Surf Photography Tips: Learn the Basics of Taking Great Photos in the Water

Spending time floating amongst the waves in the ocean can be quite therapeutic, just like photography, especially when you’re free of deadlines and other work obligations. Combine photography with surfing, and you’ve got a perfect day!

surf photography

But before you dive into the salty abyss, check out these surf photography tips we put together with the help of Lonely Hunter. These tips will ensure you thoroughly enjoy your time in the water and come home with some images you can be proud of.


Make sure all your gear is insured, so you can have peace of mind while shooting in the water. Accidents happen, and you don’t want them happening to you.

Identify the Type of Shots You Want to Take

If you plan to shoot inside the barrel, then you will most probably be shooting with a fisheye lens (8-15mm) and a dome port.

Planning to shoot from just outside the barrel? In that case, you should probably shoot with a wide angle; anything in the range of 16 -70mm would do nicely. You could select either a dome or flat port for this type of lens. If you predominately want to shoot above the water, the flat port would be your best option. If you are after those split shots or anything under the water, then a dome port is going to be your go-to.

If you think the safety of the channel is more your cup of tea, then I’d lean towards a telephoto lens (70 – 200mm) with a flat port, as you won’t be using this lens under the water.

Set Camera Settings

These can be fine-tuned when in the water with your housing’s controls if need be.

If you want to capture a sharp image and freeze the action while keeping everything in focus, then your settings should be as follows. Your camera should be set to manual and shutter speed anywhere from 1/100th – 1/1250th of a second. Your aperture should be set anywhere from f7 to f11 depending on the amount of available light. ISO should be set to auto with your exposure compensations at minus 1/3rd to 2/3rds of a stop to protect any highlights in the whitewash.

If you want to create motion blur by panning with your subject, your shutter speed should be set to 1/20th to 1/30th of a second. Your aperture should be set anywhere from f5.6 upwards. Your ISO and exposure compensation should still be the same as above.

surf photography

Set Your Focus

If you’re shooting with a fisheye, then you will want to set your focus to manual. While on land, focus your camera on a subject that’s 3-4 meters away from you, and tape the focus ring down before putting the camera in the housing. This is a good idea because your subject will typically be an equal distance away from you when shooting with a fisheye. It will also save the camera from having to find focus when your subject is close and moving very fast.

For any other lenses, you will be using autofocus with the center point and four surrounding assist points. Make sure that your camera’s focusing mode is set to AI Servo for Canon or AF-C for Nikon shooters.

Place Your Camera in the Housing

Preparation is key. Don’t rush! Before entering the water, it’s essential to prepare your equipment. Make sure you double and triple check all latches and seals, and tightly screw down any ports on your housing. If wax needs to be applied to any dry ports to prevent water droplets from forming, ensure this is done before entering the water.

surf photography

Test For Leaks

When you are ready to enter the water, it’s time to test your housing for leaks. It’s best to do this on the shore rather than when you are already out in the surf. Do this by holding your housing under the water for 30 seconds and then lifting it up to see if there is any water inside the case. If not, then you’re good to go.

Prevent Water Droplets From Appearing on the Port

If you’re using a wet port, you will need to spit on the front element and rub the saliva all around with your tongue. You will need to repeat this process every five minutes while in the water. Try to also keep the port submerged at all times, this will prevent the saliva from washing off too quickly. Doing this will ensure a clear film of water remains on the port at all times, preventing droplets from appearing.

If you’re shooting with a dry port, your approach will be different. While on the beach, you’ll add some unscented candle wax to the front element and rub it in with a microfibre cloth until the wax isn’t visible. When you’re in the water, try to keep the element with the wax above the water as much as possible. This will prevent the wax from washing off too quickly. Before shooting each time, simply blow or shake the housing to remove any droplets from the port.

surf photography

Maintain Your Equipment

After you return from the surf, thoroughly wash all your equipment in a tub of fresh water. Turn all dials and push all buttons while holding them under fresh water.

For a more in-depth guide to surf photography, you can find an article written by Lonely Hunter (Richard Johnston) on his personal website here.

Alternatively, if you would like to check out some of Richard’s other work, you can find him on Lonely Hunter Weddings.