This Saturday marks the beginning or my 2013 Workshop season with my 4th Annual Winter Big Sur Workshop. I love the winter season as Pacific storms make for interesting swells and waves. I find that many people really don’t understand that there is a difference between the two, so here is a quick primer that will make you sound more educated than the local surfers!
What is a Wave?
Ocean waves are powerful surges of energy moving through molecules of water. They can travel very long distances and are stopped once they hit shore (duh)! The water does not actually travel; rather, it swells up and down with the energy wave. How the wave breaks is caused by a number of factors including ocean bottom (sandbars). These are called beachbreaks. Pointbreaks are breaks in which the waves bend and break around a specific point, usually resulting in consistent and good shape. Pointbreaks are usually formed by river mouths with loose rock bottoms.
Types of Waves.
Wind waves are the most common type of ocean wave. Wind is a huge factor in determining the creation and size of the wave. Waves begin as ripples and increase into waves. The distance that the wind is able to sweep over the water surface is called the fetch. The greater the fetch, the greater the potential for the wave to grow. Another factor is time. The longer the wind blows over a particular area, the greater the opportunity for a wave to grow. Gravitational pull of the moon and sun also create a sort of wave. The tides are actually tidal waves, though they don’t appear visually as most people think of waves. Tides slowly rise and fall following the sun and moon’s pull.
What is a Swell?
Simply put, an ocean swell is a series of surface gravity waves generated mainly by wind. Swell waves often have a long wavelength but this can vary. The greater the depth of the water, the greater the potential for a wave to form. However, when the wind source is diminished, the waves that remain are called swells. When we see them from shore, they have generally traveled a long distance. Just my own unscientific observation, but swells tend to come in odd numbers – check this out for yourself next time you are shooting waves/swells.
Information on swell size and period is useful for surfers, as swells are generally more desirable to surf on than normal, locally-generated waves and chop. Swell size is typically the average height of the largest 33% of waves in a set, measured from the highest point of a wave (crest) to the lowest point (trough). Surfers tend to look at swell information and not waves – swells are more predictable.
What is a Rogue Wave?
Rogue waves (also referred to as killer, sneaker and freak) are extreme storm waves which are greater than twice the size of surrounding waves. They are extremely unpredictable and often come unexpectedly from directions other than the prevailing wind and waves. They tend to look like “walls of water” and can sweep unsuspecting photographers, fishermen, hikers, etc., out to sea.
What Are King Tides?
King Tides are simply the largest tides created by gravitational pull when the sun and moon are directly opposite one another.
Tips for Photographing Waves and Swells
So now that you know what it is you are looking at, here are some tips to capture waves and swells:
* Never, never, never turn your back on the surf (see rogue wave)
*Never place yourself in a trap zone. Give yourself an escape route. If you don’t see one, you are placing yourself in danger
* Timing is everything. Like anything else in nature, there is a rhythm to waves and swells. Slow down and tune into the timing of the surf
* Don’t be so quick to photograph. Watch where the action is happening then build a frame around it. Now be patient and watch the waves. Go ahead and motordrive just before the wave explodes against rocks or sea walls
* Anticipate the light. For the lead image, I knew the morning sun was about to peak over the tip of a mountain ridge. I filled the frame with the backlit mountain and as soon as the sun crested, I started shooting accounting for the warm backlit spray
* Use your polarizer to reduce glare and accentuate and saturate wave/water color
*Photograph early or late in the day. Avoid mid-day light as the sun is too directly overhead
*Experiment with different shutter speeds. A Singh-Ray 8 stop Vari ND Duo works well
*After a session of photographing near the sea, wipe down your equipment with a damp cloth to remove damaging sea salt
*Never push the bottom legs of your tripod all the way in. Wait for the wet sand to dry, then wipe off with damp cloth
*For best wave action, shoot during either before or after a storm (approaching storms on the west coast are the best). Get out in the weather and wind – that is when the action is the best!