When photographing the surf, there are quite a few variables that need to be taken into account. Shutter speed may be the most important in order to record the surf in the way you want. Whether you want the soft flow of a longer shutter speed, or the crispness of a shorter shutter speed, adjustments to ISO and aperture are needed to create your desired effect. Once you have settled on the look you want, adjustments are needed as the light increases or decreases as the sun rises or sets to maintain the “look” you want.
As a personal preference for a sunrise as the light becomes brighter, beginning at ISO 100, it is lowered in increments to the minimum available. Then the aperture is stopped down until f/16 or f/22 is reached, and finally if needed, I add a polarizer which drops the light down by about 2-stops. All these steps are necessary to maintain the same shutter speed which you’ve determined produces the look you want.
It might also be advantageous to keep an eye on what the surf further up or down the shoreline is doing to see if it is more interesting than where you’ve plopped your tripod. Many times where the sand is a slight bit higher or lower than the surrounding sand, creates surf that moves along the shoreline rather than directly in or out. It can create some interesting clashes as the surf runs out into some that are coming in and you may get a line where they meet. They can provide leading lines for the image (top, above and below) or a more interesting foreground (No.2).
Another important point is to take as many frames as possible because each wave is unique, giving you many options from which to choose. In fact, portions from one or more frames can be blended together to take the best of each separate frame into one final image that contains all the best parts. Eliminate the limitations and maximize your options.
As opposed to the continued good fortune for abundant and interesting clouds, some days offer almost nothing in the way of drama as the morning unfolds, and so it was for the photo below. The bank of clouds along the horizon was the remains of a front that passed through overnight that blocked most of the color without anything else but empty blue sky. I shot almost 90 frames trying to get some interest in the surf, but was totally shut out. With the sun already up and about to crest the clouds, I had given up and picked up the tripod to head back. But where I had just stood, my feet having sunk into the sand a bit with each incoming surge of surf, left an interesting pattern and decided that this may be the saving grace of the morning’s shoot. Without that, the image is another in the multitude of throw aways from that morning. The final image is the result of blending two frames, one exposed and focused for the sky, with the second exposed and focused on the sand pattern.
Back to the four initial images in this post, each contains an element that detracts from its overall success. No.1 would be better without the line of surf in the lower right corner (see cropped version below).
No.2 the same as No.1 but in the left lower corner; No.3 would be better without the line of surf that divides the long line leading toward the horizon; and No.4 would be better off without the short line of surf in the lower right. I suppose attempts could be made to correct those problems, but the point is that it is improbable to have all the variables that waves possess working together with a fleeting dramatic sky, at the precise moment you trip the shutter. But I find just being along the ocean in those moments where the light begins a new day, is a rewarding experience in and of itself; just happy to be there.