Catch a Wave

The Beach Boys had it right.  “Catch a wave, and you’re sitting on top of the world.”  We don’t surf, but that’s how many photographers feel when they successfully capture the power of ferocious waves wreaking havoc along the coast. 

Dad and I spent most of our Christmas vacation scouring the shores of Big Sur for epic waves.  If you’ve ever been in the midst of a Pacific storm as it hits the coast, some unbelievable things happen with the waves.  We challenged ourselves to creatively capture the monstrous, energy-filled waves pounding rocks and then dissolving into foamy white water.  Between the king tides and the winter storms we hit the jackpot. 

So what’s the secret to catching great wave photos?  It comes down to two simple things: location and timing.  You’ve got to know where and when to find the waves.  And there’s no way around it.  You have to do your research. 

There are some iconic wave locations that combine fantastic ocean activity with stunning scenery like Big Sur in California or the Hawaiian islands.  But the Atlantic coast of the US or coastal towns in New Zealand can give you stunning results too.  It’s all a matter of how much money you want to spend traveling.

Once you narrow down a general location, you’ll need to find a specific shooting spot.  Today the Internet gives you a big boost in virtual location scouting.  In fact, I wrote a whole blog about some of the resources available.  Rather than rehash the whole article, you can check it out here.

So you’ve done your due diligence and researched the perfect spot to find some wave action.  Don’t do what we did.  Don’t assume written directions will actually help you find the shooting location.  Get GPS coordinates. 

We once spent a harrowing day driving up and down Highway 1 looking for the elusive Sycamore Canyon Road only to discover the road doesn’t have a sign.  As a result we missed a great sunset at Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur.  If only we’d taken the GPS coordinates.  You can read all about that fun adventure here.  Just don’t make any assumptions.  Get the GPS coordinates.

Crashing Waves | Beebower Productions

Crashing Waves

Once you know where to go, zero in on when to go.  For both the Pacific coast and the North Shore of Oahu big waves and storms roll in during the winter.

Your best source of information on weather patterns is the locals.  Even if you don’t know someone who lives in Big Sur or Haleiwa, there are plenty of resources like websites and e-books produced by local folks in the know.  Surfers especially are tuned into the ocean’s patterns.  Many surfing websites like provide a plethora of information useful to photographers.

Other photographers are also excellent sources of information.  Many photographers blogs’ reveal not only their favorite spots but also the best time of the year.  So browsing photo websites for the area you’d like to shoot can really pay off in useful information.

And, of course, a Google search for wave, ocean or coastal photography in a specific area will provide even more leads on when the action takes place.

So after lots of research, you’re finally ready to shoot.  Here are a couple of tips for capturing mammoth waves:

Scouting Before Shooting

Once we’ve found our location and the best time of year, we usually assume the first trip will be a scouting mission.  We do take pictures, but our expectations are low.  Mostly we’re studying the lay of the land, how the ocean affects the coast, the composition possibilities and where we can safely take pictures. 

It’s a good idea to visit the location at different times of the day and even during different seasons to see how things like the tides and lighting change.  We carry printed sunrise/sunset and tide charts for our location.  There are apps that also track this information, but we prefer the printed versions because many of the places we visit don’t have cell reception and the apps don’t work.

The tide chart keeps us from being caught unaware in the midst of rising water.  Our gear costs too much to take a soaking, not to mention we’d rather not be swept out to sea.  Beyond safety, the photo can look completely different with a high tide compared to a low tide.  It’s helpful to know when both will occur.

Set the mood

You can create the mood in a wave photograph simply by playing around with your shutter speed.  A high shutter speed freezes the wave action, but a slower shutter speed turns the waves into foamy or ghostly streaks.

Smash 1 | Beebower Productions

Smash 1

Take, for example, these two wave photos shot at Garrapata Beach in Big Sur.  In the picture “Smash 1”, the water droplets are suspended in the air above the rocks.  It was shot at 1/400 of a second.  You get a sense of the power and destructiveness of the waves.

Smash 2 | Beebower Productions

Smash 2

In the picture “Smash 2” the water begins to have wisps of white, ethereal swirls instead of all solid droplets.  This picture has a softer feel than the previous one.  It was shot at 1/320 of a second.  By going even slower on the shutter speed, say 1/30 second or below, you will turn the waves into a mass of eerie streaks.

Doing the Time

When you’re attempting to photograph the ocean, you’re at the mercy of the elements.  You’re waiting for a big storm that never develops.  You’re all set to photograph waves backlit by a killer sunset when the fog rolls in.  A big storm creates so much flooding, the road to your location is shut down indefinitely.

Basically you’re going to face many challenges when photographing the ocean.  Be prepared to invest a lot of time returning to the same spot until the conditions are right and you get the shot you want.  It’s not unusual for landscape photographers to shoot at a spot for months or years before they get a winner.

You also need to be flexible because, again, you’re at the mercy of the elements.  We were all set to shoot at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve only to find the park was closed due to storm damage.  We regrouped and headed down the road to Garrapata Beach where we found some fantastic wave action.  Flexibility saved the day.

Get in Close (Safely)

To suck the viewer into your photo, you must get close to the action.  But you need to be smart when you’re around big waves.  Each year sneaker or rogue waves sweep people right out to sea in Big Sur killing them. 

Never turn your back on waves.  Study how the waves come in before choosing your spot for photography.  Take a buddy with you, someone who can watch the ocean for you while you’re shooting.  Plan an escape route in case the unexpected happens and keep your gear in waterproof containers or rain covers.

This all sounds rather dramatic, but it’s solid advice.    As Dad says, “If you’re going to get into a precarious position for a really cool shot, you’ve got to think ahead.  What if ‘it’ gets you instead of you getting the photo?  Sometimes you need to take extra measures to stay safe.”

We used longer lenses to capture many of these photos, so we were able to stand pretty far up on the beach and shoot.  But when we use a wide-angle lens, it requires us to get very close to the action.  We follow all of the tips mentioned above. 

We also use waders.  In the wide-angle situation, you don’t want to be a drenched, cold and grumpy photographer because you had to stand in the surf to get you photo.  The waders make us happy (and dry) campers.

Use Color to Your Advantage

Rocky Storm Cove | Beebower Productions

Rocky Storm Cove

Most people think of dark gray clouds and lack of color during a storm.  But surprisingly the colors are there.  You just have to notice them and play them up.  Often the rocks and the swirling waters themselves will add a pop of color.  Look for aqua, deep blues and even green in the water.   While the skies maybe gray and the majority of the ocean reflects that gray, there are pockets of color to be found.  Despite the gray sky the warm rocks and aqua water certainly jump out in “Rocky Storm Cove”.

Change Your Perspective

Shooting from the top of a cliff gave Dad a fresh composition as a storm approached this spot in Point Lobos.  Humans tend to get into ruts like always shooting from a standing position.  Changing your perspective is the key to great ocean photos. 

So challenge yourself to climb up top for a different view or get down low as the waves roll on the beach (just stay safe).   Changing your perspective helps spur creativity. 

Clean it Up

When you’re all done playing at the beach, make sure you clean up your gear immediately.  The beach is like the perfect storm of elements that can really mess up your camera gear.  Between the water, the sea spray and sand it can be a bugger to keep things clean.

As I mentioned earlier, we do take raincoats with us for the camera.  Depending on how close we are to the action, we might need them.  Better safe than sorry.  If you don’t have rain gear, a Ziploc bag and a rubber band work just as well.

That fine mist of sea spray can quickly make your lenses mucky.  We use filters over our lenses for protection, but we also immediately clean the filters when we’re done.  If the spray is particularly heavy we might even have to stop shooting and do some cleaning.  So make sure you bring lens cleaner and a soft cloth.

If we’ve used a tripod, we make sure we get all the sand off the legs before collapsing them.  If you don’t that gritty substance can wreck havoc with your tripod legs the next time you want to lock the leg in place.

Diligently cleaning up your gear ensures a good shoot when the next big storm or set of waves rolls in to your location.

So there you have it:  our guide to catching a wave.  Shooting pictures of the ocean from waves to beaches to seascapes is addicting.  It’s always changing and challenging.  There’s just something magical about it.

As Jacques Cousteau said, “The sea, once it has cast its spell, holds one in its own net of wonder forever.“

He should know.  Cousteau spent his whole life filming and photographing the ocean.