Learning Surf Photography Tips

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Top learning surf photography tips to capture the best surfer photos with your camera!

As an avid surfer, I’ve always wanted to live as near to the water and waves as possible. It was only logical for me to want to merge my passions for photography and surfing at some point.

Surf photography is quickly becoming a popular sport photography genre all over the world. Countless action photographers are constantly seeking new waves to create incredible surfshots! 

If you are interested in learning surf photography, this article aims to share with you my top tips to capture the best surf photos. I’ve acquired this knowledge while researching and taking inspiration from some of the world’s top surf photographers. 

Learning surf photography is all about practice and understanding how to improve and enhance your surfshots over time. This entails experimenting with your own perspective of your surroundings and environment.

To get the best surf photos you’ll need to look for ways that your photos can be unique. Understanding a surfer’s actions and the formation of the waves can help you anticipate when you need to capture the best surf photos.

If you don’t already surf yourself, the best place to start when learning surf photography is to learn everything you can about surfing. 

If you’re looking for some inspiration check out this article on my win in the 2022 Carve Surf Photography Competition.

Before we get into the top tips to capture the best surf photos, you need to know exactly what photography equipment you will need to get epic surfshots which you are proud to share.


Camera and gear for surf photos (click to jump)

If you haven’t already got yourself a decent camera and want to take learning surf photography seriously, you’ll want to invest in a top sports camera.

To get the best surf photos you’ll want a camera with high ISO performance, autofocus tracking, and continuous shooting capabilities.

If you’re just starting out learning surf photography you might not know that a fisheye lens is required to get the famous inside-the-tube shot.

When photographing surfing from the beach, you’ll need a telephoto lens with a long focal length to get the best surf photos. 

For a more in depth look into lenses here is a handy guide to camera lenses!

Perhaps the most important piece of equipment when you’re learning surf photography. If you wish to take surfshots while in the surf, you’ll need to get a surf photography water housing to safeguard your valuable camera equipment.

A good tip is not to cut corners and get a low-cost surf photography water housing; instead, choose a brand that is well regarded and has outstanding past reviews. This will ensure you get the best surf photos.

You don’t want to be in the water with your expensive gear and see that water is leaking into your housing! Don’t make this common rookie mistake!

Tripods are necessary for getting a crisp image, but they can be restrictive for capturing motion like surf photography.

Monopods are more versatile, allowing you to move quickly in order to keep up with the action while still providing a third point of stability to get the best surf photos.

Many top surf photographers connect a GoPro to their camera water housing in order to film surf footage while taking their surfshots in the water.

There are also many other underwater and waterproof cameras!

During a surf photography session, shooting many surfshots at once can quickly fill up your memory card. Make sure you always have a few backup memory cards on hand.

if you haven’t taken a photography course before, it could be worth purchasing one of the top two online photography courses.

This would allow you to learn the fundamentals and top tips of photography before you start to specialise in surf photography.

Pay special attention to sections in the courses focusing on sports photography, getting the best surfshots involves a lot of the same techniques.

photo of surfing on sea waves

Now that you know everything you need to invest in to get the best surf photos, here are the top surf photography tips I’ve learned so far:

Best surfer photo tips (click to jump)

Know your environment

Safety should always be your number one priority. If you are shooting in the water, make sure you take some time to learn everything about the surf break and be comfortable with your environment.

Even the strongest swimmers can get caught out, always have some company close by in case you get into danger. No surfer values a good photo over proper water safety.

Investigate the ideal surf conditions for the specific surf break you intend to capture.

Wait until the forecast for swell, wind, and tides are in sync to offer you the best chance of getting the best surf photos for that region.

Think about your composition

A surfer surfing into the frame of your shot is always going to look better than one that is in the middle of the photo.

Think about the rule of thirds and frame the surfer appropriately to get the best surf photos.

Use Shutter Speed Priority

Attempting to figure out settings in the water whilst hoping to capture the beauty of a rolling wave is one of the most difficult things for a beginner learning surf photography.

As a novice, using shutter priority mode (or “TV mode”) keeps things fun until you feel comfortable and want to try other ways of shooting in the water.

Lick your lens

Potentially one of the weirdest tips on how to get the best surf photos, but perhaps the most important!

There is nothing worse than coming home thinking you have your perfect shot to find that you had a water drop on your lens and it has ruined your shot.

So, how can you avoid water drops in your final surf photos when shooting in the water?

Lick your camera lens.

Yes, you read it correctly: you will need to spit all over that lens and ensure that no section is overlooked.

This is a well-known and extensively utilised technique, but what many people don’t realise is that it works considerably better if you do it about 5 minutes before dipping your camera housing into the surf. 

Use Burst mode if you have this option

When shooting surfing from the land, surfers move fast, and it can be tough to capture a good photo of a surfer in motion.

Use your camera’s continuous shooting mode (also known as burst mode) to capture multiple surf images at a time, giving you a far higher chance of obtaining a decent image.

Make sure your autofocus tracking is turned on.

The focus tracking technologies in the latest cameras are incredible, so be sure you’re making use of all available technology for your surf photos.

Use light

If you’re a keen photographer, you should know this already.

The right light can transform an image from mediocre to exceptional. Surf photography is no different.

Shooting in golden hour can create some of the best surf photos. If you’re wondering what this magical golden hour is, it’s the period of day just after dawn or before sunset.

Typically, light entering through your lens is redder and softer than when the sun is higher in the sky during the day.

If you’re looking for more tips try a photography book!

Use other unique camera settings such as motion blur

You may have seen some of the top surf photographers use a panning technique to create a slow motion surf photo with the surfer in focus and the background of the surrounding ocean blurred.

This type of photography is ideal for shooting sports such as surfing because it provides the sense that the subject is moving. When done correctly, this technique can create some stunning surfshots.

Here is a more in depth guide into Motion Blur Photography.

Use your surroundings

The environment, scenery, and weather conditions can all contribute to more impactful surfshots.

The best surf photos aren’t usually those with the best manoeuvres. Consider what else you have at your disposal that you can use to your advantage.

As a surf photographer, you should aim to convey a story with your photos and transport your viewers to a certain location.

Aim to make your audience feel the environment around you.

Get the horizon line straight

This one really separates the beginners from the pros, there is nothing less professional than a photo with the horizon not straight.

Yes, it can be corrected later in an editing software such as lightroom but why not shoot it correctly in the first place?

Don’t hesitate to experiment

Unless you’re being paid by a surfer to produce a certain type of photo, don’t be scared to try new things to create distinctive images.

No concept is a bad idea, and some of the best surf photos are created by experimenting with varied surf photography methods.

Check out Chris Burkard or Clark Little for some inspiration!

a surfer underwater photo

Bonus tip: Mix up your angles with drone photography and check out this complete guide to drone photography!

Final thoughts

You can read all the tips over and over, but it’s all about practice when it comes to learning surf photography!

The greatest way to learn is to go out and shoot, make errors, and keep going. If you happen to be in New Zealand make sure you check these epic surf photography locations!

When you start experimenting with composition and varied perspectives, you will notice a significant improvement in your surfshots.

The more time you spend behind the camera, the faster you will learn how to get the best surf photos.

Remember once you have taken a few surfshots you are proud of, promote them online, contact publications, and establish a stock photography portfolio.

There is no better feeling than getting your own work published and earning money from it!

You might want to check out this blog on the best places to sell your photography.

DISCLOSURE: I may earn a small commission from some of the links above. For the benefit of the doubt, please assume all links might be affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

photography of barrel wave with surf camera

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