Surfers and surfscapes

Faced with a wild Atlantic coast that is both the work of a mad sculptor and a sanctuary for the practice of surf, you’ve two photographic passions to follow: the almost static landscape and the fast moving surfers. Some strategies are needed.

Living close to the Portuguese coast made that frontier between two worlds – land and the Atlantic Ocean -, my first playground for landscape photography, back in the late seventies of last century. The 1200 kilometers of coast offer a variety of experiences, from sandy beaches to high cliffs that closely resemble the work of a mad sculptor who left before finishing the work.

The experience of photographing that landscape is what first attracted me to this stretch of coast close to home. Walking atop the high cliffs offered – and still offers – some unique views of the surrounding areas, punctuated with gold toned sandy beaches. Although many of those views can be photographed with your camera hand held, it is a good idea to pack a tripod if you’re traveling through such a place, as having a three-legged friend around guarantees you are prepared for any situation.

Using a tripod does not always have to mean you need to lower the shutter speed to a value that makes it better to use a tripod. Sometimes, especially in coastal areas, the intensity of the wind makes it important to not go for longer exposures, as the camera can move, even on a tripod. But a sturdy tripod – the sturdiest you’re willing to carry and not leave in your car – can be a more stable base than if you hold the camera.

A tripod will slow you down

A tripod is also prone to make you slow down, something that is probably important for a better experience with landscape photography. If you’re the snapper type, that looks and shoots, a tripod will make you think twice before shooting a slanted landscape. The time it takes to set it up and align the camera on top will, probably, help you to SEE the view in front of you, and try some composition options before pressing the shutter and move on. Because of the initial investment in time, you’ll probably explore more options from that same viewpoint, before packing for continuing your walk.

Although I’ve visited and photograph vast stretches of the Portuguese coast, from the Minho coast on the North to the Algarve, in the South, I always return to a 70 kilometer sea front stretch, West from where I live, not far from Portugal’s capital, Lisbon. It’s a 20-minute drive to the coast and then I can explore driving North or South, depending on what my aim is, the weather conditions and other aspects that photographers tend to consider when preparing a day out.

While landscape and wildlife were my initial reasons to look for the coastal areas, that interest has extended since very early to a completely different subject: surf. Portugal is an immense surf destination, offering multiple challenges, from the 30-meter high waves at Nazaré through Peniche, a place well-known by surfers abroad since the Sixties, to Ericeira, which falls within the 70 kilometer stretch of coast I visit regularly.

A surf sanctuary

It’s only natural that surf became a photographic passion. Ericeira helped, because it has become a special place for surfers from around the world. In fact, Ericeira has created the conditions for an ongoing community of surfers to travel there, and since 2011 the area is part of the World Surfing Reserves, the first of its kind in Europe and one of nine around the world.

Ericeira is called a sanctuary of surf, a shrine supported by seven specific places that offer challenges to surfers of different levels. With waves ranging from beachbreak to powerful reef breaks, Ericeira offers surfers and photographers the stage for unique experiences. If it’s variety you’re looking for, then Ericeira, as long as you’ve the means to move around between spots, offers you a unique experience in terms of surf photography and landscape photography. The two closely intertwined, allowing for the creation of images that offer a unique vision over what a “surf sanctuary” can be.

A monopod for action

When it comes to surf photography, I am not a specialist, but I’ve photographed the sport long enough to know a few tricks. What I appreciate most about it is the concentration it asks from you to get images that depict the peak of the action. Holding a long lens for long periods of time, following surfers riding waves, asks for some form of support, and that’s when a monopod might be helpful.

Consider using a monopod next time you’re out photographing surf. Again, it is not because you need to use a slower shutter speed – although you may, for creative purposes – but because it offers a more comfortable way to hold your lens and camera for long periods of time. It may, sometimes, slow you down for some unexpected shots, but the support it provides will translate into sharper images in the end.

My photography at these locations reflects two extremes: the quietness of the landscape itself, usually shot under daylight, which offers you strong colors and shutter speeds to freeze movement, and the extreme action of the surf. In fact, when I photograph surf I like to get surfers at the peak of the action, when everything seems to explode around them. Although I will create images that show the different moments of the activity, I really enjoy following surfers ride a wave and press the shutter when I anticipate everything is about to get interesting. This is no “spray and pray” session, but a “waiting” game for which, again, a monopod might be a good idea. I use an old one from Manfrotto, the Neotec 684B, which I am not sure is still available today.

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