Everything you always wanted to know about surf photography but were afraid to ask

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When SURFER asked me to write a tip for budding surf photographers, four words came to mind: give it up now.

OK, I may be exaggerating a little, but getting good surf shots is a hell of a lot more unpredictable than shooting a local bar mitzvah or wedding ceremony. As a surf photographer, take everything that can go wrong with standard photography and compound that with shutter speed demands, salt spray problems, inevitable grains of sand in your camera, exorbitant telephoto lens costs, wave and/or surfer impact, grumpy locals, ungodly facial expressions on your subjects, severely low pay, and thoroughly stiff competition. If all this is in check, make sure you're in the right place at the right time on the right swell, and you might get a photo published. Despite these potential hazards, surf photography can be very rewarding. The learning curve is steep, the action can be gripping (try shooting Maverick's on a 20-foot day), and, most important, you get plenty of time in the water.

If you're seriously thinking about getting into surf photography, you need to ask yourself something right away: will it be a hobby (where you might share shooting duties with your buds), or will it be a profession? The difference is huge. If you're going to be an amateur, here's what I suggest: go cheap. Go to a reputable camera store and buy used equipment. For land-based shooting, get a sturdy tripod (not one of those plastic video jobbies) and a low-end, major brand name camera with a motor drive or power winder. The camera shouldn't cost more than $400.

The lens decisions are a bit trickier. To get a decent action photo, you really need a lens of 400mm or bigger, and that can get pricey. There's a few possible routes, probably the best of which is to buy a generic "off-brand" lens like Tokina or Sigma. The quality is not superb, and they're a little slow, but they're fairly easy to travel with and are sharper than comparable "mirror" lenses. If you want to round out your land quiver for lineups and lifestyle shots, I'd suggest two zoom lenses, maybe a 70-200mm and a 28-70mm.

If you want to take water shots, there are several choices for the amateur these days, ranging from waterproof "throwaway" cameras (that can produce surprisingly good results) to some nice little high-tech units made by Canon, Minolta and Sea and Sea. While these cameras are very capable of taking some nice shots, the thing to remember here is that all of these models were designed with divers in mind. None work as well as a high-quality camera encased in a surf-specific water housing, mostly because they don't let you select a fast enough shutter speed, and don't have motor drives.

The last suggestion I have for amateurs is to shoot color print film. I can't tell you how many people have boxes of slides in their basement that never see the light of day. Go on a trip, shoot print film, put the best shots in a photo album, and, if you're any good, the book'll get passed around and you'll be a hero again and again. Trust me.

At the time of this writing, a full-page color photo in SURFER Magazine pays $125. The state-of-the-art autofocus lens that is used to obtain most of the land shots you see in the surf magazines these days costs about $10 grand. You do the math.

These are the kinds of numbers that limit the number of full-time surf photographers out there. Even though there are more than 60 international surf publications in existence today, fewer than 10 photographers worldwide survive solely by shooting surf stills. And most of those guys are eating more Spam than lobster. The rest of the surf photographers, including me, recognized early in the game that we must supplement our incomes.

The most logical accompanying jobs to surf shooting are tapping into the more lucrative branches of surf photography. Most of the "successful" surf photographers over the last couple of decades have turned to tangential routes: shooting videos/film, being a commercial or stock photographer, and photo editing. The advantage here is that these side jobs don't detract from the time you get to shoot surfing, and a lot of your stock photos can come from surf trips themselves. The other strategy involves freeing up your days by choosing a typical night-time "surfer job," such as bartending, valeting or exotic dancing.

There are two diametrically opposed approaches to becoming a professional surf photographer. The first strategy is to jump into the deep end right away, which involves getting a loan of up to $20 grand, purchasing the newest, best equipment and spending the next several years paying your dues. The other more common strategy is to parlay your success: start at your local beach by shooting your friends. Then piss them off when you start charging them for prints. Keep doing this until you have enough to upgrade. And when you've finally accumulated some high-quality images, present them to the magazines and advertisers. You're far from a guaranteed career at this point, but at least you will have moved farther out of the red.

If you're fairly young, I would strongly suggest the latter approach because you learn to conquer (or at least tolerate) all the potential nightmares and problems before you get to the big leagues, and if you decide to bail on the whole idea, you can get out of it without blowing a huge chunk of cash. If you're older, you may as well just go for it, otherwise you'll be geriatric by the time you see your first half-page shot in SURFER Magazine.

Walk into a well-supplied camera store and you'll realize that there are literally thousands of routes when choosing what equipment you should buy for professional surf photography. Below I've categorized some specific equipment purchases and attached some very rough price estimates. Keep in mind that these examples only represent a tiny sampling of a bevy of possible choices:

Nikon N2000$250 Canon EOS A2$600 Canon EOS1 N (w/boost)
Century 650mm$500 Canon 300mm f2.8 AF(w/ 1.4x and )2x extenders)$5,000 Canon 600mm f4 AF[w/ 1.4x ext.]$10,000
Bogen 3021$100 Bogen 3046$185 Gitzo 6312$470
Used Manual Focus Housing$400-$700 (same as inexp.) Ogles EOS1 Housing$1,200.00
(wide angle)
Canon 24mm f2.8$300 (same as inexp.) Canon 20mm f2.8 EF$500
(short telephoto)
Canon 135mm f2.0$400 (same as inexp.) Canon 135mmf2.0L EF$1,100


Most surf photographers are shooting 35mm format in Velvia Fujichrome for color shots. Black and white shooters use everything from Polachrome to TMAX 3200.

Curiously, this is probably the most important, yet most ignored part of surf photography. It is the sole reason why a surf photographer of the same or lesser talent can be making 10 times the amount as his counterpart. While marketing strategies are held very close to the vest, the bottom line is that professional surf photography is a business and should be conducted as such.

Your initial contact is very important. Calling a magazine and saying, "Hey, bro, I've got these rad shots, so you better call me in the next 10 minutes or I'll send them to the other guys," is not wise. Better to collect the best transparencies you can over a certain period of time, edit those down to two or three slide sheets, and then send your photos to the magazine with a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Realize that the surf magazines receive up to 20 unsolicited photo submissions per week, so unless your work is extraordinary, chances are you may get rejected a couple of times. Rejections happen to the best of them.

The financial disparity between photographers can be huge. One lives in a trailer, another lives in a mansion. One doesn't own a car, another drives a gold Mercedes. If you really analyzed it, you'd find the difference lies in the desire and willingness to search out more lucrative photographic paths.

Is surf photography a viable career? Probably not. Does it lead to greener pastures? Sometimes. Does the lifestyle make it worth the attempt? Absolutely.

Source: Surfer Magazine (1999)

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