Of all the sports I have shot, surfing is the most challenging to do well. Particularly once you get in the water to shoot it. I also think that it is the most fun to shoot, since when you are in the water shooting it, you are not just watching the athletes zip past you, but you become I involved in the action- swimming for the horizon when a rogue wave comes through the lineup and fighting currents to hold your position. But capturing the beauty and power of the ocean is what keeps drawing me out into the impact zone.
I have been lucky enough to shoot some of the world’s most famous waves including Cloudbreak in Fiji, Pipe on the North Shore of Hawaii, various breaks up and down the California Coast including Rincon, Mavericks (from the shore), and a few different spots in Bali including Lakey’s Peak and more recently Rincon, Piha and Gisbourne here in New Zealand.
But as much fun as it is to be in amongst the waves and surfers, it becomes exponentially more dangerous and harder to get good images as the waves get bigger. In fact most surf photographers who shoot from the water on a regular basis train just as hard if not harder than surfers themselves. After all, to get the best shots from the water usually requires the photographer to place themselves right in the impact zone where the waves crash, which is exactly where surfers try to avoid getting caught in.
I have been caught inside at both Pipeline and Cloudbreak while shooting and both experiences were some of the scariest things I have ever had happen to me. At Pipeline, I was caught by a set wave (a wave bigger than most of the waves coming through) and was sucked up the wave and thrown down with the lip (called being sucked over the falls). The wave was so strong that it forced me down at least 2 meters underwater and bounced me off the reef at the bottom of the ocean so hard that I had a nasty bruise on my hip for the whole two weeks I had left of my trip to Hawaii.
The above image is from the impact zone at Cloudbreak looking up towards the surface after being slammed by the heaviest wave I have ever seen in the 20 years of surfing. This wave came out of no where and cleaned out the whole lineup including John John Florence who happened to be out free surfing. The wave was so powerful that it ripped both my swim fins off my feet ( breaking both ankle leashes on my fins) and I was only able to find one of the fins and was barely able to make it back to the boat fighting against the current. Fortunately I had a rash shirt on which protected my back from getting totally ripped to shreds on the sharp coral but did end up with a few good scrapes down my back.
So next time you see a shot of a surfer being spit out of a huge barrel or an amazing shot of a surfer dropping into a bomb from the water, admire the skill of the surfer pulling into the wave but also spare a thought for the photographer who put themselves at the mercy of the ocean to get the shot.
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