Is it difficult to get in that close to a surfer with a fisheye lens?
The fisheye is a challenge (laughs). It’s dangerous. Once the waves get to a certain size, the fisheye doesn’t do the waves justice. I’m grateful for that. Once it gets to that size, you get to go back and sit in a safer place with the 70-200mm lens. With the fisheye, you have to be between three and eight feet away from the surfer for it to work depending on the wave.
I’m a surfer and if I try to surf the waves you see in my photos, I’d probably end up on the reef and injured (laughs) and on my way to the hospital. The cool thing about shooting surfing from the water is that it has allowed me to get close to the feeling of adrenaline and being in those waves without getting myself killed.
How do you typically get out into the water? Do you swim or take a jet ski?
It’s different for every spot. If the waves are 60-foot and you’re at some crazy spot in Northern California or Hawaii, you have to be elevated. You can’t be swimming in the water when the waves are that big. Even just the little chops and stuff in the ocean make it impossible to see. You want to be on a ski when the waves are huge. At a spot like Pipeline in Hawaii, I just take my fins, my camera, and a helmet. It’s so dangerous.
Sometimes if you have waves that break at the same place every time, you can take a boogie board and sit on it and shoot off of that. A helicopter is good, too if you can get one of those.
It seems like a working knowledge of the ocean and the tides is pretty critical
What you don’t see in a surf photo from the water is that there may be anywhere between one and eight waves progressively bigger behind the one you’re looking at. So, if you’re looking at a photo shot with a fisheye lens, that photographer got that shot, then took up to eight waves on the head for it. That’s a beating. I’ve never taken eight waves to the head, but you get pushed in. Whenever you link in that close on a wave, it’s going to push you 10-feet further into the beach. You need to race back out into the water so you don’t get mowed down by the next wave. You don’t want them breaking on you. The wrong wave will kill you. It can smash you on the bottom and knock you out.
What are some of the biggest challenges in shooting surfing?
There are a lot of variables. Your camera needs to not screw up the focus and the waves need to come together when the light is right. It might be dead-low tide in the morning and the best quality waves might come in the middle of the day when the lighting isn’t good. Sometimes they come when the lighting is best. You have to be really patient.
What do you look for when you’re composing a shot?
I try to look at what stands out. Sometimes waves will pull into barrels, but they might not look that impressive. But, a guy might pull into one of those barrels and do the most insane maneuver you’ve ever seen. Having an understanding of surfing really plays a big part. If you can see from a surfer’s perspective, you’ll know when the peak moment is going to be. If these guys are paddling in the the biggest waves ever, I like to pull back and show the whole scene. Let people get a feel for what everything looks like.
If the waves are kind of crappy and they’re just doing little technical maneuvers, you can pull in tight to really isolate the action.
Can you get some of the knowledge from watching surfers even if you’ve never done it before?
The more you pay attention, the better your photos will be. If you see guys pulling into barrels left and right, you know that’s what they’re going to be doing for a while. You can plan your shots accordingly. If they’re flying around and doing maneuvers, you can readjust and try to anticipate as much as you can. That’s what separates surf photography from other kinds of sports photography. You’re dealing with action and reaction in split seconds. The waves are constantly shifting around and that’s the eternal challenge of photographing surfing. It’s never in the same spot. The landscape always changes. I will screw up photos for the rest of my life because things happen that I don’t see coming. You get caught by surprise.
Focusing seems like it would be one of the biggest challenges with the water and the rider. How do you tackle it?
With a fisheye, I tape my focus down in a specific spot. I use that Canon 8-15mm zoom lens. It’s so good. Everything is sharp in the photo. Everything else, though, is autofocus. I tweak the 1D X Case 2 AF setting. It does its best to ignore anything that pops into the frame. The whole thing can happen pretty quickly, but where I put that focus is where I want it to be sharp. If a bird flies through the frame, I really don’t want the camera to grab onto that.
What about exposure mode? Are you an all-manual shooter?
I’m pretty much manual all the time. It’s hard because the ocean shifts and lighting changes. If you’re shooting in the late afternoon and the angle you’re at starts out looking into the sun, but you end up looking at a different angle, you can go through major changes. I’ve found that for the most part you can underexpose pretty substantially and save it thanks to the newer cameras. I’d rather the photo be underexposed by a stop than have it wig out and drop it by like three stops. Sometimes that happens. If white water pops into the frame, it’s going to read that and put the F-number through the roof.
At the end of the day, you’re taking these cameras to the place that they least belong (laughs). Salt water, ocean, wind, and waves. In a settings sense, it’s kind of the same. Things change so fast and the ocean has so many different ways of exposing, I just think manual is the best. It keeps you in the ballpark.