Since my work spans across several types of photographic genres – including surf – I receive a lot of traffic and questions regarding surf photography. One of the most asked questions I get in regards to surf photography is from folks wanting to know when they should blow out the highlights in the photograph. So, I figured I would go ahead and post a journal entry about this topic. . .
Blowing out highlights in surf photography is really just creating high key action photos – simple as that. In my opinion this sort of high key expression serves two purposes. First and foremost its something of a trend right now. It really kind of jolts the senses and accentuates the action and emotion of the photograph. Search the pages through any of the surf magazines, and especially the commercial photography done for companies like Billabong, Lost, etc . . and you will see this sort of high key photography quite a bit. Its not the most creative way of doing things but there does appear to be a trend in photo buyers purchasing these sort of photographs.
The second thing about blowing out the highlights is that its simply a matter of handling high contrast lighting situations. In the US for instance, most waves are perfectly lit either in the afternoon (East Coast) or morning (West Coast). Some times you just can’t be so picky as to shoot only when there is perfect frontal lighting simply because your working around when the swell will be peaking, when contests are being held, or around the surfer’s work schedule. . . Thus, if the sun is coming in from a harsh angle, or the waves are back-lit, than you really only have three options. 1.) don’t shoot (bad option). 2.) shoot silhouettes (only so much you can do with this). 3) shoot high key – that is expose for the surfer and let the highlights blow out.
Sure in surf photograph both the wave and the surfer are the subjects, but you have to prioritize. That means, whats the main subject? Obviously that is, most of the time, the person on the surfboard and therefore they should be the priority of your exposure. Now of course, rules are meant to be broken and you should never let such “photographic rules” stifle your creative juices. If you have a vision, let if flow and go with it. With that said though, I am a firm believer that such rules are most effectively broken when you understand them to begin with. . . all of which I have said before on here.
Now there is one other situation that I will routinely blow out my highlights and that is in overcast lighting. Overcast light is bland and boring when it comes to action photography. I want color, I want pop, I want my photo to jump right off the page. Overcast light, unless your in the wave with the surfer, just doesn’t do much for me. With wildlife photography its a COMPLETELY different story. With surfing though, its just to blah. Thus I beef up the contrast and blow out the highlights if needs be.
In both situations, that is back lighting and overcast, when I produce these sort of high key photographs, I will also pump up the saturation a bit in Photoshop to make up for the overall overexposure of the photograph. . .
Some of these photos have appeared before on this photo journal. They are from the 2009 East Coast Surfing Championship. This year we ended up with Tropical Storm Danny offshore and therefore sending in some really nice swell to Virginia Beach. Only problem was, the storm was moving past quickly and the best swell was to be in the morning. This is the East Coast, waves are frontally lit in the afternoon, not the morning. Was I just not going to shoot? ECSC rarely gets good waves . . . was I going to pass up a chance to photograph some of the east coast’s top hot shots on these waves simply because lighting wasn’t ideal? No way.