Mastering the Art of Stunning Surf Photography (Novice – Pro)

Mastering the Art of Stunning Surf Photography (Novice - Pro)

Are you an aspiring surf photographer looking to capture stunning photos of surfers in action?

Look no further! 

In this article, we’ll provide you with tips, techniques, and tools to help you master the art of surf photography and elevate your skills.

Mastering the Art of Stunning Surf Photography (Novice - Pro)

Understanding the Surf Environment

Reading Waves

Before you even think of jumping in the water with a camera it’s essential to get an understanding of how waves work.

  • As a novice, start by observing the waves to identify their patterns and how they break.
  • Pay attention to the sets of waves, which are a series of waves that come in a group.
  • Look for spots where waves break cleanly, this is generally where surfers will be riding the waves.
  • Learn how to read and digest a surf report, this can indicate when a swell will arrive and predict the conditions weeks ahead of time.

Reading Tides

Once you’ve got your head around understanding waves your next step is tides.

  • Tides are the rise and fall of sea levels caused by the gravitational pull of the moon and sun.
  • Tide cycles usually last for around 24 hours and 50 minutes, with two high tides and two low tides in a day (nearly).
  • The state of the tide affects the size and shape of waves, which in turn affects the quality of surf and the photography you can capture.
  • As a novice, start by researching tide charts to know when high and low tides occur, look at how different surf spots act under different tides and plan your photography sessions accordingly.

Identify The Best Surf Spots

Now you understand how waves work and what to look for on the surf report your next goal is to put yourself and your camera in or next to the ocean with surfers.

Do your research

  • Start by doing some online research to identify popular surf spots in your area. Check out surf forecasting websites and local surf reports to get an idea of where the best waves are breaking.
  • Look for forums or social media groups where local surfers share information about the best spots to surf in your area.
  • Check out photos or videos of local surfers to get an idea of the types of waves and the quality of the surf in different spots.

Scout the area

  • Once you have a list of potential surf spots, go out and scout the areas yourself. 
  • Check out the beach at different times of the day and in different weather conditions.
  • Look for any hazards like rocks, rip currents or other dangers that could affect your ability to shoot.

Talk to locals

  • Local surfers and beachgoers can be great sources of information about the best surf spots in the area. 
  • Be respectful and courteous but don’t be afraid to ask questions about the best time of day to shoot or any other insider tips they may have.
  • Surfers are normally happy to have a photographer in the water (just make sure not to inadvertently  expose any secret spots!)

Understanding Lighting Conditions

Understanding lighting conditions is essential for capturing great surfing photos.

Time of Day

Early morning and late afternoon are often the best times to shoot, as the light is softer and warmer. Midday sun can be harsh and create strong shadows that can be difficult to work with.

Shooting during the “golden hour,” which is the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset, can create a beautiful, warm glow that can add depth and mood to your photos.

Weather Conditions:

Overcast days can create soft, diffused light that can be ideal for capturing moody, atmospheric shots.

On clear days, the sun can create strong contrasts between light and shadow, which can be challenging to work with. 

However, it can create vibrant colours and dramatic effects if used effectively.

The Direction of Light:

The direction of light can also affect the look of your photos. 

  • Shooting with the sun behind you can create well-lit, detailed shots of surfers riding waves. 
  • Shooting into the sun can create silhouettes and dramatic effects.

Experiment with shooting from different angles and directions to see how the light affects your photos.

By understanding the lighting conditions at a surf spot, you can make informed decisions about the best time of day and weather conditions to shoot in.

Essential Gear for Surf Photography

When it comes to surf photography, having the right gear can make all the difference, especially in cold weather.

Choosing the Right Camera and Lens

A camera with fast autofocus and high burst mode is essential for capturing the fast-moving action of surfers. 

Consider a DSLR or mirrorless camera with a wide aperture lens (f/2.8 or wider) to capture sharp, detailed images with a shallow depth of field.

Waterproof Housings and Accessories:

Invest in a high-quality waterproof housing for your camera to protect it from saltwater and sand.

Look for housings that are specifically designed for your camera model and offer easy access to all of the camera’s functions. Additional accessories such as a dome port or filters can enhance the quality of your shots.

Tripods and Mounts:

A sturdy tripod or monopod can help keep your shots steady, especially in windy conditions. Look for tripods and mounts that are lightweight and easy to transport.

Clothing and Personal Gear

As a surf photographer, you’ll be spending a lot of time in and around the water. Invest in a wetsuit, water shoes, and other protective gear to stay comfortable and safe. 

*Pro tip – Don’t forget your essentials like sunscreen, a hat, and a waterproof bag to protect your gear.

Camera Settings for Surf Photography

When it comes to surf photography it can feel like a bit of a minefield finding the right camera settings for well-exposed images of fast-moving subjects. 

Let’s keep things simple and look at the important stuff to focus on if you want to take your surf photography to the next level.

Shutter Speed

A fast shutter speed is essential for freezing the motion of surfers up and riding waves. 

Start with a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th of a second and adjust as needed based on the speed of the surfers and the size of the waves (bigger waves equal faster surfers).


A wide aperture (low f-number) can help create a shallow depth of field and blur the background, drawing attention to the surfer. 

However, be careful not to use too wide of an aperture, as this can result in a shallow depth of field that may cause parts of the surfer to be out of focus.


Keep the ISO as low as possible to reduce noise and maintain image quality. 

But keep in mind that in low-light conditions or when shooting at fast shutter speeds, increasing the ISO may be necessary to maintain a well-exposed image.

Focus Mode

Use continuous autofocus mode to track the fast-moving surfers and ensure they remain in focus. 

Consider using a single autofocus point or zone to ensure the focus is on the surfer and not the background.

Composition and Framing Techniques

Composition and framing techniques are key to capturing striking images that draw the viewer’s attention. Here are some actionable tips you can try straight away to try and improve your shots.

Rule of Thirds

Divide your frame into thirds horizontally and vertically and place your subject where the lines intersect. This can create a more dynamic and balanced image, drawing the viewer’s eye to the subject.

Leading Lines

Use leading lines to guide the viewer’s eye to the surfer or the wave. This can include the natural lines of the wave or the shoreline or man-made lines such as the rails of a surfboard or a pier.

Depth of Field

Use a shallow depth of field to isolate the surfer from the background, this draws attention and creates a more dramatic image. 

Consider using a wide aperture (low f-number) to achieve this effect.

Shooting Angles

Experiment with shooting from different angles, such as from low to the ground or from above. This can create a more unique and interesting perspective on the action.

Capturing the Action: Timing and Positioning

Timing and positioning are absolutely crucial in surf photography. Here are some actionable tips to make sure you’re always in the perfect spot in the lineup.

  1. Anticipating the Wave and the Surfer: Anticipating the moment when the surfer is about to catch a wave is key to capturing the perfect shot. Watch the waves and observe the surfers to learn their patterns and habits, and position yourself accordingly.
  2. Using Burst Mode and Continuous Shooting: Using burst mode or continuous shooting can help you capture the right moment, even if it only lasts for a fraction of a second. This allows you to shoot a sequence of images and choose the best one later on.
  3. Staying Safe and Respectful: When shooting in and around the ocean, always prioritize safety and be respectful of the surfers and the environment. Stay aware of your surroundings and watch for any potential hazards, such as rocks or strong currents.

*Pro tip – Surf spots like slabs, reefs and point breaks tend to be more mechanical in nature than beach breaks which often makes positioning in the lineup much easier to figure out..

Post-Processing and Editing Tips

Post-processing and editing can help take your surf photography to the next level by enhancing and refining your images after the fact.

This subject is incredibly broad so I’m only going to brush over the basics for the sake of keeping this guide easy to digest.

Choosing the Right Editing Software

Choose an editing software that is easy to use and that works for you. Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop are popular choices among surf photographers, but there are also other options available.

Basic Adjustments and Enhancements

Make basic adjustments to your images, such as adjusting the exposure, contrast, and saturation. You can also crop your images to improve the composition.

Advanced Techniques for Surf Photography

Use more advanced techniques to enhance your images, such as adjusting the white balance, sharpening the image, and reducing noise. You can also adjust the colour tones to create a more specific look or mood.

Presets and Filters

Use presets and filters to quickly enhance your images and give them a unique look. However, be careful not to overuse them and maintain the integrity of the original image.

Remember, post-processing and editing should enhance your images and not replace the fundamentals of good photography. Use these tips to improve your surf photos and create stunning, impactful images.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Overexposure and Underexposure: One common mistake is to overexpose or underexpose the image, resulting in a loss of detail or poor colour balance. 

To avoid this, use your camera’s exposure compensation feature and adjust it to the lighting conditions of the scene.

Blurry Images and Missed Focus: Another mistake is taking blurry images or missing the focus. To avoid this, use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action and set the autofocus to track the surfer.

Poor Composition and Framing: Poor composition and framing can make an otherwise great shot look dull or unappealing. 

To rectify this, try to use the rule of thirds and place the surfer in the foreground while including the wave and surroundings in the background.


What type of camera is best for surf photography?

A DSLR or mirrorless camera with a fast autofocus system and high frame rate is best.

Do I need a waterproof housing for my camera?

Yes, if you plan to shoot from the water you’re going to need some sort of housing to avoid water damage.

What’s the best time of day to shoot surf photography?

Early morning or late afternoon when the light is softer and more directional.

How do I capture surfers in sharper focus?

Use a fast shutter speed, set the autofocus to continuous, and track the surfer along the face of the wave.


Mastering the art of surf photography is a journey that requires dedication, practice, and years spent in and around waves.

By understanding the surf environment, choosing the right gear, mastering camera settings, and developing composition and timing skills, you can capture amazing images that showcase the beauty and power of the waves and the surfers who ride them.

Whether you’re just starting out or already a seasoned veteran hopefully these tips and techniques will help you take your surf photography to the next level.

Don’t miss our other guides below for more fascinating insights into the sport of surfing.