What's the most important ingredient for a great surf photo?
Not from my experience. Low light is actually a great time to shoot creative surf images, and digitally captured photos can actually look better under cloudy skies.
Talented surfers help, but the truth is that you can still get a great bottom turn or barrel shot of a marginally gifted surfer if the waves are good enough. A photo can tell a thousand lies.
Good waves, then?
No, definitely not. You'd be shocked to learn about how many stellar surf photos have been taken in small, crappy surf.
No, in my opinion, the number one necessity for a good photograph of surfing is actually...wind. Preferably an offshore wind. Because without it, you are left with the bane of the surf photographer's existence, the hideous heinousness known as haze.
Atmospheric haze is the enemy of surf photographers for two main reasons: it creates a dull, slightly fogged image, and it makes it nearly impossible, manually or otherwise, to focus.
By turns, an offshore wind can be triply beneficial because it clears the haze, opens the barrels, and makes spray travel further.
Haze is also insidious because to the naked eye the surf might look epic and glassy, but the difficult-to-see, foreshortened salt spray will make your photo look nothing like what you saw. If it's not offshore, your image will probably look like dog shit.
The moral of the story? If there's no wind, just go surfing--you'll be better off.
Haze is easy to rant about because it's just another item on a long conspiratorial list. With still photography, a whole bunch of shit can hit the fan. Camera shake, water spots, improper shutter speed, shadows--you name it.
Below you will find photos garnered over the years, all slightly flawed, begrudgingly shown as testament to the frustrating world of the professional surf photographer...