Photo Experience





Tech. Intro









Surfing is one of the more dynamic challenges in long lens photography.  The photographer has little control over conditions but can certainly try to use knowledge and experience to overcome potential pitfalls.  With a little knowledge of surfing (and luck), it becomes a little easier to successfully capture the incredible maneuvers being performed by the surfers. 


I shoot only at publicly held contests due to recent controversies concerning photography of sensitive areas (the Homeland Security Act) and sensitive surfers who don't want their image or secret surf location revealed.  Contests are just safer.  We are very fortunate in Southern California where since higher prize value contests at Lower Trestles and Huntington Beach draw the best surfers in the world!


The first question that other photographers will ask you on the beach is whether you are shooting film or digital.  Since photographing surfing action depends a lot on luck (shooting the right surfer, on the right wave, at the right location, under the right conditions), I'll take approximately 1,200 photographs over 3 days; and that's shooting conservatively.  I'm generally surrounded by other photographers blasting off multiple frames per second.  Thus, digital is the only way to go to avoid the substantial cost of film and processing.  Besides, storing all those negatives becomes a space problem.  I'm satisfied to achieve a 1% success rate (12 good images).




Spectators on the beach will make an entirely different comment.  Wow, that's a really big camera.  Their significant other will then say, no, that's a big lens not a big camera.  Kind of humorous.


I started photographing surfers a few years ago with an early 1980's Nikkor 1,200 mm F11 manual focus lens.  At F11 minimum aperture, it's difficult to achieve accurate focus on moving subjects.  The 1,200 is sharp but totally succumbed to flare when the sun is directly overhead or in front of the lens.  


I recently upgraded to a Sigma 300-800 F5.6 lens.  The lens is critically sharp and fast and it sure beats a fixed focal length lens.  Because it's a zoom, I can locate myself down the beach and zoom in on the surfer as the wave is ridden. During the first 2 days of the Boost Mobil Pro, the waves were clean and glassy and the 300-800 mounted on a D2H (1.5x factor) was adequate to fill the frame.  However, on the last day, the distant hurricanes, Santa Ana winds, and rip tides caused the waves to break further off shore.   I had to place a 1.4x tele-extender on the zoom and focus manually.  There were a number of potentially good images that were just too far out of focus or too much haze to be salvaged.


Effective focal length:

     800mm  X   1.5x digital factor  X  1.4s  tele-extender  =  1,680mm




Below is a list of factors to consider when deciding when and where to position myself to shoot surfing:

 -  how far out the waves are breaking: typically larger waves further out

 -  wave quality:  glassy, choppy, clean break, etc.

 -  air quality and clarity: fog, haze

 -  sun position:  behind photographer, side lighting, front lighting

 -  wind conditions:  on-shore, off-shore, Santa Ana, etc

 -  degree of undertow: severity





     1.  D2X with 300-800

     2.  300-800 F5,6

     3.  Bogen 3011 / Manfrotto 3421 Gimbal Head


Waist belt:

     1.  Lens cover / micro cleaning cloth / gloves / heat pack:

     2.  Polarizing filter / TC 1.4 / Hoodman

     3.  Camera battery / CF cards

     -    Sunglass strap / hat



     1.  Pen

     2.  Heat Notes

     3.  xxx



Surf Cheat Sheet

 -  auto color


 -  high pass

 -  Imogenics


 -  nik sharpener

 -  contrast

 -  hue & sat


 -  vivesa 2


 -  pictographics

 -  auto levels

 -  vivid details


 -  polarizer


Photoshop Workflow:  (overcast & low lying clouds)


   Open File JPG file

     -  image ... adjust ... CURVES ... lighten  (use HISTORY BRUSH selectively)

     -  Straighten

     -  Crop to 10 x 14 aspect ratio

     -  Save as TIFF (rename as TIFF)   


   (2nd open)

     -  layer ... duplicate layer ... ok

     -  image ... adjust ... AUTO COLOR ... ok ... opacity: 30 ...

        layer ... flatten image ... ok ... file ... save


   (3rd open)

     -  use selection tool to select broad range around surfer ...

        image ... adjust ... CURVES ... lighten 

     -  layer ... duplicate layer ... ok

        filter ...OTHER...HIGH PASS...HARD LIGHT ...

        layer ... flatten image ... ok

     -  layer ... duplicate layer ... ok

     -  filter ... IMOGENICS ... NOISEWARE PRO ...ok ... opacity: 80 ...

        layer ... flatten image ... ok ... file ... save


   (4th open)

     -  use selection tool to select exact range around surfer face...

        image ... adjust ... CURVES ... lighten

     -  layer ... duplicate layer ... ok

     -  filter...NIK SHARPENER... opacity: 50

        layer ... flatten image ... ok

     -  image ... adjust ... CONTRAST ... +9

     -  image ... adjust ... HUE & SAT ... RED ... -30

        layer ... flatten image ... ok ... file ... save


   (5th open)

     -  layer ... duplicate layer ... ok

     -  filter... NIK ... VIVESA 2 ... STRUCTURE ... +25 ...

       (repeat using control point)

       (use HISTORY BRUSH selectively)

        layer ... flatten image ... ok ... file ... save


   (6th open)

     -  layer ... duplicate layer ... ok

     -  filter...PICTOGRAPHICS ... opacity: 80 or to suit

     -  image ... adjust ... AUTO LEVELS ... opacity: 80 or to suit

     -  filter...VIVID DETAILS...

        layer ... flatten image ... ok ... file ... save


When you wander onto the beach at 7:00 in the morning, I'll shoot regardless of the weather and wave conditions.  In California, there are only a few serious surfing competitions per year so you don't have a lot of flexibility in selecting the time and place for optimal shooting conditions.  You learn to live with what you get whether it is lousy surf, fog, or severe back lighting as is common at Trestles in September after 11:00 AM.

Sunrise was about 7:00 AM and the contest started at 8:30.  I positioned myself so the sun was at my back till about 11:00 AM.  There just wasn't anywhere to position myself after that so the sun wouldn't be in front of me.  Unfortunately, some of the best competition was in the afternoon when capturing a properly saturate image became nearly impossible.

 Not enhanced

 Digitally Enhanced

 Not enhanced

 Digitally Enhanced