How to Shoot Waves

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If you’re going to shoot waves, you’d better bring along a few extra memory cards. The shifting seascape makes it difficult to pack up and leave, since the next wave is surely the one! 😉

After our workshop, Jay and I took a drive with a few remaining students to explore the coastline on the eastern point of the Big Island of Hawaii. At one rocky overlook, big turquoise waves rolled ashore, so Sebastian and I pulled out our long lenses and made it our mission to capture a bit of their glory. Here are a few tips for getting great shots of waves.

1. Choose a sunny day. We’re always telling you to look for soft light… but this is an exception to that rule. Bright sunlight will penetrate deep into the waves, bringing out the brilliant colors of the water.

2. You’ll probably notice that harsh sunlight produces bright glare and reflections on the surface of the water – and blown highlights can really make a mess of a nice photo. So, pay attention to the angle of the sun. Face the water, and look to your left and then to your right. Depending upon the angle of the sun, you may notice that those bright highlights on the water almost disappear when you are looking in one direction. If that’s the case, shoot in that direction! It’s the easiest way to deal with the problem. You can cut through a bit more surface glare with the help of a circular polarizer filter, but using one may mean you’ll have to settle for a slower shutter speed (see #4).

3. Of course, the location itself is equally important. You’ve seen photos that look right into the barrel of the wave, right? If you want shots like that, you’ll need to put yourself in the right place at the right time. You’ll need big waves that will form barrels as they break – and you’ll need to be in the right place to capture a shot looking into them. For the shot below, we stood on a high cliff at Miloli’i. The spot we choose jutted out beyond the beach below, so we could shoot along the length of the wave as it rolled past us.

Papa Bay, Miloli'i - Big Island - Hawai'i, USA

4. And finally, be sure to use a fast shutter speed. I like to keep mine around 1/1000 of a second in order to freeze the spray as it flies through the air. Sunny skies help with that, but you may need to open up your aperture a bit or use a higher ISO to get a fast enough shutter speed.

Good luck, and have a great time!

About Author Varina Patel

There is nothing more remarkable to me than the power of nature. It is both cataclysmic and subtle. Slow and continuous erosion by water and wind can create landscapes every bit as astonishing as those shaped by catastrophic events – and minuscule details can be as breathtaking as grand vistas that stretch from one horizon to the other. Nature is incredibly diverse. Burning desert sands and mossy riverbanks… Brilliant sunbeams and fading alpenglow… Silent snowfall and raging summer storms… Each offers a unique opportunity. I am irresistibly drawn to the challenge of finding my next photograph, and mastering the skills required to capture it effectively.