Windsurfing Photography

Windsurfing Photography

Windsurfing, as we all know, is a wonderful sport.  The action and colours involved lend themselves to some great images. With a little effort some superb shots are within reach of all of us, it’s not just the reserve of the pros. In fact we have a distinct advantage over the pros, we know our sport. I’ve sat with pro photographers who really struggled to keep up with the action due to their lack of understanding of the sport. The biggest hurdle is to actually come off the water when the wind is up. There has been many a time that my camera has stayed in the car when conditions have been perfect for photography. On the times when I have got the camera out I have been well rewarded with some great (and some very bad) shots.  Half an hour off the water is not really that hard to take with a little discipline.

In this article we will first look at the equipment needed, then the skills and techniques involved. All the example shots were uploaded by users of the gallery on this site. Some are excellent while others could have been improved with a little care and thought. The simplest things can make or break a shot. Other mistakes are easily corrected afterwards in your image editing software but it’s easier to get it right first time than you may think.

Colin Dixon, Vass 2007. By Phil Young


The first thing you need is a camera (obviously). Any camera from a cheapest disposable to a top class pro SLR is capable of a great shot if you put the effort in. With the plethora of digital cameras out there today it should be easy to find a model within your budget. However, it’s easy to start getting tied up in specifications and all the marketing bollox that often goes with it. Once you have decided on your budget look for a model that you find comfortable, easy to use and most importantly, fun to use. People often purchase something that they struggle to use and therefore don’t enjoy and it really shows in their pictures. If you’re having fun then you will spend more time creating your images (Rule No 1). Always try out any potential new camera in the shop and ask questions. Try the camera inside and outside, things such as a dim screen that cannot be seen in sunlight will make a big difference to the quality of your shots.  A knowledgeable salesman can be a great help but do your research before going near the shop so you can filter out the sales pitch. Websites such as DPreview are good for this but can get a bit ott on the technical side.

The cheapest cameras out there are disposable single use models. These are film based where you send off the whole camera (which usually gets recycled) and you get your photos back. Single use cameras often have either a wildish angle lens or a lens more suited to portraits depending on the model you choose. The lenses in these are often surprisingly good quality compared to the sometimes inferior lenses that are fitted to many cheap digitals but you will need to learn their pros and cons to get the best from them. The biggest advantage is that you don’t mind too much if you break them. As they are film based there is no lag between pressing the shutter and the shot being taken, essential in our sport. With only 24 or 36 though you do need to be selective when shooting, it’s very easy to eat up a roll. With these disposable models you need good lighting and to get in close to your chosen subject to get the best out of them. Waterproof models are great for our needs as you can get right into the action.

Cameras come in all shapes and sizes.


Next on the market are compact digital cameras. Most of us have one these days as they are becoming better and better with forever dropping prices. By getting nice and close you can get some superb windsurfing shots. The thing to watch out for on these is shutter lag, the time between pressing the button and the picture actually being taken. On some compacts this can take ages and unless you are aware of it you can often miss that great moment. With use you will learn to use the shutter lag to your advantage improving your hit rate but it’s better to purchase a model where this is minimal.  If you are going for a fixed focal length model (no zoom), look for one with a good lens and some degree of manual control.  The same goes for zoom compacts but ignore the digital zoom and look for good optical zoom. Digital zoom works by using smaller areas of the cameras sensor by varying degrees reducing overall image quality but an optical zoom does all magnification in the lens leaving the whole image sensor to record your image. There are also many waterproof models out there which are great for windsurfing photography.

The next step up from compacts, are pro-sumer cameras. These sit between compacts and SLR models providing many of the features of SLR cameras but without either a through the lens viewfinder or interchangeable lenses. They often have a big optical zoom and an optical image stabiliser to reduce image shake (ignore digital image stabilisation for the same reasons to ignore digital zoom). They usually provide more manual controls than your average compact to so you can get more creative with your shots. They are more bulky than compacts though and are often less robust. These units often create an image with a large file size due to a high megapixel count. As a result you will use up your memory cards quickly. Waterproof housings can be bought for these but can be expensive.

Colin in Dahab by Tony Tiffen. Zoom compacts can produce good results.

The final group of cameras are Single Lens Reflex or SLR models. These are the most expensive type of camera but provide the greatest versatility. SLR cameras have a prism and a mirror so what you see through the viewfinder is the view directly through the lens. When you fire the shutter the mirror is lifted blocking the viewfinder but allowing the image to be recorded on the sensor. With all but a few SLR cameras you need to use the viewfinder to compose your shots rather than via the rear screen as on many compacts but this is a better way to work in most cases. SLR cameras also allow you to change the lens depending on your needs. There is a huge range of lenses available with prices from a few pounds up to small mortgage. The mount between the camera body and the lens is dedicated to each brand in most cases so once you decide on a brand most tend to stick with it as changing all your lenses when you upgrade your SLR body could be very expensive. Most SLR brands provide very good models these days with little to choose between them. They all have good metering, no discernable shutter lag and all produce a good image. If you already have an older film based SLR then your lenses may fit the new digital model making your choice of brand easy but if you are starting from scratch then find the unit that is most comfortable for you not forgetting to add the cost of lenses into your budget.

Lenses can be a big, but important purchase for the SLR owner. Ranging from the super wide angle lens to the longest telephoto it’s always worth getting the best you can afford. Check the reviews of any potential purchases and make an informed decision. A good lens can last you years and you will probably find that you get through a number of camera bodies before changing a lens. I often see in reviews comments like “It’s about time this lens saw an update”. This is absolute rubbish. Once you have a good lens there is no real reason to change it unless the mount becomes obsolete or the lens fails. Many of these reviews are written by people who have become used to the constant need to upgrade in the IT industry and expect the same with everything so look for a lens that does what you need and do not worry about the age of a design. When you buy a lens thoroughly check it over in the shop. It’s very hard proving that it was scratched afterwards. With any SLR lens it is a good idea to always fit a skylight filter to protect the front element of the lens, it’s much better to scratch a £40 filter than ruin a £1000 lens


A big zoom lens such as this 100-400mm lens fom Canon allows you to get close up from quite a distance. Adding a teleconverter will allow you to get even closer but has it's drawbacks



With any camera you will require some additional accessories. Many digital cameras come supplied with no, or a very small, memory card. Buy one or two largish cards suitable for your camera and buy good quality and fast memory. Your card will store your shots for a long time so buying cheap can cause upset later when all your shots are destroyed. Many people also choose to buy an external hard disk for their computers too as images can really eat into your spare hard drive space. Next on the list should be a suitable bag. Additional batteries are important; there is nothing worse than running out of power in a session. Many cheaper cameras really chew up batteries but surprisingly the more expensive and powerful models last much longer.  In windsurfing we are often taking shots in some very harsh environments. Salt, sand and water can very quickly destroy your camera. Additional protection for your camera while in use is also a good idea with good covers being easily available from companies such as Kata, Aquapac and Lowepro to name but a few. Waterproof housings are also available for almost any type of camera giving you additional versatility. Tripods or monopods can also be handy but it’s something extra to lug around and can be restrictive for fast action sports such as ours.

Now you have all your kit the first thing to do (and this goes against all our normal instincts) is read the manual. Your new toy will be packed with features many of which you will not even realise are there unless you read the manual. While doing this play with every single feature and get to really know your camera, where everything is, how to select all the features and what they do. Windsurfing is a fast sport and conditions change very quickly. The last thing you want to have to do is refer to the manual while out shooting.

On your first few sessions, stick to the automatic modes and if you have a digital camera don’t be afraid to take hundreds of shots. This will give you a feel for what works and what doesn’t. Be harsh and very critical of your work but always keep in mind Rule No 1. The most common faults are easy to correct with a little effort. Auto focus usually keeps your subject in focus but camera shake can appear like an out of focus shot. Learn how to hold your camera steady or select a higher shutter speed (more about creative use of shutter speeds later). Another mistake that is often made is a wonky horizon. Although this is easy to correct in your image editing software it is far better to get it level from the start.

A wonky horizon such as this one is easy to straighten in your image editing software.

With a little practise and thought you can increase the chances of getting it level at the shooting stage



Once you have got used to your camera you can begin to think more about composition and lighting. When we take a photograph all we are doing is recording light. The more pleasing the light the more pleasing the image will be. The best time to take windsurfing shots is either early in the morning or late in the afternoon. These times will give you a very pleasing light, bring out the best in the available colours and increase contrast. Taking pictures at high noon often results in a flat image. The same goes for dull overcast days but you can still get good results at any time. When the lighting is poor (as is often the case when it’s windy in the UK), try to capture the emotion of the moment or the extremity of the prevailing conditions. Getting in close or filling the scene with spray can achieve some impressive results even in poor light.

Poor lighting causes this shot to look flat and lack impact.

As windsurfing is often such a fast action sport you need to think fast when composing your image. The rule of thirds is a good composition tool to learn. This is where you place an imaginary noughts and crosses style grid over your image dividing it into nine equal parts (many compacts and some SLRs can superimpose this grid on the display). On the horizontal lines you should align the horizon or waterline. Near the four points where the lines intersect you should place your points of interest. Many claim that this composition method creates a more pleasing image increasing energy and interest than simply placing your subject in the centre. This rule is a good guide but any rule is meant to be broken on occasion.

When you arrive at a venue survey the scene and try to spot where all the action is going on. In some cases it may be a long way off in the distance requiring either a large zoom lens or a rethink of your location. Some venues will allow you to get really close to the action while others force you to be creative and maybe take portraits of tired or happy sailors coming in etc. If you have a waterproof camera then you can get right in amongst the action but always think about safety. Make sure you can be clearly seen and that the sailors around you know exactly where you are. All the normal rules of windsurfing safety count when you’re in the water taking photographs.

Once you have a suitable spot, pick out the sailor you wish to photograph and concentrate on them. Trying to see what a number of sailors are up to on the water is hard to do so stick to one at a time. Work methodically and think about each shot. Once you get home examine what worked and what didn’t. You’ll soon instinctively know if you’ve taken a good shot as soon as you press the shutter. Always try to fill the frame with interest. One lonely sailor in the distance only looks good if there are other things in the frame other than sea and sky. Foreground detail can make a shot more interesting so maybe use a groin or rocks to frame your sailor.

A good choice of location has allowed the photographer to really get in close to the action even with a small zoom compact as this shot taken in Dahab shows.




Once you have begun to compose shots in the automatic modes you will want to be more creative. This is where the manual modes on your camera come into play and you can begin to really explore the potential of your new toy. There are 2 basic things that you can change, aperture and shutter speed. Changing either affects the other. The aperture is a hole in the lens that allows light into the camera. Adjusting this hole will allow more or less light into the camera and is measured in stops or f-stops. The lower the f number e.g. f4, the more light is let through. The higher the f number e.g. f22, the less light is let through. The sensor or film in your camera requires a fixed amount of light to record an image correctly. So if you allow less light through the lens then the shutter needs to be open longer for the image to be correctly exposed and vice versa

Another good choice of location fills the frame with action but this time from a distance

Changing the aperture also has another effect, namely changing depth of field. Any lens can only focus perfectly at one fixed distance. There is an area in front and behind of this point that will appear in focus with the area beyond being far greater than the area in front of this point. A wide aperture (e.g. f2.8) will give a small depth of field. This is great for portraits where the background will be thrown out of focus isolating the subject. A small aperture (e.g. f22) will give a large depth of field bringing more into focus. With this in mind you can select your aperture (allowing the cameras metering to select the shutter speed) to get the effect that you desire. 

In the automatic modes on your camera the aperture and shutter speed will be set for you depending on mode. In portrait mode the aperture is usually set wide open with a fast shutter speed. In landscape mode a slower speed is selected with a smaller aperture to get the maximum depth of field. In sports mode the shutter speed is in charge and set fast to freeze the action. In all the modes the settings are usually a compromise rarely making the best of a scene. Sports mode is a prime example. By using a fast shutter speed you are reducing depth of field, this can mean that parts of your chosen subject are left out of focus especially on cameras or lenses with a slow autofocus. 

Selecting the shutter speed (allowing the cameras metering to select the aperture) gives you more control to be creative. You can choose to freeze the action by varying degrees. For instance, selecting a slow shutter speed and panning with a fast moving sailor you can exaggerate the effect of speed by blurring the background. The same effect can be used in moves where the sailor remains relatively static and the board/ sail moves around him. Carefully selecting shutter speed here can give a greater feel of movement.

Panning with a fast sailor while using a slow shutter speed will blur the background giving a greater impression of movement.



All but the simplest of cameras has some sort of metering. This reads the light falling on your subject or the whole scene and selects the appropriate shutter/aperture settings depending on light levels. Most of the time the metering will get it right but there are times when it won’t give the effect you wish. On more complicated cameras you get some control over this. As well as different metering modes (see your manual) you may have the ability to take a reading then recompose your shot based on that reading. Taking a reading from a bright area of sky then shooting a windsurfer will expose for the sky creating a nice silhouette. Taking a reading from a blue piece of card will really bring out the colours in a sunset. There are many other things you can do with your cameras metering so play with it and do some research. The results can be spectacular.

After a session review your shots. Remove any that are not quite good enough and then work on the rest in your image editing software.  A few minutes editing can make a big difference to your results. Level the skyline and crop any unwanted image. Check and adjust levels and sharpen your image. If you are going to print your image or send it to a magazine then keep it as large as possible and if you’re not 100% sure of your editing skills, send an unedited image, many images get rejected as bad editing has made them unusable. If you wish to upload it to a website then resize it to a smaller size such as 1024 or 800 wide then use your editing software “save for web” function. This will reduce upload times for you and reduce the wait for others to see your work. There is nothing worse than waiting ages for a picture to appear.
A fast shutter speed was needed to freeze the action here.

Remember, you can upload your shots to this very site to show to your friends or paste into other websites/ forums etc. People may love or hate your work but take any criticism and learn from it. You’ll soon be wowing people with your work.

Happy snapping.