Shooting in the wave break

Hammer the Shutter Button Down and Brace for Impact…

I’m kneeling on a bank of wet sand, clutching my Nauticam underwater camera housing with a death grip. Inside, my Canon 5D MARK III is armed, its autofocus already working hard to keep the water that’s rushing towards me in focus. I look up at the wall of water towering above me, and my brain quickly throws me images of David and Goliath and Patrick Swayze’s last wave in Point Break, with the Surfaris Wipe Out as the background track. I try to dig my front foot deeper into the sand, brace for impact and haul my right index finger down on the shutter button.

Click, click, click… KABLAMO!

I’ve always been a fan of getting the shots that pegged the “hard to get” meter off the scale. My wife, not so much – especially of getting the shot requires Band-Aids and ice packs afterwards. Give me all the lemons you want: Difficult lighting conditions, challenging angles, limited visibility and a small perch – How sweet do you take your lemonade?

Even as a kid, I wasn’t content shooting a scene at a turn-out. I had to scamper down a hill, or hang onto a tree limb to get the right shot. Shooting cars, I’d be lying on my belly on the pavement as cars whizzed by, asking the driver to slide the truck a little closer to me on a dry lake bed, or hanging sideways out the tailgate of an SUV shooting car-to-car action.

Photographing in difficult situations requires creative thinking (and sometimes engineering) on the fly, and being prepared to take on the challenges as they appear. I always carry my trusty Leatherman tool, (which has helped me out on many an occasion), plenty of clear rubbish bags, a clutch of zip ties and Velcro wraps. Oh, and a small first aid kit for those inevitable “oopsies.”

While these items will help fix random issues that come about in the field, the big item is common sense, and the measure of risk vs. reward. Now, there are many people, when they learn of how a particular image was captured, think I’m an adrenalin junkie, or just two tacos short of a combo plate. Both might be true to an extent, but you have err on the side of caution and be mindful to listen to your inner voice – especially when it says, “don’t be an idiot.”

So when I decided to try my hand at underwater photography, I really wanted to capture the feeling of being in the wave, so I did a bit of homework: I wanted to be on a receding tide, low winds, on a strip of sand with a shallow entry to keep away from rip currents and undertows. I needed decent-sized waves that mostly spilled, but gave the occasional plunging breaker. Of course, the light had to be just right – early to mid-morning. I had to wait four days to get the right conditions.

Gear wise, aside from the fresh batteries, and clear memory cards, I made sure the housing seals were all clean and freshly lubed, then leaked-checked the housing in a tub of water. For safety, I attached a DaKine coiled leash a put a good coat of wax on the dome port. Then, it was down to the water, watching the surf, and picking right place to hunker down.

I shot for about an hour, with waves in the two-and-a-half, to three-foot range. One in a while, a few biggies (for me) would roll through, and send me tumbling like a CF card in a washing machine – the price you pay for shooting a dumpy break with grinders. I finally called it a day when the winds picked up, and I got caught a face-full of a six-footer. I dragged myself (and about 10-pounds of sand in my board shorts) out of the water, exhausted, slightly battered, but with an ear-to-ear grin on my face.

I didn’t get a good shot of the last mongo wave – I was too busy trying to keep the camera from hitting the reef while I was spinning in the washing machine.

Inside a crashing wave

If you’ve ever wanted to know what it’s like to be pummeled by a wave, here you go.


But the rush of water matching the rush of adrenalin is intoxicating, all while twisting, turning and churning, finger mashed on the shutter button. Is it worth it to get an in-your-face wave shots? Oh yeah, and I’m already planning my next day in the water – Kablamo and all!