Monday, August 4, 2008

Water Photography - How to take good In-Water surfing photos using inexpensive gear.

Hey guys I got some new content here that is just a bit different than the usual fair that is served up on this blog but I think it fits pretty well with what we are all trying to do here...which is basically to have fun when we surf, (and get good waves when we can).

So a few months ago I was looking through some of my online traffic stuff and I kept seeing that a bunch of people were being referred to my site from another blog called Daily Bread ( Naturally I was curious as to what the Bread was all about.

I ended up finding a pretty damn sweet blog with a bunch of "in-water" photos of some of my favorite local breaks. The shots looked great...many of them from unique angles with different lighting than you generally see make it through the Photo Editor's desk in the magazines...I guess you could say that they had a touch of soul to them.

Personally I love water shots...they are about as close to a "surfers" perspective as you can can imagine your self being in the same position, seeing the drop, throwing some tail, getting the always seems to be so much cooler when it is shot from the water. Water Photography also demonstrates an admirable commitment level for the photographer himself, who has drug his gear out into the line-up rather than stayed up on the nice safe dry sand.

What made the Daily Bread that much cooler was that Kaser_1 was shooting these images using a rather inexpensive waterproof digital camera...and most of the time he was doing it while he was surfing, rather than just floating in the water watching other people surf.

Anyway since I am interested in photography and surfing (and the mix of the two)...and I figured that a lot of you might be as well... so I hit up Kaser_1 with a few questions about his equipment and techniques. Not only did he answer but he ended up one-upping me with an invitation to come out and surf with him and Warmjet (another photographer who blogs the Cabinessence Blog). Fortunately I managed to avoid polluting their cameras with my horrible surfing...but I did get to see how they did it first-hand and I have to say that the cameras are very small, light, easy to use, and if you are comfortable in the ocean the techniques they used were pretty straightforward.

Anyway enough of my are some of the interview questions that Kaser_1 was cool enough to answer for us.


For not being a "professional" photographer you get a lot of cool water shots. What sort of gear do you use?

Thanks....I've been using the Olympus 770sw for alittle over a year now.

Is it expensive?

I bought mine for about $350, you can now get the 770sw for about $200 since they've come out with a couple newer models.

How do you get the shots...what sort of technique do you you shoot from your board or swim out with fins?

I'd say that positioning is 80% of the shot. You have to understand where the subject is going to be when you pull the trigger. So knowing the break where you're shooting helps. If the wave breaks in the same spot every time, then it's easy to put yourself in the best shooting location.

example of positioning

I typically shoot from my board while surfing. I get some of my better shots after taking a wave and I'm paddling back out. I am often asked how and where I put the camera when not shooting. The camera comes with a wrist strap that I tie to my zipper tether on my suit, I then tuck it into the suit under my chin, resting at the top of my chest supported by my manboobs. But I've been known to sacrifice my surfing session to swim out with fins and get in the tight spots to shoot on days when it's really good.

You mentioned in an email that you have been experimenting with all sorts of camera/photo gear for a while...even some of those cheap, water-proof, disposable film cameras...can you take us through your evolution in equipment?

About 3 or 4 years ago, a good friend and I (Steve H.) began buying those disposable waterproof film cameras that you can pick up from your local drug store. We took them out and tried using them while surfing, but they were pretty bulky and not very user friendly when it came to surfing. We used them for a while with varying degrees of success. Out of a roll of shots, maybe 2 or 3 were worth keeping. It also became pretty expensive getting the film developed.

Old School: Salt Creek taken with a disposable waterproof camera

Around that time, Pentax had come out with a decent sized waterproof digital, I think it was the W10. So we each picked one up and started shooting every session almost. The Pentax was easy to use, but it wasn't very durable. It was only rated for 10ft., and had a tendency to leak when the surf reached the 8'+ range. So needless to say, I went through about 5 of those Pentax, even upgrading to the W30 when it came out. After having to keep sending the Pentax in to either get serviced or replaced, I upgraded to the Olympus 770sw. The Olympus was rated for depths of 33ft., and felt bulletproof. I do feel that the Pentax takes a better quality of shot, and the video is better than the Olympus, but I was sold on the durability of the Oly. Both the Pentax and Olympus come with a 1yr manufacturer warranty, but I would advise purchasing the additional store extended warranty on top of the purchase. You're putting a camera in water, without a housing and there's bound be a leak sooner or later, it's worth the extra dough. More recently, Steve ponied up for a board mount that he's let me try for some video. I haven't tried it but a couple times, but I think it's going to be a work in progress. It's a suctioned base that I lock onto the nose of the board facing towards the tail. You only end up seeing from my knees to my feet and back into the wave. I've posted a couple vids on my blog, but nothing too impressive (yet).

An example of a Pentax Video - Lazy River

What do you consider the most important factors in getting decent water shots? (IE Lighting, position, action, conditions...)

I'd say positioning is a good part of it. Lighting is right up there next to positioning in getting good shots. I've shot some decent shots in crappy lighting, but you need to be pretty darn close to the subject. The farther away you are, the more 'noise' is going to be in the shot when the lighting is bad. Shooting in the direction of the sun is the biggest issue with these cameras. More so of the Oly than the Pentax. If you're shooting in the morning, its best shooting into someone surfing lefts before the sun gets too high in the sky. Otherwise the shots tend to get washed out. On a cloudless morning, you get your most brilliant colors within the 1st 45minutes of sunrise. After the sun is up from there, I'd focus more on shooting into the rights.

Example of Positioning and lighting

Example of a shot getting washed out by lighting

Example of shooting west coast rights in the morning

How could someone with limited experience get started?

It's critical to read the manual when you get a new camera, cover to cover, a couple times. Understand the features and use a little trial and error in different conditions, lighting, etc.. There's more to it than just turning the camera on and shooting. Pay attention to what settings work, and those that don't. I've had a couple friends buy new water cameras, not read the manual, and have me lock their settings in the right mode for them (I'm not mentioning any names, you know who you are).

Are you influenced by any of the professional photographers?

I've always been a big fan of Ryan Beppu's wave shots that he gets in Hawaii. He's got a pretty good knack at shooting tiny little barrels, and also shots from underwater behind the wave shooting towards the beach.

One of my local favorites is Ron Woolhether of Awe F'shore Photography. He shoots alot of the same spots I do, but... (ahem) with much better gear. He tends to know right where to be on the 1st day of a good swell. He'd captured a shot this past winter at a N. OC spot that you'd have to have known the break and preferred swell angle to catch the shot, and this place is extremely fickle. It was a thing of beauty.

Say that you are stuck with a crappy disposable waterproof would you go about getting a good water shot?

I'd use the aforementioned techniques, with good light, and a little luck.

Are you ever considering moving up to professional-grade equipment? Why or why not?

I've considered moving up to an entry level SLR, but the current conditions related to my day job (Real Estate Finance) doesn't allow me that luxury yet. I'm always up for some better results, and I surf just about everyday, so I'd have a good chance of hitting the right shooting conditions with amount of time I'm in/around the ocean. Believe you me, if I could get paid for shooting photos, I'd quit my day job in a heartbeat.

Moving away from photos...on your blog ( you sometimes highlight some different styles of boards...what are you personally riding right now?

I'm currently bouncing back and forth between my 70's "Thumb" singlefin, the brainchild of Peter St. Pierre of Moonlight Glassing. I picked it up off of Ebay about a year ago for $50, and my Zamora displacement hull. I quit riding shortboards (for the most part) back in the early 90's. Since then I've been riding, mid-lengths, eggs, bonzers, 70's pintail singlefins, and everything in between.

Bonzer Love

Finally...Here is a great story that Kaser_1 sent along with his interview questions

I had a pretty cool experience related to my blog last summer. I took a trip up the coast, camping in Morro Bay, and up to Santa Cruz. I'd posted on my blog that I was heading north for 2 weeks and would be posting photos from my trip along the way. I'd stopped off at a little spot that I knew about from living in Morro Bay back in college in the early 90's. Sitting amongst a few guys in the line up, I struck up a conversation with an old time local. He asked where I was from, and I answered. His reply was, are you the Daily Bread feller? I was blown away. I'd only had my blog up for about 4 months at the time and didn't realize that people were really checking it that much, other than my friends. Another younger guy overheard our conversation and also said that he'd checked my blog regularly. After that, I went ahead and signed up for Google Analytics and it really opened my eyes as to what parts of the country, and the world, that checks the Bread.

Very Cool...thanks for the answers!


Anyway like I said...I think post will be pretty helpful for you guys out there that are interested in taking some water shots of your own...and refreshing that you will be able to get some quality pics without dropping a ton of coin on "professional" equipment.

NOTE: If you are planning on buying a camera online you might shoot over to the Daily Bread blog...Kaser_1 has a small affiliate link add back to If you find a camera you like you can click through those links and kick back a little love to Kaser_1 for helping us out.


Jamie Watson said...

Awesome interview! Really enjoyed it. Love that photo of the fins.

Anonymous said...

Name dropping or having a back drop that publicizes local spots is lame. This guy could take a lesson from you, as I respect you for giving broader geographic regions instead of spoon feeding and increasing crowds at specific spots. I guess that's why he got run out of where ever he grew up and lives and surfs here now. Total implant boob job! No thanks bread! Coconutz! said...

I enjoyed the read.
There is a much easier way to do surf photography from your surfboard using the same Olympus camera Kaser_1 was using.
It's called the Surf Camera found on It will fit the Pentax waterproof cameras as well. The new Pentax W60 has a wider angle which makes out for more viewing if you want to attach it to the nose of your surfboard. You can use the Surf Camera case to help you out for that too.

Anonymous said...

Great read, very insightful. I've been taking on shore surf photos for a while now and am looking to get in the water. Any tips as far as overall safety is concerned? I personally have only attempted to surf once, and it was mostly a disaster. I know having a surf background helps as far as positioning and such, but is it necessary? I suppose what am asking is do I need to take up actual surfing to be a good in-water surf photographer? Any info would be much appriciated.
Monterey, CA