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10 Tips to Improve Your Surf Shots

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Surfing Photography Tips

Surf Photography has changed my life completely.  It can be challenging to make it a profession, but is a very compensating hobby especially if you’re a surfer, like myself.  People take it so seriously that there are places like the North Shore of Oahu, in Hawaii, where photographers sometimes physically fight for a spot on the beach.

Surfing publications can pay really well, but unless you are one of their staff photographers it is really hard to make a living pursuing the editorial path. It can take years and to be truthfully honest, to make a career with surf photography, it’s all about who you know in the surfing “Mecca”.

My name is Sergio Oliveira; I’m 43 and was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil. I’ve been surfing for 26 yrs and have made the island of Maui, in Hawaii, my home for the last fifteen.  I love sports photography in general, but surfing and all related water sports are my passion. I’ve been shooting for a little over five years now and am having a lot of fun doing it for several reasons. First, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and interact with many great people in the surfing industry.  From the new and upcoming fresh talented youngsters, to surfing legends that I grew up looking after and never thought I would have a chance to actually meet. Second, my approach and drive to keep on shooting is directly related to the passion I have for surf photography. Third, I do get some free stuff from time to time which is awesome.

I took some classes, but did not go to photography school, so I classify myself as self taught without credentials.  I’m a believer that until the day I die I will still be learning something new about photography.  I am part of the digital generation and know nothing about film. A lot of my images have been published on paper, and I have great exposure on the web. I have to admit that the feeling of seeing my stuff out there is exhilarating. With all that said, I’ve been asked by APS to write this article and I feel extremely honored to do it so.

Here is what I’ve got for you……

10 Tips to Improve Your Surf Shots

Equipment

1. Invest in a Fast Camera

Digital SLR cameras have become ridiculously fast. There’s no question that everyday manufacturers are coming out with something new that’s faster, and capable of producing bigger and better images. Drive speed is a must when it comes to surfing (sports) photography because it allows you to capture more images per second.  This gives you a higher chance to capture that perfect shot. Budgeting for a new camera body will probably be the hardest part.  With speed, bigger image sizes, and better technology, comes a BIG price tag. Fortunately for me, Maui is the wedding capital of the World.  With so many wedding photographers working out here, I’ve always been able to find great deals especially on Maui’s Craigslist Website. Mostly fairly new stuff sometimes barely used, for half the price or less.  Check out your local Craigslist for deals.

2.  A Telephoto Lens

Owning a Telephoto Lens is highly recommended when shooting surfing.  Usually surfers will start riding waves farther away from the shore because longer rides are more fun.  When shooting from the shore you will need something between the 100 to 600mm ranges. My everyday lens is a Canon Zoom EF 100-400mm, and for Maui surf spots, that is plenty. What I love about the zoom is that it gives me the option of closeness and distance in one lens.  Making it very versatile. It is also smaller, lighter, and easier to carry. Just like camera bodies, lenses can get really pricey.  Look around before dropping the cash to make sure you get something that is functional for your neck of the woods and photography style.

3.  Faster Memory Cards

A faster card matched up with a fast camera is the perfect combination to take sequence shots, i.e. a barrel ride. When shooting surfers getting barreled you’ll want to capture the set up, the actual barrel ride and the rider coming out of it. Sometimes a barrel ride can take over 25 frames to fully capture.  Recovery time when working with faster memory cards is also a huge benefit.  One thing to remember is that memory cards do go bad sometimes.  I’ve found that to get around this problem it’s best to limit my card sizes to a 4GB max, so I’ll usually bring 4 of those with me.  Smaller cards force me to change them more often because they tend to fill up quicker.  However, that also gives me somewhat of a back up in case one card goes south. Then I won’t end up losing all of my photos from the day.

On the other hand, whenever I house my camera to shoot from the water that whole scenario changes. Water shots are very challenging and it is absolutely impossible to change your memory card while doing it, even if you happen to be riding on the back of a jet ski. Bigger cards (up to 16GB) is what I load up my camera with, and yes it’s a gamble, but sometimes you just have to chance it.  It’s better this way than running out of memory in the water..

4. Tripod x Monopod x Freehand

Ideally with surf photography, it’s best if you own both a tripod, and a monopod. I’ve been hooked on my monopod lately and will tell you why when I get to the “Capturing Different Angles” topic. Using either will make your camera stable, helping you to avoid blur causing camera-shake for better surf photography. I am going to be honest though and tell you that I dedicate at least 25% of my photo shoots time to freehand shooting. I get a lot of different angles when I lay on the sand and would not be able to do that if my camera was mounted on either the tri or the monopod. The image stabilizer on my telephoto helps a lot and I try to cut down on the coffee when shooting in the AM.  It helps me minimize the hand shakingy!

Out Shooting

5. Light is everything!

As we all know, the early morning hours and sunset lights are the softest and always best for any kind of outdoor and surf photography.  With today’s advanced digital technology though, knowing your camera settings can get you around to shoot all day if you prefer and still capture some great images. Natural Light gets really harsh here in Hawaii between 12pm and 3pm pretty much everyday that the sun is out, and honestly I try to avoid shooting between those hours…  I also prioritize my photo shoots for sunny days opposed to cloudy and rainy days. Keep in mind that sunlight is your best friend when out shooting; it makes everything more colorful and bright. I’ve gone out and shot extremely great surfers riding perfect waves on cloudy days and the images were not nearly as good.

6. Creating an Image x Taking a Picture

Working as an assistant photographer for wedding and portrait photographers like Aubrey Hord www.aubreyhord.com , Peter Thompson www.photohawaii.com  and Stewart Shining www.stewartshining.com (latest Sports Illustrated 2011 Swimsuit Issue with Brooklin Decker shot here on Maui…oh my God she is hot!!!) have helped me a lot with understanding photography in general. One of the most important things I learned, besides how to work with artificial lights, is that you can either “take” a picture or you can “create” an image.  That’s the difference between pros, and the not so pros, out in the photography world.  Many things factor in when you create an image, it’s more than just “taking a picture”.  For surfing, I’ve learned that is not just the surfer and the amazing trick he/she is able to pull, but also all that surrounds that moment. A piece of the sandy beach, the trees, or the boat in the background, the contrast from the lava rocks and the pristine blue water, the sea life, the waves, etc.

So the next time you grab your camera to go shoot, look around and try to piece it all together in one frame with your subject still in mind.  I bet the image that you’ve “created” will be much better than what you would have taken were you shooting without the extra elements.

Sergio Surf Photography

7. Capturing Different Angles

When working on your surf photography skills, capturing images from different angles is the key to “creating” images. To me that’s when that monopod comes in handy. It’s lightweight, easier to carry than a tripod, and it retracts faster. When I am out working on my surf photography skills, I move up and down the beach, get close to the water, pull far, while moving from side to side as I try to utilize the natural light as best as I possibly can.

When working with clients or friends (that’s how I started), I suggest you to talk to them and find out what they are looking for.  Then you can provide something closer to what they envisioned in their heads.  If you aren’t shooting friends or clients, and are just at the beach randomly, try shooting everyone around the beach. From the pros, to the not so skilled guys and girls, kids, older people, long boarders, body boarders, bodysurfers, and the stand up paddlers. If you’re trying to sell photographs, you will be surprised by what images people want to purchase. Think of it this way, if you surf, chances are you would love to have your picture blown up in your living room.  No matter how old or good you are, the same things applies to all different sports.

8. RAW x JPEG formats and Image Editing

Everyone has a different opinion on image formats. I personally go back and forth but it really depends on who you’re working with and what your images are going to be used for. I’ve come to find out that the majority of the pros nowadays shoot RAW.  RAW images give you a better editing option but most likely you will have to step in to the “Lightroom” (opposed to the dark room from back on the film days) and spend some time editing. It be very time consuming, but well worth it.  JPEG’s are more compact, they take less space on your memory card and computer. The good thing about JPEG’s is that if you know your camera, then you can still create some pretty amazing results with JPEGs. Just be extra careful when shooting JPEG’s not to blow your whites and darks, because those mistakes are pretty hard to fix on a JPEG file. And yes, it is ok to edit your images; everyone does it, one way or the other.  Read your histogram as you shoot to balance those lights and darks.

Image editing software is available everywhere, some expensive and complicated, while other software is free and user friendly. Once again we go back to your budget and learning skills. I like Photoshop for more of the detailed stuff and Picasa (freeware) for the basic quick adjustments.

9. Step out of The Box

Creativity has no rules. That’s my opinion!

Try something different everyday you go out and shoot and you will have a lot more fun doing it. Learn and play with your camera settings, shoot RAW one day and JPEG the next and compare the difference. Shoot different apertures, over expose, under expose, shoot black and white, create images on TV, AV, manual and program. Lay off the auto mode and make some mistakes.  It’s ok to make mistakes as long as you learn from them!

Trial and error is the best way to learn and as long as you’re happy with it, who cares what everyone else thinks? Photography is a form of art and there are a bazillion different ways that art can be expressed. Find yours and stick to it. There will always be criticism, sometimes constructive while other times diminishing, either way don’t take it personally. Someone will always have an opinion on what they think is better but that don’t necessarily means it is right or wrong!

10. And Finally… Keep it Simple

If you decide you are ready to become better at surf photography, here are a few more things that might help:

  • Make some business cards.
  • Create a website and promote it. You can get something going for little or no cost to get you started.
  • Pack light. Remember that you are going to be out in the sun for a few hours, moving around to capture that best angle and carrying around extra gear that you don’t really need can make you more tired.
  • Be respectful and try not to solicit people on the beach to try and “sell” your photos. Usually if they are interested, people come up to me and start making small talk asking who I am shooting. That’s when you give them your business card and fill them in on your surf photography.
  • Don’t forget extra batteries and extra memory cards. Running out of either one of those can cost you a lot of cash, and make you “miss the money shot”.
  • Be careful with the fast cameras, they can take a lot of pictures in one burst and you don’t want to come home with over 1000 images every time you go, especially if you shoot RAW.
  • Consider purchasing an external hard drive to back up your pictures.
  • Find your way to spend more time outside and less time on your computer.

Have Fun and Aloha,

Sergio Oliveira
Sergiorio Photography – Surf photography
www.sergiorio.com

3 COMMENTS

  1. It is a very competitive field and what you say is true and straight to the point. I thought any one looking to do this type of photography can get some good concepts here from your article to start. Do you prefer shooting from land or in the water to start out because I see so many shooters out near the line up. Does that aggravate the surfers when I see them like get in the way? I think Hawaii would be a good place to start and by the way I was in Brazil a few years back and found the people very friendly there at Priania Beach south of Rio. They would say to me (You Go Your Wave) and cheer when I made one. Nice people. I was 63 back than. Jan

  2. Thanks for sharing some tips for taking action photos of surfing. It makes sense that you would need a fast camera so you can capture more photos per second. When someone is surfing and moving all around, it definitely makes sense that you would need a lot of pictures to capture each different move. 

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