Photographing Pounding Surf

Wave photography is a physically demanding type of photography. I spend up to three hours photographing the pounding surf of Hawaii during a sunrise or sunset shoot. I’ve had a love for the ocean as long as I can remember and it was this love that eventually led me into wave photography. For the past 13 years, I’ve shot all over the Hawaiian Islands in search of that perfect image!

I try to capture unique views of waves that most people will never see for themselves. The best thing about wave photography is you get to swim in the ocean and get free exercise; scoring an epic image is a bonus.

Here are some tips on how to capture that perfect wave image!

Hawaii Surf Waves


These days, there are many great companies that make water housing for cameras; although I do have a few that I prefer.  Both Aquatech and SPL water housings are very durable and, for me, have stood the test of time.

In addition to a water housing for your camera, you’ll also want a great pair of sturdy surf fins and comfortable shorts (or bathing suit).



Depending on which type of camera brand you prefer – Nikon, Sony, Canon, etc. –  you’ll want a camera with a very faster shutter rate (five frames a second or faster). Waves curl incredibly quick so you’ll need speed to capture that perfect moment. If your going for a really wide look to your wave images, shooting focal lens between 11-20mm will give you your best shots. When it comes to shooting bigger waves (for example, the famous Pipeline break on the north shore of Oahu) shooting focal lens between 24-100mm will do great.


When shooting waves, you’ll want to shoot a very fast shutter speed (usually between 1/1600- 1/2500 of a second), making it possible to stop the motion of falling water. I usually shoot at ISO 500 and adjust my aperture as the light gets darker or brighter throughout the shoot. If you want to get really creative, try shooting a wave image at 1/60 or 1/80 of a second. It can almost look like a painting with the motion blur if your lucky enough to catch it just right.


Clear Photos – No Water Drops

The one question I’m asked the most is “How do your images look so clear with no water drops on them?” While in the ocean, put your camera housing underwater, then pull it out. The port will have water drops all over it that would definitely ruin any image that you try to capture. I’ve tried many different techniques to keep the port clear but one technique I’ve found definitely works the best. This may sound funny but I spit on the port and rub it all over. You can also lick it… it’s the saliva that seems to do the trick. After doing that, you’re usually waiting for a set of waves to roll in. As soon as a wave comes towards you, submerge your housing underwater for a couple seconds, rubbing your palm all over it. When you pull it out of the water, the water tension doesn’t break on the port, essentially becoming part of your optics; you are shooting through a thin sheet of water making it possible for perfectly clear wave images.


Time of Day

Creating an amazing wave image isn’t just about how the waves look physically. Like many other types of photography, its all about the light. Shooting at sunrise provides that warm, golden glow along with dramatic, contrasting colors as the first light hits the waves. If your going for a more classic look for your images (capturing the blue and green colors), shoot later in the morning or early evening. It’s also smart to watch the weather forecast; sometimes you can shoot in the middle of the day and get very moody images with storms coming or going.

Be Diverse

As we all know, its easy to get comfortable shooting the same places over and over. But with wave photography, the background is critical. There are so many different beaches to shoot in the Hawaiian Islands which provide stunning views with the waves. Paying attention to your backgrounds separates the amateurs from the pros. Many people just shoot waves but I try to capture wave images that frame up a mountain, waterfall, or even lava down the barrel.


Swell Direction

In the Hawaiian islands, we have two main season for swells. During the winter months (December through May), we get north, northwest and east swells hitting the islands; these make the biggest waves of the year. In the summer months (June through August), we get mainly south swells… which can create amazing glassy waves on the Big island (because it’s the furthest island south, it gets hit by that swell first).

Don’t just drop your towel on the beach and get in the water just anywhere. It’s important to consider the location of the wave breaks and the swell, as both impact the lighting and composition. Often the best breaks are where the wind dies down and the waves look glassy smooth, picking up and holding the perfect barrel.


In conclusion, wave photography is a very physically-demanding type of photography. Make sure you are in great shape and are very comfortable in the ocean. Before getting into bigger waves, start small and work your way up. Also, it’s always much safer to have a friend with you in the water while you shoot. Finally… have fun. That’s really what it’s all about.

About Author Nick Selway

Born and raised in Lake Stevens, Washington along the Northern Cascade Mountains, he grew a profound appreciation for the natural world at a young age. He spent his childhood traveling and exploring the Pacific Northwest with his family as his love for mother nature grew. Nick Selway, deemed a "daredevil photographer" by his contemporaries, was one of the first people in history to photograph lava entering the ocean from the surf. To do this, Nick risked his life entering the near scalding surf and avoiding lava bombs feet from the lava's entry point into the ocean to capture some of the most unique photographs ever taken.

Nick's photography has been featured in National Geographic, The Todays Show, CBS, New York Daily News, ABC News, UK Daily Mail, Photography Monthly, Surfer Magazine and many other articles worldwide. Nick has also won numerous awards in Outdoor Photographer Magazine, Power in Nature, Natures Best Magazine, Smithsonian Exhibition, Cover of Natures Best Magazine 2011 and many other accolades throughout his photographic career.