How to Shoot Beach Pics Like a Pro, According to a Surf Photographer

Zak Noyle
Zak Noyle

Rolling waves. Golden hour views starring palm trees and coconuts. Rocky cliffs with an outstretched frozen rum drink in the foreground. Beach vacations offer the ultimate backdrop for photos, and while having the right camera equipment helps, that alone won’t save you from being caught fiddling around with the shutter speed while that school of dolphins zips away. So to help you master the perfect beach snap, we tapped professional surf photographer Zak Noyle to share some of his expert-level tips. 

Born and raised in Hawaii (and mentored by his dad who is also a professional photo wizard) Noyle’s work involves shooting some of the best surfers in the world riding the best waves in the world… at some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. His talent comes from a deep appreciation for waves, sand, and sun. “I fell into photography because of a love for the ocean,” Noyle says. “It's something that obviously we're surrounded by in Hawaii. Being able to be around it, be close to it, and just from a general passion of wave-riding, it’s just been there all of my life." 

Whether you’re unwinding on the beach in Oahu, escaping email chains on a jetski in Fiji, or double-fisting a coconut and your camera in Thailand, here are five Noyle-approved photo hacks to put into action on your next beach vacation.

Any camera is a good camera

Before you start cybershopping for the best DSLR camera on the market for your trip, slowly step away from the keyboard. “One of the things that my dad always instilled in me, no matter what, is that the best camera you have is the camera you have with you,” Noyle says. In fact, Noyle is the first photographer to get a cover on a major surfing magazine using an iPhone. So whether your camera of choice is a phone, a disposable underwater camera, or a point-and-shoot you’ve had forever, consider it professionally approved. 

Plus, going with the camera you have means you can save that money for experiences out on the water -- like a guided snorkeling excursion or a glass bottom boat tour. This also guarantees you’ll have things to take photos of other than your outstretched hot dog legs on the sand. “I'm a big believer in it's how you use it, not what you use,” Noyle says.

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Courtesy of Waikiki Beachcomber by Outrigger

If you need more pics for your photo album, a stay at Outrigger Hotels and Resorts, the world’s premier beach resort brand, will do the trick. With properties in just about every hotspot (Fiji and Hawaii, to name a few), the rooms are just as ‘gram-worthy as the beachfront views. And at the Waikiki Beachcomber by Outrigger, the neighborhood’s first lifestyle hotel curated by artists and tastemakers, Zak Noyle’s photos bring the ocean to life right in your room. So even when you’re taking a break from surfing or exploring Kalakaua Avenue, the hotel makes sure the beauty of Hawaii is wherever you are. Good luck choosing what photos to post.

Get acquainted with the technology

Speaking of how you use a camera: No one wants to be that person furiously trying to photograph the remaining minutes of the best beach sunset of the trip -- and then realize you don’t know how to get the background in focus. Before it’s showtime, get to know the ins and outs of your equipment so you’re not forced to troubleshoot issues in the moment. This includes tripods, underwater housing cases, and any other add-ons in your photo arsenal.  

“If you only use [the camera] when something special comes up, you're not going to be comfortable or familiar with it,” Noyle says. “Whereas if you're using it constantly, you're going to be very comfortable with it when a situation comes up that's a special moment.” So read the user manual, watch how-to videos online, and take test photos of your vacation buddy to hone in on what you’re having trouble with. You’ll thank us later when you end up with expertly timed action shots of your friends trying to surf for the first time.

Zak Noyle

Beachify your camera 

If you’re working with the camera you have, it doesn’t mean you can’t accessorize it with a few bells and whistles -- especially if all you have is your phone and you want to shoot underwater.  Invest in an underwater housing to protect your gear, such as the touch-screen enabled AxisGO Water Housing (which Noyle uses on his iPhone), or a universal waterproof phone case (to get shots of coral reefs and fish at a cheaper price point). Don’t forget about attachable lenses, either. Clip-on fisheye and wide-angle lenses or adapters that let you attach a Canon or Nikon SLR lens to your phone will help take your beach pics from “meh” to exceptional.

When it comes to H2O, know your limits

Take a look at some of Noyle’s powerful images of surfers riding waves all over Hawaii, and you’ll start to understand the force behind the ocean. So if you’re trying to capture images of surfers hanging ten or simply wading into the water to snorkel and get shots of fish, Noyle recommends chatting with the people who know the beach best: the lifeguards. No matter how badly you want a photo of that sea lion in the waves, safety is the number one priority while shooting underwater, so you need to know when low-tide is coming in and how to adjust where you’re swimming to account for dangerous rip tides. Safety applies to the camera, too. Research on how long your camera can be in the water, especially if you’re doing more extreme exploring like scuba diving that calls for deeper depths and higher pressure.

Zak Noyle

Quantity matters

“My dad always goes, ‘shoot loose and edit tight,’” Noyle says. “How I define that is: You shoot a ton of photos in the moment, and then you can edit it after. If I was to shoot one photo of the beach and then leave, and then I go back and it was like, ‘oh no, I missed the wave,’ you can't go back to that moment.” So get a few shots from each important moment of your trip to avoid a situation where half of your friends have their eyes closed during the best part of sunset paddleboarding. When it comes to editing, if you have professional software like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom on your Mac or PC, that’s great, but there are also plenty of mobile apps like Snapseed, VSCO, and Affinity Photo that put lots of editing tools at your fingertips.

If you want to make sure every photo has the same lighting, coloring, and sharpness, create a custom filter at the start of editing so that you can apply the same treatment every time. Just remember you’re still on vacation and your photos should reflect you chilling and relaxing on the beach -- not trying to recreate one of Noyle’s many magazine covers. Leave the pro photography to, well, the pros and focus on grabbing a Tiki drink and having a good time.