Tips on Photographing Waves from Land and in Water

Uncover pro tips for shooting incredible images of ocean waves with advice and experience from five seascape photographers.
Tips on Photographing Waves from Land and in Water — Enchantment

Image by Charlie Blacker. Gear: Canon 6D camera, Canon EF 50mm f1.8 II lens, Aquatech water housing and P65 flat port. Settings: Exposure 1/1600 sec; f5.0; ISO 400.

Charlie Blacker​ (​@charlie.blacker​) started out as a surfer, enchanted by the shapes colors of the sea. “Waves are literally pure pulses of energy moving through the ocean,” he says. “And I am always amazed by the way light interacts with water.” After a while, it wasn’t enough for him to simply cherish the experience himself.

He wanted to share what he saw with the world, so he picked up a camera. “It’s only when you freeze these moving, liquid sculptures in a thousandth of a second that you can see all the intricate details and their beauty can be fully appreciated,” he tells us.

Any photographer knows that capturing the majesty of waves is no easy task. But we found five artists—Charlie Blacker, ​Ian Mitchinson​ (​@ianmitchinson​), ​Mariia Kamenska (​@mariiakamenska​), ​Robyn Gwilt​ (@Robyn.Gwilt.Photography​), and ​Paul Kennedy (​@long.journey.s​)—who have mastered the unpredictable tides.

These photographers hail from all over the world, with home bases in Australia, Ireland, Poland, South Africa, and New Zealand. They all have different approaches and defined, signature styles, but what they share is an enduring connection to the sea. We asked each of them to share some of their secrets. Read on to learn their best tips for photographing waves.

Tips on Photographing Waves from Land and in Water — Location

Image by ianmitchinson. Gear: Nikon D610 camera, Nikon 70-200mm 2.8 lens with an aquatech housing/port setup. Settings: Focal length 190mm; exposure 1/640 sec; f8.0; ISO 250.

1. Select the right location.​

“My first piece of advice would be to learn where the waves are, first and foremost,” Mitchinson explains.

“If you have never done it before, good places to start are in key surfing regions. Hawaii, Bali, Australia, Tahiti, South Africa, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland are great locations for finding waves, and all are seasonal. Other good places to start are on websites like ​magicseaweed​ and Surfline​. Read the articles, and get to know the regions and the best times of year for surfing.”

Tips on Photographing Waves from Land and in Water — Know Your Regions

Image by Robyn Gwilt

2. Check the forecast.

“Waves don’t wait for the perfect time of day,” Gwilt explains. “Keep an eye on your local tide and swell table, and get to know the area where the best breaks are.”

Tips on Photographing Waves from Land and in Water — Check the Forecast

Image by Charlie Blacker

3. Spend time watching the sea.

​Before even lifting your camera, look with your naked eyes. “Observation would be the biggest tip I could give to budding wave and ocean photographers,” Blacker tells us. “Look for waves breaking in abstract and interesting ways.”

Tips on Photographing Waves from Land and in Water — Take Your Time

Image by ianmitchinson

4. Get to know the surfers.

Surfers can be your best resources for studying and navigating waves. If you’re not one yourself, create connections!

“Simply by shooting the surfers, you can start building relationships with them,” Mitchinson says. “I’d suggest giving them photos for free. If the photos are good, then they will likely help you by posting them around and sharing them with their sponsors. The surfers are your ‘in’ to wave photography because the most beautiful waves are usually the same ones the best surfers want to surf.”

Tips on Photographing Waves from Land and in Water — Meet Your Neighboring Surfers

Image by Mariia Kamenska. Gear: D7200 camera, Nikkor 70-300mm 1:4,5-6,3 lens. Settings: Focal length 300.00mm; exposure 1/3200 sec; f7.1; ISO 320.

5. Take as many photos as possible.​

“Photographing waves can be challenging because they come in quick succession,” Kamenska tells us. “There is no time to think. The only thing I can recommend is to just push the button on your camera again and again. If you get one great photo out of a hundred, that’s a great result. With practice, you’ll get more and more.”

Tips on Photographing Waves from Land and in Water — Shoot as Much as Possible

Image by Mariia Kamenska

6. Move around.​

“I change my vantage point all the time to get the picture I want,” Kamenska continues. “I usually don’t have much time to think. To play with angles, I change my position quickly and frequently.”

7. Start on land.

Get to understand the waves from the shore before venturing out into the water. You never want to put yourself, or your gear, in danger.

“If you are shooting from land, which is usually where you start, you need a proper big lens and a tripod,” Mitchinson advises. “If you have the budget, a 600mm lens is ideal but very costly. There are some budget versions like the 150mm-600mm Tamron that has various mounts.

“I’d suggest having something along the lines of a 24-70mm, a 70-200mm and a 600mm. You need a very good tripod, and you should always think of shooting stills as well as video, so a video tripod can double as both.”

Tips on Photographing Waves from Land and in Water — Start on Land

Image by ianmitchinson

8. Then try getting in the water.

Make sure you can handle the waves before heading in yourself.

“Once you become comfortable with shooting from land, you might want to invest in a water housing and start your fitness training,” Mitchinson says. “To be in the water, you need to be very fit, and you need to become a strong swimmer. My best advice is to become a surfer yourself. Once you can surf the waves and take the poundings that come along with it, then you can learn if you have what it takes to swim in the waves with a camera.”

Tips on Photographing Waves from Land and in Water — Get into the Water

Image by Robyn Gwilt. Gear: ​Canon 7D II​ camera, Canon 100-400 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/2500 sec; f5.6; ISO 400.

9. Avoid seasickness.​

“This particular photo was shot from a rubber-duck, at a world-famous surf spot in South Africa, called Dungeon’s,” Gwilt tells us. “This is about a 2km boat ride from Hout Bay in Cape Town, and these huge waves only happen a couple of times a year. I go out with a reliable skipper, and we ride adjacent to the breaking wave, over the swell.

“I’m equally at home on land or water. But a tip for water: find your surfer or wave with your naked eye and only ​then bring the lens to your face. If you try to follow the waves and surfers from a rocking boat, you ​will​ get sea-sick!”

Tips on Photographing Waves from Land and in Water — Watch Out for Seasickness

Image by Charlie Blacker

10. Practice with smaller waves.​

“You don’t need big waves, either,” Blacker continues. “A lot of my wave images are shot in conditions that are no bigger than two feet. This is especially applicable if you don’t have a lot of experience in the ocean. Remember to stay safe!”

Tips on Photographing Waves from Land and in Water — Practice

Image by Longjourneys. Gear: Canon 5D MKIII camera, Canon EF 70-200 F2.8 lens. Settings: Focal length 200mm; exposure 1/1000 sec; f6.7; ISO 200.

11. Find your niche.​

Think about what makes you unique!

“It’s important to try and find your own niche in surf photography and build on that,” Kennedy explains. “While there are some amazing all-rounders, there are also specialists, such as photographers who like to take a wide-angle approach to shooting waves and action. Others may specialize in water shots, swimming around in the waves with the surfers, with a camera in a waterproof housing.

“My advice would be to try all types of surf photography and find out which one suits you best. I once had a very expensive zoom lens and fell into the trap of shooting everything too tight. Eventually, I moved away from zoom lenses and now prefer to shoot a wider angle. Ultimately, it’s about finding a balance and most importantly, taking the kind of shots that you’re happy with.”

Tips on Photographing Waves from Land and in Water — Find Your Niche

Image by Longjourneys

12. Protect your gear.

​“Shooting from the water can be challenging and sometimes a bit frustrating,” Blacker admits. “Water droplets on your lens port can ruin a whole image, so it is important to use the appropriate techniques to keep your port drop-free. Remember to keep flat ports dry—this can be done by lightly buffing the port with candle wax—and dome ports wet, which you can do by licking the port and dipping it in the water so a thin film of water forms evenly over the entire port.”

Tips on Photographing Waves from Land and in Water — Protect Your Gear

Image by Mariia Kamenska

13. Watch your shutter speed.

​Your exposure time is key. To perfectly freeze those water droplets in place, our experts recommend 1/2000 of a second or faster. However, if you prefer that silky, abstract look, you can go for a long exposure.

14. Enjoy the process.

​“You don’t need to let fear or a lack of gear impede your quest,” Mitchinson promises. “There is always a way to do it. The thing about wave and surf photography is that it’s not about the shot so much as it is about the story you’re trying to tell. Practice, and keep at it.”

Top Image by Longjourneys

Looking to discover more pro tips? Check out these articles:

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10 Travel Photographers on Instagram You Need to Follow

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