Photographing Surfers

Very few of us have the opportunity to photograph surfers as they use their skills on monster waves during international competitions. Many of us do observe surfers riding more modest waves, and we often capture some photographs of the action. This article discusses some of the factors that can be considered when photographing surfers, as well as some thoughts on post processing. The images in this article were captured in New Zealand during a 2016 trip.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-160

Often we are faced with rather crowded conditions out on the waves. Since surfing skills can vary tremendously I always like to watch surfers for a while. This helps determine which individuals to photograph.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-200

If you’re like me, sometimes I capture images with decent wave formations, but the action itself is rather boring and mundane. Even images of ‘wipe-outs’ can be lacking… although some photographs are better than others.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-160
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-280

So what makes an interesting image when photographing surfers? I think it comes down to three factors. The first is water motion and detail.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-320

When photographing surfers we are capturing a human being challenging nature. It is important to let Mother Nature demonstrate her power and capability, by capturing a sense of energy in the water.

The second factor is the body position of the surfer. Outstretched arms demonstrate that the surfer is challenged… that they are fighting to retain their balance.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-320

And the third factor is capturing a sense of anticipation for what will happen next…

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-320
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-200

Photographing surfers can also tell a story, especially when we shoot with continuous auto-focus (AF-C) using a fast frame rate. This allows us to watch the action progress with each successive frame. Let’s look at a small four image run I call the ‘water fan’. This was captured at 15 frames-per-second using a Nikon 1 V2.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-280
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-280
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-280
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-280

Photographing surfers is one thing… working with these types of images in post is a different challenge. We are often shooting in extremely bright conditions with harsh sunlight. Our surfer subjects are often wearing black wet suits. This can compound our challenges in post in terms of dealing with a wide variation in dynamic range. Shooting with a smaller sized sensor, like my Nikon 1 gear, magnifies the challenge further. Sometimes we get a bit of luck and photograph a surfer wearing a colourful wet suit, as in the next series of eleven images. I call this series ‘making the turn’.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-360
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-360
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-320
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-320
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-360
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-360
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-360
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-360
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-360
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-360

It is impossible for me to comment on what you should do in post with the images you capture when photographing surfers. I have no idea what software you use, or the camera gear you own, or the exact attributes of the images you captured.

All I can tell you are some of the things that I did with my images that appear in this article. My objectives in post were to bring out as many highlight and shadow details as possible, while also focusing on edge acuity to make the images look crisp.

I started by running my RAW files through DxO PhotoLab using one of my V-Series custom presets. I then exported a DNG file into CS6.

In CS6 I took Highlights to -25, Shadows to +50, White to +15 or +25, Black to -15, and Vibrance to +15. I then applied the Enhance Per Channel Contrast Curve. I must admit at this point in my process my images tend to look a bit odd.

In the Nik Collection I used Viveza 2, applying 20% Structure and 50% Shadows. My final adjustments were back in CS6 where I adjusted Brightness and Levels as needed for each image.

Many readers shoot with larger sensor cameras. Since your cameras likely have better dynamic range than my Nikon 1 gear, I may have done more work in post than what many of you may need to do with your surfer images. Having said that, I still didn’t spend more than 3-1/2 minutes working on any individual image including computer processing time.

Let’s have a look at one final AF-C image run of nine photographs that I call ‘up and down the wave’.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-640
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-640
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-640
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-640
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-720
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-720
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-560
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-560
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-560

Photographing surfers can be a rewarding experience if we capture dramatic looking water, a surfer with an interesting body position that creates a sense of anticipation… even if the waves aren’t that large.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-640

Technical Note:
All photographs in this article were captured hand-held in available light using Nikon 1 gear as per the EXIF data. All images are shown as 100% captures without any cropping at all, and were produced using my standard process of DxO PhotoLab, CS6 and the Nik Collection.

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10 thoughts on “Photographing Surfers”

  1. A good photographer is what makes them unique!! the thing is their observation skills as well as proper timing, its really hard to do setting acc. to the light of the situation and all. Your post really includes soo many valuable points which will definitely be going to work in future.

  2. Hi tom,

    Great information. Seems I’m very close to buying some legacy Nikon equipment.

    Have a few questions…

    1. What is main reason you would use the Nikon 1 v2 over the v3 for surf photography. Viewfinder built in, buffer or both?

    2. Would you rule out the ‘higher res’ j5 for action shots only just because it has no viewfinder options? Can the j5 be practically used¿.

    3. If you had to pick a lens compatible with Ft1 adapter but at ~500-600 efov what would you choose (if any)?!

    4. In your sequence shots did your buffer not fill up,
    so it’s like you have to be very selective on when you press shutter

    1. Hi Steve,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article! Here are some thoughts regarding your questions…

      1) I did not own a V3 at the time that the surfer images were captured So there was no specific reason for choosing the V2 over the V3. Either of the cameras would have done a good job on that subject matter, in that light. If I had a V3 at the time I would have used it.

      2) I find the J5 difficult to use when tracking moving subjects. I likely could have used a J5 for the surfers as their movements are not too rapid. Birds-in-flight are more difficult (but not impossible with practice).

      3) I haven’t owned any F-Mount lenses for almost 3 1/2 years so my experience is dated. I would likely choose the Nikkor 70-200 f/4 VR or the Nikkor 300 f/4 VR.

      4) V2 and V3 cameras both have 40 shot buffers. I typically shoot short bursts to get the action I want without taking more shots than needed. For this subject matter I would shoot the V2 using 15 fps, and with a V3 I would use 10 or 20 fps. Unless I shoot at 60 fps I find the 40 image buffer adequate for my needs. Timing is critical when shooting at 60 fps as the buffer fills in 2/3 of a second.

      Tom

    2. Hi Tom,

      Thanks for the feedback and great information. Helps me shape my buying decisions nicely!

      I liked your “j5 not impossible” comment re viewfinder or none its help me put things in perspective a bit.

      Also I’d like to say your main e-book (that I purchased yesterday) is a great visual ‘read’ and a total masterpiece.

      Best Regards

      Steve

      1. Hi Steve,

        I’m glad the information was helpful for you… it is always a pleasure to try to assist a reader!

        Thank you for your generous comment regarding The Little Camera That Could – much appreciated!

        Tom

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the images Oggie! Buying the 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 was the final thing that convinced me it was time to sell all of my full frame gear back in July 2015. It really is a wonderful lens optically and from a portability standpoint. I bought a second factory refurbished copy to extend the life of my Nikon 1 system.

      Tom

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