Photo of the Week | California Surfer

Every Friday I will be posting a Photo of the Week. Here I’ll be sharing the details on how I got the shot, where I was, and the backstory that went into it. I hope you find this enjoyable, and helpful in your own photography.


Camera: Panasonic G85 
Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 45-200/F4.0-5.6 
ISO: 200 200mm f/22 1/640s

Just like shooting any other moving subject, it helps to understand the sport in which you’re shooting. I’ve been a life long surfer (not a good one, but a surfer nonetheless), and I understand a whole lot about surfing which helps me be a decent surf photographer. For example, when staring out at a lineup and trying to figure out which of the surfers is next to take off on a wave, it helps to know a few things. Like if the next wave looks decent to ride or not, is the crest of the wave going to be near the surfers, does the paddling surfer look like they are in a position to catch it or not, and will the wave close out because they took too long to catch the wave. These are just a few the things that go through my head when I am shooting surfers, and that’s all before the surfer is even standing up on the wave.

Assuming the rider catches the wave, the photography aspect now comes into play. The average wave ride last from a measly 0.1 seconds (a.k.a a wipeout), to a lengthy 5 seconds long. That’s not a lot of time for the surfer to make as many maneuvers on the wave as they can, let alone much time for the photographer to capture it. And this is where it helps to understand how your subject is going to move in the environment. Because of my surfing background, I’m pretty confident in guessing how each ride is going to go.

A quick example of the average ride goes something like this. The surfer will paddle hard at the crest of the wave, snap up to a standing position, hard bottom turn as the wave begins to break behind them, followed by a carve up the wave, possibly a snap turn on the top of the wave, rinse and repeat. Long borders tend to have more mellow rides compared to shortboarders, so you have to take that into consideration. And all of that comes down to a few clicks on the shutter to capture the key moments of a ride. Those key moments being the bottom turn, snap turn at the top, barrel shot, or a mellow tucked position in the middle of the wave face.

Over this past Thanksgiving, my Girlfriend and I, with Gregor in tow; headed west to spend the long weekend soaking in the sun at Huntingdon Beach. While the pup played in the water and with all the other dogs on the beach, my focus was on the surfers out in the water. After watching a couple surfers over a few sets, I got the idea about how they surfed, which direction they usually took off on, and which maneuvers they typically performed. This surfer, regular-footed, tended to surf facing the wave. So I when I saw the next set of waves coming in, I got my lens into position.

When he started to paddle hard, I tracked him through the takeoff, and once I saw the bottom turn back up the wave, I got ready. I focused onto the top of the wave, just out in front of where he was during his bottom turn. As he started to ascend the wave, I saw his weight shift back, knowing he was preparing to snap a turn on the top of the wave. He entered the center of the frame and I held the shutter down. Click, click, click, click. 4 Shots, throughout his entire maneuver. Check’m out below.

Just like skiing, shooting surfing is difficult. Most of the shots don’t come out because they are either a tenth of a second too early, or a tenth of a second too late. In this case, I nailed it. Even with the harsh midday lighting, the 5ft wave looks stunning ahead of him, as it crashes down behind him. There’s a wave breaking in the foreground to add a layer into the photo, while the background is the blank ocean canvas out to the horizon. I chose to go with a black & white because of how muted the colors were in the harsh light I mentioned before. Everything sort-of blended together, but in B&W, the blacks stood out from the grays much better.

In summary, it helps to know how your subject is going to move through the terrain so that you can prepare to capture them when the move into focus. Sure, you could just zoom out and always capture them, but that isn’t always the best way to capture your subject if you want them to be the focal point. Sure, if it’s a cool landscape, then you might want to zoom out and make the landscape the focal point and just have the subject a tiny portion of the photo. This is what Chris Burkhard is known for. But for this session, I really wanted the surfers to be the focal point so that I could practice my surf photography!

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