[Ed's note: SURFER photographer Ryan "Cachi" Craig is a master lensman. For the past decade-plus, he's been traveling around the world to various wave-rich locales - with his camera(s) in tow - capturing stunning, wanderlust-inducing surf imagery that has landed in magazines and advertisements far and wide, including (of course) this publication. One of his favorite techniques to use while shooting at home or abroad is implementing a slow shutter speed to create surreal-looking photos most commonly referred to as "speed blurs". With a little extra time on his hands while stuck at home during the COVID-19 crisis, Chachi recently rounded up his favorite speed blur imagery and has so generously broken down how you too can play around with this type of photographic technique the next time you head to the beach. All you need is a camera and to pay close attention to Chachi's pointers and tips below.]
Few surf photography techniques can be as rewarding and simultaneously frustrating as experimenting with a slowed-down shutter speed. There is no "right" way to shoot these types of photos but the longer you mess around with this technique the more you find what works for you - or equally important, what doesn't. I've heard it described as a high-risk and high-reward style of shooting and I believe that's an accurate description. An unsteady pan, an erratic surfer, panning too fast or not fast enough, anticipating the wrong maneuver or simply having the wrong shutter speed to obtain the look you're going for are all factors that make this style of shooting anything but a sure thing. But when it all comes together, a speed blur or a "lazy shutter" as it's affectionately referred to by many lensmen, can be one of the coolest ways to capture a moment frozen in time - albeit, at a much slower speed than you would normally otherwise.
For those of you who aren't as familiar with this type of surf photography, I'll explain various details throughout the captions below. Many of the action photos you see in magazines, advertisements and online - images that display crisp details of everything a photographer is seeing - those images are likely shot at a very fast shutter speed. An incredibly small fraction of a second, something to the effect of 1/1000th of one second or even faster. Now, these are all settings that are easily changeable on your camera and while factors of light, aperture and other variables come into play, to freeze an air of John John Florence with all of his facial expressions crisp and sharp, you need the camera shutter to open and close extremely fast to save that moment without any blur. On the flip-side, shooting at a much slower speed, like 1/4th of a second, will often allow for all sorts of random motion, light and artistic blur to be recorded when photographing surfers or waves in the ocean. It's another option for capturing surf shots in a less traditional manner.
Below are some of my favorite speed blur photographs, along with the setting and scenes that lend to capturing them.
Adam Repogle, Santa Cruz
A rather thin-lipped section throws over Adam Repogle captured at 2/5 of a second. Although .4 seconds may go by in the blink of an eye, that's a lot of time for a wave to change shape and, in this example, give the throwing lip a ghostly appearance. During the photograph, Adam holds a steady line while I panned at an even pace with him. On images where you're trying to get the surfer mainly in focus (as opposed to a particular part of the background or wave, foreground, etc) it is important to match the exact speed of the surfer with the lens pan. And if the surfer is riding through the tube steadily and not pumping up and down, that certainly helps achieve this look. Image shot at .4 seconds shutter at f/25 in Santa Cruz, CA.
Kelly Slater, Pipeline
This image gave me a lot of confidence with shooting speed blurs early on in my photo career. I knew that I had a rather slow frame rate camera and shooting a lazy shutter might make for a more interesting outcome as was the case with this image of Slater getting barreled. This ended up being my very first double-page spread in a magazine a few months after I took it. Pipeline at sunset, shot at 1/10th of a second at f/11 panning with the surfer, on a tripod.
Daffa Doank'z, Desert Point
A goal of mine over the next few years is building up a portfolio with a lot more water shot speed blurs - shot in really good light. Often times I resort to shooting speed blurs when I no longer have the light needed to shoot crisp and fast shutter speeds like 1/500th or faster and I start mixing in slow shutter then. But images like this make me wish I tried more often with crisp golden light. Although the technique of shooting and panning is the same, it becomes a lot more difficult to track the subject and actually get an image remotely in-focus during a water-shot pass by like this. This is Desert Point local Daffa Doank'z captured at 1/40th of a second at f/10 with a 24mm focal length during sunset.
Dave Rastovich, Lennox Head
Looking through my archives for this feature led me to realize that I don't really have too many speed blur turn shots that I really like. It's a combination of needing the type of turn that looks good (in general) and just plain luck, in my opinion. With barrels, you just track and click in one motion. But with turns, you have to almost stop or even start to reverse panning to match the surfer's motion and speed. This more often than not leads to a blurry and ghostly-looking surfer as well as a mixed-up horizon line. Chances are that I get one frame out of 5-to-7 sequences (not photos) especially when I'm shooting without a tripod (which is my preferred method). This is Dave Rastovich at Lennox Head Australia shot at 1/6th of a second at f/8 at sunrise.
This might be the only speed blur of a big wave that I have in my portfolio that I really enjoy. Imagine missing a few frames of an air or a really nice turn or a barrel for that matter - all because you're going for that all-or-nothing speed blur approach. Depending on the conditions, the surfer I'm shooting and my goal for that day, I am normally okay with messing around with the slower speeds. But shooting a session at a super rare big-wave spot is normally not the time to risk blurry moments -thankfully, this one worked out well. Truth be told, I know this was during the last few sets of the day and I didn't trust the higher ISO speeds of my camera nor did I have a fast enough lens to shoot higher shutter speeds any longer. This is fairly early on in my photo career and I think it was beginner's luck or something. This is an unidentified surfer at Ghost Trees shot at 1/10th of a second at f/13 at sunset.
John John Florence, Pipeline
Every other shot from this JJF sequence was blurry, but this particular frame was one of my favorite moments from the entire winter. Even though JJF is an incredibly smooth barrel rider, you're still dealing with treading water while composing the frame and trying to keep a steady hand. Water spots of any kind tend to magnify at lower shutter speed shots, so you need to be careful about a clean port as well. This shot at Pipeline is 1/8th of a second at f/5.6 with a 35mm focal length.
Lucas Godfry, Pipeline
I always have a variable ND filter in my bag and love to use it when it's sunny out. I prefer to shoot handheld whenever possible, mainly because I tend to move around a lot when I'm shooting land and don't like to carry a tripod with me. This day was different, however. It was a perfect day to post up with a tripod, use a polarizer and a ND filter and smoothly pan the perfect waves out at Backdoor. This shot of Lucas Godfry is .3 seconds at f/8 and is so dreamy - the polarizer really balances the harsh light of the afternoon sun and also adds a rich saturation to the image.
Shooting longer exposures is super common with landscape photography and depending on your subject, it is often easy to add some nice movement to an otherwise stagnant scene by just exposing the frame longer - whether it be a little water along a shoreline during a sunset or moving clouds against a frozen foreground. This image is strikingly similar to a landscape image except there's a perfect wave in the frame. It takes a very groomed and mechanical wave to still maintain the cylindrical shape without panning. Most of the time the lip lines look fractured or there's a rider who is completely out of focus. It's not a slow shutter style that I practice too often because it's much harder to get good results, but when the right scene presents itself, they can look amazing! This exposure is 1.3 seconds at f/5.6 shot in Santa Cruz.
This is a shot of Puerto Escondido, Mexico, at Far Bar, that came to fruition because I happened to be staying at a friend's house and this was his patio view. Had I been staying on the beach, I might not have ever thought to shoot this way but because it was my first view every morning, it was a no-brainer. I've shot lots of stacked swell lines in the past but it's always a massive bonus to incorporate in a barreling wave as well, if that's possible. The only other spot that comes to mind where that is a common option is at Pipeline. This moment was just after sunrise, and with my camera on a tripod, I was slowly panning with the wave at .3 seconds at f/22. I realized how dirty my camera sensor was after taking this image; at f/22 there were black dust spots all over the original image that I had to remove in Photoshop.
Carlos Goncalves, Pipeline
Carlos Goncalves locked into a perfect Pipeline barrel, shot late morning. For the surfer to be this sharp, they have to trim a very straight line and you need to match their surfing speed with your panning speed. To be honest, I don't think I've been able to replicate this type of clean frame since but that's the beauty of speed blurs - you can shoot them every day with different and exciting results. This moment was frozen at 1/15th of a second at f/32.
Luis Santos Jimenes, Mexico
Rounding out this batch of speed blur imagery is one of my favorites from Mexico of Luis Santos Jimenes a.k.a. Toro. What makes this image special to me is knowing how messy the lineup was and how shooting slow shutter really changed the look of the waves this evening. If I took this image at 1/1000th of a second you would see the crumbling lip and choppy seas. Every unpleasant detail would be frozen in the frame. Slowing the moment down to 1/5th of a second smoothed out the ocean and gave it the look of a painting. The empty wave in the foreground really adds to the movement of the scene and helped create one of my favorite lazy shutters to date.