Surf photography

Attending my first photography workshop - a review of Foto Frenzy's Surf, Ocean & Lifestyle workshop event in Bali by Hannah Prewitt

In late April, I attended my first ever photography workshop. It was run by Foto Frenzy, who also run several other workshops including an underwater one photographing humpback whales in Tonga. But this was the first time they’d held a surf, ocean and lifestyle event in Bali. It was also, unbelievably, the first time that the legendary photographer Ted Grambeau had ever hosted such a workshop.

There were three hosts: world-renowned surf adventure photographer Ted Grambeau, Aquatech ambassador and big wave photographer Phil Thurston, and Foto Frenzy’s Jasmine Carey. We also had some assistance from an enthusiastic newbie Lachlan Callender. It was held at the beautiful Komune eco-resort in Bali, which is situated right on the famous surf break Keramas and just so happens to be the third stop for pro surfers on the World Champions Tour. I’ve spent a lot of time in Bali, but I’d never been to Komune Resort before and I would happily go back for a holiday. It was stunning. I was very happy to be spending eight days there learning from some of the world’s best.

The stunning landscape that we got to shoot every day.

The stunning landscape that we got to shoot every day.

When I arrived, I had no idea who else was attending or even how many people were involved. I knew one other attendee - my friend Kat Nielsen who runs The Creative Series photography blog. I was surprised to find out that there was just one student in addition to the two of us - a bubbly Mexican girl called Alexa. That was it! Three students and three (and a half) teachers. I’ll admit, this wasn’t really the plan for Foto Frenzy. They had hoped to get a few more sign-ups but they were always going to keep the student-teacher ratios low. But for this debut event, they just didn’t get the numbers. I have a feeling that next year will be quite different.

Having never attended a photography workshop before, I really didn’t know what to expect. I’d heard some horror stories from similar professional events where the students simply watch the instructors take photos, so I really hoped this wouldn’t be like that. It wasn’t.

On the first afternoon, we looked over our equipment and water housings to see what we had and made sure everyone knew how to set everything up properly. The event also supplied us with a few additional pieces to try out if we wanted, which meant that I finally got to take my 50 mm in the water :)

Alexa with her Aquatech underwater housing.

Alexa with her Aquatech underwater housing.

This first day was also used to get an understanding of what each individual was looking to achieve throughout the week, so the lessons and practical sessions were tailored to our individual needs. We had also completed a basic questionnaire prior to arrival, so the instructors had a good idea of our photography knowledge beforehand.

Our days started at sunrise where we’d swim out from the beach and shoot the rising sun from the ocean. Then we’d literally just turn in the other direction to shoot the waves. It was a dream location.

The first morning’s sunrise was incredible. Shot with Nikon D750 and 50 mm f/1.8.

The first morning’s sunrise was incredible. Shot with Nikon D750 and 50 mm f/1.8.

Lachy shooting some of the locals in the surf.

Lachy shooting some of the locals in the surf.

The workshop had various sponsors including Aquatech Imaging Solutions and Manfrotto. Ted had also arranged for Ripcurl to provide us with a model - Kipp Caddy - which meant that we had an incredible surfer ready to head out and shred whenever we wanted to shoot.

I already knew how to shoot surfers (hence my tutorial on how to take amazing surfing photos), so I was keen to learn some new techniques. On the second day, I had a one-on-one lesson with Phil Thurston - the master of shooting the ocean in slow motion - who showed me a technique to take panning shots of surfers. This was completely new to me but I have to say, I was really impressed with this shot I managed to get on my first time trying!

Ripcurl’s Kipp Caddy tearing it up at Keramas. Shot with Nikon D750 and 80-400 mm f/4-5.6.

Ripcurl’s Kipp Caddy tearing it up at Keramas. Shot with Nikon D750 and 80-400 mm f/4-5.6.

One of the things that Ted really wanted to teach us was how to understand light in order to be able to solve photography problems. The workshop provided scrims and reflectors for us to have a go and figure out how they work. This is my personal favourite way of learning so this really suited me. Learn the theory, then learn by doing.

One of the other things I got to try out was using lights, both continuous and flash. I’d never used lights before - in fact I went as far as calling myself a natural light photographer, which if I’m completely honest was partly because I was intimidated by flash. But now that I’ve learnt the basics, I realise it’s nothing to be intimidated by and something that can really add a wow factor to natural light photography.

Ted had an underwater continuous light as well as an underwater flash that we could try for ourselves. He arranged a portrait session for us in one of the resort’s pools. These were some of my personal favourite photos that I took that week and it really opened up my eyes to what’s possible with different locations and equipment.

I loved these underwater portraits so much that I also arranged my own private photoshoot with pro surfer Brisa Hennessy, who was already at Keramas in preparation for the World Tour event.

One of the most exciting things about the location is the ability to surf at night. The resort has huge floodlights that light up the wave in front of the beach so you can surf in the dark. I wasn’t sure how I would feel swimming in amongst the waves at night time, but I wasn’t going to turn down this unique opportunity. Phil paddled out with us into the dark ocean along with Kipp on his board. I wasn’t too focused on getting surf shots because I wasn’t at all confident that I would be able to shoot anything worth keeping (I was right!) but just being out there in the dark was a really cool experience. I did however, manage to get a shot I was happy with from the beach, using the same slow shutter panning technique I’d learnt earlier.

Kipp Caddy night surfing at Keramas.

Kipp Caddy night surfing at Keramas.

The entire workshop was based at the resort, as there were so many different locations within it, but we did leave the resort briefly to experience some local culture and attended a Balinese dancing ceremony in Ubud.

Using a slow shutter speed to capture the movement of the Balinese dancers.

Using a slow shutter speed to capture the movement of the Balinese dancers.

It’s hard for me to sum up eight such extraordinary days, but I left this workshop feeling like someone had opened my eyes as a photographer. I didn’t just learn how to do one particular thing, but how to use what I had learnt and adapt it to different situations. One of the main things I loved about it was seeing everyone else’s photos as well. I love how different people can shoot the same subject at the same time, and all come out with completely different images. We ended the week with a presentation of our best shots from the week.

The end of another beautiful day at Komune Resort.

The end of another beautiful day at Komune Resort.

Overall, the workshop was extremely professional but equally as informal. We had a classroom space to use all week, we had workbooks, presentations, practicals and editing sessions. We covered all aspects of photography including action, lifestyle, portraits, and products, as well as the business side of photography, workflow techniques and editing. We eat together and hung out all week and by the end we had all become quite close. The support has continued since we have left, and I now feel that I have a small network of professionals whom I can call upon for advice in the future. There was a perfect balance of freedom and guidance - we were encouraged to try everything but never felt obligated to do so. I can honestly say that this was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, and was worth every penny. If you have any questions about anything to do with this workshop, please feel free to get in touch.

If you’d like to read Ted’s write-up of the event, you can do so on his blog.

For another article written by Kat Nielsen, Founder of the Creative Series blog, please click here.

If you’d like to learn more about Phil Thurston and see some of his incredible work, you can visit his website.

If you’d like to enquire about attending the same event next year, you can do so via Foto Frenzy’s website.

How to take amazing surfing photos every time by Hannah Prewitt

Surfing was one of the reasons that I got into photography. Even though I’m now a surfer myself, I still love to shoot surfers. Especially good ones. Admittedly, when I first started taking photos, I would shoot on auto sport mode and think I was taking good photos. A couple of them were okay, I suppose. As my knowledge of photography has progressed, so has my ability to take great surfing photos. So now I’d like to share my top tips with you.

Just to be clear, this is not a beginner’s guide to surf photography so I’m assuming that you understand you’ll need a fast shutter speed, and a long lens. Also, these tips are NOT water-specific. They are aimed at those shooting from land or a boat, but can obviously be applied to shooting in the water as well.

Firstly, let’s go back in time to four years ago, before I even owned a camera and have a look at some of my very first surfing photos…

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This is a shot of my husband, who is an amazing surfer and an absolute pleasure to shoot when it’s pumping. So it’s pretty easy to get a decent photo of him. And I think you’d agree that this one looks half decent. I’m sure most surfers would be fairly happy with this shot to post on their social media. But when we zoom in, you can see that the image isn’t sharp, the white water is pretty blown out, and it’s not very easy to make out his face.

Compare that with this shot taken much more recently, and you can see a noticeable difference in quality.

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So how do you turn your surfing photos from average to ones people are willing to pay for?

Here are my top tips :)

Tip #1 - Use back-button focus

I randomly read about this somewhere and decided to try it for myself, and since making this adjustment to my camera I would never ever go back to using shutter-button focus. Even for general photography. The way your camera focuses now (unless you’ve changed it) is by half-pressing the shutter button. Which means that when you stop shooting, you then have to re-focus on the subject before you can shoot it again. When photographing surfers, this could easily mean that you miss the money shot. When I used to use shutter-button focus, probably only 60% of my shots were in focus. Once I switched to back-button focus, 95% of my shots were in focus.

So what is back-button focus? Well, it’s basically where you assign another button (ideally one on the back of the camera where your thumb naturally sits) to focus for you, leaving the shutter button to just take the photo. Which means that you can keep your focus button pressed ensuring your subject stays in focus while you choose when to press the shutter button and take a shot. Try this out and I promise you, it will totally change your surf photography.

Tip #2 – use 3D-tracking focus

This is another tip to help you focus on your subject but not all cameras are capable of it. I shoot with either the Nikon D750 or the D7200, both of which have this focus mode. You’ll find it under the continuous focus options and it basically tracks the subject for you as it moves. Very clever! Again, this will help to get almost all of your shots in perfect focus!

Tip #3 – shoot in high speed burst mode

This seems pretty obvious but if you shoot in single shot mode, then you have to keep pressing the shutter button every time you want to take a photo, which can waste valuable time and can mean that you miss the best action. Shooting in high burst mode means you just hold the shutter and your camera will take lots of photos split seconds apart from each other, giving you a nice sequence of a turn and ensuring you get the moment with the most spray.

Tip #4 – use a fast SD card

I used to think that all SD cards were the same, just different sizes. I was wrong. If you want to shoot in high speed mode (which you do), then you’ll need an SD card that is fast enough to write the images to it as quickly as you’re taking them. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself holding down the shutter but not actually taking any photos! Some brands are also more reliable than others. The last thing you want when you’ve made the effort to go somewhere to shoot is for your SD card to give you an error message. I would recommend SanDisk over every other brand. This card linked below is extremely affordable and writes more than quick enough for the needs of most surf photographers.

Tip #5 – have a basic understanding of surfing

In order for you to shoot great pictures of surfers, you need to understand what it is that surfers are looking for in an image. This is why most surf photographers do, or used to, surf themselves. It really helps to understand the sport. But, if you’re not quite there yet, then here are a few examples of surfing money shots:

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A great bottom turn – you’re looking for the board to be on its rail as much as possible. If you can see fins or spray coming off the board, you’re winning.

Spray – if a surfer pulls off a great turn, they’re probably going to want the shot with the most spray in it.

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Deep in the barrel – it doesn’t matter if they make it out or not – get a shot where they look super deep and they’ll want that photo.

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Airs – if you see a surfer gaining some speed, chances are they might be headed to the air. It doesn’t matter if they land it or not, just that you get the evidence.

It’s also great to shoot the entire sequence of someone’s wave because they can use it for coaching purposes and a fast sequence acts like a video but with better stills. Plus it gives the surfer more options to choose from so they’re more likely to buy from you.

Tip #6 – if possible, get the surfer to wear something bright

Your camera’s autofocus works using contrast. Most surfers like to wear dark colours, which means #1 it makes it difficult for you to pick them out of a busy line-up, and #2 it can make it more difficult for your camera to focus from a distance against the dark water if the sun isn’t out. On that note, if you’re a surfer, be conspicuous and you’re more likely to get photos!

Tip #7 – try to avoid shooting into the sun

Unless you’re looking for arty shots that are silhouetted, try to avoid shooting at the time of day where you’re going to be shooting into the sun. So if the wave faces west, sunset might not be the best time shoot if you want crisp clear images.

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Tip #8 – consider the white water in your exposure

If you’re shooting on a big day, you might want to consider how much white will appear in your image quite quickly. You won’t have time to change your exposure mid-wave, so just bear in mind that you might want to underexpose the image to start with, to ensure that you don’t massively blow out the highlights. You might not be bothered about seeing the details in the white water, but it can sometimes make for an interesting shot, like this one below that I can see all sorts of faces in!

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Those are my top tips that hopefully will help your surf photography. If you’ve got any of your own that I haven’t mentioned, please leave me a comment. I’m always looking to keep learning and improving.

How to take amazing surfing photos every time

Cloudbreak - the swell of the decade by Hannah Prewitt

The morning of Sunday 27th May was dark, windy and wet. It was also my first wedding anniversary. Perhaps not the best day to plan a surf shoot, but rumour had it that the biggest swell since 2012 was going to hit Fiji. So we waited anxiously for the tide to start to fill in before putting on our rain jackets and heading out to Cloudbreak. This infamous wave that I'd been so thrilled to see for the first time a few weeks ago. I thought it was big then. How wrong I was. 

As we approached the break, you could see the spray from hundreds of metres away. And the boats. So many boats. I don't have that much experience shooting from a boat, but I've never had to compete with 60 other boats for a good spot. Factor in the rain and wind, and this would be the most challenging shoot I've ever done.

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It's hard to describe the feeling of being so close to something so powerful. Your body is tense and your heart is racing the whole time. Just the waves on their own are majestic, fierce and some of the most beautiful things I've ever witnessed in nature.

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Even the highly experienced watermen who are around big waves all the time seemed to be delighted by the spectacle.

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To comprehend the size of these waves, you really need to have a something in the shot for scale.

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There were no turns. The aim was to get as shacked as you could and make it out the other side alive.

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Emotions ran high, especially for those who had to be rescued by jet ski after what was possibly the best wave of their life.

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I have so much admiration for the commitment it takes to paddle yourself into a wave this size. Talk about a steep drop! 

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Finding the right spot to shoot photos was difficult. Boats starting getting deeper and deeper to get a clear view. But there were some wide sets that kept the captains on their toes.

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Just when I thought my day couldn't get any better, Kelly turns up to get a couple. 

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I think this is my favourite shot of the day. While it's not possible to portray the thunderous roar these waves make when they break, I think this image depicts the chaos, the adrenalin, and the thrill of what it's like to shoot at Cloudbreak during a monster swell.

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