Wave Photography Explainer-Part Two

The last blog covered photographing waves above the water. This one will explain photographing waves under water.

The interesting part of a wave under water is the tube of the wave. When waves break, they either crumble from the top and turn into white water immediately that then rushes to the shore. Or…the top of the wave throws out ahead of the rest of the wave, traps air in a cylinder…the tunnel of the wave. That cylinder continues to roll toward the beach as an intact cylinder for a short period of time. During that time, the front and back of that cylinder are often mirror like…sometimes appearing to be silver in color. The surface of the cylinder can be clear enough to see a surfer inside the cylinder or to see all the way through it to the beach. You only see this if you are underwater, with googles or a facemask on…or with your eyes wide open and very near the breaking wave. Most people never see it in a lifetime…too busy just trying to negotiate the passing wave and all of its’ chaos.

One more thing about the interesting part of a wave underwater…all that air that gets trapped in the tube has to eventually be released. This happens in two ways. The tunnel can just collapse into a mass of white water. Underwater this looks like a depth charge exploded…and it feels that way if it happens right on top of you. Or, the tube can create vortices…tornado looking rings that vent air from the tube to the surface. The rings are just about the coolest things I have ever seen…and they only last for about a half a second and then the tube collapses into that white water explosion. Despite surfing my whole life, I never knew they existed until I started photographing waves underwater about ten years ago. You can not see them from above the water.

Size matters. If the wave is too small it will only crumble from the top and there will be nothing to photograph underwater. Or, if it is too small it will become odd shaped underwater and not an interesting subject. Small waves also tend to break right near the beach…so they often break in water that is saturated with sand suspended in it…and you can’t see or photograph a thing.

Big waves tend to break out in deeper water and churn things up significantly…difficult to photograph and often dangerous, as the bigger waves around here are breaking over coral. There are places around the world where big waves and coral combine to create a breathtaking setting for back of the wave photography…Teahupoo, Tahiti comes to mind.

So, we look for mid-sized waves of two feet to six feet in height. These waves are well shaped and the first wave of a set will usually be in water that does not have a lot of sand stirred up in it.

We shoot wide lenses, typically around 15mm. This means we must be right next to something to get a good shot of it. In the case of a breaking wave we do this one of three ways. As the wave is breaking, we dive underwater about ten feet in front of the breaking wave, hold the camera out to our side pointed at the incoming wave and start firing the camera. If we get lucky, we catch the rings and approaching tunnel of the wave. If we get very lucky, we pass right under that energy and surface on the other side. If we do not get lucky and the tunnel and/or rings hit us…all hell can break loose…which is why we do not have our heavy camera housings right in front of our face.

Or…we position ourselves to the side of the wave, submerge as the wave nears and try to capture the scene from under the tunnel and rings. Much safer and we often get quite interesting shots using this technique.

Or, we position ourselves almost exactly where the wave is breaking, but a little further out to sea. As the wave approaches, we submerge and start firing at the back of the wave as it passes. Most of these shots have too much sand in them to be of use…but every now and again you get one that is crystal clear…and those are the winners.

The first photo is of a good sized wave rolling right at me…showing the tunnel and rings of that approaching wave. It may look further away because I am using a fisheye lens that distorts distances a bit…but I promise you that shot was taken from no further than five feet away from that incoming bomb…and since it goes all the way to the sand, it ate me up.

The second photo shows what those rings look like from the side, as a buddy of mine and I try to get under them. We did not get under them and it violently spun us around like rag dolls.

The third photo shows the typical thing you see underwater, the wave collapsing into a white water explosion that the swimmer is about to encounter. Looks like there was just enough room to get completely under the exploding section of collapsing wave.

The last one is a crystal clear shot of the back of the tunnel of a wave. You can see the lip part of the wave curving over the top, sealing in the air and forming the tunnel. All the little concentric circles are from drops of water from the breaking lip of the wave landing on the tunnel. At the far left side you can see it starting to collapse and turn into white water. If the sun is in the right position, it makes these tubes either silver in color or reflective or both. It is an amazing thing to see…and only lasts for a few seconds.

So…lots going on when we are photographing waves. All the action takes place in one of the most violent parts of the ocean…the impact zone. Takes some getting use to so as to avoid getting injured. I’ve been doing it since the 1970’s and I still get smashed on a regular basis. So, if you are going to gear up and give it a try…make sure your medical insurance is in place and has a low deductible. And when it gets big…come join me on the beach with a telephoto lens so we can enjoy watching CJ doing what he does best.

Wave Photography Explainer

CJ and I love to do wave photography. People who come into our galleries usually appreciate the photos we get…but are often confused as to what they are seeing and how we got them. So…here is an “explainer” for those who are interested.

There are several great ways to photograph waves…from the ocean shooting down the tube of the wave, under the wave, behind the breaking wave, above the wave using a drone, from the shore using a telephoto lens or a wide lens…depending on where you are shooting…and from a boat or jet ski. We’ve done them all. Our favorite…from the impact zone where the wave is breaking shooting right down the middle of the tunnel of the wave.

Quick explanation of “tube/tunnel or barrel” of the wave…a wave comes in from the deep ocean in pretty much a straight line. When the energy of that waves starts to feel the bottom of the ocean (sand or coral)…it slows,

causing the face of the wave to build in height. The top of the wave will be going slightly faster than the bottom of the wave and will start to spill over..think “crashing wave”. The area of air that is trapped inside that spilling wave is the tunnel/barrel/tube of the wave. If you are inside of that tube, it looks like a big cylinder with water churning up from just in front of the wave…up the face of the wave…to the top of the wave that is spilling over. When it all collapses, you will see the white water that is a mix or ocean water, air and sand…and possibly broken up wave photographers or surfers. That white water rolls all the way up to the shore.

So here is how it works…we use a full size DSLR camera with a wide lens (like a 15mm fisheye or a 20mm wide lens). That camera and lens is secured in a water proof water housing that has a trigger mechanism for taking the photos. The front end of the housing has a port or dome that allows the lens to have an unobstructed and undistorted view of the scene to be shot. The housing…which together with the camera and lens might be worth about $7000…is on a leash that attaches to our arm…a blessing if the camera gets loose from our hands…except that it can also act as a weapon bringing that housing back at our head in the chaos underwater. Head injuries are fairly typical things for those of us who do wave photography. We try to shoot at 1/1600th of a second or faster at fairly low ISO and with cameras that shoot between 3 to 20 frames per second…most of our shots are with cameras shooting 8-10 frames per second.

So, with camera housing in hand, we swim or walk out to where the waves are breaking and get ready for the action. If it is shallow enough to stand…that is good and bad. Good in that you are not getting worn out swimming with one arm for hours on end. Bad in that waves breaking in shallow water can bounce us off the bottom and ruin our day.

Here comes the tricky part…timing is everything in wave photography. The current may be pulling us in/out or sideways. There may be backwash coming at us from the beach that might surprise us at just the wrong time. The wave itself might break exactly where the last one broke or ten feet further out or in. We have to pay attention to the surfers/bellyboarders/body surfers and assorted swimmers in the area around us…no fun ending up with a surfboard embedded in your forehead. Lastly, big waves suck out the water in front of them as they roll toward the beach. So, we may be swimming one moment and unconcerned about how we might get under the approaching wave…and then the water sucks out and leaves us standing in maybe six inches of water with a ten foot wave looming right in front of us. The technical term used when that happens is “Oh shit!”

If all goes well, the wave approaches with a great big barrel forming as it breaks, we hold our ground and fire our cameras down the barrel of the wave and then simply duck under it or dive through the face of the wave in hopes it will pass over us. Most times it is like a ballet and it all works out well. When it does not work out well, people get very seriously hurt. One of my good friends from London got his back so smashed so he needed surgery. A buddy of mine broke his shoulder today while we were out there. CJ and I have both had hospital visits over the years…broken bones or wounds in need of stitches. My dentist has made a good living on the damage done to my teeth when I was unable to get out of the way of a loose surfboard. Oh..and we love to do much of our photography as the sun is coming up…a favorite time for sharks to come check you out…and we have had our issues with those guys from time to time.

Reading back through this, I make it sound like anyone would have to be nuts to do wave photography. We are. We are also amazingly happy doing it…it is about as much fun as you can have with very few of your clothes on. In another blog I will show you photos from behind the waves, below them and in front of them as they roll toward the photographer. I think you will love them…and I will do an “explainer” as to what you are looking at and how the features in the waves form. In this one, I will show you a sequence of CJ standing his ground to get his shot on a sizable wave from today and a shot or two of mine from today shooting right down the barrel. Any questions…just ask. And there is a good selection of wave photos here on the website in a gallery that we have cleverly named “Waves”. Aloha.