How to capture the surf

It’s hard to find one word that describes waves. The same goes for wave photography. From a single droplet to the silky texture of water, the acute crystallisation of details can lead you to believe that wave and surf photography is a game of gears – gears that are adjustable, adaptable, waterproof, and high-end.

But the truth is that wave and surf photography is sometimes so much more about the intuitive mind and physical stamina than the hardware, especially if you’re a beginner venturing on this exciting, yet challenging journey. The best wave and surf photographers always have some sort of background in the ocean, so, if you already know your way in the water, then you’re off to a good start.

Research before leaving the house

Location, weather, and many other elements play a huge role in wave and surf photography. Clearly, there is an associated risk with surf photography, so I would recommend starting out with smaller waves at your local beach which you are already comfortable surfing or swimming in, and avoid pushing past your boundaries on your few first attempts.

© Russel Ord. GFX100 & GF250mm f/4 LM OIS WR lens. 1/2500s at F5.6, ISO 160.
© Russel Ord. GFX100 & GF250mm f/4 LM OIS WR lens. 1/2500s at f/5.6, ISO 160.

Speed determines the look

Speed is of the essence. The higher the shutter speed you use, the clearer the shots and the more details you get of the water. If you want to freeze the moment, go for at least 1/1600s with an aperture of between f/2.8 and f/5.6. If you’re after a painterly, blurry, and silky look, start off with something around 1/30s with a smaller aperture. 

I always recommend using manual settings so you have full creative control in surf/wave photography. Shoot in burst mode if you want to make sure you capture that precise moment. If it’s not quite there yet, simply play with your settings to get the desired effect. Sometimes it can take several failed attempts to produce a single one that works for you. The key is to experiment with different shutter speeds and ISO levels until you get an understanding of what an ideal wave photograph looks like to you; there really is no right or wrong.

© Russel Ord. Fujifilm X-T3 & XF10-24mm f/4 R OIS WR lens. 1/30s at F8, ISO400.
© Russel Ord. Fujifilm X-T3 & XF10-24mm f/4 R OIS WR lens. 1/30s at f/8, ISO 400.

The human element

Knowing how to capture the ocean sets you up for surf photography. And experimenting with fast shutter speeds to achieve the required effect is a good first step. Safety is extremely important. For those starting out, I would recommend using a long lens to keep some distance between yourself and the surfer while swimming. Lenses like the Fujinon XF90mm f/2 lens allow you to sit more towards the channel and still produce high-quality photographs.

© Russel Ord. Fujifilm X-T3 & XF10-24mm f/4 R OIS WR lens. 1/1600s at F8, ISO 400.
© Russel Ord. Fujifilm X-T3 & XF10-24mm f/4 R OIS WR lens. 1/1600s at f/8, ISO 400.

As you become more experienced and feel more at ease coming close to the surfer (while ensuring you’re still out of their way, which comes with experience), you can move into a wide-angle lens like the Fujinon XF10-24mm f/4 lens and start capturing the barrels from inside the wave. I usually stay a metre away from the surfer when using this lens at the 10mm range.

© Russel Ord. Fujifilm X-T3 & XF50-140mmF2.8 R LM OIS WR lens. 1/200s at F4, ISO 320.
© Russel Ord. Fujifilm X-T3 & XF50-140mm f/2.8 R LM OIS WR lens. 1/200s at f/4, ISO 320.

My biggest challenge, and potentially yours

Even with more than 35 years of surfing experience, I have to say my biggest challenge in wave photography is the ocean itself. To elaborate; it is the task of pushing creative boundaries while gauging your limits when facing the ocean’s huge unpredictability. This is something that hinges on decades of practise and experience.

Experiment with the water whenever you can, because shooting the same subject over and over again will only perfect your techniques, framing, and positioning linearly. It’s important to work your way up the ladder and push your limits little by little, rather than jumping too many steps ahead. 

Lastly, do all the foundational work. Take breath-holding courses. Research before you go out each time. Stay physically fit and mentally strong. These are the prerequisites for engaging with and getting comfortable in the ocean. Eventually, you’ll start finding yourself alchemising something so seemingly menacing into pieces of breathtaking art.

© Russel Ord. Fujifilm GFX100 & GF110mm f/2 R LM WR lens. 1/4000s at f/2.8, ISO 200.
© Russel Ord. Fujifilm GFX100 & GF110mm f/2 R LM WR lens. 1/4000s at f/2.8, ISO 200.

About the author

On his path to becoming an internationally acclaimed photographer, Russell Ord has squinted down the lens at an intriguing mix of subjects over the years. He’s shot magazine covers of world-class surfers and helped deify celebrity chefs. He’s roamed with Uunguu Rangers in the Australian outback, island-hopped across tropical fantasylands, and followed his photographic instincts through urban meccas. Meanwhile, his ocean images are celebrated for simultaneously implying the cruelty and majesty of the sea.

As one of the world’s leading surf photographers, his unique talents culminated in his documentation of a violent twist of Indian Ocean known simply as ‘The Right’. In pursuit of a unique, career-defining angle, Ord put himself in a situation where the ocean’s most powerful forces converge. The hard-won image served as the focal point for his celebrated documentary, One Shot.

While he remains a passionate and astute chronicler of the ocean’s moods, Ord suggests that evolving and diversifying is the key to a long and stimulating photographic career. “I realised very quickly if I wanted to keep working as a photographer I would have to develop other skills. Most of my work now revolves around capturing people’s stories, along with tourism and brand work.”

While professionally driven, Russ is very much the type of person who thrives on the opportunity to share his extensive knowledge. “It just about works in reverse,” he states. “By sharing my experience/knowledge, it inspires me to pick up the camera and shoot for the enjoyment. Watching someone develop a new skill and how ecstatic they are when the shot works out serves as a true reminder of why I started photography in the first place.”

Ord's diverse range of experience, superior technical knowledge, and gregarious nature mean he is uniquely placed to act as a mentor to other photographers. Time with him is not simply a tutorial; it’s a rollicking experience that ensures you come away both entertained and educated.


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