In fact this post is a good example because while I did the post processing of the images here, I actually hired the photographer to take these images of my kids and me taking surfing lessons back in 2006. No pro gear was used, Just a Cannon EOS Rebel XT and a 300mm zoom lens similar to what I describe below.
While pros might use “full frame” DSLR (so called because the image sensor is full sized…or about the size of a frame of 35mm film) that shoots 11 frames per second like a Nikon D4s and a 300mm f2.8 telephoto lens, you can get great results with more modest gear. The big reason is because, when shooting surfing, one typically has plenty of light to work with. This is not the case, however, when shooting sports like swimming and diving which typically occur indoors. We’ll tackle that subject another time.
The moderate cost option would be what’s genericly referred to as a “crop frame sensor” DSLR. While crop frame sensors do not typically perform as well as a full farm sensors in low light, this is not generally a limitation at the beach where bright light shines in abundance. The benefit of of a crop frame sensor is that, for a range of technical reasons I won’t get into, they effectively increase the focal length of any lens by 50-60%. This is a big deal shooting surf because you want as much telephoto reach as possible. So a 300mm lens on a crop frame DSLR gives you an effective 450mm….sweet!
In Nikon land crop frame bodies would be (as of this writing) the D3200, D5200 and D7100 these bodies are generally under $1000. The next step up would be a “full frame” body like the D750 but that’s $2000+ so a crop sensor is a good place to start if you are buying your first DSLR. A good all purpose lens would be the Nikon 28-300, and I often use it as a one-lens-solution for travel and vacation shooting.
Since it’s a variable aperture lens (f3.5 to f5.6 across its 28-300mm range) it’s more cost effective than faster constant aperture “pro” zoom lenses. Cheaper alternatives may be available from brands like Tamron and Sigma, i just prefer all nikon gear for build quality, consistency, etc. By the way…generally try spend as much as you can on a lens(s) because, while camera bodies come and go like computers, good lenses last a lifetime. I still have and use my 35 year old manual focus Nikon lenses and they still produce beautiful images.
The most important variable to manage when shooting surfing is shutter speed. For a lens with a focal length of 300-400mm you’ll likely want to shoot at about 1/2000 of a second…maybe faster. Experiment. Some sports look great with deliberate slow shutter blur, like motor sports, but surfing less so…but shoot what looks good to you. To get that fast shutter speed you’ll probably have to open your aperture up as wide as it goes (f5.6 for the lens type indicated above) and bump your ISO to about 200 or 400 depending on the light.
Expose for the highlights…ie meter to ensure the whites aren’t blown out. Check the histogram on the back of your camera and enable the “blinkie” feature to show if highlights are blown out. If shooting in aperture priority mode you may need to add a stop of exposure compensation due to the extreme amount of bright whites in the surf. Unless the sun is constantly in and out of the clouds, shoot in manual and you’ll get more consistent results.
Finally, shoot in RAW mode rather than JPEG. Raw captures an enormous amount of information that JPEG just throws away. You’ll want all that data when you import your images into Adobe Lightroom. (iPhoto and Picasa work, but Lightroom is the gold standard…a little steeper learning curve but well worth the effort if you’re reasonably serious about image quality)
This is easier said than done sometimes, but get close and get low. Fill the frame with your subject, use the Rule of Thirds and try not to put your subject in the middle of the frame unless extreme action compels that composition. Getting low makes the image more dynamic…think magazine cover Hero Shot stuff. Surf conditions will, of course dictate how low and how close you get.
Shooting surf is a high contrast proposition. If you shot in RAW you’ll want to boost shadow detail if subjects were waring wetsuits. For the images in this post, the wetsuits were virtually all black until I brought shadow detail back in Lightroom. You’ll also probably want to boost Vibrance to enhance blues and greens in the water and sky Hope that helps, and please feel free to chime in if you have questions and share your work too!