Hang Ten: Surf Photography Ain’t Easy

Hang Ten: Surf Photography Ain’t Easy

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I was born and raised in Hawai’i. When people ask me if I surf, I always answer “Sure…the web.”

*insert laugh track*
Ok, so I didn’t surf growing up, but I did body surf and boogie board, and I spent countless hours in the supermarket while my mom shopped, looking at Surfer magazine and the incredible work of people like Aaron Chang. Since those days, I’ve always wanted to give surf photography a try. I mean, how hard could it really be?
Hawai’i can be a bit of a wasteland for camera stores. All the ones that were around when I was a kid have gone out of business, but I surprisingly found a little camera store in Kaimuki which opened last April and not only sells gear, but rents it too. Joshua Strickland is the propietor of HawaiiCamera.com and has an assortment of pro gear and underwater housings at really reasonable prices. 
I put in a reservation for an SPL housing for my Nikon D3, but unfortunately the unit was out for regular servicing and maintenance. Josh talked to me a bit about the Ewa Marine bag. It certainly wasn’t my first choice — something about putting a $5000 camera into a plastic bag seems counterintuitive, but it turns out that the bags are very durable, and are actually rated for deeper waters than the hard housings.
I returned home and stuffed the camera into the bag with a 17-35mm f/2.8. It was a snug fit, but I suppose you don’t want the camera sliding around in there. A metal clamp with three screws seals the bag. 
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I wasn’t quite sure how to prevent the lens from shifting in the bag, so I used a thick rubberband to stabilize it, and off I went to Kalaeloa (aka White Plains Beach) on the western shore of O’ahu. I met up with a surfer, Katie, who agreed to be my test subject.
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There are a bunch of things that one must contend with when considering photographing in the water:
  • water temperature
  • waves
  • direction of the break relative to the sun
  • tow/tides
  • speed with which you can move
  • surfboards
Fortunately, I didn’t have to contend with water temperature as the water in Hawai’i is close to 80 degrees year round. Whew, one factor knocked off the list.
I had actually never been to Kalaeloa — it sits on a former military base which wasn’t open to the public when I was a kid — so I didn’t know quite what to expect. Despite the fact that the North Shore was getting pounded with 40 foot waves, Kalaeloa was about 1 – 2 feet when we got there. But as I stepped into the water, I realized that the reef was much more pronounced than I expected.
Having been on the east coast for many years, my feet have become very soft. We call it “haole feet.” As I was dragged back and forth across the reef by the wave action, my feet started to get cut, which made things a little more difficult. I should have had some reef shoes, but what the hell do I know? I figured they would impede my movement. Fins might have been good, but body surfing fins have open heels, and the water was pretty shallow for fins anyway.
Well, we might as well take a test shot sitting on the board. (Your eyes are not deceiving you. It’s blurry)
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Now it was time to try some actual surfing shots. Here’s what I quickly discovered:
  • The area where Katie caught the wave was not where I wanted to be. I had to be several meters closer to the shore because I needed her to get on the board, and there’s no way I can move as quickly as someone who is skimming a wave.
  • The Ewa Marine bag wasn’t quite designed for surf. It’s more of an underwater bag. There is a little pocket where your finger sits to hit the shutter, but it’s actually not so easy to hit the button. So I was having trouble even taking a picture.
  • Even though my exposure was locked (f/4 at ISO 400 in aperture priority), I still managed to alter the exposure to EV +0.3. In other words, you hit a lot of buttons when you’re in the surf.
  • I totally misjudged how close I could actually get to Katie on my first try. I figured I’d need 17mm on a full-frame camera because I had those Aaron Chang photos in my head where the surfer is in the tube, dragging his hand on a wave a mere 2 feet from the photographer. Nope. Not even close. 35mm was even a bit wide for my skill level. And there’s nothing like getting a skeg in your head to make you rethink surf photography.
  • Hope you like backlight. The sun gonna be where it is, and the surfer is going to go where the wave goes. On this particular day, Katie was always surfing away from the sun, so unless I wanted to shoot her backside, the pics were going to be backlit. Ah well, gives it that contemporary “lifestyle” feel, right?
With the waves being relatively small and receding, it was actually difficult to get enough runs in to get a good picture. Here’s a little composite of images I shot.
Exhausted and disheartened, I went to my safety zone and pulled out some strobes on the beach. The surf had too many variables, but strobes allow you to control everything. Aaah.
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I had the bag for another day, so I thought I’d give it the old college try, while eliminating a few more of those pesky variables. I headed to Sandy’s Beach, which as its name implies is a much sandier beach. No reef, but still good wave action. And this time I brought my fins to ensure that I could move a little faster.

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Instead of dealing with a single model, I decided to just get in the water and shoot. There were lots of people, and I could try shooting on nearly every decent wave.
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I shot this image at 35mm and felt like the guy was literally on top of me. I can’t imagine trying to shoot any wider because how much closer can I get without getting run over?
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When I got back to shore, I noticed another guy with a hard housing. The housing has a handle with a trigger. There’s no focusing, no fiddling to find the shutter button. It’s all about getting as close as possible, holding your arm out, and firing the motor. 
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I’m not for a moment insinuating that there is no skill necessary when you have a hard housing, but it does eliminate some of the distraction that I dealt with.
In the end, it was a pretty educational experience. I didn’t really think it would be easy, I just didn’t think it would be so hard. And I can’t imagine actually bei ng in real surf with surfers who are moving 40 mph and coming straight at you. Here’s an amazing image by a badass photographer named Daniel Russo, who is based on the North Shore. You can see more of his work at the Surfing Magazine website. (Hey Dan, get a PhotoShelter account so we can buy some of your prints!)
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Photo by Daniel Russo
Next trip home will be with the SPL housing, and hopefully some better photos and fewer cuts on my feet.
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There are 10 comments for this article
  1. Ryan Cardone at 2:01 pm

    Ha nice go at it Allen. When you try again start with a 50mm. It is a perfect lens to learn with. You don’t have to get so close to the surfer to get a good shot. Although if you want shots like the one above…fisheye is the way to go. Good luck!!!

  2. Fredrik Naumann at 3:32 pm

    With snow and minus 15 degrees Celcius in here Oslo (Norway) at the moment I simply envy you the opportunity to wear shorts and go for a swim! As for the Ewa Marine, it is a cumbersome little thing as you found out, but for surface shooting you can skip the rubber band and avoid the loose camera simply by sucking some air out of the bag. Cheers!

  3. RyanStruck at 1:21 pm

    Let’s clarify a few things before people go putting their D3 into EWA bags. Getting in the water with you gear and trusting a plastic bag to your equipment is detrimental to your wallet (and will make you cry). By all means put your camera in the water, but trust the housing outlets (Essex, SPL and Liquid EYE) Surf photography and EWA = disaster. You drop that bag or it hits the reef and your camera equipment is lost or flooded. http://www.ryanstruck.com http://www.thenewsurf.com

  4. Derek Hoffmann at 10:53 pm

    Hey Allen, I wanted to let you know about the Hawaii Premier of Fiberglass and Megapixels. Its an award winning documentary about surf photography on the north Shore of Oahu and it screens this Sunday April 18 at 4:15pm Regal Dole Cannery Theater. Its an Official Selection of The Hawaii international Film Festival -Spring Showcase and there will be some of the featured photographers of the movie in attendance. Mahalo,

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