Outdoorphoto Blog » Billabong 2009 – A surf photographer’s perspective

Billabong 2009 – A surf photographer’s perspective

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As an asunrisespiring surf photographer, I wait in anticipation for the first week of July to get the opportunity to create some of my best work with these great masters of the surf. The event is held over the best three days of the period. Each day starts just before sunrise with the call being made by the organizers whether the day would be a competition day or not.  By getting to the venue before this time on the non event days, I was afforded the opportunity to capture one of the best kept secrets the eastern cape has to offer, a perfect sunrise.

Canon 1 D Mk 3, 24-105 mm F 4 , F 22 ISO 100 @ 1 Sec handheld – Manual

I do not know much about landscape photography, but one has to make every effort to capture nature’s beauty when presented with moments like this. While capturing a few images of these great rocks and water swirls, I looked up across the bay and noticed some activity in the water. I fitted my 2X converter and hoped that all I had read on the forums about image quality were true and I was pleasantly surprised at the results.

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Canon 1D Mk 3 and 500 mm F4 L on a tripod, 2x Converter ISO 250 @F8
1/250th – Manual

One of the most challenging factors facing a photographer at this particular surf spot is that the light is not favorable for the most part of the day. Late afternoon normally provides superb lighting as the winter sun sets with that golden light falling on the glassy wave faces! This year I set out to capture some creative surf imagery by using the early morning sun rising directly behind the breaking waves. As if scripted, Bobby Martinez launched himself off the top of a closing out section at Super Tubes to offer me this exquisite moment.

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Canon 1D Mk 3,400 mm 5.6f L lens, F 5.6 ISO 500@1/1250th hand held, Aperture Priority

Other early morning photographic moments with a 500 mm F4 lens using the rising sun.

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Shooting in raw and using neutral settings on the recorded files, I am a firm believer that the photographer, when shooting in JPEG, should be responsible for the end result and not the camera. This again is a personal preference and works for me. I found that the above images needed only minor post processing work to show what the natural light in the images captured.

Super Tubes is a long wave to ride in the right conditions, affording the photographer an opportunity to move up and down the beach to get a slightly better angle on the early morning sun and certain sections of the wave where the wave masters go about their business. I worked the entire section of the wave to capture images for most of the day. In doing this you also have a larger variety of images to show for the long hours spent behind the viewfinder.

By changing your distance from the action you can also get various perspectives of some moves surfers execute while trying to score the most points on any specific set of waves. Below is a series of images taken from the same point of the beach. You can see how you can vary your compositions with timing.

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Canon 1 D Mk 3, 500 mm F 4 with 1.4 converters, F8 ISO 200 – 400
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Canon 1 D Mk 3, 500 mm F 4 with 1.4 converters, F8 ISO 200 – 400

Basic camera settings vary from genre to genre but for surf photography I believe that the most important tool we have at our disposal is the cameras histogram. Exposure is the key to creating a good or superb image. I also use basic aperture priority mode with anything from F6.1 to F9 with my shutter speed above 1/1000 at all times to freeze the moment. This also ensures that if your focus point is in the correct place, the whole subject and his board will be sharp and in focus. My sport photography mentor once told me that to get a sharp image is better than not getting one at all. In other words, get that shutter speed up and capture the moment before you get creative!

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Another very important consideration when taking action images, is the platform one shoots from. I mainly use a tripod with a video head or Wimberley when shooting from the comfort of the beach. When I need to walk along the rocky shoreline or stand knee deep in the water, a mono pod in a sport shooters belt pouch does the job. I do this not only with the hefty 500 mm lens, but with the other smaller lenses which may be necessary to create images. It improves image quality and my keeper rate. Below is an image shot by a fellow photographer, Joey Nel, that shows my standard setup and my young beach bum prodigy, Joshua.

This year the swell predictions were spot on and the huge crowds that flooded the beaches were not disappointed. Surfing was phenomenal and the world’s top surfers had to deal with some of the best surf that the event has seen in recent times. Below is the world renowned surf break in all its glory.

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Canon 1 D Mk 3, 24-105 mm F 4 , F 16 ISO 320 @ 1/125th handheld, Aperture Priority Mode

It was quite evident this year how big the digital photography world has become with far more ‘long glass’ visible on the beach and many of the spectators crowding the water line to snap some images of there favorite international surf hero’s.

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One thing that really got on my nerves was the total disregard for others by some spectators and photographers that had short lenses and moved very close to the waters edge on the exposed reef at low tide.  Sometimes standing directly, and deliberately it seemed, in front of photographers behind them. All along the beach, groups of photographers set up near each other and the majority of the spectators steered clear! Unfortunately there is always one individual who has no concept of consideration and has to ruin it for the rest of us. Remember that when you are taking photo’s at a very public event like this, consider your fellow photographers!

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I found it very easy to shoot in aperture priority mode, using the dial to increase F stop to lower the shutter speed to experiment with finding an optimum slow speed while remaining focused on the high speed wave riders. Not the most technically correct method but I got the results and technical data I wanted.

Most of the time, it pays to follow a surfer all the way along the wave right to the bitter end even if you don’t have a great angle. I always do this in anticipation of some crowd pleasing dismount or in case he busts a huge air. A little trade secret I have learnt is to follow the press before a major event to find out who’s hot and who’s not! There are also other useful tips and hints as to who is renowned for a specific move… most times they are spot on!

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Canon 1 D Mk 3, 500 mm F 4 with 1.4 X converter , F8 ISO 250 @ 1/800th

surfingA big advantage of this event is that the surfers that are not competing in a specific heat are free to catch a wave outside the main Super Tubes line up. I wasted no time in finding some top names at the very fast breaking waves at “Impossible’s”. These expression sessions presented many great opportunities for me to be creative. I have been experimenting with slow shutter speeds and managed to make use of the high speed surfing to show decent motion blur in the image.

Canon 1 D Mk 3, 500 mm F 4 L, F 29 ISO 250 @ 1/60th, aperture priority mode

As a surf photographer, one has on occasion more than a few minutes between sets to contemplate life and gaze along the beach to watch the world go by… Every now and then, an opportunity to capture some unique images of the local bird and wildlife of Jeffery’s bay presented itself.

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In closing , I would like to thank my family and fellow photographer friends Joey and Luc who shared the event with me through the cold winds, early mornings swells and  of course my endless ramblings of how much fun it was to be on the beach doing something I love. Here is one of my favorite shots of the time I spent at the “Bong 2009”.

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Kelly Slater stands in awe of this famous point break…

“when we are doing what we love, we don’t care about time….. for at least at that moment time does not exist and we are truly free…”  – anonymous


By Andrew Aveley
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All images © Andrew Aveley

The post Billabong 2009 – A surf photographer’s perspective appeared first on ODP Magazine.

About the Author:

Sean has been shooting since schooldays (started with a borrowed Pentax K1000 from His sister, also a photographer) but only became seriously involved with photography when he returned from living in Eastern Europe. While overseas he did shoot some non-profit editorial work and also made the big switch from Nikon to Canon. Today, Sean likes to shoot Stock. "Stock is the 'best of both worlds' industry, that requires creativity and very set guidelines to be successful..." Sean also teaches photography (basic, advanced & other Stock-related courses) and frequently arrange "shooting days" for photography clubs and individual groups.

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