Photographed from above on Pier


Photographed eye level on shore


I have been getting a lot of questions about shooting style, gear needed, shutter speeds, Aperture and so on.  I thought this would be a good time to do a short tutorial on how I photograph my wave photography.  I know that some photographers don’t like to give away there secrets on how they photograph what they photograph.  But the innovative person will find a way not to mention there are a gazillion articles on the internet to figure it out.  So why not make it a gazillion and one.


Camera: Canon 5d Mark ii-I haven’t found a need to change and spend the money on a newer body yet. Do I wish the auto focus was faster…of course but most of the time I use manual focus which I will explain later why. My next expensive purchase will be a water housing.  From what I can tell these run about $2000 and I haven’t justified the purchase yet.

Tripod:  I have a Manfrotto:  I recommend a sturdy/durable tripod because of the conditions you are photographing in with Salt water, wind and sand.

Lens: Sigma 150-600mm with a 1.4 extension.  Telephoto lens is a must.  My experience is the longer the lens the better motion in the waves.

Neutral Density Filter:  This can be from 1 stop to 6 stops.  When photographing mid-day, after sunrise or prior to sunset.  The only way to get the exposures you want is to stop down your camera.

Rag or towel to cover lens:  Because of ocean breeze and the mist of the water it is nice to have something that will cover the camera and lens on breezy days to save your equipment.

Chair:  When on shore a portable chair will always come in handy when you are not shooting to get off of your feet.



Believe it or not this is highly important for a sharp motion wave (I know…”sharp motion wave” what???).  Visualization is everything while I am describing this.  Once you get on or near the water you will understand.  For my style of photography positioning as parallel to the wave as possible creates the sharp crest of the wave and the motion of surrounding water.  Picture if you will you are on the shore or pier and you are parallel to the wave.  As the wave rolls into shore you are panning with the wave.  The focal length does not move so once you have focus you are set.  So as you pan with the wave at a certain point you hold down the shutter and continue to pan with the wave.  This gives you the motion you crave while trying to maintain the sharpness of the wave.  This would be just like panning with a moving vehicle.  The more perpendicular you are to the wave your focal length will change and create an unclear image.  Photographing parallel to the wave also gives you a position on the tube or cylinder of the wave.



This is to ones own creative style.  There is no right or wrong, there is only what your minds eye finds creative.  So I will speak in general terms and you can decide for yourself which is for you.

  • Sunrise or Sunset:  This depends on your area.  Which way the sun is coming from, the best wave conditions, and wind that can affect your photography and the waves.  Most creative lighting is at this time of the day.
  • Sun Positioning:  Do you want the front of your wave to be lit by the sun or the back of your wave to be lit by the sun.  At different times of the year the sun will rise and set in different positions, this is something you need to keep track of.  I use The Photographers Ephemeris as a tool for this issue.



Once again this is a creative style thing.  I will speak to my settings on the camera and what I use to get the results I am looking for.

  • Shutter speeds:  Aperture and ISO’s all play off of my shutter speed.  I set my shutter speeds for 1/8 to 1/10 of a second.  I have experimented and continue to experiment with slower and longer shutter speeds but in my results, slower shutter speeds create to much blur within the wave itself and faster doesn’t create enough motion.  As a side note and this should be said up front.  I always shoot in manual!  I have tried Shutter priority and it just doesn’t work for the control I need and want.
  • ISO:  This is my 2nd adjustment.  I set my Shutter speed to 1/10 of a second for example and open my lens as far as possible with the Aperture.  Next I will increase my ISO until I get the light reading I desire never going over 2400 ISO, I don’t want the noise.  As the light of the morning increases I will constantly decrease my ISO and continue shooting until it gets to its lowest point possible ISO 50.
  • Aperture:  In the wee hours of the morning when the sun is barely rising I set my aperture to the largest opening possible (Smallest F/Stop).  This is my 3rd adjustment depending on lighting with shutter speed always being the priority and ISO being my 2nd adjustment.  When my ISO gets to its lowest point ISO 50.  I next continually while shooting increase my F/stop until I can’t go any farther.  If needed I will put on an ND Filter but usually by the time the sunrises that high into the sky the contrasts and lighting is to harsh for my taste and it is time to pack it up and head home.
  • SUNSET OR SUNRISE:  As a note, I usually photograph at sunrise, hardly ever at sunset,  But if you choose to shoot at sunset your camera setting will go in the opposite direction.  Shutter speed will still be a priority you would next adjust your Aperture down with a larger opening and when you get to the largest aperture possible you would start to increase your ISO until light permits.
  • MANUAL OR AUTOFOCUS:  I try to use autofocus when possible, I don’t use my shutter button half down to focus because then the focus can shift and vary which will give you unreliable results.  I use the “AF-ON” button on the back of my camera to focus.  The Sigma 1.4 extension when attached does not allow for auto focus so I  switch to manual.



Hand held or Tripod:  I choose a tripod.  With a 150-600mm lens and mostly shooting in the upper range (400-600mm) with possibly an extension that increases that to 840mm.  I have found no way to hold the camera steady enough hand held to get a piece to work on.

Staying dry and watching your equipment:  This is the true battle of the moment.  If you shoot from a pier there is really nothing to worry about.  But if you shoot from the sand or Jetty.  Watch your surroundings such as the tides and the waves that are breaking closest to you.  Shooting parallel to shore and with a telephoto lens you are looking 25-100 meters down the beach but the waves are breaking to your immediate side.  Don’t be oblivious to your surroundings.  In our quest to get the best shot we inch closer and closer to the water but this comes with peril to yourself and your equipment.  BE AWARE AND BE CAREFUL!

Learning Curve and Patience:  Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is a new shooting style.  Have patience and keep your finger on the trigger.  Remember we are shooting digital.  You can erase your card so follow a wave and see it through to the end.  That way you can find what interests you about the wave.  Experiment with Shutter speeds and positions.  Everyday I walk away from the water there are 2 things I know.  The sun will rise tomorrow and the waves will still be crashing on the shore. Conditions will change and everyday may not be the best shooting day but it will all come around.  I try to make the best out the good days but I also know when to leave and save it for another day which keeps me going back for more.


I hope this tutorial helped, you can email me with any questions.

You can also find me on Facebook and 500px.  500px also has the settings I use for my photo’s.








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