Surf photography naturally lends itself to some of the most kickass action shots a camera can capture. There’s water, sun, dudes upside-down mid-air and everything’s super fast paced. While the excitement of snapping a surfer mid-air in profile is palpable, getting the perfect shot can mean hanging off the side of an idling jet-ski in colossal swell as a wave breaks, hoping you don’t get face-planted by mother nature into a reef in the process.
Northern beaches local Steve Wall is no stranger to some of nature’s most stunning views, having spent his life in saltwater, on a surfboard or capturing some of the most unique viewpoints of the ocean on his Nikon. With an eye for angles other surf photographers don’t seem to grasp, he’s become known for his stills and video footage, capturing the way the ocean works in different levels of light, with sunrise a huge focal point in his images. As a professional videographer and photographer, he’s already known for seamlessly pairing his proficiency behind the lens with his love of surfing and the ocean. Now, however, he’s taken his skills to a new level: pioneer.
With a desire to capture perfect waves in low-light, Steve set out to create a flash head for the high-seas, spending years perfecting his design, which eventually allowed him to take photos in a way that had never been done before.
“I had the idea of wanting to try and experiment to see what we could get with it. So I built a bunch of custom waterproof housings that would let me take that on the jet skis in the water. And we just experimented with a few different types of waves, different conditions, and saw what we could come up with, and it kind of evolved from there”, says Steve.
“I’m using a Nikon digital SLR inside a waterproof housing. Just the Aquatech brand housing. So basically the way that works is I’ll have a cable that runs from that housing to then connect to the flash pack, or a wireless unit if I want to swim away from the light. I have that camera set up going and then that basically talks back to the control unit with the light. So I can swim around in the water whenever I can be on the ski, I can even be on land, the light could be in the water, or vice versa. And they all pair together, which is pretty cool.
None of this was as simple as Steve makes it sound though, the rig was far from an overnight garage job to make a reality.
“I guess it took 2 maybe 3 years for the idea to develop to the way we have it now. All the parts that I had to put together for it are completely custom. There were a few obstacles to overcome and design issues and all that sort of stuff, as you’d expect… there’s a few different parts to it, but it’s made out of a modified Pelican case, hard shell cases for moving gear around. The flash head’s made out of an aluminium box with perspex covers, because light still has to get through. There’s a bunch of cable gaskets and custom wiring and stuff like that – I kind of had to order parts from Europe and all over the world and basically just assemble it to do what I need it to do.
The painstaking level of pre-planning implemented by Wall made the eventual application of his new apparatus relatively smooth, but it wasn’t without its elements of trial and error. “Often we’d go and use it and find that something was just too cumbersome or didn’t work for whatever reason, and we kind of just had to go back to the drawing board. It was a pretty ongoing process I guess.
“The first few shoots, sometimes we’d go to all this effort to go and do something and we’d get out there and we’d find the whole thing just wasn’t working for some reason, it was some little cable had broken or rattled free or whatever. It’s a pretty high stressed environment for something to work, for something like that to work properly.”
While the striking shots of illuminated waves might seem to be contrast against a midnight-blue sky, Steve reveals a different story of just how complicated it is to get the lighting right for the perfect picture.
“You have half an hour before sun rise basically. That window starts and you can actually see what you’re looking at, I mean you can’t really just drive out in the middle of the night, or jump in the water in the middle of the night, ’cause you just can’t see a wave coming, you don’t really know, you have no bearings in your surroundings.
“That would be pretty impractical, so you sort of have this sweet spot … where you have to all go in the water. And if you’re working with surfers, you have to have those guys in the spot catching waves at that exact time, and then once that half hour passes, a good wave might not even come through in that time, or the light might be average, or the surf might not even be any good. You sort of need to be onto all these variables to get a good shot, and obviously there’s a huge bit of luck that goes into it as well.”
The equipment, while safe and portable, is not without its dangers when used in a big swell.
“It’s fairly portable in that we can just throw it in the back of the car and take it wherever we’re going. Like most of the work that you would’ve seen out and about is from the South Coast, there tends to be, there’s a lot of good locations down there that we can access really well without a lot of other people around we can kinda do this stuff, I guess away from other people, and we can just focus on what we’re trying to do, and not worry about other people in the water.
“We’ve got plans to take it overseas and other locations, but (the South Coast) was sort of our testing ground… A lot of the stuff that’s come out recently (is) from Cape Solander where they had the Red Bull Cape Fear contest last year. We actually went out off the back of that contest as that wrapped up last year, and it was pretty much the wildest surfing contest in history, I know a lot of people were saying, just purely for how intense and consequential the waves were that day. So we had plans to shoot that afternoon with one of the surfers who actually ended up winning the contest. He’d surfed for about two hours during the day and we were messaging him after the final, and it was just pretty clear that he was spent, like he’d been through some pretty wild shit throughout of the course of the day.
“We didn’t want to push it too far so we ended up going out anyway and just shooting empty waves, and that was probably the craziest stuff that we’ve ever shot with it to be honest. We kind of sat out there until it got pitch black and eventually we just couldn’t even see the swell lines coming in so we just had to get out of there. That spot’s 15 to 20 metres from a cliff face, which a wave wraps into and explodes again as soon as you go over the side of it.”
As far as the limits to this flash set up? Steve doesn’t see his invention restrictive to only producing epic shots of waves.
“I suppose I haven’t realised the full potential of it yet I don’t think. I’m looking forward to playing around with it and shooting some more underwater stuff, and stuff away from waves really. But, what you can do around the water, that’s sort of the ultimate goal.”
If you missed his exhibition at El Topo Mexican, don’t worry he will be showcasing it all again at the Orange.Country Fiesta of the Art’s Wrap Party on Friday 28th August powered by Sengled.
Steve’s brilliant photography is also available in print form – get in touch through his website, or check out his Instagram for continued updates.