Aperture for Surf Photography

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Dave Kelly makes water housings for some of the world’s best surf photographers, this is what he has to say about aperture for surf photography:

“The single most important thing that a water photographer must learn, even to this day, is how to control focus using f stops.” – Dave Kelly


This is a good technical description of the f-number, or aperture, and how it’s calculated: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F-number

For the purposes of surf photography, the most important thing you need to know about aperture, is its effect on depth of field.

Depth of field is a measure of how much of the image is in sharp focus.

In this image of a small wave, there’s a only narrow sliver of the scene in focus. Anything that’s about 1m to 1.2m away from the camera is in focus, and everything else is too blurry to make out details.

It was shot with a wide aperture, the f-number was small. It was shot at f2.8 on a 60mm lens.

In this shot, nearly everything is in focus, the depth of field extends from about 0.6m from the camera all the way to the far distance. It was shot with a narrow aperture, or high f-number. The aperture was f8 on an 8mm fisheye lens.

If you want to shoot images with everything in focus, you want a deep depth of field, where the biggest distance in front of, and behind, the point you’re focusing on, is in focus. If you’re shooting surfing action, this is probably what you want.

Some surf photographers, many of whom have been taking surf photos since before auto focus was an option, consider an understanding of depth of field to be one of the most important factors in surf water photography.

Most of the time, you’ll want to get the main subject of your photo in sharp focus.


  • Rambo Estrada, on the Pitched Industries podcast, says that knowing the effect of Aperture on depth of field and the performance of lenses was the one thing he knew earlier in his surf photography career. This whole podcast is well worth a listen for lots more insights.
  • Ray Collins – Award winning surf photographer, with many examples that show how controlling your depth of field can direct a viewers attention
  • Warren Keelan – has some great shallow depth of field shots of surf and waves

Aperture for Surf Photography: How to Control Depth of Field

Aperture is one of the essential settings for photography that affects how much light enters your lens and how much of your image is in focus. Aperture is measured in f-numbers, such as f/1.4, f/4, or f/8. The lower the f-number, the wider the aperture and the more light it lets in. The higher the f-number, the narrower the aperture and the less light it lets in.

Aperture for Surf Photography – Everything in Focus

But aperture also affects the depth of field of your image, which is the range of distance that appears sharp and in focus. The lower the f-number, the shallower the depth of field and the more blur you will get in the background and foreground. The higher the f-number, the deeper the depth of field and the more sharpness you will get in the whole scene.

For surf photography, you usually want to have a deep depth of field, so that you can capture the details of the waves and the surfers. A good rule of thumb is to use an aperture of f/8, which will give you a reasonable depth of field and allow you to focus on the action. If you use a wider aperture, such as f/1.8 or f/4, you may get some parts of your image in focus and some parts blurry, which can be frustrating and distracting.

To set the aperture on your camera, you can use the aperture priority mode. This mode lets you select the aperture and the camera will figure out the other settings for you. On most cameras, the aperture priority mode is marked as A or Av on the mode dial. You can then use the dial or the buttons to adjust the aperture. For example, on the Sony A6500, you can use the dial on the top of the camera to change the aperture.

Aperture for Surf Photography – Shallow Depth of Field

Of course, there are some situations where you may want to use a wider aperture and a shallower depth of field for surf photography. For example, you may want to create a bokeh effect, which is the aesthetic quality of the blur in the out-of-focus areas. Or you may want to isolate the subject from the background and make it stand out. In these cases, you can use a wider aperture, such as f/2.8, f/1.8, or even lower. However, you will also need to use a faster shutter speed or a lower ISO to balance the exposure.

Aperture is one of the most important settings for surf photography. It can affect the mood and the style of your photos. By using a narrow aperture, you can get a deep depth of field and capture the whole scene in focus. By using a wide aperture, you can get a shallow depth of field and create a different effect with blur. You can use the aperture priority mode to easily control the aperture on your camera. Experiment with different apertures and see what works best for you. Happy shooting!

Lessons related to Aperture for Surf Photography

Surf Photography – Essential Knowledge

    1. Quick Start Settings for Surf Photography
    2. Shutter Speed in Surf Photography
    3. Aperture in Surf Photography
    4. ISO for Surf Photography
    5. Focus Modes for Surf Photography
    6. What You Need to Know About Equivalence for Surf Photography
    7. Working With Surfers
    8. Minimum Shutter Speed in Aperture Priority and Manual Mode





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