Tips From a Pro: Surf Photography With Pat Stacy
The ins-and-outs of photographing one of the most difficult sports in the world
_Pro surf photographer Pat Stacy has spent the majority of his life in the waves. “I started surfing when I was five years old,” says the California native. He picked up photography in high school and started taking it more seriously when he realized the dream of being a pro surfer might not pan out. _
He studied under legendary photographer and Surfing magazine photo editor, Larry “Flame” Moore, developing his style at the end of the film era. Now, his shots appear in major magazines and advertisements for companies like Billabong. Here, he gives us some insight into what it’s like to be a pro surf photographer and a whole pile of tips for trying your hand at it yourself.
Photographing an aquatic sport like this must require a pretty intense collection of gear. What do you bring with you on a shoot?
It depends on the location and the purpose behind the shoot, but I’ve found that whatever I don’t bring is exactly what I need. (Laughs). I try to keep it simple, while still having a wide enough range to shoot from different angles in a variety of situations. Typically, I’ll bring a long lens: I have a 600mm. I like to have a 70-200mm F/2.8 because that lens is so versatile. Every surf photographer will tell you that’s one of the most important lenses you can have. I love the fisheye lens from the water.
I use a Canon EOS-1D X camera body and I love it. The Autofocus system in that thing kind of changed everything for me.
What kind of waterproof housing do you use?
The guy that builds my water housings is Dale Kobetich. He builds, in my opinion, the best water housings. They’re lightweight and they’re compact. They’re just beautiful pieces of equipment. The 70-200mm actually fits in the housing and it’s equally diverse in the water as it is on land. It’s a little heavy, but it’s an amazing lens.
Is it possible to shoot surfing even if you only have basic gear?
If you’re in the right place at the right time, the ocean is pretty and the waves are good and you can work with almost anything. Some of the best covers I’ve seen have been shot with pretty crappy camera rigs. It’s one of those cliches, but you just have to be in it to win it. I’ve seen magazine covers shot with cheap lenses you wouldn’t believe. I see photos from names I’ve never seen before all over the internet and they’re incredible. And a lot of them are shot with gear that’s not designed perfectly for surf photography.
Get down to the beach in the early morning when the light is pretty and it doesn’t matter what gear you have.
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.
Can you recommend some iconic surf shooters for us to check out if we’re looking for surf photo inspiration?
For me, the number one guy will always be Larry “Flame” Moore. He’s the photo editor that I worked with. He taught me how to shoot. He taught a lot of the guys I look up to how to photograph surfing. He was one of the guys that really pushed surf photography the most. He was the photo editor of the magazine for more than 30 years. He’s the godfather for me forever.
Aaron Chang’s work is unbelievable. Don King is the first guy that took a fisheye and put it in a housing and swam out in big waves. Scott Aichner is great. Tom Servais and Brian Bielmann are godfathers, too. Art Brewer is the same, too. There’s a skate photographer that I think is the most iconic and that’s Daniel Harold Sturt. Every time you see one of his photos, you know it in a second. Those are the guys I’ve always looked up to.
Where are some good places if people are looking to try surf photography?
Hawaii is amazing. The problem with Hawaii is that if you go there and the waves are good, you’re going to be standing on beach, side by side with anywhere from 30 to 200 other photographers on the beach. The North Shore of Oahu is really amazing. A lot of the best spots, you have to be dialed in. You have to have a ski or they’re best from the water.
Black’s Beach in San Diego. That’s one of those spots where you can show up with a crappy lens and get an amazing photo if you’re there on the right day. Mavericks and Ocean Beach (San Francisco) up in Northern California are the same way.
Are surfing contests a good place to try?
It’s a great place to start. If you’re just trying to wrap your head around it, you’lll have professional surfers hitting a specified spot, which makes it really easy. You don’t ahve to paddle up and down a huge area. You can go and start trying to tune into the whole thing and workout the whole system. The best part about it is that the surfer isn’t gping to call you that night and ask you how the photos came out. (laughs). You can go and screw things up and try new things without ruining your reputation.
There is a contest in Hawaii at Pipeline. There’s no way you’re going to be able to photograph amazing Pipeline with only four surfers unless it’s a contest.
Some surfers have been known to employ a “locals only” policy to prevent outsiders from coming into their surf spots. Is that something people should really be aware of or just something from the movies?
It depends on where you are, but you should very much be aware of it. Certain waves have been guarded by groups of people that want to keep them secret. The spots in Southern California where I live, it’s always crowded. There are guys all over the world who are really dedicated to protecting their spot from becoming blown up. The very nature of what we do is exposing these places and showing how amazing they are. But some spots aren’t ready. They may never be ready to be known to the public. It’s out of respect to the guys who have dedicated so much time to it. That that still exists is such a cool thing. You can get on the internet and zoom in on anywhere in the world and these people still have these perfect waves that nobody knows about is incrdible.
Have you had any bad experiences like that?
I don’t have a perfect record. I’ve probably crossed a few boundaries. It is good to be conscienscious of that, though. Even out in Hawaii. You can go to the beach in the North Shore and no one will say a word. It’s the most photographed surf spot on the planet. But you might go to a different island, and if you pull a camera out you might get punched. You could literally get beat up.
What’s the best way to avoid that kind of ugliness?
You can ask somebody, and do it in a way that shows you don’t want to show any disrespect, it might help. You ask the wrong person, though, and they might still freak out. Still, doing research about the area you’re in can help. And you need to feel it out. Relying on your intuition is a good one. Certain general areas are just trouble. Kawai doesn’t have many places where you won’t get hassled. Central and Northern California are like the most famously localized spots. Even certain spots in LA. It’s one of the most populated cities in the country and you can still get beat up if you show up at the wrong beach with a camera. But, if there’s still a secret spot in LA? Those guys have fought hard to keep that thing out of the spotlight. Certain waves aren’t meant to be photographed and that’s just a fact.