Photographing Marine Life with a Surf Setup
By Craig Parry
When I started photographing my friends surfing, I used (of course) a surf housing. But when the time came that I wanted to start photographing marine life, I couldn’t afford to buy another housing for scuba diving or freediving, and had to rely on my surf housing. Since then I have just continued experimenting with surface marine photography and the benefits of using a surf housing.
Benefits of a Surf Housing for Marine Life Photography
I wouldn’t try to convince anyone to completely ditch the tank and rely only on freediving and surface photography. Both scuba diving and surface photography have their advantages. But for me, freediving provides the freedom from scuba gear, which often results in a better marine life interaction without the bubbles.
While you certainly can use a full-fledged dive housing for photographing marine life near the surface, there are benefits to enlisting the help of a surf housing. For starters, surf housings are much lighter and slimmer in form compared to their dive housing companions. Surf housings are constructed from ultra-lightweight aluminum alloy, meaning they’re durable and make you surprisingly spryer the water. I’ve also noticed that I can more quickly change a lens in my surf housing than my colleagues with dive housings.
So when should you consider using a surf housing for photographing marine life near the surface? I think it’s the best choice when you need to be in and out of the water fast, and especially when the marine subjects are in the beach break or near a reef break.
Using a surf housing is perfect when your marine subjects are in the shallows, but especially when in or near the surf or reef break
Equipment for Photographing Marine Life with a Surf Housing
Unlike a dive photography setup, the gear required for housing a surf setup is much simpler and more streamlined. All you really need is just the camera, lens, and surf housing. Personally, I use the top-of-the-line Canon EOS 1DX, but even a smaller, entry-level DSLR has the specs to produce quality images of marine life and surfers alike.
When it comes to selecting a lens, it really depends on the subject, the environment, and the images you’re trying to capture. For example, in calmer waters with more friendly subjects (dolphins, turtles, etc.), a fisheye zoom will allow you to get as close as possible to the subject. When the conditions are a bit rougher or the subjects are a bit shyer (sharks, for example), a wide-angle zoom—such as the Canon 16–35mm—will allow you to better fill the frame without scaring off the subject or throwing yourself right into the break.
Often, surf photography and marine life photography aren’t separate entities, proven here as a dolphin cuts through the waves right in front of a surfer.
There are several prominent surf housing manufacturers, and you can learn more about selecting a specific housing in DPG’s “Beginners Guide to Surf Equipment.” Personally, I prefer Aquatech as its settings are easy to access and the housing is robust. I’d also recommend investing in a larger dome port (6” or more) to give the option to capture over-under images.
Finally, the major advantage of using a surf housing is that the majority of subjects at the surface can be captured without strobe light. I mainly use natural light since it’s so close to the surface. However, I do occasionally use the flash if I’m photographing in early or late light, or if the subject is deeper than 15 feet.
Using a larger dome port allows the possibility of taking over-under images, like this one of a conch shell
Marine Subjects When Using a Surf Housing
There’s really no telling what subjects you’ll encounter in the shallows just off the beach or at the surface in the open ocean. Some of the more common encounters in the shallows include turtles and rays. Out in the blue, you’re likely to encounter oceanic sharks and pods of dolphins, with the species depending on your location.
A lot of surface marine life photography relies on patience and a bit of luck. The more time you spend in the water, the more likely you are to encounter a cooperative subject. Having said that, I have found the best chances of finding the right place come from consulting with experts of a specific species or type of animal.
Spending more time in the water increases your chances of photographing spectacular marine sights, such as this pod of more than 50 spinner dolphins
Tips for Photographing Marine Life with a Surf Setup
Go for the Over-Under: I really enjoy over-under images as they display two worlds, and I find them extremely inspiring for both my audience and myself. With split shots, you need to have your aperture very small to keep as much of both halves of the frame in focus. I usually keep aperture at f/18 and my shutter will be around 1/250s, depending on the lighting conditions and the speed of the subject. For example, with faster subjects like a shark, I will need a faster shutter (around 1/500s) to freeze the image. I will boost my ISO to compensate.
Split shots convey two worlds at once. In this image, titled “Emergence” a humpback seems to be connecting both worlds as he breaks the surface
Preparation and Focus: I think its very important to become focused and present with your subject when in the water. Before I go on assignment, I think about what would make a unique and creative image. Most of the time this involves visualizing a specific image or concept before getting in the water, because once you’re in the water you are subject to the elements.
Keep the Sun at Your Back: When shooting in natural light, I will usually keep the sun behind me to eliminate the risk of shadows. Sometimes marine subjects won’t want to cooperate, in which case it becomes necessary to remove the shadows in post-production. There are times to break the rules completely: Position the subject between yourself and the sun for dramatically lit images and silhouettes.
Without using strobes, you can still produce evenly lit images by remembering to keep the sun at your back
This article is meant to inspire current surf photographers to ditch the waves and expand and diversify their portfolios with images of marine life. Likewise, I hope it is educates current owners of dive housings on the benefits of investing in a surf setup for surface photography. In both cases, some of my greatest achievements have come when I am outside my comfort zone. Get out there and try something new—take risks, but calculated ones.
About the Author:
Craig Parry is a world-renowned, highly awarded photographer with a huge international following. Growing up in northern NSW, Australia, it was his parents’ gift of a disposable waterproof camera each birthday from the age of five years until his first 35mm DSLR at the age of 13 that set young Craig’s course.
Entirely self-taught, Craig worked hard at his craft before making a life-changing decision and becoming a professional photographer in 2004—a defining moment in his life. Craig wants to continue to capture the world’s landscapes and oceans as well as inspire people to take care of the environment and encourage environmental conservation. For more information, visit his official website.