Shooting the Surf


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Photography: Sean Davey

Ask someone where they’d rather be right now, and there’s a good chance that you’ll hear a description of golden sands, blue seas and warm sunshine. Ask a photographer the same question and you’ll probably get the same answer — and a long discussion about the camera equipment they’d like to take with them.

For Sean Davey though, that’s not just wishful thinking; it’s a description of his job. Sean lives in Hawaii, and has been taking photos of the surf for the past 31 years, most of that time as a professional photographer. His work has appeared on dozens of magazine covers, his art images are shown in galleries around the world, and he regularly receives the sort of commissions that many people would pay to do. His last job involved leaning out of a helicopter for Red Bull to shoot tow-in surfers riding 20-foot waves.

Shoots for corporations then can provide one source of income for a photographer who specializes in images of surfers, waves and underwater wildlife; art prints are another source, and Sean also licenses stock images from his archive for editorial and commercial use. Some of that licensing he handles himself; other licenses he sells through agents including Corbis.

Danger Sells
Regardless of who he’s selling to though, Sean says that buyers are usually looking for one of two things in a surf image: a moment that’s usually only seen by people who spend a lot of time on the water; or a moment that shows a lot of danger.

“Either way, stuff that most people don’t know about or don’t want anything to do with themselves.”

Creating those images, of course, requires understanding of the subject. Sean was born in Australia and was, he says, “your typical 15 year old surf-crazed teenager” in Sydney when he took his first surf photos. (One day the waves were too small to ride but too perfect to ignore.)

The fact that he’s been surfing ever since has, he believes, been an important part of his ability to capture other surfers at their most dramatic moments.

“If you surf yourself, then you can totally anticipate what the surfer is going to do well ahead of time, although it does help to be well acquainted with individual surfers’ styles and approaches to surfing. Anticipation is a very big part of surf photography.”

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Photography: Sean Davey

Miss a Moment, Land a Scoop
Technique too is vital, Sean says — or rather, a willingness to be creative with your approach, experiment and take risks. If that increases the possibility that you might miss an important moment, it also raises the odds that you’ll be bringing back photos that are different to those produced by competitors.

“Most surf photographers are not that imaginative,” Sean claims. “The bulk of ‘em just shoot 1000th at f 5.6 and not much else. I mix it up a lot. I like to often shoot using slow shutter speeds to give the image a feel of going really fast. Very, very few photographers do this as you miss a lot of shots… Still, I’d much rather have a handful of unique images than a bag full of what everyone else has.”

But creating spectacular photos that are different to regular surf pictures isn’t easy, and even a surf photographer as skilled and experienced as Sean says that the biggest challenge of working in his specialty is paying the bills. The rise of digital photography — and the fall in prices as a result — hasn’t made that any easier, and Sean advises anyone thinking of entering the same niche not to spend any more money than they’re ready to lose. That’s not easy advice to follow when documenting the sport requires using just about every kind of lens available for a 35mm camera from fisheye to telephoto, as well as specialized underwater equipment.

Only the hardiest, most dedicated and most talented photographers are likely to rise above the pack and establish themselves on the surfing scene, Sean warns.

For those who do make it though, the rewards can make it all worthwhile.

“The best thing about shooting surf photos is being in the ocean on an (almost) daily basis. It’s cool to connect with nature in any way that you can. It’s especially nice here with the clear waters and warm sun.”

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Photography: Sean Davey


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