Join us as we hit the waves with surf photographer Alex Callister and learn how he got started in surf photography, how he operates and what it’s like to capture surfers while battling heavy waves and dodging flying surfboards.
1. What sorts of steps did you take to learn photography? Classes, books, etc?
I’ve actually not been shooting seriously (or competently!) for very long at all. I played around with a Micro Four Thirds camera for around a year before taking the plunge into the SLR world. The smaller non-SLR camera gave me a real taste for photography and I digested as many books as I possibly could in quick succession. I would highly recommend the following for those in the early stages of their photography addictions:
- “The Passionate Photographer: Ten Steps To Becoming Great” by Steve Simon
- “Within the Frame: The Journey of Photographic Vision” by David DuChemin.
I did also attend an evening class at college but this was more targeted towards studio based photography — an interesting exercise where I met some great people but perhaps not so relevant to my preferred subject matter.
As soon as I laid my hands on my SLR (Canon 7D), my thirst for knowledge increased and I swallowed several more books. However you approach photography, there is no substitute for practice, practice, practice — and making sure that you experiment with as many settings as possible.
2. Much of your work is surf photography. Can you tell us how you got involved with photographing surfers and what you like about it?
I’ve been surfing for a long time and have always taken a keen interest in surf related media — magazines, websites, videos and even brand advertisements. I love surf photography, particularly shots taken from the water. The difficulty with being a surfer and a photographer is being torn between surfing and shooting — it’s a permanent frustration that I doubt will ever go away!
When the surf is good, I know I should be in the water, getting involved in the action and not standing on the beach. I shot from the beach for a few months initially but always envied the guys that were getting into the water with their equipment.
Shooting from the water offers me the perfect balance of adrenaline, fitness and technical gadgetry. I also find it to be a thoroughly sociable experience — surfers are a friendly bunch and take a keen interest in seeing their own water shots.
You don’t often see water photogs braving the cold English seas and capturing the best surfers from a rarely seen angle is a very rewarding experience.
3. How do you find your subjects? Do people hire you to take photos or do you just get out into the water and go from there?
My Photoswarm photo portfolio gives a little more info on how I approach water shoots but generally speaking, I keep a close eye on the swell & wind charts and when it looks as though it’s on, I travel to the spots that I think will be working best.
Interestingly as a surfer, my preference would be for the most un-crowded spots while as a photographer, I’m looking for the biggest crowds, and particularly the high caliber guys.
Usually I just jump in and snap away. I carry a dozen or so rubber wristbands on my arm that have my web address embossed into them. Surfers always ask where the shots will end up and, as the line up (calm, deep area beyond the breaking waves where a surfer waits for the next wave) is a difficult place to exchange information, I just give out wristbands to surfers who want them so they can easily find my photo website later.
4. What kind of equipment do you use when in the water?
In terms of personal equipment: A wetsuit, neoprene gloves, hood and socks dependent on the season, and a pair of swim fins (as worn by body boarders). The UK is a cold, cold place to surf and I find water shooting to be even more energy sapping than surfing. For that reason I generally sport a slightly thicker, warmer suit than the surfers. If it’s big, busy or the seabed is reef (rock), then I often add a helmet to my armory. Surfboards are sharp and move quickly and the reefs can be lethal. A helmet doesn’t eliminate the danger but it’s certainly a confidence boost!
Where camera equipment is concerned: My standard camera body is the Canon 7D. Whilst not full frame, it’s a great lightweight body for sports shooting and the fast / high frame rate helps to ensure that critical moments aren’t missed.
For water shots I use either a Tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens or a Sigma 30mm lens. The Tokina is a great lens for surf photography but you do need to get close — often closer than feels comfortable! I use a 32GB CF memory card but am looking to get something larger. I only shoot in RAW to give me more flexibility during post processing and also because the magazines I submit to expect submissions to be in RAW.
Perhaps most importantly is the water housing that it all gets wrapped up by! I use an Aquatech Sport housing but there are a number of key manufacturers, which engineer housings specifically for surf photographers.
They are not cheap but they are exceptionally well built and custom designed for surf shooters. Dive housings aren’t really suitable for surf photography as they are not designed to float and the ports (the glass window that the lens shoots through) are designed for under water use.
5. Which one item of equipment would you say is the most important to you?
Without a shadow of a doubt it’s the housing. A well-made housing is a joy to use, while an unsuitable housing (like a dive housing) will cause a photographer to miss shots and potentially lose equipment.
Housings take a lot of abuse and are repeatedly pounded by powerful waves. Even a tiny leak would destroy my equipment and I simply wouldn’t take the risk with anything less than a tried, tested and approved piece of equipment.
The average water shooter may struggle to obtain insurance for their equipment being used in the water, so I would recommend reducing the risk of damage by investing in a good housing from the beginning.
6. Have you ever found yourself in a dangerous situation because of your surf photography?
Oh yes, regularly — and it should probably be pointed out that the UK is considered tame in comparison to some worldwide locations. Hawaii, the Polynesian Islands, Australia and Northern California are a few obvious examples where waves will regularly break with more ferocity than seen in the United Kingdom.
It’s got to be one of the most death-defying ways for a photographer to get their fix. Heavy waves can hold an adult under the water and disorientate with alarming intensity. The best shots are also the closest and that creates obvious dangers; flying surfboards can and have caused serious injuries.
And all of that is before the cold, the currents and often just getting in and out of the water. At least we don’t have a shark issue in the UK!
7. How has Photoswarm helped your photography?
Photoswarm has provided a great platform for me to present my work. I am not a techy so wouldn’t have been able to build my own site easily so I like the ready made, but customizable feel to the site. It provides a clean interface that makes it easy from an end user’s point of view.
The site is very easy to set up for online payments and the Facebook / Twitter social sharing tools have ensured some good coverage for my site. The easy integration of Google Analytics is also a useful feature allowing me to measure traffic to my photo portfolio.
8. What’s the one aspect or feature of Photoswarm that you value the most?
I do like the Facebook sharing feature. For my target audience this works really well and is a good way to refer traffic to my site. It doesn’t necessarily result in sales but this is as much of a hobby / personal interest for me as it is about actually generating an income.
9. How do you use Photoswarm’s sales / shopping cart features to run your Photography business?
It’s a very quick and easy process to sell photos through Photoswarm. I generally sell my shots for one set price but the sales function makes it easy to customize prices or withhold certain images from sale.
I do also submit some shots to the UK surf magazines and popular surf related websites. The mags are understandably looking for high quality shots and generally favor the sponsored riders. I’ve had a few shots published in the past 6 months and the additional income helps with equipment purchases and the fuel used to travel from coast to coast!
It’s a two pronged approach to sales — On the one hand I like to sell to the average surfer who is perhaps unlikely to see their photo emblazoned onto the double page of an international magazine, yet I am of course always keeping an eye open for the professional surfers where shots could easily be offered to sponsors and surf magazines.
10. Can you tell us about your post processing work-flow?
The vast majority of my images are post processed using Adobe Lightroom 4. I note a lot of critics within the surf photography community who accuse some work of being “Photoshopped” (as it is commonly referred). Personally I don’t really get it.
My motivation is in minor adjustments – straightening, cropping where required and some exposure adjustments (basic color enhancements). As long as I am not manipulating images to be something that they never were, then I can only see the benefits of these enhancements. Good photography is usually reliant on good light — something that is often in short supply when the surf is good in the UK. I don’t want to turn my cloudy day shots into sunny day shots but I’m happy to lift what may have been a fairly dull color palette.
11. What advice would you have for someone looking to move into surf photography?
Go for it! I’ve met some really decent and interesting people who shoot from the water and it’s a really welcoming format to shoot. For some people the cost of the equipment and the high initial outlay is going to be a problem but there are places to pick up second hand gear. A second hand Canon 40D, a housing and a decent lens can be found for less than half of the cost of a new housing and will easily be enough to get started with.
My only advice to those without (or even with) surfing experience is to think safety at all times. Start small and don’t paddle out into the biggest waves. It takes time to assess your positioning and you need to be constantly aware of your ability to dodge moving objects.
Don’t be disheartened by your early results – you’ll have a lot more “chuckers” than keepers — keep shooting!