Surf Photography 101 by Mike Baird

I’m often asked how I get such good sharp surf shots.  As explained below, my formula is pretty basic, but what makes a good photo for me may not be what makes a good photo for you… that’s the beauty of photography – it’s an “art” so almost anything goes.  It is also a science in that there are many technical aspects to capturing a quality image.  When most people ask me how I got a certain shot, they are usually thinking f-stops and shutter speeds, ISOs and focal length, frame rates and RAW versus JPG.

First and foremost, whenever possible, I try to convey in my surfing photos what the surfer is feeling.  Is she stoked or delighted?  Competitive or relaxed?  All alone and enjoying the solitude, or in a crowded line up trying not to be snaked?  Very few of my shots embody, for example, extreme blurring to capture “mood” or “speed” – as I largely prefer tack-sharp “frozen” close-up scenes.

To get the kind of shots seen in this particular book, you have to get close.  Since for practical reasons most of my shots are taken from dry land, that generally means the use of a long focal-length lens.  My most important tool is the image stabilized Canon EF 600mm f/4L USM Super Telephoto Lens for Canon SLR Cameras.  When the surfers are close to the Morro Bay, CA parking lot, for example, that is plenty of glass.  If the action is a bit further out, I add a Canon EF 1.4X II or EF 2X II Extender Telephoto Accessory.  This facilitates a 840mm to 1200mm reach.  Surfing is often an extreme action sport, so taking rapid bursts of images is usually highly desirable.  Any of the recent Canon SLR “prosumer” cameras (like the 20D, 30D, 40D) work well.  For best results, a Canon pro body (like the Canon EOS 1D Mark III 10.1MP Digital SLR Camera) is required.  At 10 frames per second, you don’t miss much.  Note this paragraph was written in late 2007, and the reader should be aware that these model references will no doubt soon be obsolete.

A large percentage of my shots are taken using shutter priority of 1/1250 or 1/1600 second.  Any slower than that and I find that I introduce motion blur between my inability to stabilize the camera system and the motion of the subject.  Depending of course on lighting conditions, I try to use an ISO speed of 400 to 640.  I take whatever resultant aperture I can get – and the lens frequently needs to operate wide open at f/4.0 – but I’ll take f/11 if I can get it.  The image stabilizer feature of the lens should be engaged, in the optional panning mode, with autofocus set, for the longer distances involved.  I usually use a single/few center-point focus pattern, trying to track the subject’s eye in the center of the frame, using the AI tracking mode.  A histogram check will often suggest underexposing 1/3rd of a stop or so.  I will mildly crop the photo in most cases to give the impression of a leading or trailing space as desired.  In this sense centering “composition” is less important than in other kinds of photography involving visual balance by thirds, and flow, etc.  I use a Canon 52mm Circular Polarizer Drop-in Filter infrequently, but often with a dramatic effect at the expense of some light gathering ability.  I generally use 8GB compact flash cards with the highest speeds available (from 20-40 Mbytes per second write speeds) so I can capture 30 to 50 images in a few seconds.

The world’s best camera and most expensive lens is pretty worthless unless it is properly mounted on a strong tripod and head.   For the setup described above, I recommend the Gitzo GT5540LS Series 5 Systematic 6X Carbon Fiber 4 Section G-Lock Tripod, with a leveling base (you want to be able to pan and maintain the correct horizon at all times), and a WH-200 Wimberley Head Version II - its gimbal-type design allows you to rotate your lens around its center of gravity and thus easily manipulate very large lenses.

Of course, unless there is good wave action and surfing going on, all the technical tips in the world won’t produce a money shot.  I’m often lazy, and take most of my shots mid-day, which, while providing a lot of light, does not provide the most beautiful illumination of the day. Being on the West Coast, morning sun is behind me, and would seemingly produce the best images, but morning fog is also usual on the Central California Coast.  Evening sun often produces stunning imagery, but it is a challenge not to get back-lighting situations and glare.

If you don’t have your camera with you the surf will develop for sure – so every time you head for the beach make sure you take your camera gear, and be patient, because some of the best surfers are yet to arrive.  Get closer, and try different angles.  It is fun to get at the water’s edge and shoot from just a few inches off the sand.  You may get dirty, but the results are usually surprisingly dramatic. 

Capture action and movement by using your burst mode to get a sequence of images to pick from. The days of high film costs are over, and it costs nothing but time to take more pictures.  In a typical day of shooting I will take 1000-2000 images, delete two-thirds of them immediately in the field, and delete all but a few keepers at day’s end. 

I shoot only in RAW mode at the highest resolution possible.  I never shoot JPGs if I’m after a serious shot.  It is too easy to blow out the whites or get the wrong color balance in highly contrasting seas.  Don’t let your camera make processing decisions for you – let Photoshop’s (Elements is fine, CS3 or the latest version is better) RAW converter guide you through fine tuning exposure, recovery, contrast, brightness, vibrancy, saturation, temperature, sharpness, horizon level correction, cropping, etc.  Post-processing your images properly is every bit as important and as technical and skill-based as is your original image capturing task.  Image manipulation is another story.  Removing a few blown out spots is often required, but generally, I don’t process my images beyond the initial simple RAW conversion process embodied in Photoshop.  Don’t let old-school film purists convince you that photography is all the taking of the image… today processing and converting the digital image for optimal presentation is paramount, just as darkroom skills were to the previous generation.  Basic Photoshop skills can make your images legitimately stand out from the crowd.

Some other tips:  Be aware of the background  – does it enhance or detract from your subject?  Changing your position slightly can dramatically change the image, even of surfers in the water.  Generally, get the sun behind you  – maximize the light on the "face" of your subject. 

If using a consumer camera, do use the optical zoom capabilities of your camera, but forget the "digital" zoom which simply replicates pixels.  If you can get close enough, use "vertical" shots for appropriate subjects.  You can also achieve this effect by cropping in many cases.

Use the fastest shutter speed practicable.  One rule-of-thumb is that shutter speed should be equal to or faster than the ratio one over the focal length of your lens  – i.e., if you are using a 600 mm lens, the slowest shutter speed should be 1/600th of a second.   Of course you can overdo it  – shutter speed comes at the expense of depth-of-field (related to your aperture setting) and ISO "film" speed (which will effect graininess).  Try to keep the aperture setting at the numerical value of f/11 to f/16 or even higher (knowing that the available light may force the aperture to be wide open at say only f/4), and ISO speeds at the numerical value of 400 or lower. Some of the newer Canon camera bodies are achieving great results at ISO speeds of 800 to 1600 or 2000 and even higher, opening up entirely new possibilities for action-sports photography.

Another rule-of-thumb is that shutter speed should be about one over your ISO,  so, if  your ISO is set to 800, your shutter speed would be 1/800th of a second.  Obtaining proper depth-of-field, for many scenes, will make the difference between a good shot and a snapshot. The higher you set the f-stop numerical value, the smaller will be your lens aperture opening, and the greater will be the depth of field.  Sometimes you want to blur out the background to focus solely on the face of the subject – at other times you want to capture the detail and ferocity of the waves far away.

01 November 2014 update: Since I wrote this article several years ago, mobile photography, using iPhones and GoPro cameras, has come to the forefront. I encourage you to explore these specialized tools. One fun kickstarter project just came to my attention... GoHat makes sure you won't lose your GoPro camera while participating in action sports.

If you find yourself enjoying surf photography, consider investing in higher quality camera and optics, and Adobe Photoshop software when you can.  Finally, share your photos with others – a photo taken but not shared might just as well never have been taken at all.  See almost all of my photos online and at full-resolution at Flickr, via  Mike Baird  mike [at} mikebaird d o t com, Morro Bay, CA, USA

Q&A from Readers ;  submit your questions to mike [at} mikebaird d o t com

Q:  Hi Mike, I came across an article you had written about surf pictures and found it very helpful.   I am new to photography and recently purchased a Canon 40D and a Canon 70-200 f4 l series lens.  I fully appreciate this may be a little too short for surf pictures but want to snap some good shots of my 14 year old son who has just taken up body boarding.  He also rides motocross so hopefully now I can get a little closer to him than when I was using my Canon 17-85 lens.  Would I be right in thinking I should be shooting pictures, if my lens is extended to 200mm, by setting my shutter speed 1/ 200th second as the rule of sum states, or more like 1/1000th second?  Also you explain about the ISO setting being high as well -  should this also be over 200 as I was always led to believe the lower the ISO the sharper the picture?  Would the above also apply to my motocross pictures?  Sorry for what must seem some dumb-ass questions but would really appreciate some advice so as I can start to learn more about sports photography.  Yours sincerely,  Gavin

A:  Hi Gavin!  You are thinking right.  Your question is not dumb at all.  For action sports photography especially, we want it all: a blazingly fast shutter speed that freezes the action, a narrow aperture for great depth-of-field so the entire subject is for-sure in focus, and a low ISO so we have the equivalent of the finest slowest “film” absorbing and integrating all those photons.  The problem is that the number of photons impinging on our camera’s sensor during the desired time of exposure is limited, so we have to capture an image from what is available, and that means compromise.   

Before I dive further into the specifics, I’ll mention that your new Canon 40D and 70-200mm f/4 lens is a sweet light-weight powerful setup!  For a bit more reach for surf and motocross photos, you could also add a 1.4X Tele-extender and still maintain auto-focus, at 280mm, or 448mm factoring in the 40D’s 1.6X crop factor.  (see  shopping mall to find products recommended by photomorrobay members, at the best prices available to   - The Canon EF 1.4X II Extender Telephoto Accessory - $279.95, is perhaps the most "required" accessory for Canon telephoto lens owners

By “rule of thumb,” at full 200mm zoom, your shutter speed should be at least 1/200th second … faster if possible, and, since your subject is moving, trying for 1/1000th second, as you suggest, is even better.  Motocross and surfing must present about the same challenges.   That leaves ISO and aperture to deal with.  Ideally you’d like the aperture to capture a fair depth-of-field (unless you are going for an artistic highly blurred effect), so you might dial it up to f/11.  My article at  says “Try to keep the aperture setting at the numerical value of f/11 to f/16 or even higher.”  Also, you want as low an ISO number as possible for best quality.  The 40D almost never needs ISOs below 400.  Now, the question is, is there enough light to shoot at:   1/1000th second, f/11, ISO 400.  If so, you are set up for an optimal shot.

If there is not enough available light (isn’t that always the case?), think if you can use flash or other external lighting, or wait for fewer clouds, higher sun, etc.  But, if you are set up where and when you want or need to be, and you see that you will be underexposed, you have to make compromises.  Either go to
- a slower shutter speed (starts to get scene blur and hand motion blur) and/or
- a wider (lower number) aperture (but will start to lose depth-of-field) and/or
- a higher ISO (gets grainer and nosier, especially in the dark areas).

Photography in one sense is basically just about optimizing these three-variables.  In film days, when you had to make a decision based on the film already loaded, your only decision and trade-off was the shutter speed versus the aperture setting.  Try different settings and experiment - digital “film” is free.

Some people shoot at aperture priority of f/8 almost all the time. (a good compromise)
Some people shoot action sports “wide open” - f/4 in your case. (for the fastest shutter possible)
For surf action, I often shoot at shutter priority of 1/1600 or 1/1250 (this often forces the lens to go wide open at f/4)
If I want better depth-of-field, I’ll crank the ISO up to 800 or even 1600.

You will be surprised, excellent shots can be made with wildly varying combinations of these three parameters, proving that it is not just the numbers that go into getting a good image.  I often suggest that upon arriving at your destination, you take a sample shot on the “automatic” setting, and see what the camera thinks makes for a good general-purpose combination of ISO, shutter, and aperture.  Often that camera is a lot smarter than I am.

I hope that helps.  Write back if you have more questions or suggestions.  Mike Baird   mike [at} mikebaird d o t com


Q:  Peter Hunt <peterhunt {at] luxtonhunt d o t com d o t au> writes 14 July 2010...

Hi Mike.
Where do I post a question to you ?
I have surfed all my life from 1960
2 years ago finally decided that my time in the tube was over
And picked up a jetski, sled and tow rope to make it work for others and to still be part of it
I carried a little pocket Pentax ...... and got the occasional pretty amazing shots
So graduated a few months ago to a  7D  with Aquatech housing
I sit fairly close in to the break and use a  70 - 200 lens which is pretty well perfect
Sometimes even the 70 mm is a little too close... but I've pretty well got that sorted
I have an issue that I don't understand
Running say 1250 speed and 1000  ISO and auto f stop , on a fairly bright day, for a sequence shot at 3 or 4 shots per second
Of say 10 to 15 shots
The captured lighting in the photograph will be perfect for say 3 frames then get progressively darker over 3 or 4 then sometimes lighter again
The darkness can be photoshopped out
But the shots that show the right light on the original are always better
Yes the various chop and bumps on the water do move me around and generally I do rise and fall with the swell
And the surfer is moving and the wave is moving 
But why the variation when I am basically taking the same direction over what is likely only a 3 to 5 second period 
And what can I do about it
PS Victoria Australia - Bells Beach area

Peter Hunt
Property Development & Real Estate
Suite  5,  Albert  Square
37 - 3 9   Albert Road
Tel.:     03 - 9867  6844
Fax.:    03 - 9867  6544
Mbl:     0412 711 171
Email:  peterhunt {at] luxtonhunt d o t com d o t au


Good question Peter.  I assume you were reading my surf photography tutorial at

If you are in continuous "burst mode" the focus and exposure will only be calculated once before the first image is taken, and that setting will be used in subsequent shots if the shutter is held down through all of them.

I like to "pump" the shutter in similar situations (although I can't get in the water like you do for surf shots) - that forces re-focusing and re-exposure calculations before each image.
That should make more of your images properly exposed.
I would not use single center-spot exposure metering with the bright and dark areas of the water, but rather use the standard evaluative metering.

On any Canon SLR you can set the "*" AE lock/FE lock button on the back (which is useful for metering and focusing separately)  to lock (depending on a custom function setting like C.Fn-04 on a 5D, C.Fn IV-1 on 1D Mark III) focus and/or exposure if you want one of those parameters (exposure, focus)  to stay consistent across several images.  Read the manual for your 7D it may be a bit different from my bodies. This way you can press the * button to meter and autofocus, and then press the shutter halfway down to attain AE lock.

I'm assuming you are not using flash in continuous shooting, as the refresh/recharge times involved would similarly result ion a variety of exposures depending on whether the flash fired or not, and with what strength.

Does that help?

I have posted this in the Q&A at 

"Mike" Michael L. Baird, mike [at} mikebaird d o t com   iPhone (805) 704-2064