Shooting Surf In The Water – Basics

I’m just starting out with this really, although I’ve been shooting video in the water for years, the stills side of things is relatively new to me, what I know now has been gleaned from the few dozen sessions I’ve had with my Aquatech housing and information that I’ve picked up on line and first hand from friends.


A shot taken with the Sigma 10-20mm lens at 10mm

You can check out my basic Housing tips in the other post, so far I’ve mostly shot with my Sigma 10-20mm wide angle lens and my dome port, so here are the basics for actually shooting that I’ve picked up:

  1. Use manual focus, set it to infinity and tape the focus ring in place, I didn’t think I’d need to tape it in place as it’s not loose at all but then I got worked, not too badly, and it slipped so now I just use a little strip of masking tape to hold it at infinity.
  2. I can’t adjust the focal length when it’s in the housing (I need a different port for that) so I set it as wide as possible before putting it in.
  3. Get closer than you think – there’s a couple of shots where I’ve thought I was too close to the subject but when looking at the pictures I’ve been in exactly the right place.
  4. Sit further inside than you think you need to – especially if you’re shooting a slab or shorebreak, I’ve found myself too far out many times and paddling back in against the pull of the water as a wave approaches is near impossible and results in a little wake forming which often shows up in the picture.  The few times I’ve thought I was too far inside I’ve actually ended up getting the best shots, the wave pulls you out to meet it and you can glide with it and snap shots as you go, this also gives you some momentum to get through the back of the wave.
  5. Don’t fill the camera’s buffer before the main action, I’ve made this mistake a couple of times and missed what could have been great shots, the Canon 60D I shoot with has a couple of seconds of continuous shooting before it slows down as the buffer fills up. The key is to pace yourself when the subject is taking off towards you, try and fire the shutter when they are the middle of a bottom turn but not continuously all the way through it, then hold it down as they pass you or turn in front of you.
  6. Don’t waste shots, I was using a 16GB card and figured I could afford to experiment and shoot lots of test shots in between sets, then I ran out of room, I had shot two sessions and admittedly now I have a couple of 32GB cards which should allow for this, but try to keep an eye on how many shots are left in case the waves are going to get better.
  7. Shoot in Shutter Priority with a shutter speed of 1/1000 or faster, if the sun is out go for a higher shutter speed, if you want arty blur go for a slower one (see my post on slower shutter speeds) but if you want to freeze the action make sure it’s at least 1/1000. My housing allows me to alter it as I go so I have experimented with bumping it up to a faster speed and have been happy with the crispness of the results.
  8. Hold the housing up high and level, I noticed after the first session with the wide angle lens that I would dip it into the water earlier than I needed to as someone approached and that I would stick it out at an angle when someone passed and I was already in the wave, focus on keeping it high and level to make sure as many frames as possible come out.
  9. Shoot good waves or good surfers, preferably both. It sounds obvious but if your standard local break is a crap beachy with shifty peaks that rarely barrels and you’re taking pictures of every day surfers, you’re going to get average photo’s. Shoot somewhere hollow or someone who is going to do a big turn or an air, and it’s surprising how good your shots turn out. You’re going to have to work very hard to make crap waves and average surfers look good.
  10. Stick a GoPro on top of your housing, I currently have a GoPro Hero 2, it’s attached to the top of my housing using the standard sticky mount and I try and shoot video of all the waves I photograph, this has not only been a useful tool for working out where I went wrong but it’s also given me extra content to sell on to surfers and use on this site.

That’s the round up so far, as I gain more experience and pick up new tricks I will put some more posts up on the subject.






2 responses to “Shooting Surf In The Water – Basics”

  1. Jake Northrup Avatar
    Jake Northrup

    Is there a way to change the shutter speed while in the housing using the back dial, because the housing I want to get has access to the back dial not the top dial which usually does this.

    Also, what housing do you have and what controls are there?

    1. Ben Avatar

      Hi Jake,

      The back dial on the 60D will only control the shutter speed if you press the Q button to open the quick menu first, so you’ll have no problem if your housing has a control for the Q button too.

      I have the Aquatech CR-60, with controls for the shutter, top dial and live view button, if you’re using a Canon camera you might want to check out the post on using Magic Lantern to access full manual control when you can only press the Live View button here:

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