How to shoot professional surfers! A free how-to surf photography tutorial from 45surf!

Hello!  Here’s an advanced draft of a basic surf-photography tutorial–will post a final version soon!  Comments are welcome!

Dr. E’s Surf-Photography Tutorial
0. Represent the International Spirit of Surfing!  Surfing is all about sharing the waves, and surfing photography is all about sharing the beach.  Be respectful of others, try to duck out of their way, and remember that sometimes the best shots can be gotten when zoomed in while standing a way down the beach and a bit out in the water, rather than rushing the incoming surfer like so many do.  It is more an art than a science, so have fun with it!  And remember, the surfer (photographer) having the most fun wins!

1.  Shoot for the Spirit!  These are the some of the greatest athletes in the world!  Kelly Slater has dominated the sport for twenty+ years!  Alana Blanchard is a Sports Illustrates Swimsuit Issue model!  Yes–you will shoot the world’s greatest athletes and Sports Illustrates Swimsuit Models all in one day, for free.  They deserve to be captured and exalted, so use your own unique talents and passions to catch them as best you can.  Also remember to capture shots of the crowd, famous landmarks, and epic sunset if you get a chance!  The Spirit will be all-encompassing that day, so keep a sharp eye out!

1.5  Pack lost of water for the day!

2. Arrive early to secure parking and the best beach spots!  This is one of those times when getting up an hour early will save several hours on down the line throughout the day.  You will beat the traffic, find prime parking close the beach, and find the best beach spot of your choosing!  Hours saved already, and with the prime spot, the value of your day’s effort will be multiplied many times over!  When you head back at the end of the day, you will see miles, and miles of cars, and hear the stories of the folks who woke up late and had to park miles away and walk, and showed up too late to secure a decent beach spot.  You can sleep in tomorrow!  There’s nothing worse than being stuck in traffic, while envisioning the miles you will have to walk, only to find all the best beach spots gone. 🙂

3. Use inexpensive canvas bags for your cameras and gear (with plenty of plastic ziplock bags) instead of nice ones which scream “Steal me! There is an expensive camera hiding in this expensive case!”  I use canvas bags from the grocery store, so that my bag of expensive lenses/batteries/extra gear look like bananas on the beach with a towel on top.  One time someone stole the book I had, but left the $10,000 of equipment under the towel and half-eaten banana lying atop.  A half-eaten banana is a pretty decent security device, and you can finish it during the walk back.  🙂

4.  Pop a battery in the camera and format a memory card BEFORE YOU LEAVE HOME! This will focus you, and you will be guaranteed to start the day with a charged battery and an empty card.  You should always keep all batteries and memory cards in certain specific places–either in the charger, camera, card reader, or bag.  Over time you will feel naked if you leave your home without the charged batteries and
memory cards, as if you walked outside without your pants on.

5. Plastic bags are your friend!  There is no such thing as waterproof on the beach.  But 2-3 ziplock bags around a lensbatteries/cars close to water or in a sudden downpour can save a lot of money.

6. THE NEW THEME of surf photography is SMALL, NIMBLE, MOBILE, and QUICK.  Yes a couple years back I was that guy–with the 600mm F4 prime and Nikon D4 and massive tripod, camped out in one place on the beach all day.  Sure I got a lot of nice shots, but they were kinda all from the same angle.  Then, the next year, I went back with a monopod, Nikon D800, and 150-500mm Sigma zoom (Which can zoom out for shooting the surfer son the beach too!), and I ran up and down the beach all day capturing surfers coming and going, surfing, stretching, getting in yoga poses, twerking, entering and exiting the water, and warming up.  They are about to release the Tamron 150-600mm zoom too!  Mount this on your Canon or Nikon, use a tripod, check the heat schedule, load it on your phone, plan a few shots, and run up and down the beach!

In the brutal Los Angeles traffic, it is legal for motorcycles to “split the lane” and ride in-between cars stuck during rush hour.  With a monopod, as opposed to the tripod, you will be akin to the lane-splitting motorcycle, ducking below the big tripod lenses, or in-between them.  Respect everyone’s space! 

7. LEARN WHERE THE SURFERS ENTER & EXIT & WARM UP!  About an hour or two or so before their heat, your favorite surfer will be warming up on one side of the competition area.  Find out where this is, check the schedule, and stand close to where they will be warming up.  Here are some photos I shot of Alana Blanchard and Aussie Laura Enever warming up at the US Open before their heat:
I was the only photographer there!  I got some shots of them running up and down the beach too, without 10,000,000 other folks surrounding them.

8.  The Monopd will let you get your feet in the water, and get in closer.  The larger tripods and big lenses are very difficult to move, or take down and set up again, and so they stay in one place for the day.  With your monopod, however, you can sneak on down to the water’s edge, which is typically below the line of sight of the tripod-mounted cameras behind you, as they typically set up above the high-tide mark, so they don’t have to move when the tide comes up.  Also, the higher cameras have a decent vantage point, as they are able to shoot over the heads of everyone down lower on the beach, which is where you can be with your monopod.  And remember, because you have a monopod, if you find yourself in someone’s way, you can move quickly!  I always just try to blend in, or creep on down slowly to the water’s edge.

9.  When the better surfers return to shore, they will be mobbed by those seeking autographs, selfies, and closeups with cell phone cameras!   Thus, as you have a zoom, you should stand well down the beach and a bit out in the water, so that you can keep shooting the surfer right up until they are swallowed by the cell-phone, instagram-crazy mob.

10.  Enjoy the art and adventure!  Shooting pro surfing is very unique artistic experience. . .

11. Learn from all the photographers around you!  Watch where they setup, congregate, and shoot from!  Think about why they are where they are, and the advantages/disadvantages as the sun rises and casts a glare on the ocean.  Remember that perfect days of capturing every shot you could have and should have are rare, and as you ponder missed opportunities on the ride home, do not let them become regrets, but rather hopes to get it right tomorrow.  For as the surfing maxim goes, “There’s always another wave coming!”  And that’s pretty much it.  Surf photography is much like surfing, figuring out the beach, the direction of the waves and sun, and finding the best spots throughout the day, surfing the ever-changing time and tides.

12. Use the Event to Grow as a Photographer!  Just as every surfer out there will be honing their technique and improving, so too will you be honing all your skills, shooting live athletes and action, which is a bit different from models one can direct in the studio.  Surf-photography is a fast-sport, as the decisive moment is fleeting.  Shoot early and often!