April 16, 2008

Exploring underwater surf photography


I have been told that I did not like the beach when I was a baby. My parents have shown me photos of myself at the beach in a diaper, sitting in the sand with the look of terror on my face. Things didn't get any better when they would take me out in the ocean. One would have thought that my parents were dipping me in battery acid by the torrential screaming that I let out.

Twenty-five years later, I can't stand to be away from the ocean -- not even for a day. I still don't like the sand much. I want to be in the water.

A few years back, Russell Blackwood gave me one of his old Nikonos underwater camera. I had to send it off to get it fixed, but a little over a month and about $115 later, I got it back, and it worked, which was a definite plus.  The camera was pretty medieval. It had no motor drive, and it was a manual focus -- very manual focus. It did have a light meter, though, to let me know what shutter speed I was shooting at.

I took about 150 photos with it, and only one turned out really good. I have so much respect for Russell after seeing all of the great photos that he has taken with his Nikonos.

Well, with the current digital camera revolution, it has been easier to get into surf photography than ever before. It is a lot cheaper to buy memory cards that I can reuse, than film that I can only change once. In the last couple of years, I faced the problem, though, that I couldn't afford the $8,000 lenses that the "big-time" surf photographers have. They get you closer to the action with little to no noise in the photos.

So, I decided that since I don't like the sand anyway, why not get in the water? I researched water housings for my equipment. A water housing is an aluminum or fiberglass/plastic container with a high-grade Plexiglas front casing, some o-rings, screws, and wing nuts. This is all that separates your camera from turning into a bath toy.

Needless to say, I did a lot of research. Neither money nor cameras grow on trees, and I wanted to make sure that my equipment would be totally protected. When I first searched water housings on the Internet, a few names popped up. Most of the products are housings built for diving. But I was looking for a "splash housing" rated for about 25 feet.

Then, I found just the guy I needed to produce the housing that I wanted. Mike Waggoner has been making custom housings for more than 20 years. He uses a resin composite, which isn't as heavy as aluminum. After talking with Mike a few times, I decided to pull the trigger. The housing with pistol grip and front port ran a lot cheaper than the 500mm, $8,000 lens that I mentioned earlier. And it would enable me to get a different perspective on surf photography than the guys standing on the beach. Plus, there was the most important added advantage that I would not have to stand by and watch all of the action. I would be able to be a part of it too. So, I made the investment and Mike custom built a water housing for my Nikon cameras.

I finally received the housing in August of last year. I had to try it immediately, even though there wasn't any surf. And since then, every opportunity that I have I am in the water with my camera – every opportunity -- because now I can get as close to the action as I want to. Sometimes I even get a littler closer than I would like to, so I have also purchased a helmet and upped my insurance policy.

Less than a year later, like any photographer or professional in any field, I have a long way to go and a lot to learn. That is the great thing about my work. I am always learning, and it is always evolving. Every time that I shoot, every time that I am in the water, I am learning something new that makes me a better photographer.

The photos with this article make it look like I know exactly what I am doing, but in reality, it has been a process with a large learning curve. I hope that in a few years, my photos will be better and more creative, and I will have a greater grasp of the expanding genre of surf photography and may even explore some new methods.

In the meantime, if you see me in the water, please do not run me over!

(The photos that accompany this article were taken in Ostional, Costa Rica, the Canary Islands, Spain, and, of course, on Hatteras Island)


For more information on water housings, check out the Web site of Mike Waggoner of Essex Water Housing at http://www.surfhousings.com/Essex%20home.html

To see more of Daniel Pullen’s photography, see his Web site at http://www.danielpullenphotography.com

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