Like many photographers out there, I did not grow up close to the ocean. We know that the sea can be a magnificent beast and is demands respect at all times. That doesn’t mean that you should restrict yourself when it comes to becoming an ocean photographer.
There are many different types of ocean photography – surf photography, shooting waves, animals, creating split underwater photos – but they all hold the same apprehension for a non-ocean goer. Having a basic understanding of the environment in which you intend to work is essential for all types of photography.
Here, I share my tips for how to get started, stay safe, and gain confidence when shooting in the ocean.
When it comes to swimming from the beach, nothing keeps lifesavers busier than grabbing uninformed people out of rip currents. If you intend on taking photographs in the ocean, you MUST have a basic understanding of rip currents. Simply put, they are currents that flow strongly and quickly out to sea through the surf zone. Great if you’re a surfer and want to get out the back of the waves quickly; not so great if you’re a swimmer.
You can read more about rip currents, how to spot them, and how to get out of them on the Surf Life Saving Australia website.
Ideally, of course, you want to avoid getting caught in one altogether, but lots of people do, and it doesn’t have to be the scariest day of your life. If you learnt how to recognise that you’re in one – i.e. you’re being dragged away from the beach exceptionally quickly – and you learnt how to get out of one – simply swim parallel to the beach rather than trying to fight the rip – then there’s no reason why you can’t quickly and safely return to shore. All you need to do is keep calm and take a second to think about what to do. Most people end up in sticky situations because they panic and act instinctively by trying to swim directly against the current.
If you’re shooting from a boat, in open water or even on a reef, learn to recognise when the current is strong. From the surface, a dangerously strong flow can be identified by seeing smooth water suddenly interrupted by very rippled water. This means there is a LOT of water moving below the surface and it’s best to avoid these conditions altogether. As a rule of thumb, currents tend to be strongest at low or high tide (especially during spring tides), so swimming around the mid-tide is usually best.
TIP - if you’re going to be shooting in the ocean, wear fins. Even the best swimmer with a camera in hand would struggle to swim out of a strong current without fins on. Get some that fit you nicely and don’t rub. I can highly recommend some from DaFin Australia https://dafinsaustralia.com/collections/dafin-australia-all-products.
The next thing that makes venturing into the ocean for a newbie quite scary is big waves. There is an amazingly simple way to avoid this. Don’t go out in them. Start small. In fact, if you’re really not confident in the ocean, start by going out in flat water. Get used to swimming around. Then venture into the surf zone on a minimal day. Get used to the feeling of getting hit by a little white water. Practice ducking under the waves when they come at you, as this is what you’ll need to do when you end up swimming in bigger waves. With fins on, this is pretty easy to do but does require a little bit of timing. You want to make sure you dive under early enough to get under the white water properly. When you master this, it’s an incredible feeling being close to the sand and watching the wave roll over your head. It can also make for some great photos.
TIP – make sure you don’t get caught out by big waves by understanding surf forecasts, like one from Magic Seaweed. Practice looking at the forecast, and then going to the beach to know how the prediction presents. They are usually pretty accurate, but with time, you’ll get used to what the forecast says, and what the waves will look like.
TIP – wear fin savers. Fins are only useful if they’re on your feet. If they get knocked off by a big wave, fin savers will keep them attached to your ankles so you can put them back on and keep swimming.
Are we going to talk about sharks? I understand that one of the biggest fears when it comes to swimming in the ocean (especially in Australia) can be sharks. However, that may be because you’ve watched movies about them, and never actually swam with them (an experience I highly recommend). When it comes to shooting in water where sharks are often present, merely avoid swimming at dusk and dawn (when sharks tend to feed), avoid swimming close to river mouths (where bull sharks hang out), and avoid swimming during massive fish migrations or during unusual events, such as a whale carcass floating close to shore. Other than that, if you’re fortunate enough to see a shark, take a great photo.