Head to the coast on a sunny day or even to your local reservoir and you'll probably find someone skimming along the water, holding onto a sail fasted to a windsurf board or getting pulled along by a boat on a board. The pros make it look easy and their jumps, turns and sheer speed make water sports a great photographic subject.
Photo by Daniel Bell.
If you're not up for getting your feet wet you'll need a long telephoto to bring the action to you. A monopod or tripod can also be handy, but not everyone finds them useful, especially when you're panning at quite fast speeds.
For those of you who don't mind braving cold, British water get your wetsuit on to get right in among the action. Here, you can use a slightly shorter lens or even a fisheye to capture some unusual action shots. However, if you're new to this type of photography it's worth sticking with a slightly longer focal length, around 100mm, to keep a safe amount of distance between you and the action. Wides also work well when you want to give your shots context but your subject may look a little small in the frame if you use them on-shore so do check your frame and switch lenses if this is the case.
If you do want to head out into the waves please always think about safety and make sure you can be clearly seen by those on land as well as the sailors around you. Don't get in anyone's way and always be aware of your surroundings.
You'll also need a waterproof camera or waterproof housing for your camera that doesn't like getting wet. If you plan on leaving your camera bag near the shore make sure it's fastened up and if you have one, put a waterproof cover on it to stop spray and water that comes off the windsurfers as they exit the water getting on your not so water friendly kit. Remember to test your waterproof housing without your kit in it to start to make sure there's no leaks and when you do put your camera inside it, place it in shallow water first before heading out deeper just to double-check the seals etc. are working correctly.
If you're heading to the beach to capture shots of surfers rather than spending some time by your local reservoir, try not to change lenses on the sand as you don't want grains getting inside your kit.
Speed & Action
Windsurfing and other water sports tend to have quite a lot of pace and action which does mean there's plenty to photograph but as bad light, bad weather and the speed at which they move at makes life difficult, it can be tricky to get a perfect shot.
If you've not photographed this kind of subject before try to find a reservoir where beginners practise as these will be moving at a slower pace so will be easier to keep up with. It's also worth focusing and tracking one individual rather than moving your focus from one person to another and while doing so, try not to get others in-frame who may full attention from your main subject.
If you do want to go after the pros you'll need to crank your shutter speeds up to freeze their movement and have your panning perfected before you arrive so you can keep them in shot. Shutter speeds of 1/100 and above are often needed to capture action in your frame and it's worth switching to continuous shooting mode to increase your chances of capturing that perfect action shot. Auto-focus can work so long as it's continuously tracking your subject and try to leave room for your subject to ride into.
If you want to add an extra sense of pace to your photos try selecting a slightly slower shutter speed (half a second should be enough) and pan at the same speed your subject is moving at to blur the background. You could combine the slower shutter speed panning technique with a pop of flash to freeze your subject against a nicely out of focus, blurred background that will enhance the feeling of speed in your shot.
Photo by Josh Waller
Always make sure you've filled the frame as unless there's something interesting such as a giant wave they're jumping, a tiny person in the middle of a mass of water's not really interesting and they'll be completely lost in the image. Watch out for wonky horizons too, although these are quite easily corrected in post production once you're back home and consider shooting in a vertical as well as a horizontal format when the scene suits it.
Keep an eye on your metering when you're on the edge or out in the water as a bright sky and reflections off the water can confuse the camera into thinking it's brighter than it is and you'll end up with an underexposed image. It's worth checking your histogram and using the highlight clipping feature on your camera to ensure your shot isn't overexposed. You may also want to consider using exposure compensation and dialling down to a negative figure to balance the exposure correctly.
If you happen to be out on a day when the light's really bad your images can look flat and lose impact. However, if you focus your attention more on showing the big waves and cropping in close to show the huge amounts of spray coming off the boards you can still get some decent images.
Not everyone will have the kit needed to capture action shots and if this is the case for you, just re-think the shots you're taking and focus your attentions on shore. People entering / exiting the water, riders getting kit ready and putting wetsuits on are just a few of the things you can capture without the need for a long lens or getting your feet wet and they can be just as interesting as the shots of the water.
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