10 Surf Photography Tips for Amazing Surf Photos

8 November 2021

There is no joy quite like capturing the curl of a wave as it nods its head towards a sandy shoreline, a surfer poking his toes out as it barrels behind them. Like any sports photography, surf photographers need to be in the right place at the right time with the right camera gear and know-how.

We want you to feel prepared and ready to capture the best moments of your next surf photography session, so we’ve pulled together our top 10 tips for surf photography to help you get the perfect shot next time you head down to the beach.


1. Dip your toes in the water

First things first, when you are learning surf photography you decide whether you will be shooting from the surf or from the shore. These are two distinct approaches to surf photography, and the gear you take with you will largely depend on which camp you fall into.

If you want to get up close to the action and get your feet wet, you’ll need a waterproof camera or an underwater housing to protect your camera. For guidance, check out our guide on the best waterproof cameras. Even if you don't plan on getting in the ocean yourself, it's worthwhile considering weather-sealed camera gear and taking extra care with your gear around water and sand.

10 Surf Photography Tips for Amazing Surf Photos10 Surf Photography Tips for Amazing Surf Photos

2. Get a waterproof camera

10 Surf Photography Tips for Amazing Surf Photos10 Surf Photography Tips for Amazing Surf Photos

Waterproof cameras are usually the best cameras for surf photography - and the safest option too! Allowing you to go in and under the surface of water, you can go in search of the winning shot worry-free. These cameras fall into the digital compact camera section of the market, so what they may lack in manual features and high-end performance, they make up for in versatility and portability. Our pick of the bunch in this range is the Olympus Tough TG6. We'll make a point of emphasising the ‘Tough’ moniker.

If you’d like to capture some video footage of the surfing action, you're doing yourself a disservice if you don't consider an action camera, namely something from the GoPro range. The latest model, the GoPro Hero 10 Black, boasts improved image quality and advanced stabilisation that will help the most action-packed surf footage appear smooth and cinematic.

3. Or shoot from the land with a Mirrorless/DSLR Camera

If you are sticking to land, we advise you to choose either a Mirrorless camera or DSLR to frame your shots, with Mirrorless being the best choice if you crave portability. These cameras provide more manual features, so you can take greater control over the look and aesthetic of your image, and their larger image sensors also assure better image quality. Plus, you can pair them with the camera lens of your choice depending on the result you want to achieve.

4. Pick your lens carefully

10 Surf Photography Tips for Amazing Surf Photos10 Surf Photography Tips for Amazing Surf Photos

If you do go for an interchangeable lens camera, you can counteract having a spot further away on land by using a lens with a longer focal length. To harness a tighter crop of the surfing action, consider a telephoto zoom lens with a maximum reach of 300mm or more. If you’re unsure about which lens to pick, check out our lens buying guide for more guidance.

5. Get a little help from camera accessories

There are a few camera accessories that you can add to your kit to improve your chance of a stunning surf photography portfolio. Add a circular polarising filter to your lens to increase contrast as well as limit some of the reflection that often bounces off the water. Consider mounting your camera on a monopod to help provide a little more stability, and hopefully a sharper image.

10 Surf Photography Tips for Amazing Surf Photos10 Surf Photography Tips for Amazing Surf Photos

6. Use the best camera settings for great surf photography

10 Surf Photography Tips for Amazing Surf Photos10 Surf Photography Tips for Amazing Surf Photos

There's no doubt about it, the biggest obstacle for surf photographers is dealing with the tricky lighting conditions, which can easily result in overexposed images as you try to capture your subject. If you’re shooting in a manual mode, you’ll want to use the following camera settings for surf photos:

  • A low ISO setting - To avoid overexposure, start low and increase as necessary to make your image brighter. For more tips, check out our post “What Is ISO in photography?
  • A fast shutter speed - Use a shutter speed of around 1/500th of a second  allows you to capture a crucial moment, such as a wave being caught, clearly and blur-free. Read our beginner's guide to shutter speed for more information.
  • A moderate aperture - A greater depth of field provided by a moderate aperture will give you more margin for error when focusing.

7. Shoot in RAW

As it can be tricky to get perfect exposures in these circumstances, we strongly recommend shooting in RAW. The extra latitude allows you to adjust exposure and white balance settings in post-production, without reducing the quality of your photographs.

10 Surf Photography Tips for Amazing Surf Photos10 Surf Photography Tips for Amazing Surf Photos

8. Use spot focus

10 Surf Photography Tips for Amazing Surf Photos10 Surf Photography Tips for Amazing Surf Photos

Using the spot focus setting on your camera is one way to avoid vastly incorrect light meter readings that will ruin the exposure of your image. You can take your reading from the surfer, rather than the bright skies or darker shadowy areas of the water surface, which are what distorts meter readings.

9. Compose your images with care

The principles of photography are the same no matter the subject. When you’re learning surf photography, you need to carefully consider the composition of your images, which is where you place your subjects within the frame, if you want them to be anything more than mediocre. Some techniques that you can research and employ include leading lines, negative space and the rule of third.

Aim for level horizons

Trying to keep your horizon line straight is one simple step that you can take to produce more polished work.

10 Surf Photography Tips for Amazing Surf Photos10 Surf Photography Tips for Amazing Surf Photos

As a bonus, the sense of balance provided by following this tip helps your photograph of a daring surfer tilting and tumbling seem all the more dramatic.

Understand the direction of light

Shooting directly into the sun is incredibly tricky to master, even for the best photographer. You may not always be able to change positions to counteract this occurrence, so you best do your research first, understanding which direction the light will be heading at certain times of the day, so you can plan your shoot accordingly.

10. Practice etiquette and safety

10 Surf Photography Tips for Amazing Surf Photos10 Surf Photography Tips for Amazing Surf Photos

If you are planning to get in the water and amongst the action, you need to understand surfing etiquette, so the surfers won't mind you returning to take photos next time around. Most of this involves you staying well out of the way and allowing them to go to work. This is crucial for your safety too!


Hit the surf with these products


Whether you’re looking to snap tubes from afar or get up close to the action and in the barrels themselves, make sure you head to Ted’s website or visit your local Ted’s Cameras store to browse the very best surf photography camera equipment.


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