How to do surf photography at sunset

Good surf photography for me is all about the combination of surf, layers and harmony.

Composing a cool surf shot while working in a harsh environment, where the conditions never are set, the temperature is freezing cold and the waves keep tumbling over you, is by far one of the most fun and challenging things I do.

Simply put I want the main object(s) to draw the attention in a harmonious composition, and keep all disturbing factors either toned down or out of the equation completely.

The sunset puts you in prime position to make the layers surrounding the surfer way more exiting than usual with vivid colors and reflections, whilst the picture itself still keeps both it’s harmony and the action.

However the rapidly changing light conditions makes shooting at sunset a bigger challenge than shooting in ordinary daylight, especially when you’re shooting inside the ocean using a water housing.

The sense of depth is secured with both foreground and background. 200mm. F/4, ISO-400, 1/1600 sec.

Adding depth to your shots

Shooting in the ocean you will often find you have three layers of depth you need to work out.

The foreground will consist of the immediate ocean surrounding you as a photographer, the middle ground and the main focus will be the surfer and/or the wave, and the third layer is the background, which most of the time will be the sky or the horizon.

Some spots, like the world renowned Unstad in Lofoten in northern Norway, has majestic mountains you can work into your backdrop, which obviously is a treat, but most spots don’t.

Please do keep in mind most surf spots has a level of secrecy to them. Adding easily recognizable landmarks into your background is never a good idea unless you feel like having your car painted with cow feces.

If you’re shooting from shore you in principle will often work with the same foreground/background composition as you do in the sea, however at shore the foreground would be the beach, some rocks, a house or whatever your surroundings serves you.

Many photographers choose to not to use a foreground in their pictures. That’s more than fine, I often do that myself, but personally I find shots where I have utilized the foreground the most exciting ones.

In the end it’s all about personal taste, and what kind of lens you decide to use (shooting with depth in the ocean while still catching the surfer is way more difficult with a 50 mm than with a 200mm).

Fishermen foreground, yellow light horizon background. 247mm, F/7.1, ISO-200, 1/640 sec.

Work the negative space

The area around and between the main object(s) is referred to as negative space.

The negative space engulfing the wave and the surfer in both the ocean and the sky I my mind should be peaceful, but far to often peaceful also equals boring.

The chance of creating something that’s not boring often occurs in combination with the sunset, and the minutes following the sunset. In this golden hour the ocean here at the Norwegian south western coast gets a radiant reflecting light, and the backdrop changes in exciting ways by the minute.

The sky above which normally is grey, white or blue, suddenly turns into a myriad of colors, like yellow, pink, red, orange and purple.

The possibilities to work the negative space in exciting ways are plentiful, but you have to be quick as time is a limited resource in these situations.

Keep disturbing factors out of the composition, unless there’s a clear purpose. 200mm. F/4, ISO-400, 1/1600 sec.
200mm. F/4., ISO-400, 1/1600 sec.

Don’t overexpose

As a rule of thumb I don’t overexpose my shots, especially not at sunset.

If the shot is overexposed the sunset gets washed out and you stand no hope of rescuing any details in post production (shoot RAW), but if you underexpose however you might be able to perform a rescue mission.

Obviously you should always try to calibrate your settings to make things look right in camera, but if the push comes to shove, underexpose.

If you try to shoot the sunset, but the light and the colors on the picture is not matching the real life thing, it’s probably because your exposure is off the rails.

  • Colorful sunsets are amazing, but they don’t show up every night. Sometimes the sky just insists on being grey and the light stays flat. Still it’s possible to do some shots.

Fighting the darkness

Shooting surf in sea at sunset opens up a few new layers of difficulty. Basically you can’t easily calibrate your settings for both the surfer and the sunset in the same shot.

If you are lying in the water with your camera, the wave itself will almost always create a dark shadowy place for both you and the surfer letting in a minimum amount of light, but if you change your camera settings to light up the dark area, the sunset behind the wave will suffer, a lot.

Hence I normally adjust my settings for the background, whilst leaving enough light in front to keep the actual surfer both visible and in focus.

If you want to keep the radiant colors of the sunset intact the foreground often suffers. The trick is to keep enough light for the foreground to stay visible. 200mm. F74, ISO-400, 1/1600 sec.

Choosing your settings

Usually one easy step to gain more light is to choose a higher aperture (lower F-number).

A high aperture gives you less depth of field, which blurs the background and concentrates the focus area. This normally makes your main focus point pop, for example it’s great for portraits, however the job of actually hitting your focus when the object is moving fast is way harder.

Bare in mind you are shooting in the ocean, wearing thick neoprene gloves, and the waves are constantly hitting you. It’s not easy working your camera in these conditions. In the sea I normally either shoot in shutter priority mode (TV), or at a fixed aperture, like F/4 or F/5.6.

Another simple step to gain more light is to choose a higher ISO. Even though its tempting you should not do it. Don’t do auto ISO either, especially not during the sunset. If you do, your photos will turn into a grainy mess. Keep your ISO fixed. Normally I would never go above 200, but in a sunset situation with the light slowly disappearing I don’t mind doing 400 or in some cases 800.

Choosing a fast shutter speed is important in most action sports (unless you actually want the effect of a slower shutter speed). A faster shutter speed makes your life harder in terms of supplying enough light, but it makes your focus work much easier. Finding your balance between a fast shutter speed and a corresponding aperture is key.

Depending on which time of the sunset you shoot, I would normally choose a shutter speed between 1/1600 and 1/1000. If the light is getting less and less bright I would in some cases go down to 1/600, but be aware that going below 1/1000 is pushing the boundaries. The slower you go with your shutter speed, the harder your life becomes when trying to capture movement.

  • If you want to learn more about how shutter speed, aperture and ISO works check out the many guides on Youtube, for example this one.
Sunset shoot with ISO set to auto. The result looks good at first glance, but upon closer inspection the large amount of grain is apparent. 50mm. F/5, ISO-6400, 1/1000 sec.

Shooting silhouettes

The level of detail of the surfer naturally decreases given less light. A both fun and cool technique to use in a sunset situation is to shoot silhouettes.

Making a silhouette is quite easy, as it only depends on shape not detail. Basically you want the surfer to block the light source in some fashion or another. As you’re dependent on shape it’s often fun to get a silhouette of a person moving, arms out, air between the legs and such.

Silhouette of Karl Oskar in a setting sun. 313mm. F/6.3, ISO-200, 1/3200 sec.

Don’t overdo your editing

Correct exposure will more often than not result in stunning sunset pictures.

Still people who shoot sunsets every now and then fall for the temptation to intensify the colors even more. The advice is simple: Don’t do it.

Chances are the colors of the sunset are more than vibrant enough as they are.

Good luck hunting your next great sunset shot!

Thanks for your support

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Disclaimer: All of the above stated are my personal opinions. I might be wrong. I’m also sure there are plenty of good alternatives advice to shooting in sea at sunset. Any constructive input is greatly appreciated. Also bare in mind English is my second language. Hence some sentences or choices of words might seem strange or unusual.

Portrait of Birk shot towards the setting sun. The shape of Birk blocks the sun and leaves a sharp outline, while there’s still enough light to get the radiant vibe of the sunset. 150mm. F/5.6, ISO-100, 1/200 sec.

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