How To Photograph Waves
After spending any time near the ocean, it’s hard not to become mesmerized by the crashing waves rolling into shore. Wave photography is one of the most impressive and captivating genres of photography since it captures nature’s raw power. The beauty of it all is that waves are ever-changing and accessible for anyone to shoot. Assuming you’re near the ocean, of course! To help you capture the perfect wave photo on your next trip to the beach, this guide breaks down all the essentials of photographing waves.
At the most basic level, using continuous autofocus, a continuous shutter speed, and a wide aperture is the best way to photograph waves. With these three settings, you can keep sharp focus, capture the perfect moment, and only focus on what matters while a wave rolls past you.
Now let’s dive deeper into what exactly needs to be done to capture captivating wave photos.
The Best Places To Photograph Waves
While you can really capture a wave from anywhere near the ocean; it gets a little more specific than that. Let’s first discuss where you’re going to actually find waves worth photographing.
– Where To Find Big Waves Worth Photographing
Just because you’re near the ocean doesn’t mean that there will be impressive waves. Simply put, any area protected by an inlet or island won’t have nearly as big of waves as a location facing the open ocean. Waves are created by energy moving through the water, and as this energy travels, it builds momentum. If there is something to block this energy (like a landmass), it will affect the potential size of a wave.
After all, less energy means a smaller wave.
What that means for you and your photography is that to capture the biggest and badest waves you’ve ever seen, you need to be near the open ocean. Here is where the waves will have the most energy and be the largest in size. By finding a location like this, you’ll be finding incredible wave photo ops in every direction.
With that said, that doesn’t mean inlets and shores adjacent to landmasses won’t have worthwhile waves. Especially during the winter season, storm winds can help build the size of wave breaks. With the friction of the wind pushing the water, it can increase the size of a wave even along land protected coastline.
So if you don’t have the opportunity to photograph near the open ocean, you can try for a windy day for better odds of big waves.
– Where To Setup Your Camera
The reality is, you can photograph waves from just about any direction. However, what makes a great wave photo is capturing it from a perspective most people don’t see. This could mean using a telephoto lens (click here to check out my favorite telephoto lens) to zoom into a breaking wave or setting up on a point to capture waves from the side.
Depending on how big the break is, shooting waves directly from the beach can be challenging. Especially on extremely windy days, there can be rows of large waves that are hard to decipher between. Instead, try to make your way up a small embankment or knoll nearby the beach to shift your perspective. From a higher angle, it’s easier to isolate one wave from another.
Another option is to make your way out to a point in the shoreline. On many beaches, there will be some piece of land that extends out into the ocean. By making your way onto one of these points, you can get better 360 views of the waves as if you’re actually out on the water.
As with anything regarding ocean photography, use caution when photographing from these spots. Especially with big waves, it’s easy to get soaked by one crashing into the point. Likewise, be aware of changing tides as the way you walked in may not be accessible once the tides change.
How Do You Photograph Waves?
Putting all the camera settings and location planning aside, what should you actually look for when shooting waves? The trick is the look for the right moment to capture a photo.
Although it’s safe to say we all love waves, they’re the most impressive when they break. A wave break is when the swell reaches its peak amplitude and begins to “pour over” itself. This is the moment when you want to capture a photo.
Being ready for that perfect moment can be a challenge, which is why using a continuous shutter is so useful. Instead of hoping you pressed capture at the perfect moment, you can better your odds by shooting multiple photos in rapid succession. This way, you’ll capture every moment of the breaking wave and guarantee you got the shot.
Wave photography is an amazing exercise in patience, as no two waves are the same. The key is to constantly be ready with the perfect camera settings and wait for the moment to arise. With persistence, you’ll be sure to capture a stunning wave photo you’re over the moon about.
To help you get that perfect photo, let’s talk camera settings.
Best Camera Settings For Wave Photography
There are a few different camera settings you can use for photographing waves. The ones you use depend on the look you’re going for. In some cases, you might want to blur the wave to create a painterly long exposure effect. In other scenarios, you’ll want to opt for a fast shutter speed to freeze a crashing wave in place. Neither option is “better” than the other but instead simply offers a different appearance. Depending on the look you’re going for, use either one of the camera settings outlined below!
Long Exposure Wave Photography
This first type of wave photography utilizes a slow shutter speed to blur parts of your photo intentionally. Depending on your exposure’s length, you could capture a slight blur in a crashing wave or completely smooth the ocean altogether. As a happy medium, like in the photo below, here are the camera settings you should start with.
Camera Settings For Long Exposure Wave Photography
- Shutter: 1/20
- ISO: 100
- Aperture: F/8
- White Balance: AWB
- Focus: AI Servo / AF-C
- Drive Mode: Single Shot
- Camera Mode: Manual
With this baseline set, you may need to slightly adjust your aperture or shutter speed to fine-tune your exposure. Since a wave moves quickly, a shutter speed of 1/20 will capture a small amount of motion blur without blurring the entire wave. Especially when you’re photographing a crashing wave, a slight blur can add a lot of dimension to your photo.
As I’ll discuss more in-depth later in this article, having some type of ND filter will make using slow shutters much easier. Especially when you’re shooting at midday or directly into a sunset, it’s hard to get the perfect camera settings.
If you don’t own an ND filter and are itching to get a great wave shot, there are workarounds you can apply. For example, you can always stop down your aperture to F/11 or F/16 to darken your photo. That way, you have the ability to use a slower shutter speed without any filtration. I talk extensively about shooting long exposures with no filters in this video.
Now, whenever you start using a shutter speed slower than 1/60 of a second, it’s important to start using a tripod. Since any camera movement will translate into a blurry photo, your camera must stay perfectly still for the duration of the exposure. Even though it’s just 1/20 of a second, you won’t be able to capture a sharp photo if you tried this handheld. By using a tripod, you will only blur areas in motion (aka the wave), while the rest of your scene stays tack sharp.
If you don’t have a tripod, be sure to check out my tripod gear guide, where I share some of my favorite (and most affordable) tripods for photographers!
Freezing Motion In Wave Photography
Now you might not be into the whole fine art look of a long exposure image, and that’s totally fine! In that case, you’ll want to use a different set of camera settings meant for freezing a wave in its place. Instead of blurring the wave, these camera settings will capture every bit of motion in perfect sharpness. When it comes to capturing the raw power of a crashing wave, this is your best bet.
Camera Settings For Freezing The Motion Of A Wave
- Shutter: 1/500
- ISO: 100
- Aperture: F/8
- White Balance: AWB
- Focus: AI Servo / AF-C
- Drive Mode: Continuous / Burst
- Camera Mode: Shutter Priority (TV)
Once again, these camera settings for freezing the motion of a wave are meant as a baseline, not a perfect match for any situation. What matters most in this situation is the shutter speed and the drive mode.
With a shutter speed of 1/500, you can capture most waves in perfect sharpness as they break. The only exception is with some winter storms that bring in incredibly powerful waves. With bigger and faster-moving waves, increasing your shutter speed even further will help to ensure every water droplet is tack sharp. As you take your first few photos, zoom in to the photo previews and make sure the waters looking as crisp as you wanted. If there’s any bit of noticeable blur, just increase the shutter speed!
As for the drive mode, a continuous drive mode (Burst Mode) lets you capture a rapid succession of photos at once. That way, you aren’t guessing when the perfect time to press capture is. Instead, you capture the entire process of the wave crashing, so you have multiple options to choose from later.
If you find yourself in gloomy weather or late in the day when there’s less light, you may have difficulty using a fast shutter like 1/500 without being underexposed. To solve this problem, you can increase your ISO or open up your aperture if you’re ok with losing some depth of field.
I talk about the process of choosing manual camera settings extensively in my photography ebook called Goodbye Automatic. You can learn more about this book here.
How To Photograph Waves Breaking Over Rocks
One of the most impressive moments to capture is when a wave crashes over rocks and shoots up a giant plume of water. It’s exceptionally beautiful in real life and looks great in-camera. There are two different ways of capturing this event, and it all depends on the look you’re going for.
Option 1: Capturing Plumes Of Water
If you want to capture the epic size and power of a wave crashing into a rock, you’ll want to use the faster camera settings mentioned above. With a shutter speed between 1/250 and 1/500, you can capture every droplet of water in perfect clarity. Since you’re using such a fast shutter speed, you can capture these photos handheld without any tripod setup.
With that said, not every wave has the energy and size to create a large splash when it hits the rocks. Instead, there are smaller waves that gently flow over and around rocks on the shoreline. Although slightly less “epic,” these calmer wave breaks still make for amazing photo ops. Here’s how to do it.
Option 2: Creating A Fine-Art Look To Water Flowing Over Rocks
Before you start, make sure you have an ND filter to use. Preferably something that’s a minimum of 6 stops (ND64) or darker. The reason being that you need to blur the water flowing over the rocks to create that whimsical and professional look every photographer loves. With a mid-range ND of ND64, you’re not bound to super long exposures like 30 seconds or longer. Instead, you can strike a middle ground and not wash out all the details in the water.
Before you set up your camera, look for some kind of inlet or interesting rock formations to place in your foreground. After all, without a strong foreground, water flowing over rocks isn’t all that interesting. After finding a spot, set up your tripod and orient your camera to match the composition you had in mind. From here, attach your filter and aim for a shutter speed between 5 – 10 seconds. You can use this video to help you choose camera settings with an ND filter.
Whichever option you choose to capture a wave breaking over rocks, you’re guaranteed to produce top-notch photos! If you’re new to long exposure photography, be sure to take advantage of this long exposure photography guide.
Additional Tips For Photographing Waves
With a good understanding of the camera settings used for wave photography, let’s go further. Now let’s get into the importance of certain camera settings and additional tips to improve your wave photos.
1. Use AI Servo (Canon) Or AF-C (Nikon, Sony)
AI Servo and AF-C are terms used to describe continuous autofocus across Canon, Nikon, and Sony camera models. With continuous autofocus, your camera will track your subject as it moves and changes focus accordingly.
To give you an example, if you placed your AF point onto a person walking towards you, your camera would adjust its focus as they came closer to your lens. In terms of waves, they’re constantly moving and changing without notice. Using a continuous focus mode makes it much easier to keep perfect focus as the wave moves through your frame. Whether you’re shooting it from the side or capturing it straight on, using AI servo (Canon) or AF-C (Nikon, Sony) will make all your focus problems disappear.
2. Use Burst Mode
As I’ve mentioned, burst mode is your best friend with wave photography. You never know when the perfect moment will be or when the biggest splash will happen. To maximize your chances of capturing the perfect photo, burst mode (aka continuous shutter) lets you capture a sequence of photos, so you never miss a moment.
Especially when I’m photographing a wave crashing into a rock, I wait till the wave is out of sight, then start shooting a burst. A rock can go from looking pretty uninteresting to having a giant wall of water rising behind it in just a second or two. With a continuous shutter, you’re always ready for what unfolds!
3. Use A Polarizer Filter
When you’re shooting any kind of water, reflections and glare is a big problem. Although it might seem like a harmless highlight, this glare can significantly impact the amount of color and detail you see in a wave. To help eliminate this problem, using a polarizer is the perfect tool. This filter works by blocking reflected light from entering your lens, essentially canceling out those highlights and reflections off the water. The result is a more vibrant and detailed wave photo that looks far more professional than without.
To see exactly how a polarizer impacts your photos, check out this post.
4. Consider Where The Light Is Coming From
Just like anything in photography, light is important. With wave photography, considering where the light is shining from should play a huge role in where you decide to set up.
It’s harder to get the same vibrance and color in the foreground water with a backlit wave. Since the wave creates a shadow on itself, it can be hard to expose for. However, backlighting can also create incredible silhouettes and highlights around the edges of a wave. If that’s the look you’re going for, then perfect!
On the flip side, front-lit waves are easier to shoot since you can get the perfect exposure right from the start. You’ll also end up capturing more color in the water and often a more detailed background. Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong, but where the light shines from will alter how your photos turn out.
If you have a specific shot in mind, plan ahead, and shift when you’re going to take the photos if need be.
5. Wait For An Off-Shore Breeze
An off-shore breeze is key to getting the most out of your wave photos. With an air current traveling straight into the face of the wave, it creates a spray off the back. This spray can add more interest to the wave and helps to make for more unique photos.
In most cases, an off-shore breeze is most common during the early morning hours. If you can, get out to the beach early and take advantage of the mist!
6. Do Your Research On The Best Breaks Near You
Just ask any surfer; no two beaches are the same. The shapes and orientations of certain beaches will create different types and sizes of waves. Rather than blindly guessing where you take photos, do your research ahead of time and note where the biggest breaks are.
If you don’t know where you start, just look for photos of your general location online. Odds are, you’ll spot a photo of waves far more impressive than the others. In most cases, it will say where the photo was taken or you can reach out to the photographer directly to ask. If all else fails, start talking to the local surfers in town.
If you’re totally new to the scene and don’t know any surfers, just walk into any surf shop in town. Talk to the employees there, mention you’re a photographer looking to shoot waves in the area, and ask where the best breaks are. Local surfers will always have the best knowledge on places to go and will sometimes let you in on hidden spots you’d never find online.
It pays off to ask!
7. Experiment With Shutter Speeds
The beauty of wave photography is that there is endless room for creativity, especially with shutter speed. I highly encourage you to experiment with different shutter speeds and see the results you get. Try shooting at 1/1000 of a second, and then try shooting with a 30-second exposure. The way you capture the motion of a wave is open to interpretation and is a fun way to better understand how shutter speeds work. Every shutter speed can yield different results, and that’s the magic of it all!
8. Keep An Eye On The Water
It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of a great photo op. When the lights just right and the waves are crashing exactly as you hoped, there’s no better feeling. Just remember to keep an eye on the water around you as you’re taking photos.
If you make your way out onto a point, it’s possible that the way you got out there won’t be accessible as the tides change. If you linger for too long, your access point back to the beach could be submerged. Before you get too adventurous with where you go to shoot, take note of the tides and consider if or when certain parts of the beach will be underwater.
Likewise, it’s easy to get caught by surprise by a large splash that rains down on you. If you’re near a cliff’s edge, be aware that you and your camera could get soaked if the right wave comes along. To be safe, stay away from any edges to protect yourself from getting drenched, or worse, swept into the water.
9. Be Persistent
Just like the weather, wave forecasts are constantly changing and updating throughout the day. One day might be a completely lifeless and unexciting day for waves while the next has the biggest waves you’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, there isn’t one silver bullet that lets you be in the right place at the right time. All you can do is be persistent.
If you’re just in the area for a short amount of time, make an effort to get to the beach every day at a certain time. With persistence, you’re guaranteed to get the results you’re looking for. It’s just a numbers game with wave photography.
10. Try Including A Person In Your Wave Photos
Whether you photograph a surfer or someone nearby an explosion of water, adding a person to your wave photos adds tons of scale. Without context, the actual size of a wave can be hard to decipher from one photo. Adding a person into your composition as a frame of reference makes it easier to get a sense of scale.
Whether you’re on the shoreline or out in the water, there are tons of ways you safely photograph people near waves. One easy trick to make them seem closer than they really are is to utilize lens compression. When you use a zoom lens, the foreground and background appear closer and closer together as you zoom in. In the end, you’ll get incredible shots that look like your subject was right beside the wave, even though they were a safe distance away.
I talk about lens compression and how it works extensively in my photography ebook called Goodbye Automatic; you can take a look at it here.
Essential Camera Gear For Wave Photography
To get the most out of your wave photography adventure, here are a few key pieces of gear to make your day a success.
– Telephoto And Wide-Angle Zoom Lenses
A telephoto lens is going to be your best friend in the world of wave photography. With an expansive zoom range, you gain the ability to get up close and personal with the waves. At least it appears that way! A great telephoto lens to bring along is a 70-200mm since it offers the most versatility.
For more framing options, carrying a wide-angle zoom like a 24-70mm is a good idea. If you want to shoot the water rolling into shore or get creative with the foreground, you’ll need a wider lens.
With both of these lenses in your bag, you’re more than ready to get any shot you want of the waves. Since most wave photos don’t involve a wide field of view, you can leave your wide-angle lens at home.
If you’re in the market for new zoom lenses, be sure to check out this list of my favorite lenses for photographers.
– ND Filter
Although not always necessary, an ND filter will be a huge help in capturing fine-art looking wave photos. Especially in bright conditions, it’s very challenging to capture long exposures with the ideal settings. Luckily an ND filter makes it easy and helps you to use a slow shutter speed no matter what time of day.
If you only intend to freeze the motion of waves, then an ND filter isn’t going to do much for you. However, if you’re looking for a silky long exposure look in your wave photography, an ND filter is a must-have item!
– Polarizer Filter
As I mentioned earlier, shooting anything on the water is guaranteed to have reflections and glare. Wave photography is no exception. Using a polarizer, you can reduce the glare on the water and get more color and detail in the waves. Although it might not seem like much, a polarizer is hands down of the most useful filters for wave photography.
To help you see why polarizers are so badass, check out this post on how polarizers work.
Whether you’re shooting action shots or long exposures, having a tripod on hand can is always a good idea. Especially when you’re shooting with a heavy telephoto lens, it can be nice to take a load off with the help of a tripod. Besides keeping your camera still for long exposures, a tripod can help to eliminate camera shake at longer focal lengths. Especially as you’re tracking a wave with a telephoto lens, it’s possible to have unwanted blur from holding your camera. By using a tripod, you can solve this problem.
Be sure to check out my list of top tripods for photographers to get you started!
– Lens Cloth
Shooting near the water, you’re guaranteed to get some mist on your lens at some point. Without the proper cleaning kit, it can be a real pain to keep your lens dry and streak-free. By carrying a lens cloth with you, a bit of mist on the lens can be easily cleaned up in seconds. Without one, you’ll have a tough time keeping your lens clear throughout the day.
If you don’t already have a cleaning kit for your lens, here’s a list of the best affordable camera cleaning kits on the market.
Wave photography is a fun and exciting style of photography that never gets old. Each day brings something new, and every beach poses new challenges and opportunities. With the tips and camera settings outlined in this guide, you’re now ready to take on the beach with more confidence than ever!
– Brendan 🙂