Nazaré Waves

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Boundaries. A breaking wave displays smooth, crashing, spraying, and turbulent water all at once at Nazaré’s North Beach, Portugal.
Nikon Z8 with Nikkor Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S at 280mm, 1/3000 sec, f/9.5, ISO 1600.

Nazaré is famous for big waves. It has the distinction of having hosted the largest wave ever successfully surfed, an 86-foot tall monster in October of 2020. In fact, Nazaré’s Praia do Norte (North Beach) has been the site of seven of the ten largest waves ever surfed. Our first morning in Nazaré, a Sunday, happened to have the best wave forecast for the week, so we started our time there with what could be considered the main event.

Turbulence. A wave breaks onto foam-covered sea at Nazaré’s North Beach, Portugal.
Nikon Z8 with Nikkor Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S at 400mm, 1/2000 sec, f/9.5, ISO 1600.

The waves were not truly massive that day, but we were probably better off for it because apparently when they are, enough people flock to the clifftops to watch the surfers that securing unobstructed views is a challenge. As it was, I worked various locations along the cliff without any trouble. It was only later in the morning, when I tried to shoot from the top of the lighthouse building, that the crowds were an issue. At least on that day, I preferred the view from the cliffs anyway, so the fact that so many people were drawn away to the lighthouse just gave me more room to work.

Arcs. Curving patterns of spray are blown off the top of a breaking wave at Nazaré’s North Beach, Portugal.
Nikon Z8 with Nikkor Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S at 260mm, 1/2000 sec, f/9.5, ISO 1600.

The waves come in at about four per minute, so over two hours there is a good chance that there will have been over 500 separate waves to photograph. That’s good, because it does take a little practice to get the knack for it. Unlike a lot of things that I typically photograph, these scenes are definitely not static. But there is a certain rhythm to it. There are a lot of relatively quick decisions to be made: do you want a wider view of all (or at least more) of the wave, or do you want a tighter view? Do you want a short shutter speed to freeze the wave or a long one to blur it? Where do you want to place the curling part of the wave in the frame? How many frames per second do you want to shoot? How early in the break do you want to start your burst? When do you switch to look for the next wave? What should the autofocus settings be? How often should you skip a few waves to sneak some peeks at your images to make sure everything is working the way you expect? How often do you move to a different spot? And during all of this, you are really accumulating a lot of images.

Old Man in the Sea. A wave looks like a surprised and struggling man in a violent sea, North Beach, Nazaré, Portugal.
Nikon Z8 with Nikkor Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S at 190mm, 1/1000 sec, f/11, ISO 500.

I have not done a detailed analysis, but I felt like over the course of the morning my trend was from wider views that tried to capture the entire wave to somewhat tighter views. The images I included here are all tighter views, which I think were more successful. That does not imply that they were all zoomed in to the limit (400mm with this lens); in fact only two of these six images (and 40% of the session’s) were. Over the course of the morning I also lowered the frame rate of my bursts a bit. I started at 10-12 frames per second and eventually settled on 6-8 frames per second. Those lower rates seemed like a pretty good compromise: fast enough that the waves didn’t change a lot between frames but slow enough that they actually did change enough to be a meaningfully different image. The other benefit is that images were not accumulating quite so rapidly on my memory card. Yes, storage is (relatively) cheap these days, but my time isn’t—I still had to sort through all those images later.

Nazaré Rainbow. A rainbow forms in the spray from the top of a breaking wave off Nazaré’s North Beach, Portugal.
Nikon Z8 with Nikkor Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S at 155mm, 1/1000 sec, f/9.5, ISO 1250.

There was one stretch of time during the morning where the sun was right behind me and high enough that I was essentially on the line between it and the waves. That basic geometry, of course, is when rainbows happen. Most of the waves were generating a fair amount of spray, so for a while there were a lot of rainbows (spraybows?) visible, which makes for fun images like the one above. This particular image is one where I wish I had left a little more space at the bottom of the frame because I think the crashing wave is crowded on the lower right and there wasn’t much happening above the rainbow. In the end, I decided to crop the top off to balance the image. I will probably try a few more options before I settle on what I like best.

Churn. The green water makes beautiful patterns at Nazaré’s North Beach, Portugal.
Nikon Z8 with Nikkor Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S at 400mm, 1/1000 sec, f/9.5, ISO 1600.

I mentioned earlier that shutter speed is a key decision in this environment. I opted to freeze the action, which I think was the right choice. For the sake of variety, it would be nice to have some slower shutter speeds where I panned with the waves, but that is a totally different shooting rhythm and it is hard to bounce back and forth between them. Had we stayed longer that morning, I probably would have eventually tried some just to do something different. But as it was, I got tired and hungry before I got bored, so I never really got around to it.

I hope you have enjoyed these images. I do have a few of the surfers themselves—and the jets skis that retrieve them after they fall—but I was really trying to avoid having them in the frame. I will probably post a few of those a different time, but next week I will share images from a different session down on the beach rather than up on the cliffs. That perspective difference leads to very different images, as we will see.

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6 responses to “Nazaré Waves”

  1. I greatly enjoyed these images, Jim.

    As you say, a rather different kind of challenge from more static landscape shots. For what it’s worth, I think you made the right decision about freezing the action. The alternative of longer exposures also promotes images as ways of seeing that are different from what is possible in “real” life. However, it may have become too predictable, at least in relation to rivers and waterfalls. (I suspect this is a hot topic in some discussion groups!) On the other hand, you are right about not overdoing bursts – I found the paltry 750 images of swans taken in a couple of hours at a wetland centre a few days ago somewhat overwhelming. Your situation was far in excess of that.

    The video on the page you link to in your opening paragraph was pretty breathtaking!

    Having written at length this week, I will do my best to be silent for the next two or three posts … so, it’s time to say:
    Happy Christmas!

    • Thank you, Rob! I am glad you like them! They were a lot of fun to make. I want to put one on my wall so I will have to decide which, which won’t be easy, and will only get harder once the rest of the pictures get into the mix.

      Merry Christmas to you and Shirley as well, Rob! And I would love it if you commented every week, so don’t feel like you have to ration them!

  2. You did well with this selection Jim. I’m envious. It certainly was a challenge and if we had waves all week we would have returned more often.

    • Thank you, Jerry! Well, I didn’t have the memory cards to spend a lot more time there than we did!