24 February, 2012 24 February, 2012

How to capture an epic barrel shot

Shaun Payne right at home in a thick barrel at the Sumatran Pipeline. Photo: AvG

There are few things better in life than getting barrelled. Being encased inside a tube while the very ocean folds over you and sends you screaming towards the shoulder. It’s the one photograph every surfer wants of themself, and the first photograph every surf photographer strives to capture.

Although there are many angles from which to capture the barrel, this tip focusses on the prime view from the side when looking at a surfer inside the tube.


One of the best barrel shots I have in my library. Jarrad Howes in Cape Town mid-winter. Photo: AvG


Positioning and approach are the two most important foundations of any good barrel shot. I learnt this extremely valuable tip from Chris van Lennep years ago about the correct approach to any barreling wave, especially the heavy, powerful kind; “Always swim towards an on-coming wave”. Not only will this put you in the prime position for the shot, but most importantly it gives you the momentum needed to penetrate through the wave, avoiding both a foamball for your surfer and an unpleasant over-the-falls situation for you and your housing.

Stanley Badger standing tall inside a rare Indonesian beach break barrel. Photo: AvG


After body position and approach, the extension of your shooting arm and the tilt of your hand and housing are the next crucial factors which will make the difference between an average and great photograph. The angle and position of your hand can also make a small wave look bigger, and vice versa. Make sure you extend your arm as straight as possible, giving you maximum reach when penetrating the wave, and always tilt the camera just slightly upward, maximising the view of the lip and size of the wave. For years I shot my barrels too horizontally, and lost out on the true beauty and power of the lip and what really makes a barrel. Thankfully years of seeing amazing water shots by other professionals cured me of that, and helped shaped my water shots to what I strive for today.

This shot of Stacey Guy in Indonesia is good, but it could have been that much better had I tilted the camera slightly up and to the right. Photo: AvG

On a technical note, if you have a camera and lens which you have control over, it is highly recommended that you shoot only on manual, giving you more accuracy and control over the end result, specifically your lens. Watch the waves and conditions prior to swimming out, and “predict” how close you will be from the surfer the majority of the time. If you are unsure of the exact setting on your lens’ dial, do a quick distance test on the beach and set this by tapping it in place. You don’t want the dial turning while you setup your housing, or when a big wave knocks you in the surf. Electric tape works best I find, just make sure it’s not too long and gets picked up by your wide-angle.

Good luck, and lets see your results.


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