Surf photography is a technically and physically demanding field. It can be as dangerous as it is exhilarating. You share the risks with your subjects, the surfers themselves. Getting the perfect shot of a surfer riding through the barrel of a wave is nothing like regular sports photography. Shooting with surfers requires a unique partnership with the athletes you photograph, and that teamwork will invariably impact the quality of your photos. While it’s always important to work with your subjects, it’s vital to establish a good working relationship with surfers before you try to photograph them hitting the waves.
As we already warned you, surf photography is vastly different from regular sports photography. Photographing sports requires good timing, but you shoot from the sidelines as a spectator. Surf photography often requires photographers to join in the action themselves. It’s usually a struggle to get in the right place at the right time to capture that perfect image. A surfer skimming along the bottom of a barreling wave is a beautiful sight, but it’s also a short one. You cannot get these images alone.
It’s imperative to work with the surfers from the very beginning. Explain what techniques you’re planning, and encourage the surfers to ask questions. If surfers know where you’ll be, they can help you get the best image by speeding up or slowing down as they approach. By involving surfers in the planning process, you also decrease potential sources of frustration. Surfers have to be patient in order to learn their sport. By integrating timing requirements and setting up a plan before hand, it’s easier for surfers to see your needs as a surfing challenge rather than outside interference.
Having a plan is great, but be ready to go with the flow. You never know what the weather may do later in the day, and even if certain beaches usually have great waves, even the ocean has quiet times. Surf photography encompasses more than just shots of surfers on cresting waves. Surfers still have a distinct presence on land, and they make great subjects when they’re just sitting on their boards and waiting for a wave. Surfing is all about patience. Although it’s punctuated by flashes of intense action, surfing has many quiet moments. You should take these opportunities to add variety to your portfolio.
Allow yourself to be creative, especially between major shoots or on slow days. Just because your camera is out of its water housing doesn’t mean it’s time to stop working. Experiment with candid photos or ask your subjects to show you their favorite local areas. You may be surprised how many great surfer shots you can get on land.
Surfers know the best places to surf. They know where and when waves will be at their highest. They know which beaches are crowded and where the surf is just too tough for tourists. Take advantage of this information. Surfers are more than just the subjects of your photographs. They can be your guides if you let them.
They may even offer some new ideas for composition and lighting. Even if they aren’t professional photographers, chances are they’ve snapped some pictures of their friends in action and recorded great views to show off later. More importantly, they can offer valuable safety advice. For example, if there’s an area of the beach with particularly strong riptides, they can warn you away from that risk.
Depending on your arrangement with the surfer(s), your preferences may come second. Sometimes surfers hire photographers to get pictures they can use when entering competitions or submitting profiles. You can still expand your portfolio, and your subject will likely listen to your professional advice, but remember that the relationship works both ways. Be willing to experiment. Your images can benefit everyone. Even if you are not hired by the surfers themselves, take time to see what images excite them, and plan future shoots accordingly.
Photography and surfing are both serious business, but always remember to have fun. Surfers risk their lives for the rush, and you wouldn’t be attempting surf photography if you weren’t happy to get in the ocean with them. You’ll have a lot of missed opportunities and inevitably get frustrated at times. Remembering to enjoy yourself can prevent that frustration from destroying a productive shoot. You may not get what you want today, but there’s always tomorrow. So long as you have fun, you’ll never see a day as wasted.
Once you’ve set up your plan and actually gotten in the water with your subjects, everything changes. Surf photography is stunning because it captures moments of intense, rapid action. The waves are breaking, the surfer is moving, and that’s just the action on the surface. Working with surfers is challenging because the pictures you’re trying to take are extremely difficult to capture. That only makes the final images all the more rewarding.