Monday, September 29, 2008

Surf Photography Tips and Short Recount of My Thrashing

What an awesome weekend! Saturday morning I woke up early to meet some old friends down at 79th street and surf the product of hurricane Kyle that had passed far offshore on its way to New England. It was the first time that I had been in several years so looking into 5 – 8’ swells in a heavy downpour from the deck of a borrowed 8’2 egg was a little intimidating at first. I was late getting into wave 1 and suffered the not so forgotten experience of getting pulled over the falls. The next wave I pearled, burying the nose and getting launched head first into the pit. Wave 3 closed out on take off and sent me on another freefall to the bottom before unloading the lip on me. Just as I was beginning to wonder if the ocean was going to continue to punish me any further, I caught a nice, chest-high wave that I was able to carry through the section and kick out of without any further damage. No big cutbacks or airs, just that great weightless feeling of gliding across a wave face. Now I have to scrape up $600 to buy a new board (I sold my last one when I moved back to Raleigh from Atlantic Beach.)

Iso 200, f/7.1, 1/1250 sec, 500mm

Following the session, I grabbed breakfast at Mary’s while I waited for the rain to subside and then headed back to 79th street to shoot some photos. I’m still blown away by how much the kids nowadays have progressed in their surfing, doing things that were barely imaginable when we were their age. After a couple of hours, I drove to south beach to catch Jackmove playing at the 24th street stage as part of the Neptune Festival activities. I’ll say it again – these kids absolutely rock. If you are interested in VB local ska band that puts on a great show, there is none better.

The concert wrapped at 3:00 so I made my way down to 10th to shoot a few at the Neptune surfing contest hosted by the Eastern Surfing Association (ESA). Although the contest is not on the same scale as the East Coast Surfing Championships (ECSC), it is well run and the primarily local talent was tearing up the unusually good surf. I returned early Sunday morning to find that the conditions had improved overnight the contestants were putting on a show. The greatest, though, were young kids. They have no fear whatsoever. Just think that a 6’ wave to them must look like Pipeline on the North Shore of Oahu.

A few surf photography tips:

1. Play the angle. One of the most challenging times to take good surfing photos on the east coast is early morning to midday when the sun is predominately backlighting the surf. Most people get home and are disappointed that all they captured was a silhouette of joe surfer. While this can be artistic at times, a whole shoot coming out this way is frustrating. In this case, look for the angle that gives you the most light on the wave face. This means that instead of shooting directly offshore, you may need to walk up the beach a bit so that when you shoot back, the sun is at a 45 degree or so angle to you. The shadows will be prominent but lessened to a degree.

2.Use exposure your compensation. You are going to have to except the fact that you are going to loose some highlight detail shooting into the sun in order to gain some shadow detail in your subject. Cameras just cannot capture that range of exposures in a single image. Camera meters, while much improved and more intelligent, will still expose for the highlights the majority of the time. You have a couple of choices. The least recommended is spot metering the subject. The reason I don’t like this method is that the action moves fast and keeping the meter spot on the subject in mid action is not easy. The preferable method is to adjust your exposure compensation from +0.3 to +1.0 depending on conditions. Your camera will meter the scene normally for the highlights but then adjust to allow more light to be available for the exposure and bring out detail in the shadows.

3. Focus. Continuous focus tracking is a must.

4. Know the game. This is true in any sports photography. Knowing the sport will help you be prepared to catch the peak (no pun intended) moment when it occurs. In surfing, you can usually tell by the way a surfer attacks the face of the wave. If he or she is making elongated carving turns, you know that you should be readying yourself to capture vertical lip bash or a roundhouse cutback. If, on the other hand, the surfer makes a series small, pulsating turns to increase his or her speed, then there is great chance that he or she is setting up to launch a big air. By knowing the sport, you have a better chance of catching the money shot when it happens.

Iso 200, f/7.1, 1/800 sec, 500mm

5. Burst mode. Surfing is quick with moves being completed in succession before you have the opportunity to press the shutter release more than once. Set your camera to burst mode. If you follow step 4 and know where the action shot happen, firing 3 or 4 rapid continuous frames as the surfer gets to that position enables you to improve your chances of capturing the big move.

6. Look for other opportunities. Just because you are shooting a surfing contest, not all of your photos have to be of surfers tearing up a wave face. Make sure you shoot a few frames of the contest area, surfers lining up for their heat, and anything else that hits you as interesting. One of the best images that captured this weekend was of a fog bank that rolled in on 79th street. When I shot it, it was more for amusement but turned out being one that I’m sure will go on the wall eventually.

Iso 200, f/7.1, 1/1600 sec, 500mm

7. Saturation. Surfing contests are filled with color. If you are a JPEG shooter, set your camera to vivid and really pop those colors. If you shoot RAW, you can play with them during processing.

8. Aperture. Depending on lighting conditions I prefer f6.3 – f7.1. It gives me plenty of light and keeps depth of field relatively shallow when zoomed out.

9. Speed. 800 sec – 2000 sec. In other words, as fast as possible in order to stop action. I generally shoot iso 200 since water tends to be a digital noise magnet or else I would bump it iso 400 and fire even faster.

10. But I don’t own any big glass….. While its true that 500mm – 1000mm lenses are needed to capture the outer breaks, your standard kit lenses or point and shoot is completely good for more onshore stuff, especially those arial moves that take place in the shorebreak. As a matter of fact, some of the best subjects to help hone your skills are skimboarders. Good ones pull moves in the surfline equivalent to that of surfers and because they launch from the dry sand, they will be in range of your lens.

Next time your bored and lacking in inspiration grab your camera and head down to the oceanfront. Believe it or not, people are out there year round. It is not only fun, but it will go a long way toward improving your technique and reaction time for photographing other fast moving subjects like wildlife or car races.

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