Panning, slow shutter, stopping down, tracking, spraying and praying — call it what you like, but this technique has slowly become big in the surf photography world. Panning using a slow shutter speed was deemed somewhere along the line as a “speed blur.”
Although gaining popularity in recent years, this effect is nothing new. Photography greats were using this technique almost 100 years ago, and guys like Ernst Haas from the 1940s really pushed the boundaries of slow shutter panning.
Personally, I did not get my start in photography because of my love for surfing. I really picked up the camera because of my love for creating. I felt surf exemplified fluidity, light and athleticism that could be captured beautifully on camera. But a few months back, I got pretty bummed out on surf photography to be honest. It just seemed that some photos which received the most praise had either a big name surfer or epic wave. Don’t get me wrong, there are a ton of guys putting out super artistic work and I respect and commend them for that. But a lot of the other imagery just seemed to be lacking that sense of movement, and almost appeared dead. There are only so many ways to shoot a wave from land, and quite honestly, a majority of those ways are static and boring. The very foundation of surfing is based around fluid movements gliding across the water, obtaining a free ride from Mother Nature. Few photographs I saw really captured this sense and feeling. It was more about who and what, and not the ever important “how does this image make me feel?”
I recently bought a fluid head tripod primarily used in video work, and wanted to use it for slow shutter photography. Needless to say I went into shooting blurs with an extremely false sense of confidence. Thinking I had the killer setup, I assumed that all would be well — just spray and pray! Wrong. It is the most difficult thing I have attempted in surf photography aside from in-water shots. Shooting blurs, I prefer a shutter speed anywhere from 1/8th down to 1/4th of a second. You must track the subject perfectly through the viewfinder.
One of my favorite times to shoot is after sunset/before sunrise. Barely any photographers stick around at this time, but that’s really when the magic happens for me. The sky turns a blueish purple and the light smoothens out. If I’m shooting during the daylight hours, flat light and overcast skies are what I dream of. This allows the camera to capture an extremely wide dynamic range that can be easily tweaked to my liking in post production.
My approach to creating these blurs, or any of my images for that matter, is quite technical. When it comes down to it, speed blurs are a highly technical approach to produce a visually artistic photograph. Creating them puts a majority of the control back into the hands of the image maker. This is why i enjoy the challenge so much.