How To Photograph Waves

Water is one of the most captivating things in the world, in our opinion. If you take a look at some award-winning photographs from around the globe, you’ll see that many of them feature waves. 

How To Photograph Waves

That’s because not only can water be stunningly beautiful, but it takes a lot of thought and talent to capture an incredible wave photograph.

Here are our top 9 tips for how to photograph waves. If you follow these guidelines, you’ll be on your way to snapping the best wave pictures you’ve ever taken!

1. Start With The Best Lighting 

One thing we all know about water is that it reflects and captures the light (see also “The Best Locations For Water Photography“), which impacts its color and how it appears on camera. So, if you want to photograph waves in a way that looks really good, you need lighting on your side. 

While you might think that midday sunlight would get you the clearest images of waves, that’s not the case. The exposure will be too harsh. Instead, opt for warmer lighting.

Afternoons and mornings are typically the best time to photograph waves in terms of light. 

2. Pay Attention To The Wind 

Just like the lighting, the wind will also play a role in how the waves in your photographs look. You will want to consider the direction and strength of the wind before you head off to take pictures of waves. 

An offshore wind tends to result in the best, most impressively curved waves. Admittedly, this can be difficult to plan, since an offshore breeze could happen at any moment.

However, they happen most often in the early morning, so if you want to get great pictures of waves, one of our best pieces of advice is: get up early!

3. The Tripod Is Your Friend 

Waves are moving targets, so the last thing you want when photographing waves is shaky hand movements making them blurry. 

We’ll be sharing some tips later on how to get crisp, clear photographs of waves despite the motion. However, the first and most important recommendation we have is to use a tripod.

Using a tripod will mean you can adjust some of the settings and choose the correct lens (more information below) and get to work without worrying about holding the camera perfectly still. 

4. Think About Autofocus 

It goes without saying that if you want to capture something on camera that is constantly moving (like a wave), you should use autofocus. However, that doesn’t mean you should just rely on AF-S for your wave photography. 

Instead, we recommend shifting to AF-C. When you have this autofocus mode selected, you’ll be able to focus on any waves coming toward you by simply pressing the shutter halfway down. 

If you keep your finger on the shutter, it will keep refocusing automatically, and when you’re ready to capture the perfect shot, you can just push the button down all the way. 

5. Stick With A Long Lens 

Your lens could also make or break your wave photographs, so make sure you’re using a long lens if you want to get some great pictures of waves.

A long lens is also referred to as a telephoto lens. This kind of lens will allow you to zoom in and capture the wave at its peak before it breaks and spreads out.

Of course, even with the perfect lens, this will take patience, but it will go a long way toward making your wave photography look more professional. 

6. Continuous Drive Mode 

Before you start taking pictures of waves, you should make sure your camera is in continuous drive mode. This means going into the Drive Mode menu in your camera and choosing the continuous mode. 

Continuous Shooting is different from the Single Shot mode your camera will automatically be set to. In Single Shot mode, when you press down on the shutter, only one image is captured. 

However, if you switch to Continuous Shooting (or, if your camera has it, High-Speed Continuous Shooting), pressing the shutter down once will capture a series of images.

This can be really helpful because it maximizes your chances of catching the wave at the perfect moment. 

7. Make Your Depth Of Field Small

If you want the wave to be the focal point of your image, you need to make sure it’s in focus while the rest of the background is blurred. To do this, you should adjust your settings to a small depth of field. 

To do this, go into the Aperture Priority menu and choose the smallest option. Another bonus of this setting is it increases your shutter speed for less motion blur. 

8. Experiment With Angles 

Look at some of the best pictures of waves out there, and you’ll find that they are taken from a variety of different angles. This is what makes them amazing – they make everyday sights (waves) look unique. 

Avoid standing still and waiting for the perfect wave to leap into your frame. Instead, experiment with different angles. 

9. Reduce Glare With A Polarizing Filter 

Even if you do your best to avoid harsh lighting by photographing waves in the early morning or afternoon, you may still end up with some glare. To fix this, just use a polarizing filter over your camera lens. 

A polarizing filter does the same thing for your camera as polarizing sunglasses do for your eyes. They remove the glare, although they also get rid of some of the light in the process.

This means that you might need to adjust your ISO to a higher setting to compensate, since your camera might automatically slow down your shutter speed. 

Final Thoughts 

Taking amazing photographs of waves takes both practice and patience, but with our 9 tips, you should be able to see a difference in the quality of your photography. 

Remember, even with lighting and wind direction on your side, you may still need to adjust your camera settings, change your lens, and experiment with different angles to photograph waves in a truly impactful way.

Keep trying, stay creative, and you’ll get there!

Laura McNeill
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