Questions, so many many questions.
When I started looking into surf photography, there was very little information available to answer some of my burning questions or satisfy my curiosity. Surf photography had very little information that I could find, unlike other genres such as landscape, fashion and product photography, where there is an abundance of videos, websites and podcasts. I'm definitely not an expert, I have more to learn as I'm only a few years into my journey. However, I have come across those nuggets of information and resources that helped me understand more about surf photography and helped me get started. I think that these nuggets are worth sharing. I've come across some great sources of information and some of the obscure tips, that I hope will be useful for someone starting out or those interested in finding out more.
E-books, Courses and Podcasts
Here are some great starting points, to help you understand what you'll be getting yourself into - before you do anything else, immerse yourself in these and if you have instagram give the artists and photographers a follow. I find all of their work is incredible and a daily source of inspiration.
Written by Scott Harrison (@Daily_Salt), from Newcastle in Australia, THE GUIDE TO SURF & WAVE PHOTOGRAPHY covers a lot of information from shooting from the land and shooting from the water. This was one of the first resources that I came across and a highly recommended read. It covers the following topics Focus Modes, Shooting Direction & Light, Composition, Camera Settings, Understanding Surfing, Weather & Surf Reports, Gear & Lenses, Editing and Shooting in the Water. This answered a lot of my initial questions, particularly when shooting from the land.
TRAINing COURSES and COACHING
Created by surf photographer Tom Wood (@stimages) an experienced and professional photographer, Tom has a short free course and then a more in-depth course and workshop with coaching on surf photography. If I was younger and serious about a surf photography career I'd sign up for this in an instant. The free course was very well put together and incredibly helpful, so I can see how worthwhile the full course would be in getting you set up for success. Tom also imparts brilliant nuggets of information on his youTube channel 'Dream Life through Photography' so it's defiantly worth subscribing and following him.
Zak Noyle, the Hawaiian waterman and prolific surf photographer runs the occasional 2 days Aquatography Surf Photography Workshop in California, so if that's close to you it would be worth registering, you might need to have your own equipment though and space is limited.
I was quite surprised that there was only a few podcasts that focus on surf photography. Here are a couple of my favourites that I'm always hanging out for the next episode.
Chasing Clarity Podcast, created by Odz Harris, who is the man with the smoothest voice that I know, and is the driving force behind Chasing Clarity which is also adding a magazine (soon!!) to the resource set for surf photographers and ocean artists. There is a large back catalog of interviews of professional and enthusiast surf and ocean photographers, it's a tip heavy podcast series and worth letting Odz and guests tickle your ear buds and 'let the learnings wash over you'. Odz has spoken at length with guests such as Russell Ord, Peter Joli Wilson and Ted Grambeau.
Pitched Industries Podcast, by Nick White has the occasional surf and ocean photographer guest, the podcast also covers other topics on photography in general. Each episode is informative and he's had guest such as Zak Noyle, Ben Thouard and Warren Keelan , so it also worth a listen.
You don't need to understand surfing to get started. However, understanding the sport you are photographing helps you understand where to position yourself relative to the subjects and, what angles will give you the best results. If you don't surf, then I'd recommend watching the World Surf League competitions and if there is one of the events that come to a nearby location, then it's worth attending in person. I'm lucky as we have some of the WSL QS and Challenger series stop at nearby beaches - and we even had a World Tour stop at Narrabeen in 2021. Attending these events gives you some solid experience shooting some of the best surfers in the world. There are also a large catalog of surfing movies that will also help you understand surfing and those non-competative genres. There are also a few digital destinations worth having a watch as well.
World Surf League - Established in 1976, The WSL is dedicated to changing the world through the inspirational power of surfing by creating authentic events, experiences, and storytelling to inspire a growing, global community to live with purpose, originality, and stoke.
My Surf TV - an online collection of surfing videos
Nobody Surf - a dedicated place where creators can share, get exposure, and collaborate with us to make epic edits. We made it so effortless to discover and enjoy these excellent works for the viewers, indexed right into our hand-picked playlist
Whilst magazines aren't at popular as they once were, there are a few that are still going strong. Magazine are a great source of inspiration outside of the small images on your phone via Instagram. It's worth buying a few surfing magazines or actually subscribing, you'll get some ideas for angles and what shots are sought after, below are some of the main magazines (in no particular order) that are worth having a browse through.
Surfing Life - Australian magazine. 6 issues based on the 6 pillars of the surfing experience, Surf Travel, Surf Culture, Waves, Technique, Surfboards and Surfer
Pacific Longboard Magazine - Mostly long boarding focused, with stories and picture from all corners or the earth as well as some local club updates.
White Horses Magazine - White Horses is a beautifully crafted, journal style print publication focused on surf travel, culture and art.
Joyce Magazine - A women's surf and lifestyle magazine for surfer girls and beach lovers in need of salty goodness: surf, longboard, travel, fitness, surf culture,
Surfing World - Based out of Avalon, Sydney Australia and founded in 1962, and regularly features some of the local surfers of note and the work of some of the Sydneys finest surf photographers.
Tracks Magazine - Tracks made its first drop in 1970 when co-creators, Albe Falzon, David Elfick and John Witzig had a hunch that a surf rag could be the centrifugal force in a rapidly evolving counter-culture movement. As Tracks trims past its 50th year it remains an evolving state of mind, drawing on its eclectic past while reflecting the wonders of the present; always conscious of entertaining its readers as it rides boldly into the surfing future.
The Surfers Journal - A vivid, authoritative, and independent document that delivers purist surf energy in each bimonthly edition.
Eastern Surf Magazine - In 2017, ESM has switched over to a 100% web-based platform and will continue to bring the most wide ranged coverage of East Coast surfers home and abroad.
Lost Not Found - A print magazine with a mission to get off the beaten path, go behind the scenes, follow the swells, seek the truth, and bring you the good vibes.
Freesurf Magazine - Freesurf Magazine, the only surf publication in the world produced on the North Shore. Freesurf delivers authentic surf coverage from the front lines and throughout.
Wavelength Magazines - bi-annual offerings contain 144 pages of timeless long-form stories tales of local eccentrics, underground chargers, innovators and artists to emerging surf communities in far-flung locales, we seek out characters with more stories to tell than stickers on their boards.
Carve Surfing Magazine - Five issues of top action and incredible photos from around the world.
Surf Girl Magazine - covering surfing, lifestyle, film travel and nutrition
Buying a Camera
This decision took me a long time, I didn't know anything about photography or cameras so I was learning about cameras as I went. However, there are things I have since learn't that if I'd have know might have change my final decision. Hopefully this will help you weight up your options .
Consideration 1 - The Environment YOU ARE SHOOTING IN
As most surf photography will be outdoors, close the ocean, and sometimes in stormy conditions, weather sealing was high on my list of considerations. I found out that there are different levels of weather sealing - at least in the Canon world. So whilst the Canon 80d has weather sealing, its not as good as the Canon 5d, which in turn is also not as good as the 1Dx - the 1Dx being the flagship DSLR camera. Keeping out wet, moisture, dust and sand will extend the life of your camera particularly when you spend a significant part of it near the ocean. Aquatech also provide a range of weather shields, which are pretty much a large waterproof rain coat for your camera and lens. I'd highly recommended one for when it's raining heavily and I use on on those days when it stormy and patchy rain forecasts.
Consideration 2 - The Reach
This took a while for me to work out. How much reach or, or focal length, will I need to capture surfers in enough detail shooting from the beach? Kelly Cestari (@KC80) did an excellent review of the Canon 100-400 II and how he uses it - it definitely a lighter lens and good if you like to move around. I'd also read, native lenses work better, particularly with auto focus. The general consensus it that it is better to put your money into lenses than cameras. Image quality is directly affected by the lens and cameras get upgraded more frequently, which is why it's a good strategy to invest in decent lenses rather than cameras. The Canon 100-400 4.5-5.6 II cost me more than the camera and the kit lens combined, you can definitely tell the difference over the kit lens in terms of sharpness and speed of focus. The 100-400 lens aperture is from 4.5-5.6 and is still a slow lens for sport, but to get something with equivalent reach and an aperture of 2.8 was way over my budget (about $16k over!).
The other thing that can improve the reach is opting for a crop sensor camera (APC). These cameras, have a smaller sensor and thus have a crop factor of 1.6 or 1.4 when using full frame lenses. This croping effectively increases the focal length, so 400mm is cropped by 1.6 and effectively becomes an equivalent 640mm (400 x 1.6 = 640). In real life 640mm is enough to zoom in when the waves are head high and below and are breaking within 50-100 metres of the beach. For bigger waves you need more elevation to see over the whitewater on the inside, or an angle from down the beach, both of which increases the distance. For bigger waves you will also want to zoom out to include the scale of the wave in your shots, so 600mm worth of reach is plenty for most surfing locations. The Canon 80d 24mp camera can enable a fair amount of copping and still have printable images at A4 and A3 sizes.
Consideration 3 - Light SENSITIVITY
Whilst crop sensor cameras can help with reach, there is a downside. The smaller the sensor has less light gathering capability due to the sensors pixels being packed closer together. Effectively, In low light conditions you end up with more noise than the full frame equivalents which have a larger sensor. This negatively impacts the sharpness and clarity. The larger the sensor the more expensive they are to manufacture, which is why crop sensor cameras are cheaper. However, as camera technology improves sensors and processors dynamic range is getting better and which is the ability to handle low light better.
Generally crop sensor cameras are the cheaper options due to the sensor size and other factors. I settled on a Canon 80d, which is a crop sensor, and what this means in real life is that when I'm shooting in the early mornings, or afternoon twighlight or even an overcast day the image quality suffers and the ISO starts creeping up. In sunny bright days its not a problem and the reach is good in getting closer to the action, but as soon as the light starts to fade then the auto focus becomes less reliable and you also have to increase the iso to keep the shutter speed fast enough, which results in noise.
CONSIDERATION 3 - FRAMES PER SECOND
Having high Frames Per Second (FPS) is certainly desirable with fast action and sports in general. Pro level DSLR cameras such as the Canon 1Dx Mark III offer up to 20FPS, which means you can capture the exact best frame from a sequence. In the early days, sports DSLRs could only shoot 3 FPS and they managed to capture some great sporting moments. Do you really need such high FPS when you are starting out? The Canon 80d shoots at 7 FPS for RAW files which is fast enough to give you a sequence to work with for surfing. The benefit of a slow FPS is that you have fewer files to review and you use less space. So far I've not seen any images sequences where I have thought a few frames in between would have nailed the shot - generally I get enough that I'm happy with.
CONSIDERATION 4 - BUFFER DEPTH
When you camera takes a picture, the sensor offloads that to fast internal memory for processing, then camera writes the image from the fast memory to your slower disk, the disks and processors aren't fast enough to transfer straight from the sensor to the disk, so this temporary holding area is called 'the buffer' and holds these images. The buffer (which is memory) has a certain fixed capacity (depth), which limits the number of shots it can hold. When you take shots in burst mode it fills up. Professional cameras have high FPS, larger buffers and faster disks (CFExpress). The Canon 80d has a buffer depth of 24 Raw shots, so at 7 FPS that is around 3 seconds of a wave, or if you choose 3 FPS you can get 95 shots which is about 30 seconds of a wave. You can increase the number of images by shooting in Jpeg, as those file sizes are smaller than RAW files. In comparison, the 1Dx mark III is virtually unlimited as the buffer is larger and the CFExpress cards are much faster than SD cards, and also the 20Mp is a smaller file size - so it can easily keep up with the sensor.
What this means in real life, is that you won't be able to 'Spray and Pray' with a lower end cameras, i.e. point your camera and hold the shutter button down until the wave has finished. What you'll need to do is be choosy on when to take your shots.
The way that I work around this limitation, is that I'll watch the surfer and track them with focus, pick the moment I'm interested in and fire off a few shots, pause and keep watching, then fire off another burst. This gives the camera enough time to offload some images from the buffer onto disk. Eventually the buffer fills up as there isn't enough time to offload all the raw files to disk in between bursts. A lot of the time, I'm shooting in the flow with the surfer and the wave, as there are moments on a ride in which the surfer is setting up for a manoeuvre and those shots aren't potential keepers and are not worth capturing. For example, when you see a surfer pumping down the line, those shots aren't the critical part, usually the surfer is building speed for either an air or a large turn, which is what I'll be aiming to capture..
CONSIDERATION 5 - FOCUS POINTS
When I was researching cameras, mirrorless focusing for sports shooting wasn't as accurate or reliable and DSLR cameras were still preferred. Lots of reviews of the Canon mirrorless range didn't recommend them for sports. A lot of the technology has change in the last couple of years and the R6, R5 and R3 have demonstrated that Mirrorless focusing is superior and is being adopted by sports shooters. However, if you are looking at a DSLR then this might help.
There are different types of focus points, with the cross type and dual cross type being the fastest and most accurate, which is useful for fast moving objects, like surfers. The more cross type focus points, the better the camera will be for sports and action as the subject moves around the frame. For example the Canon 200d has 1 cross type focus point at the centre, the Canon 80d has 45 and the 1Dx Mark III has 155. This is useful for when you are tracking a surfer and they perform a manoeuvre that you weren't anticipating. I have sequences of airs where a few frames are out of focus as I'm adjusting my camera to track the vertical motion, and then a few in focus when I get the subject closer to the centre of the frame.
CONSIDERATION 6 - LENS SUPPORT
What lenses area available is also something to consider, for example the current RF lens range for the Canon mirrorless is still being released and has yet to match the EF range of lenses. In addition, third party lens support by Sigma and Tamron means that you have an even greater variety of lenses to choose and a competative price point - although its worth checking out the reviews, and see what the compromises are in terms of built quality, focus speed and sharpness. You probably want to avoid cameras that have obsolete lens formats such as the Canon M series for example. I chose Canon as they had a very wide set of lenses in their catalog and good support from other third party brands.
CONSIDERATION 7 - BUDGET
Finally, how much money do you want to invest. The decision for me was harder as I'd only started photography recently and I didn't know if I would enjoy it or be any good at it. Each decision was tempered to reduce the outlay as I was testing the waters and knowing that at some point if I enjoyed it I could upgrade. You can also save a bit by timing your purchases and waiting for black friday and the end of financial year deals, 15% off a cameras or lens adds up. Having an 'enthusiast' camera and a decent lens hasn't impacted my ability to sell prints to surfers, licence images to surfing brands and local companies and even get into the top 36 images in a surfing magazine competition. With the improved mirrorless range, the Canon RP, R or R6 would be a cheap way to get into the RF Lenses system, if I was starting out at this moment in time. There are also rumours of a mirrorless R7 crop - which could be interesting for surf photography as the crop reach is very nice to have, and if it includes some of the features of the R6 such as the focus system and IBIS it could be a very compelling starting point - although the RF lenses are mostly L series (Pro level) and are not cheap.
Buying a Water Housing
Once you're past the point of using action camera, like a GoPro or iPhone, - which are great entry points for getting wet and shouldn't be overlooked if you have a small budget. You can certainly get some excellent shots, and if you need some inspo check out Mitch Gilmore, the King of Clarity.
It terms of housings for DSLR type cameras, there are various companies that sell water housings and dive housings. Water Housings or Sports Housings are generally meant for shooting close to the surface, less that 10 metre or 33 feet. Dive housings have to contend with higher pressure and have places to hold accessories such as lights for illuminating subjects at depth as there is less light. Dive housings aren't suited to nimble fast action such as surfing.
Most sports housings have a body to hold the camera, interchangeable ports to accomodate different lens types and lengths and a backplate. Most include at least one handle and have a mechanism to access zoom controls. There are accessories such as trigger mechanism so that you can shoot with one hand. In addition there are a number of other accessories such as a leash and port covers that help look after your kit.
When choosing a housing there are a few things to consider. Firstly, does it support the camera that you have or are looking to buy. Is the company or services centre close to you, so that it will be easier to get the housing serviced and buy replacement parts. Finally do they have good after service support and care for when things go wrong. Housings are expensive, and so are the cameras and lenses that goes in them - so you really want to protect your investments and be confident in the equipment and the company. Below are the ones that I know of, in no particular order.
Aquatech - Aquatech started in Australia and have locations in the USA as well as Spain, and are one of the leading brands with an impressive line up of ambassadors. They have product lines for DSLR and Mirrorless Cameras for the leading brands. The housings are constructed of Polyurethane body, Stainless steel controls as well as hard anodized aluminum. They offer a Base and Pro models. They also offer an entry into water photography via the AxisGo that holds iPhones.
Salty Surf Housings - Salty is also based in Australia and their CNC billet aluminium design allows for a unique strength to weight ratio. The housings are extremely durable whilst weighing less than other housings. They cater for all leading brands of cameras and have housing for video set-ups such as the Red Camera system.
Liquid Eye - Established in 1995, Liquid Eye is a European based company that builds splash water housings for leading brands of DLSR, their product is and extremely durable, impact resistant polyurethane resin water housing. Liquid Eye also has a service centre in Bali.
CMT - CMT based in the US makes hand crafted custom carbon fibre water housings for most leading brands
Sea Frogs - Based in Hong Kong, Sea Frogs make dive housings. The also have the Salted Line surf housings for the Sony A series cameras.
Why I chose Aquatech.
Firstly, all of the above housing are all great and used by professional surf photographers, there are some small differences in form factors, materials and the mechanisms to close the housing. Aquatech has clip housings, and Salty has wing nuts and Liquid Eye has Allen Key Nuts and bolts, and there are pro's and cons with each.
I spent around 6 months researching housings, I'd go and chat with surf photographers if I saw them, and have a closer look at the housings ask them questions - everyone was happy to share their experience and thoughts. To be honest it was a tough decision for me it was either Aquatech or Salty as they are both based in Australia which would be good for servicing and also they are the two main brands that I'd see around my local beaches. I went with Aquatech as they offered a base model kit at a good price that included a port, and trigger and was cheaper than buying everything separately. The base housing is exactly the same as the pro model, with the exception of the back plate. The backplate on the base model does not have any controls, however, there was an upgrade path - at the time.
I wasn't sure if I'd enjoy shooting from the water, and wanted to limit the initial financial outlay. The plan was to upgrade the backplate if I enjoyed shooting from the water. For my camera the backplate with full controls was available at the time - but is now discontinued. So I will need to upgrade both my cameras and housing set up to get full controls - and for the time being my current set up works for me, even with the limitations of not being able to change settings.
It's worth considering second hand housings, water housings are not particularly complicated and are fairly robust, so you could save yourself some money by keeping an eye out for second hand water housings. A good place to look is the various surf and ocean photographers facebook groups, or the housing user groups as you'll often see second hand housings up for sale - sometimes they will be selling the camera included as a complete kit. You could save a bit by getting a second hand housing and then getting it serviced and a buy fresh set of o-rings (the rubber seals that keep the water out). There's a few surf photographers who are upgrading to the mirrorless system - so about now is a good time to get a good deal.