Bioluminescent Surfers

JTMacMillanSurf1©blogJTMacMillanSurf1©blog    Rippin' The Blue Wave

(posted May 5, 2020)

      Since late March, parts of Southern California have been treated to a bioluminescent plankton bloom. At night the agitated waters in this red tide come alive in electric blue. When it's really active, the crashing waves explode in light, and you can see a blue ring spark around each sandy footstep you take near the water. 

     So I brought my big telephoto zoom lens to Scripps Pier in La Jolla on April 28. The governor had just reopened the beaches, and there was a festive atmosphere along the shore as dozens of surfers headed into the dark waters.

      On this particular night I wasn't going for the beautiful but familiar wide shot of the thin blue wave line running the length of the beach. I wanted to try to get something tight, with detail, and the unexpected night surfers added a dynamic element. I was hopeful but realistic about my chances of getting any "keepers." In the end, I was lucky to capture an image I've never seen before. 

     My 200-500mm telephoto lens is really "slow" by sports photography standards, f 5.6 wide open. But, it's a good sharp lens with great vibration reduction. So for the first time I set my ISO to a whopping 51200. I knew the result would be a collection of super noisy (grainy) images, which I would try to fix in post-production.

     Then there was the matter of freezing the action, which usually happens at 1/500 of a second or more. Since that wasn't an option, I accepted that my result would probably be "artsy," like an oil painting, and that would be OK. 

(Click to Enlarge Photos)

ArtsySurf©medArtsySurf©med      Finally, there was the focus issue. Autofocus does not work out here in the dark. The illuminated waves seemed bright compared to the surrounding blackness of the water, but even manual focus was a crap shoot. Some of the surfers carried flash lights, which created fleeting but helpful focal points.


(An improvement, and the surfer's flashlight added a great lighting element. Pretty cool, but still not quite sharp enough). 

     So I continued to try to make good guesses, pretended I was finding my focus, and shot the heck out of it. With luck running on my side, within about 50 frames I knew I had something I liked and stopped shooting. 

     My "money shot"is not tack sharp. But what excites me is that it was captured at 1/30th of a second in darkness from 90+ yards away,  and there's detail in the waves and main subject. It was an unlikely success in a collection of throwaways, and really fun to try. 

      Camera Metadata


J.T. MacMillan is a long-time San Diego-based photographer who got his start in metro-newspaper work and has been providing editorial, commercial, portrait and event photography services to some of San Diego’s most recognized public and private agencies for 27 years. To learn more and see other samples of our work click on the links below:

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