Know Your Wave Types For Ocean Photography


Shore Breaks

Shore breaks or as their name suggests are a wave that breaks closest to the shore. These are the waves Clark Little is famous for photographing. They pack a punch, and it is easy to get injured by being dumped into the sand as theses waves break abruptly into shallow water. Waves can often appear small and harmless; however, even a one-foot wave can possess enough strength to break bones, pin you to the bottom, and wash you off the shore into the surf zone.

These waves often barrel, and you can capture some beautiful images all while laying on the sand if your not game to get smashed by these. A few examples of a classic shore break is often seen in Southern Californian and Hawaii's North Shore. These waves are notorious for causing the most spinal and neck injuries.

Knowing Wave Types For Ocean Photography -Shorebreak


Bombies are generally formed over a patch of reef way out deep in the ocean. They tend to break in the same spot. Being far out at sea, makes it impossible to establish a reference point which can make it challenging to identify your positioning. They tend to have a large volume of water moving around so you need to be experienced in the ocean or shoot from a boat or jetski. Western Australia is probably the best example of this wave type with locations like Cow Bombie and The right. 

Andrew Semark Photographing Mick Corbett in Western Australia

Andrew Semark Photographing Mick Corbett in Western Australia

Beach Break

Beach breaks require a good knowledge of the ocean due to changing rips and currents. You need to swim out to capture these. Paddling or swimming out at a beach break means there is generally no clearly defined channel. It is, however, more comfortable to establish a landmark in order to maintain your position and these waves are more comfortable to duck dive under as the water tends to be deeper without rocks and massive sand bars to contend with. These are the breaks I am familiar with being from New Zealand as the majority of the beaches like Raglan, Piha and Wainui are beach breaks.

These tend to be the better wave to learn to surf on; however, be aware that some can be just as powerful as a reef break, just do your research on the area you plan to surf or photograph. The beach breaks of Hossegor, France can reach 20ft.

Beach Break in NZ-Image by Kat Nielsen

Reef Break

Reef breaks can offer incredible waves but are famous for nasty injuries reef is often made of coral which is living and cuts can be easily infected, not to mention very painful. Reef breaks tend to involve a very long swim to get to where the wave is breaking, but they usually offer a more extended wave to ride than a beach break. You need to be aware of low tide barrels, and the underlying reef as the waves break over the rocky bottom. The shape of the seabed is permanent, making the break more predictable. Generally, you will find a clearly defined channel next to the line-up which you can use to swim or paddle out to. You can also safely remain in a channel to shoot with a 70-200mm lens and not have to worry about the breaking waves. The worlds largest and heaviest waves are generally reef breaks. These can get really shallow, and the risk of being dumped into the reef is something to consider. Some reef breaks will mean you need to do a rock jump to get out to the impact zone. If you do this, you need to consider how to get back up, so timing and ocean knowledge is fundamental. Keramas in Bali  Pipeline in Hawaii, Uluwatu in Bali, and Teahupo'o in Tahiti are all well-known reef breaks.

Reef Breaks - Wave Types For Ocean Photography

Point Break

When lines of swell hit land at an angle and break along, and around the area rather than directly into it, you get a point break. They are most likely to form along a headland and can break over sand or rock resulting in waves that tend to peel for far longer than a beach or reefs break. When conditions are right, you can enjoy a longer and more predictable wave. Most surfers consider a point break the ideal ride. Malibu and Bells Beach, Australia Jeffreys Bay, in South Africa are a few of the most famous point breaks.

Rivermouth Waves

Decent Rivermouth waves are rarer than the other wave types discussed. Similar in some ways to a point break, only that they occur as a result of a river depositing sand into well-defined sandbars, creating waves that peel in a predictable and tidy manner. Seen in the Basque Country, New Zealand's Orewa Beach and Augusta Western Australia. The waves can often be dirty looking because of the sediment. .

Rivermouth Wave - Wave Types For Ocean Photography