How to photograph surfers

  • tips for photographing surfing by Courtney Keim

I think of the last eight vacations that we took, 99% of them has revolved around my husband’s love of surfing. I really can’t complain though since we’ve hit two islands in Hawaii and Costa Rica most recently.  I tell myself every time that I will pack my equipment and get some photos of him surfing but I’ve realized that the prime time he surfs, I’m usually staring at my eyelids or am taking photos of my kids on the shore playing.

tips for photographing surfing by Courtney Keim

Over Spring break, I rented myself a long(er) lens than I have in my bag.  I wish it could have been the 500mm f/4 but I could not swing the $10000 price tag to buy it.  I guess I could save but the chances of me actually getting some awesome shots would definitely outweigh that price tag.  I can hope though.

In two years, I have managed to catch him on what he considered a ‘good day’ twice – one at Cannons on the North Shore of Kauai and also in Playa Grande, Costa Rica.   I learned from my mistake of the 70-200mm 2.8L on the Hawaii trip and rented the 100-400mm 4.5-5.6L.  It still didn’t work how I’d like, but I did learn that what we ‘see’ as a photographer as an awesome photo is not always the perfect shot for a surfer.  Now, granted, I’m not an expert.  I photograph families and weddings but I definitely see it as learning in progress.

The Surfer

For me, I loved catching my husband as he headed off to surf.  I loved how they seemed so not posed and unscripted.

tips for photographing surfing by Courtney Keim

But when I posted the one to the CMpro Daily, he was not happy with my selection and responded that this photo was a more appropriate one for a surfer … it was less model-like and more surfer-ish.

tips for photographing surfing by Courtney Keim

The Location

When we travel, he likes to hit ‘famous’ breaks – he surfed Cannons, Hanalei Bay and Tunnels in Kauai, Waimea Bay, Pipe and Sunset Beach in Oahu and most recently Playa Grande and Playa Negra in Costa Rica.  I don’t know if they are famous to everyone or just local surfers but most surf beaches have names.  Some of the most famous ones I’m sure you’ve heard of – Banzai Pipeline off Ehukai Beach Park in Pupulea on O’ahu’s North Shore, Bells Beach by Torquay, Australia, Jefferys Bay (J-bay) in South Africa and Teahupo’o on the south-west coast of Tahiti, French Polynesia.

These are breaks that can be ‘firing’ when a good swell comes in.  One day, you can see hundreds of surfers in the water.  The next day, you can see the flags.

tips for photographing surfing by Courtney Keim

And despite the warnings, those that dare, venture out at their own risk.

To get an idea of how big the waves are here at Pipe that I took in 2006 on my old point and shoot, the surfer in the photo is about 6 feet tall.  If you look at his size compared to the wave, you can see that it’s probably 10-20 feet.

tips for photographing surfing by Courtney Keim

Distance from Shore

I’ve learned that some breaks like Hanalei Bay and Cannons as pictured below are way too far out for the average lens that a portrait/wedding photographer has in their bag.  The photo here could have been perfect but Cannons is not only a far break … it also has another break closer to the shore that tripped up my photo. Due to my lens choice, I could not position myself further up on the shore up the dune area but rather I was lower and as a result, caught the closer break in the shot.  Next time, I know I need a longer lens in addition to a tripod to use (since my ideal 500mm lens is so heavy) up further on shore.

tips for photographing surfing by Courtney Keim

Others break close(r) to the shore (like Playa Grande) and you can get some amazing shots with great clarity using a body like the Mark III.

tips for photographing surfing by Courtney Keim

The Surfer’s Style

Surfers try many maneuvers on a wave.  I find myself snapping away from the moment I see him pop up till he bails on the wave.  There are so many times that I show him a photo because I’ll be impressed at how high the surfer got or the spray they threw from the wave.  Rather than agree, he will chime in that since the surfer didn’t ‘land’ it, that it’s not all that impressive.  To me, I like seeing how fun the trick is, how big the wave is  and half the time I don’t even notice if they ‘stuck’ the landing but it is important to the surfer.

tips for photographing surfing by Courtney Keim

tips for photographing surfing by Courtney Keim

tips for photographing surfing by Courtney Keim

tips for photographing surfing by Courtney Keim

tips for photographing surfing by Courtney Keim

The Checklist: The Surfer, the Wave and the Details

Some cool things to look out for include:

  1. anytime a surfer gets ‘air’ or appears to be above the wave
  2. throws spray or an exaggerated amount of water thrown by the board
  3. gets barreled or appears to be caught up in the wave’s tunnel motion

Some cool things to document:

  1. the scenery around the surf location
  2. the sheer size of the wave (see below for the complete view of a wave and my husband and how small he seemed)
  3. numerous photographs of the same wave (I think it’s cool when they get air while he would rather have photos of himself getting barreled – which you can’t really see from the shore anyway)
tips for photographing surfing by Courtney Keim

Some things I’ve learned along the way:

  1. have him (or her) wear a color that pops so you can find them easily in the sea of surfers
  2. know which way they surf … are they goofy foot?
  3. notice the way the wave breaks… if you notice some of my photos the surfers are going left while others are going right and how it relates to which way they surf.

Hope this can help someone.  I am by far no expert and can say that a majority of these images were actually in error.  I thought I was photographing my husband but actually was photographing someone else!

I am definitely having fun learning and seeing what I feel is cool if often not cool in the eyes of a surfer.

About the Author:

Courtney captures her every day with a Canon 5d mark II and varying lenses in a classic yet modern style. Residing in Atlantic City with her surfer husband, princess-clad daughter, and firetruck chasing twin boys, Courtney is a “self-proclaimed science geek” spending her days as a Chemistry and Physics teacher and her off time as a photographer.


  1. Amanda B Jun 05 2013 at 11:51 am - Reply

    Love this post! My brother lives on Kauai and has taken up surfing since moving there. I wish I could go visit and take pictures of him surfing!

  2. Jeanie Shea Jun 05 2013 at 4:29 pm - Reply

    Such fun photos. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Stephanie C. Jun 05 2013 at 10:26 pm - Reply

    THANK YOU! My son is on the Autism Spectrum & thanks to Surfers Healing he’ll (hopefully) be participating in a surfing event in early September in New Jersey! 🙂 I KNOW that the photos you should wouldn’t be of my son, but I’m hoping we might see some of the professional surfers who come & volunteer their time for the events demo a few of those kinds of moves for us! 🙂

  4. LB Jun 05 2013 at 11:15 pm - Reply

    Great post and picture share! Surf photography is pretty hard from the beach, especially when you have some kiddos to keep an eye on at the same time.

    Cannons is a great spot! Definitely hard to shoot, though.

    One thing I have noticed that my husband (also a surfer) says when I show him pictures is that he prefers pictures of him on the face coming down the wave or making a curve to go back up the face. He doesn’t like the ones of him “off the wave” at the bottom (like in your Pipe photo).

    Looks like you have had some great vacations!

  5. Jodi Jun 06 2013 at 7:26 am - Reply

    thanks for these tips, courtney! lots of your tips transcend beyond shooting surfers and also apply to getting great shots of people doing what they do at the beach… makes me excited for our trip to the beach later this summer. thanks for putting this together!

  6. Kathleen Collins Jun 06 2013 at 10:24 pm - Reply

    Cool surfing pictures!

  7. Maria Jun 09 2013 at 10:01 am - Reply

    As well as traveling to many surf spots, we are fortunate to live in what is known as The Trestles Community in San Clemente, California and I totally understand how our day-to-day life could revolve around swells and when it’s going to “go off.” Camera in tow, we head to the beach where I’m either trying to find which guy out there is mine or capturing my girls playing with their sand toys. What a great suggestion he wear bright colored swim trunks…now if they can only make wet suits in other colors beside black! 🙂
    Happy shooting and happy surfing!

  8. Joanne Jun 12 2013 at 10:07 am - Reply

    Such an enjoyable read – a breath of fresh air!

  9. Darby Mack Jun 15 2013 at 2:21 pm - Reply

    Love the pics Courtney! My husband and sons are surfers here in San Diego and I try not to miss too many sessions. It’s a great photo opportunity… what’s not to love about the beach!
    Happy shutter-bugging,
    xo Darby

  10. Andy U Nov 02 2013 at 8:50 am - Reply

    Thanks for the insights. I am an action/surf photo bug. Urbansurf on Swellinfo.

  11. Brenda May 25 2016 at 1:20 am - Reply

    Wonderful tips on avoiding surfing injury while play with a BIG wave.

  12. Paul Tran Jan 29 2017 at 12:01 pm - Reply

    Woooohhh that feeling, I feel the wind.. Thanks for amazing tips.. I will be back on surfing soon.. love it

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