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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4 thoughts on “Photographing Surfers”

    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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