When to Shoot Vs When to Surf

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                    Any surf photographer that surfs, body boards, or body surfs always runs into the dilemma of whether to grab the camera or the board/handplane. When I first started shooting I only bodysurfed and shot, so if the waves were pumping there was a 99% chance I was grabbing the camera. As the years went on and I started to surf and body board the decision started to become a little more difficult. Now there’s a few boxes I like to check to figure out if the shooting conditions are worth me grabbing the camera or if I should waxing up the board instead. Before going into detail, the main things I look at are wave condition, time of year, and lighting. While some of these factors change by the hour they help me make my decision.

A day where I would have gotten smoked trying to surf but Shane Hueth  had no problem locking into this one.

A day where I would have gotten smoked trying to surf but Shane Hueth had no problem locking into this one.

                    The wave condition is the first thing I look in order to choose my craft. For me, if it looks like it’s heavy enough where I am likely to snap my board, I am swimming out for photos. This is an easy decision for me because I’m not looking to buy a new board and heavy waves make better photos. On the contrary, if the waves are not barreling I am surfing. This may seem super jaded and it probably is but I have shot enough in the past 10 years to realize that barreling waves make for way better photos than mushy waves. Also, I am honest with myself in my surfing ability and as much as its fun to charge the heavy barrels with the thought of getting spit out of the wave of the day, it’s much more likely I am going to pull into the wave of the day and eat it in spectacular fashion while everyone cringes on the beach. Next, if the waves are below waist high I am surfing. This also may seem jaded but in my experience even if it is a very hollow waist high wave in a photo it still looks like a waist high wave.

A day I left the camera on the beach to grab the board and get shacked.  Shot by Adam Tormollan  https://www.tormollanphotos.com/

A day I left the camera on the beach to grab the board and get shacked. Shot by Adam Tormollan https://www.tormollanphotos.com/

                    Time of year tends to play a big part on whether or not I am going to shoot or surf. For me, the summer is when I get most of my surfing in. In the summer on the east coast he waves tend to be a lot smaller and there are usually plenty of longboard days. I have also found that I surf way better in board shorts than in a 5 mil. In the winter I find myself struggling to make waves with the thicker wetsuit so I would rather spend my time surfing in the summer where at the most I will wear a 4/3 with boots. This isn’t to say that if there are spitting barrels in the summer I won’t shoot, I will shoot but I will probably make time to surf before or after. In the winter if it’s firing I will probably spend most of my day shooting and if I have time maybe I will grab the board for one or two. This is probably different for everyone but for me it works fine, I have found that with the shorter days in the winter I would rather try to score some shots than to surf most of the time as I wear myself out a lot quicker in the cold with the thicker wetsuit. In the summer I feel I can surf through most of the middle of the day with harsh lighting and maybe grab the camera for sunset if the conditions permit it.

Under 3 feet but couldn't beat golden hour this day.

Under 3 feet but couldn't beat golden hour this day.

                  This brings me to my next factor between when to grab the camera which is lighting. If the conditions are good and it’s around sunset time I will usually be leaving the board on the beach. Lighting is everything for photography in general, so if I can mix hollow waves with an epic sunset I will always grab the camera. I will even break my below 3 ft rule if the lighting is good enough, I will just be aiming to shoot empty waves since with no one in the frame you can’t really tell how small they are. If the weather is overcast I will be more likely to surf as cloudy skies don’t exactly make for the best photos. If it is 6-8 ft and firing I will make the cloudy skies work the best I can but I might grab a surf in between. On a beautifully sunny day for me it will depend on where the sun is and how the waves are breaking. If the lighting is super harsh where 90% of my shots will be blown out I will grab the board go for a surf and hope the waves stick around for golden hour in the afternoon. If I can shoot in the water without shooting directly in to the sun I will likely go for a swim and try to score some shots.

Even though it was overcast this day it was about as heavy as it gets which makes for great water shots.

Even though it was overcast this day it was about as heavy as it gets which makes for great water shots.

                    These factors on whether to shoot or surf may not work for everyone. Sometimes they don’t even work for me. I can’t say that there haven’t been times where grabbed my board just for the conditions to turn around to perfect barrels with an epic sunset while my camera was sitting at home. I’ve also had the opposite happen where I grabbed the camera and the clouds rolled in and the tide came up to fatten the waves just enough to make them fun but not photogenic. At the end of the day, I always try to bring both my board and my camera so if the conditions or lighting change I am ready for anything.

 All Photos Copyright of Dave NIlsen Photography 

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