How To Photograph Surfing

Australian surf photographer Eugene Tan has been documenting the surf experience at Sydney’s Bondi Beach every weekday morning for well over a decade. Initially having sent an email of his favorite pictures to friends, he now manages the Aquabumps ocean photography brand and his pictures are seen by more than 90,000 people each morning, be they subscribers to the Aquabumps mailing list or followers on social media. Visitors to Sydney can also explore his work at the Aquabumps Gallery in North Bondi. Here Eugene shares his tips on how to master surf photography and explains the understandable appeal of a working life spent on the beach and in the water.

What equipment will you need to photograph surfers?

Firstly, you have to make a decision about whether you want to shoot in the water or out of the water. I much prefer shooting in the water as I feel like I’m a part of the action. Standing on the beach shooting is easier, but less rewarding. Professional equipment is very important. Buy the best lenses you can afford – good optics make great photos.

For shooting surfing from the water you will need:

• A DSLR – I recommend Canon EOS cameras. Something that shoots plenty of frames per second; say, five frames per second. The models I like are Canon EOS 1DX, Canon EOS 5d Mark III, Canon EOS 1d Mark IV, Canon EOS 7D, Canon EOS 60D
• Water housing. I use Aquatech Housings, they’re great.
• Wide angle lenses, 15mm, 14mm, 50mm, 24-70mm all Canon L Series lenses.
• A wetsuit (for cold water)
• Flippers. I usually use Bodyboarders fins as they stay on in big surf.

Shooting surfing from the land:
• A DSLR – I recommend Canon EOS cameras.

• A long lens to zoom into the action from the beach. I recommend a minimum of 400mm; 600mm is ideal; 800mm is a luxury.

What are the optimal weather conditions and times for surf photography?

You need waves – good waves. Good waves make good photos. Good clean waves with offshore winds are what you should hope for, ideally with some sunshine and clear skies too. Secondly, good light is crucial. Light is everything in photography. I love strong backlit early morning light or afternoon sunset rays. Clear skies are great for shooting surfing, especially in blue oceans. Clear water is also a bonus if you’re shooting underneath the surface. The water is more likely to be clear when it hasn’t rained for ages.

Where do you recommend taking surf photographs from?

Nothing beats shooting surfers in the water – swimming with your camera, you get close-up action shots from within the actual wave. If conditions are suitable I will always choose to shoot from the water over standing in a boat, on a jet ski or on the land.

How good a swimmer do you need to be to confidently practice surf photography?

It’s not for the faint hearted and you have to be a strong swimmer if you want to shoot breaks like Hawaii’s Banzai Pipeline or in big swell – which I do. I feel very comfortable in the ocean, even when it is rough, but you need to be strong in the water for sure.

 Is it helpful to be able to surf yourself?

Definitely, you know where the waves are likely to break; you become familiar with currents and rips as a surfer too.

What are the main challenges to taking photographs on the water versus on land?

Conditions are ever changing and big waves can pin you down for minutes at a time, there are razor sharp reefs below most great breaks and you need to watch out for surfers with boards – not to mention ocean life and rips. The ocean itself is rough on humans also – it damages your eyes and ears – and the sun scorches your skin.

What are the main advantages?

You have more control over angles and can get closer to the surfer. You can capture the formation of waves from below the ocean and the power of waves is more apparent in photos. I feel good after shooting in the water – it sets me up for the day.

What risks should surf photographers be aware of?

Rips – being sucked out to sea
Sharks – a photographer’s nightmare
Reefs – being pounded on a reef is like falling off the top of a building. Shallow reefs – you need to be on your guard.
Sun – you will spend a lot of time in it and need to protect yourself from skin cancer.
Surfers – getting hit by a board hurts.

What is it you’re trying to capture when you photograph surfers?

I am trying to capture the climax of the action. For example, if a surfer is doing an aerial manoeuvre, I want to capture them at the peak of the action, mid-air. I am trying to capture that moment that all surfers are addicted to. I’m trying to capture the emotion of being in the ocean – and how good it makes you feel.

 What steps can surf photographers take to develop a signature style?

Be innovative; think of new angles and locations where no one has shot before. I started shooting from helicopters years ago in search of a new and fresh angle. Also I shoot a lot underwater, behind the waves, to give a new perspective.

Should surf photographers be mindful of certain etiquette when photographing surfers?

A good surfer will work with the photographers to get a good result. Hopefully they won’t run you down if you’re shooting in the water with them…and then they will do manoeuvres close to you, making your photos more dramatic. I try to get close, but I don’t get in the way – especially if it’s a surf competition.


What other advice would you give an aspiring surf photographer?

Shoot a lot. I shoot every day. I love it and believe I will always shoot daily. Be consistent. Work with good surfers. Use technology to your advantage, especially social media. It’s the best way to find an audience so promote your work on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. It’s such an exciting time to be a photographer. You can share your work with anyone, so easily and freely.

What makes Bondi Beach special?

It’s one of the most famous beaches in the world, but what I love about it is it’s also a little village. Home to lots of young creative people from all walks of life, the beach to me is always beautiful whether it’s packed in summer with thousands of people or if it’s just me and a lone walker in the depths of winter. No day is ever the same – and I know because I shoot Bondi Monday to Friday pretty much 50 weeks a year.

Where else do you recommend surf photographers visit for the best shots?

Hawaii, Tahiti, Fiji, Indonesia, basically anywhere in Australia, Mexico, South America, New Zealand and the Maldives, just to name a few. There are so many options these days.




Article by John O’Ceallaigh