How to take surf photography ?

Surfing is probably one of the purest sports in terms of harmony with nature. This interaction with the ever-changing natural elements also makes it one of the most photogenic activities of all. The aesthetic aspect of surfing has inspired many photographers and artists during the last century. Since the1980s, some photographers have thus specialized in surf photography, catering for the increasing demands of specialized publications, sponsors, photo agencies and other media.

The unique quality of surf photography lies in the wide array of possible angles and the variety of equipment used.

Typically, a surf photographer uses a 600-mm/f4 telephoto lens to shoot from the beach.
This high-powered lens can be increased to a focal length of 800 mm or even 1200 mm with multiplying converters. The use of a tripod or monopod is essential with this heavy lens which makes it possible to shoot the action full frame from a great distance.
The variety of possible angles is limited only by the layout of the beach and the mobility of the photographer. Buildings, lifeguard huts, houses, hills, trees, piers, wharfs, sand dunes, cliffs, etc can all enhance or vary the image.

Watertight housings for camera bodies are made of fibreglass and resin or aluminium. They are usually custom-made to fit a standard professional camera such as the Nikon F5 or F100 or the Canon EOS 1 V or EOS 3. They are equipped with interchangeable ports allowing adaptation of the housings to the different sizes of lens used on these standard cameras. Housings are now available for digital cameras, enabling the photographer to shoot over 200 pictures without reloading.
These images are usually taken just above the water level close to the impact zone, using swim fins for easier and faster positioning and a wetsuit for warmth.
This exercise can be risky in big waves or over razor-sharp coral reef. Knowing that a cubic metre of water weighs one ton, the devastating power of a pitching lip fuelled by a long swell line hitting a shelf can easily be imagined

14 mm, 15 mm and 16 mm fish-eye lenses are the most commonly used for inside-the-tube shots or close up manoeuvres such as aerials, cutbacks or re-entries.
The difficulty lies in the positioning. The photographer must anticipate the wave formation and the path of the surfer so as to be as close as possible to the surfer at the most critical part of the ride. With these focal lengths, the surfer is only a few feet or a even a centimetre away from the camera. It is therefore possible to take a picture from inside the same tube that the surfer is riding. These images tend to be the most spectacular since the viewer is positioned at the very heart of the action.
These lenses are also used for underwater photography. The unusual lighting and the magical sub-aquatic atmosphere place the surfer and his medium in a totally different perspective.

If the photographers cannot get close enough to his subject for various reasons (wave power, rip, contest rules, filming, crowds etc) he can shoot from the water with anything up to a 300 mm lens. The low angle makes for impressive images.
A body-board or air-mat can be used to gain a slightly higher vantage point, thus eliminating the chop when using a telephoto lens.

A water housing can be attached to a board in order to get a very subjective view of a specific ride. These housings are equipped with a remote control that can be activated from a boat or the beach a few metres away. These images are very time-consuming and risky for the camera equipment and the surfer. The results however are often stunning.

Another popular solution is the use of boats, outriggers, canoes or jet-skis. In these
situations, the photographer uses a watertight casing for security and shoots with a telephoto zoom lens such as a 80-200/ 2.8 zoom or a 300 /2.8 lens. This enables the photographer to get closer to the action and helps him to get an angle looking straight into the tube. Positioning boats and other watercraft close to breaking waves is always a major difficulty. Many photography boats have been caught by rogue waves or have experienced engine problems that have led to physical and financial disaster through loss of equipment. Some waves are accessible only by boat - this is the case, for example, for most waves in French Polynesia, because of the lagoon separating the shore from the coral reef and the breaking waves.

Helicopters are often used in very heavy conditions to get closer to the action in relative security. Although the elevation tends to flatten the waves, it is often the most productive way of shooting all the action. A 80 -200 /2.8 telephoto zoom lens is the perfect medium for pure action. Aerial line-up shots are also very popular. The cost of producing these images is obviously a big draw-back.

Although the surfing scene has grown into a fully-fledged, prosperous worldwide industry, surf photography is still a very marginal activity. The necessary investment in equipment and the cost of its maintenance in humid, salty environments are constant problems. Film and processing costs and travel expenses are very high. Furthermore, the weather never provides perfect shooting conditions all year round in any given location. Patience is a key word when the weather is capricious.

Semi-professional photographers take a lot of images or photographers specialized in other fields. However, in the last few years, a small group of highly motivated photographers has emerged and has been able to make a decent living by shooting surf exclusively.
The lifestyle and the passion of these photographers compensate them for the occasional financial penalty and the possibility of working on a daily basis with the ocean is a privilege worth many sacrifices.