Surf Shoot on The Great Lakes

Back in 2008, I shot a surf feature for Mountain Life Magazine on local board shapers James and Charles Grant of Five Surfboards.  This assignment introduced me to the Great Lakes surfing scene.  It was a profile piece and I only shot portraits but was always intrigued by the idea of shooting some action.




I have been following the local scene ever since that shoot, always on the lookout for interesting subjects to work with.  I recently connected with Great Lake surfer, Josh Davy.  Josh, who is a pastor by day, has been very helpful and has contacted me a few times now to come out when the surf is up.  Good surfing conditions don’t always make good photographic environments though, and I have had to pass on a few opportunities to join Josh and his crew.  You have no doubt heard the term ‘storm surfers’ as this is often when the surf is at its best.  I love the idea of shooting in adverse conditions, to show the resolve and passion of these Great Lake surfers, but there is a point when making a meaningful exposure is futile.

This past Friday, Josh reached out once again and I decided to make it happen, no mater the conditions.  25-50mm of rain was forcasted leading into that morning and my spidey-senses told me not to miss this one.  Lots of rain, melting snow and high winds seemed like just the right recipe for a solid swell – but how would it materialize behind the lens?

I knew that shooting in the rain would pose some challenges but decided to roll the dice and play it out.  I woke to heavy rain on Friday and started to prepare for what the shoot might entail.  First in my mind was the quality of the light.  It would no doubt be bleak and flat.  This would typically be solved by using strobes but there were a few potential snags going down that road.   Rainy conditions aside, the main concern would be the ability to throw the light far enough to reach the surfers.  I had never been to the proposed location so the distance to my subject would remain unknown until I arrived.   The second issue was the rain.  While I could shield myself and my gear from the elements, I couldn’t shelter the resulting photos from it.  Strobes tend to amplify the rain drops in the foreground by lighting them up, turning them into blown out highlights.  At this point, I envisioned that the shots were going to either be epic downpour photos captured with available light or, if the rain let up, some strobed exposures that could help add dimension to the images.   If I could get enough light to my subjects, I could also potentially underexpose the sky to make it even more ominous.  I was looking for anything but the drab grey I was seeing out my window at the time.  My feeling was that the look of available light better suited surfing images but I had to be prepared to work with what I was dealt.  I guess that given my options at that point, I was hoping I could get a strobe on them.

To make the strobed setup possible, I needed help.  My plan was to bring two battery-powered Elinchrom Ranger packs.  With this duo of 1100W/s packs, fitted with sport reflectors, I could potentially get enough light on my subjects.  These packs are fairly heavy so I would need help hauling them in.  More importantly, I would need an assistant to hold and track the surfers with the light.  This setup would not be very efficient if the lights were pointed at some random wave while my subject remained in the shadows on an adjacent wave.  Sure, I could luck out and guesstimate ‘the spot’ but I wanted to try and increase my odds of success. For this to work, I needed the light to be trained on the surfers.  Cue: voice activated light stand.  I reached out to colleagues and my friend Dean Campbell offered his services.  Dean has been covering the Olympics for the CBC and was at work, dressed accordingly.  He said that if I could bring him some warm boots, he was in.  That was the easiest decision I made all day.  Everything was falling into place.  There was a drawback to making this shoot happen however which was missing the Olympic hockey semi final match between Canada and the United States.  This ultimate sacrifice to the hockey gods must have paid off because we won.  I managed to catch the game on the radio while traveling to the shoot and as I made my way there, the rain subsided and the sun started to shine. I was starting to get stoked, big time.

Dean and I still hauled all the gear in for good measure but I was able to shoot the entire afternoon under available light.  There were a dozen or so brave surfers out and the break was impressive.  In my research leading up to this shoot, it seemed that 200mm was an adequate focal length to capture the action.  I found that to be too loose for the composition I wanted and opted for my 300mm f/2.8.  Depending on where I was shooting from, I also used my Nikon TC-14e and TC-20e teleconverters.  You will find mixed reviews on the use of teleconverters, or doublers as they are sometimes referred to, but used correctly they can be a lifesaver.  It helps that Nikon makes particularly good teleconverters.  When used in conjunction with quality glass such as the Nikkor 300mm f/2.8, you have good chances for success.  I’ve never had an issue with the 1.4 tele and often use it wide open.  I was really impressed with the quality of my shots captured using the 2x tele as well here.  I was using my Nikon D4 which is the ultimate body to use in conjunction with these.  The D4 maintains auto-focus down to f/8 which allowed me to stop down yet still have responsive and reliable AF.  Had I known that I would be shooting at 600mm I would have brought a 600mm f/4.  I was at Nikon earlier that morning and could have easily borrowed a lens from NPS but simply didn’t clue in at the time.  I will definitely be going back out with a 600mm, possibly even the new 800mm in my bag.   Now that I have seen the location, I’m pretty keen to get back and try a strobed set.

This turned out to be an amazing shoot and I am very happy with the resulting images.  Due to geographical and lighting limitations I was only able to shoot from essentially one side of the break.  This unfortunately means that I don’t have any shots of guys carving away from the me on the wave.  The resulting images would have been ‘butt shots’ and I’m not a fan.  So I apologize and promise to have some longer glass next time and try this from a new vantage point.  I really wanted to get shots of Josh, as he has been such a great help, but sadly only got a few.  One of my favourites of the day however is of him floating in the lake with a block of ice in the frame with him.  He mentioned hitting ice chunks and puncturing his board during his last session, so I thought this was a cool way to tie it all in.  I really like the composition and feel of this photo.  I lucked out that local surfer Larry Cavero was out on this day.  I got lots of great shots of Larry and a few of the others as well.

Big thanks to Josh and to all the other surfers who were out.  I would also like to thank Dean for helping and hanging out with me during the afternoon.  I am actively looking to shoot more surfing so please contact me if you would like to hook up for a shoot. Here are a few images from my day shooting surfing on the Great Lakes.