Surf photography, like any other action is all about movement. It’s a racing barrel, swooping carve or flying air. But while we’re constantly trying to freeze a single moment in time within one frame on our cameras, we’re often missing out on the great opportunity to actually capture some more of the movement other than just 1/1000 of a second of it. The speed blur allows us this opportunity, and opens up a whole new window of possibilities and creative leeway.
So how do we capture an epic speed blur? The following is a list of tips and key points to remember when branching out from the standard shoot and freeze. A huge thank you to Lance Slabbert for his experienced input below:
Photo by Hugh-Daniel Grobler/Shot Bru.co.za
1 – Your best friend and probably the single most important thing is a smooth, fluid head tripod – don’t even bother with an average, sticky head. You need to be able to pan as smoothly as possible to avoid any unwanted movement which will be captured with any long exposure. Also forget about extending the centre shaft of the tripod. This will just relate to too much ‘play’ on the lens and camera.
2 – Horizons are crucial, so is balancing the lens nicely. If you can’t set the head with a built-in spirit level or if it’s not self-levelling, you’re going to need to adjust the camera as you pan and that will require the lens collar to be unlocked and the lens moving freely in the collar. If you don’t have a self-levelling head you’re going to need to set the levels manual, and fiddle around with leg heights. Start with the lens at the takeoff spot and pan around to where the wave ends. See what the difference is and slowly reduce this difference to where the horizon shifts the least. This is a trial and error process, not ideal, but it’ll work fairly well.
3 – Before you start shooting practice your panning range in case you might need to adjust your ‘footwork’ – how you stand and where you stand for the pan to be smooth without falling over or being uncomfortable or pulling the lens off the horizontal plane.
4 – Obviously have the IS settings on! Depending on your camera and lens there are specific Image Stabilising settings for panning.
5 – For those starting out I would suggest shooting on TV (Shutter Speed Priority) but for those comfortable with their camera I would suggest shooting manual and making notes – either voice recorder on your camera or cellphone or old school pen and paper. Start at 1/125th sec and work down from there in 1/3rd stop increments. One wave at a time, all the way down to maybe 1 sec – depending on what sort of an effect you’re after. You could even start at 1/400th for a very slight and sometimes unnoticeable effect and then work down from there. From experience I can say that some shutter speeds work really well, and others not at all, but I’ll let you figure that out.
6 – Notes are crucial so you can refer to them later – oh wait, it’s all in the metadata. But making notes is still a good idea because you are ‘engaging’ in the process.
7 – Start tracking the subject before takeoff – on paddle in, and pan with the subject, keeping him / her in the same place in the frame at all times (as best as possible) – this will allow the non moving aspects of the image to remain non moving. Better described as being ‘in register’ or ‘registered’, whilst the moving aspects, the blurred part, will be, well, blurred. Which is what you want. Moving faster or slower than the subject will break the image down to mud as the out of register aspects grow, and as the shutter speed drops. There might well be some great images achieved when panning faster or slower than the subject, it just depends on what one is trying to achieve and how far one wants to deconstruct the image. This will become evident through the process though.
8 – Shooting straight on and level with the wave works best, but one has to explore all the options for oneself to find out what works and what doesn’t.
9 – Waves that run off smoothly from L-R or R-L in front of you like JBay seem to work better than waves that come towards you, but again, one should experiment with all kinds and types.
10 – In the end there are no rules – these are just suggestions gained from trial and error and experience. The best images are the ones that break the rules in a unique way and create something new.
11 – Practice!!!!!!!!
12 – Once you’ve mastered the land based aspects of speed blurs I encourage you to take it further and into the water.