When you plug your camera into your computer, and download the 3000 photos you took, be critical of your work. I ask 2 key questions about every photo: Is it in focus? Is the composition visually appealing? If the answer is no to either, then the photo gets binned. After the initial cull, there's always a few photos that are borderline. Often cropping dead space and tilting (to fix a tilted horizon) is enough to make the photo work. If the exposure isn't right (in spite of doing everything I said earlier) then unfortunately the options to fix it are limited.
Photoshop is good at adjusting colours, but if you try to brighten or darken a photo significantly you will end up with unattractive noise throughout the photo (an exception to this is raw format photos). Sometimes the only option is to put the photo into greyscale to hide the noise and give an old-time feel to the shot.
With this in mind, a lot of shots in surfing photography are technically perfect, but for whatever reason lack 'something special'. Often it is the timing of the surfer on the wave relative to you pushing the shutter button. Shooting in burst mode and grabbing 3-8 frames per second will greatly increase the chances of capturing a visually appealing moment, and greatly increase your memory card usage!
Below are a series of photos with the settings used, as examples of shots illustrating some key points discussed.
This photo is not sharp. This is because I was hand-holding the camera and only shooting at 1/500th sec exposure. Everything else is fine, although ideally I would have been better off getting closer to the surfer, to make the spray fill the frame more. Lesson: use a faster shutter speed!!!!
This is an example of what a low zoom camera is capable of. I used my SLR, but it could just as easily have been taken using an iPhone. 80mm zoom is minimal, and every camera on the market can shoot with settings similar to above -slow shutter speed, moderate aperture. The critical aspect to this style of photo is to have an interesting scene, since you can't zoom enough to make the surfer the focus.
Unlike the earlier image, at 1/2000th sec, this photo is crisp and allows you to see each droplet of spray coming off the lip. This was taken in the early morning just after sunrise, which gives the wave a 'backlit' quality where the face is brighter than the open water. I was also using a professional lens for this shot, which allows the aperture to be as low as 2.8 at full zoom without any loss of definition. If you're serious about surf photos, the lens is much more important than the camera body for versatile photos.
This is an example of composition being important. I've used the rule of thirds to place the surfer on approximately the left 1/3 of the image, and the throwing lip is on approximately the top 1/3 of the frame. If the surfer was centred, it wouldn't look like there was any room for the surfer to go, so the photo wouldn't work as well. Again, fast shutter speed is key to freezing the cascading lip in time without blur.
Another example of the scene filling the frame. It isn't always easy to get close enough to make the surfer fill the shot, so at least try to get the spray to fill the space in the frame.
In the case of big surf, it's not as important to always make the surfer fill the frame -because you lose perspective of the wave size. The rule of thirds is helpful here. Aim to have the crest of the wave near the top 1/3 of the frame, and position the surfer in the fame so there appears to be room in the direction of travel. Also, if you aren't as close, it is possible to lower the shutter speed a bit because the water isn't moving as quickly across your viewfinder. This was taken at 1/640 sec and is still sharp.
So there we go. If you've got any surf photos you'd like to share, we'd love to see them. Post them in our surf photo gallery.
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James (Jimi) is a regular over on our forum, so if you have any questions just post them there.
Check out some of Jimi's work at filteredlights.com