knowing where to place yourself in the water. You’ll first want to seek out the impact zone, which shouldn’t be too hard to locate because it’s where your surfers will be as well. This is where the falling lip of each wave meets the water – i.e. crashing waves.
The best waves will actually peel down the line, parallel to the shore and away from the impact zone. So you want to be sideways to the impact zone and at an angle from the surfers take-off area. “This vantage point gives you the best view of surfers racing down the wave,” says Aaron.
That said, the impact zone can also be the most dangerous. Crashing waves come down with force and pull, while surfers can zoom by your head at any instant. “Water photographers do a lot of duck diving!” says Aaron. “When surfers zip by, be prepared to swim under. One of the greatest risk to a photographer is being hit by an oncoming surfer or striking a shallow reef.” Some surfing photographers might even recommend wearing a helmet.
To stay safe, Aaron recommends keeping one eye on your camera’s viewfinder and the other on the waves and surfers. Ideally you’ll avoid missed shots and tilted horizons, while still keeping a lookout. But above all else, be sure you’re a strong swimmer and comfortable in the water. Aaron also advises surf photographers to wear a thicker wetsuit for warmth and a good set of bodyboarding fins.
Invest in a splash waterhousing
Unlike dive housings, which are heavy and don’t float very well, splash housing systems are light-weight and typically allow use for a large array of lenses, including fisheye and telephoto zooms. Aaron likes working with AquaTech Surf Housings, which makes housings and lens ports specific to different bodies and lenses, respectively. They also make a pistol grip kit, which is good for shooting one-handed.
Aaron keeps several lens ports on hand to switch up focal lengths. “Wide angels are generally better for small waves,” advises Aaron. “When the waves get bigger, you can float in the channel or a boat and shoot with a 70-200mm. Fisheye lenses are the go-to for in barrel shots, which require a special small dome-port. This is the hardest shot to get, as it’s generally difficult to find clean barreling waves – not to mention, they can be scary to swim in.”
Aaron also recommends SPL Waterhousings and Del Mar Housing Projects. Regardless of what housing system you choose, be sure to use flat lens ports, as opposed to underwater dome ports. “The flat glass encourages the water to sheet off,” explains Aaron. “I know some photographers who even carry small squeegees. Nothing ruins a shot more than a pesky water drop!”
It’s also really important to clean your gear, as saltwater is highly corrosive and will ravage an unkempt housing in time.
Shoot shutter priority
Surf photographers need to be able to freeze motion and water droplets in mid-air. Aaron suggests shooting in shutter priority at about 1/1000+ with a camera that shoots 7 fps or higher, such as the Nikon D300, D3, D4 or Canon 7D, 1D, etc.
You might prefer shooting manual, but most waterhousings only have one control dial on the back, so you won’t be able to make adjustments on the fly. “ISO is the easiest thing to bump up,” says Aaron, especially when the light starts falling and you still want to capture the whitewater’s highlights. “If I’m using my 24-70 or 70-200mm f/2.8 I will use the camera’s auto-focus in continuous tracking mode,” says Aaron. “If I’m shooting wide angle – either my 17-35 or 16mm fisheye – I will set hyperfocal distance and try to keep a smaller aperture above f/8.”
Also remember that you might be out in the water for hours, and camera bodies can get heavy fast. Surfer Magazine photographer Chris Burkard shoots with a Sony NEX-7, which offers a lot of the same capabilities as a DSLR but is obviously a lot smaller and more manageable.
Still, Aaron suggests that beginner surfer photographers shoot RAW so you can shoot shutter priority and make adjustments later. Don’t worry too much about exposure – it’s much more important to concentrate on swimming and staying in position.
Use a wide angle
As Aaron suggested above, shooting wide can make a small wave look bigger. This is also a great place for beginners to start because it’s easier to maneuver yourself and the camera with less wave disruption. Position yourself where your surfers will be doing their best moves, which will almost always be shallower than where they’re first taking off.
Also don’t be afraid to go underwater and shoot up. “If the water is clear, learn to open your eyes underwater,” says Aaron. “They will adjust fine.”
If there’s a bigger swell, you can practice shooting from the beach, or even in the surf with a longer lens if there is a channel or reef pass. It might be tempting to dive right into heavy surf, but it takes years of practice to master those killer in-the-barrel shots. “Start small in friendly water,” says Aaron.
Network, don’t poach
“When you’re first starting out, just try photographing your buddies in small surf,” suggests Aaron. “DO NOT swim out into crowded lineups if you’re not there with an agreement to photograph in particular. No poaching!”
Like much of the photo industry, it’s all about building relationships – so networking is an important part of the job. In fact, Aaron says that “publications won’t really look at your work unless the surfer is top-notch or the waves are really good.” Also know excessive sharing of your images – either via social media or direct pitching to multiple potential clients – will devalue your images in this tightly knit community.
When you’re out shooting, be sure to spend some time connecting with new surfers. It’s actually a part of many surfers’ jobs to hook up with photographers and get great images. Start by sharing a few small sized JPEGs for surfers to post to their social media accounts. “Sponsored surfers need photos to show what they’ve been up to,” says Aaron. “Just make sure they know that the times you give them are for personal use only. If a corporate sponsor wants to license images, they should know to contact the photographer.”
If you take some stellar shots, they just might invite you on their next trip (just be sure not to share their secret spots in your captions).
Get out of the water
It sounds counter-intuitive, but remember to get out of the water and tell the story behind your surfers’ rides. Many of the best surfing photography portfolios include shots at sunset on the beach, driving in an open truck with surfboards strapped to the top, or even a bonfire at night after the day is done. These are the images that will tie your whole portfolio together.
They’re also the ones that will help you stand out from the crowd. “There are so many surf photographers out there that you need to separate yourself creatively,” says Aaron. Capturing a perfect barrel wave isn’t enough anymore – you need to show your unique perspective, and documenting the quiet, sometimes unseen moments are a great chance to show off your personal storytelling style.