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Preparing for rough conditions beforehand is paramount so you can focus on getting the shot in the water. Photo: Zak Noyle

The Inertia

Editor’s Note: Want to take your photography to the next level? Check out Zak Noyle’s Guide to Surf Photography for more lessons  on how to refine your approach, process, and positioning to improve your creative results and your career opportunities.

There’s no reason to risk your life in the lineup if you can prepare yourself beforehand. In all aspects of his approach to photography, Zak Noyle stresses the importance of preparation, from safety to composing your shots, knowing your surroundings in the lineup, and more. Here, he passes on a handful of quick lessons worth remembering.

Pro Tip: Assess How Shallow (or Deep) a Reef Is Before You Take a Wave On the Head.  

“When I dive under the waves that are on reef breaks, I always look underneath me before I dive,” Noyle says in his online course. “I know we don’t all have crystal clear water, but it is a good thing to kind of check to see how deep it is before the wave gets there.”


Noyle stresses this because you never want to unintentionally dive into the reef or be close to it with the wave breaking right on top of you.

What to Do Over a Shallow Reef: 

The first thing Noyle avoids is diving deep, letting the wave push or drag him along instead of down.

“If you go close to the reef and then the wave is breaking on you, you’re going to get pushed right back into the reef. You’ll kind of do a little bounce.”

Letting yourself get dragged back toward shore may feel counterintuitive. You’re going to want to get right back out past the impact zone anyway, right? But trying to do so while taking waves on the head and doing all you can to avoid hitting a shallow reef is only going to require more energy. Save it for the eventual swim back out, he warns. Noyle calls these penalty laps.


“When this happens, take it as your break from the action and a chance to rest up. Swim back out and around. Do not be deterred. Do not fight it.”

Pro Tip: If you know a wave is about to break in front of you, save your energy and breath. 

Again, do what you can to save your energy by not trying to fight each wave.

“I often see a big set come in and when I look around and see that I’m already sitting in the sweet spot, I won’t move,” Noyle says. “A lot of photographers will start swimming in that moment, using a lot of energy they don’t need to waste.”

Pro Tip: Swim with your port up.

Noyle shattered his front port when he first started shooting at Pipe. How’d that happen?

“I freaked out and dove right under,” he says, slamming it straight into the reef.

Always swim port up.


Pro Tip: Wear a helmet. A helmet is imperative.

What do you do about errant surfboards? Especially if you’re going to be shooting surfing over a reef? Wear a helmet. Zak wears Gath surf helmets.

“It could save your life,” Noyle stresses. “It won’t just protect you from the reef, but also from surfboards, from your own camera housing, from other photographers and their equipment. Make wearing a helmet a habit and your regular routine.”

Pro Tip: Open your eyes when diving under a wave

Some people instinctively close their eyes when going underwater. Others keep them open. Noyle says that in regards to safety, you should do the latter. He uses it as an opportunity to assess his environment and how the waves are breaking.

“I’m seeing how that turbulence is coming toward me and what the whitewater underneath is doing,” he says.

Pro tip: Always have your exit strategy. 

Noyle asks how often we consider safety getting out of the water and staying clear of others in the process? We can avoid some problems, he suggests, by having an exit plan before we even start a session. Know where you need to swim to get out of the water at any wave.


Check out Zak Noyle’s Guide to Surf Photography for more lessons  on how to refine your approach, process, and positioning to improve your creative results and your career opportunities.


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