Waves are one of my favorite subjects to photograph during the winter here on Kauai. It’s usually flat as a bathtub in the summer months, but the swell can kick up to 2-3 times overhead in winter. It’s really humbling to witness the power of the sea and photograph the energy of nature. There are a few easy to follow nature photography techniques you can use to capture breath taking wave photos. Also, safety is incredibly important and taking too much of a risk can get you killed. So it’s important to be really aware of ocean safety when shooting.
When it comes to waves, usually you shoot with a really long lens from the beach – unless you are crazy enough to hop on a jet ski and really get into the action.
I use the 100-400mm and sometimes add an extender to reach 600mm. I’ll find a nice comfortable spot to post up and then spend hours waiting and shooting to get the perfect wave photo. I usually don’t use a tripod, I prefer to rest my elbows on my legs and turn myself into a human tripod. That way, I can make adjustments really fast. Mostly because my tripod is kinda fused from salt corrosion. I just like the ability to make micro movements quickly. I also use a polarizer to cut out glare and enhance those pretty ocean colors.
When I see a larger swell coming in, I focus on any part of it and track it coming into the shore. I keep both eyes open – one looking through the view finder and the other looking at the swell coming in. When I see the wave about to break, I track the lens over to that spot.
Another simple nature photography trick to get your timing right is to rely on the fact that a wave’s motion is repetitive. This is particularly useful for waves breaking near a rock or shoreline. You can set your cameras focus point near the rock and wait for the waves to break. Once the wave breaks you can fire off a series of high speed photos to capture it.
Like any other nature photography subject matter, camera settings to capture waves play a critical role in how your photos come out. I have my camera set to AI Servo mode. In this mode Canon’s auto focus system continuously tracks my wave as it moves around. I also have my image stabilization mode turned on. Naturally this drains your battery quickly so its nice to have 2-3 extra batteries on hand.
Beginner nature photographers may find it difficult to get a focus lock on the waves due to their movement. If a wave is breaking near the shore or close the rocks you can use these rocks to set your camera’s focus and then place your camera into manual focus. Once the wave approaches the rocks you can fire off a series of shots. Here is a short video on Visual Wilderness that shows you how to do this:
It’s important to have your shutter speed fast enough to keep the wave sharp as it starts to break. You may have to juggle your ISO and aperture in order to get the shutter speed fast enough, especially if you are shooting at sunset. You have to be really aware of your settings as the light dissipates.
There are plenty of creative wave photography compositions to explore. Look for waves breaking in interesting ways or back washing and exploding into fun patterns. I like finding some lava rocks and photographing the waves exploding off of them into crazy splashes. These give you a more artsy abstract look for your portfolios. Again, just be aware of your shutter speed. Usually the splash type photographs need a really high shutter speed to freeze the droplets.
If the location permits, you can also capture incredible details in the waves. The best way to accomplish this is to use a long lens and get close to where the waves are breaking. If you are zoomed into a very narrow area it may be difficult to get an accurate focus lock. In this case use the pre-focusing technique mentioned earlier in the article for sharp focus.
One of the first things a nature photographer should do is keep a close eye on the surf report. I look at things like the tide charts and if the swell is increasing or decreasing. When I go out and shoot, I spend a significant time watching the waves and how far the ocean is running up the beach. You do not want to be taken out by a wave and then dragged back into the ocean. I never stand or sit where the ground is wet around me. If its wet, that means the sea has been there.
I also do not stand on wet rocks. One, because they are slippery and two, because that means the water is washing over them. I also take time to find the water line to where the ocean is running up the beach. If the tide is increasing, that is going to change. If the swell is increasing, it is also going to push the water line up the beach. These are some of the things I watch out for when shooting waves. Just always be aware of your surroundings and really use your common sense.
Now that you know how to capture waves in motion all you need to do is grab your camera and head out to a beach near you. And remember to practice getting your camera settings and composition correct. It will take some time, but soon you will be capturing breathtaking photos of waves to add to your collection.