Wake Photography 101
Several years ago (five, actually…) I wrote an article designed to help people learn a little bit about photography and hopefully apply some of that to shooting wakeboarding — whether it be on a weekend trip with family and friends, at a tournament that has come to town, or maybe even some regional rippers looking for a little exposure. At the time the article received a tremendous response and I was stoked so many people were seemingly interested in shooting wakeboarding and learning a little more about it. Nothing gets me more excited than seeing somebody pick up a camera and get the “photo bug.” I got bit a long time ago and am still “sick” with it (and am sure to remain that way for a long, long time…). I’ve learned a lot in the last five years, though (which leads me to wonder how I ever even got away with writing the article back then…), so I figured it would be good to update it with some fresh pictures and some explanations/ideas that will hopefully continue to help others when it comes to getting behind the camera while out on the boat. I'm still not totally sure if I'm qualified to write such an article, but hopefully it won't be held against me… So, if you’re interested in what I do when I’m out at a shoot, what I look for in a submission from other photographers, or what I think you can do to take better wakeboarding photos; read on. If not, the videos page usually has something new every couple of days…
Note: this article is designed for readers using an SLR camera — one with interchangeable lenses. A basic understanding of how a camera works is helpful, but not necessary.
I love photography. A lot. One of my guilty pleasures occurs whenever a new magazine arrives in the mail; I sit down and pour over the photographs, trying to figure out how the photographers behind each image made it happen. I did it as a subscriber to wakeboarding magazines as a kid and I still do it today, with publications from this sport and others. I’ve only surfed a handful of times in my entire life, but I subscribe to several magazines because I love the photography. Same thing with snowboarding – I’ve never done it, (I ski… shakas for two-plankers keeping it real on the slopes, bros!), but I subscribe to some magazines to get my necessary quota of cool photo intake and acquire some always-needed inspiration. As a kid back in the day looking at all the great wakeboarding photographs in the magazines from the likes of Tom King, Doug Dukane, Trey Tomsik, Ricky Ephrom, Kelly Kingman and others, I used to sit there and wonder, “How the hell did they get that photo? And why can’t I do that?”
Eventually I got inspired enough to pick up a camera and start shooting the sport myself. And after a lot of time and luck, I’m here to tell you that you can do that (with practice and a general knowledge of photography), and hopefully this article will help you learn how.
Before we delve into combining photography with wakeboarding, we’ve got to start with some basic photography lessons.
Photography is literally the capturing and recording of light onto a light sensitive plane of film (or now digital sensors). There are two basic functions that affect/control how much light hits the plane: shutter speed and aperture.
1. Shutter Speed. The faster the shutter closes the less light will hit the film. If the shutter is slower, it is open longer and allows more light to come through.
2. Aperture. A lens’s aperture is much like the pupil of your eye. The smaller the hole, the less light that will hit the film. The size of an aperture is referred to as an f-number or f-stop. You will frequently see labels like f1.4, f5.6, and f16 — these are all different f-stops. Out of these three apertures, f1.4 would allow the most light, f16 the least.
A second, and very, very important feature of a lens’s aperture is depth of field. The depth of field of a picture is the amount of the frame in focus or sharp. An f-stop of 1.4 has an extremely shallow depth of field, meaning only what you focus on will be sharp, the rest of the frame will be soft and out of focus. A picture taken at f16 will have a much deeper depth of field, meaning what you focus on, as well as much of the foreground and background will appear sharp. Depth of field is also affected by what lens you choose and how far you are away from the subject. The shorter (more wide angle) the focal length (zoom) of the lens, the greater the depth of field. The greater the distance from your camera to the subject, the greater the depth of field, as well. So if you were really close to your subject with a long lens and shooting at f2.8, you would have a very, very shallow depth of field. But if you were far away from your subject with a wide lens and shooting at f16, you would have a very, very deep depth of field. For example pictures demonstrating how depth of field can be controlled, go to the article directly below this one in the Articles section of the site. Or click here: http://alliancewake.com/article_details.php?id=4247
*Terminology note: Aperture and f-stops can be very confusing at first and hard to understand the terminology. Here is an overview to help.
On early cameras the aperture was adjusted by individual metal “stop” plates that had holes of different diameters. The term “stop” is still used to refer to aperture size, and a lens is said to be “stopped down” when the size of the aperture is decreased. The standardized, full stop of series numbers on the f-stop scale runs as follows: f/1, f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22, f/32, f/45, f/64. Many lenses and cameras have the option to change f-stops in full stops, half stops and third stops (e.g. f2.8, f3.2, f3.5, f4). The largest of these, f/1, allows the most light. Each f-stop after that admits half the light of the previous one. A lens with a larger aperture is said to be “faster.” A lens that opens up to f1.4 is said to be faster than one that can only open up to f2.8. On many lenses there is a “floating” aperture. For example, a common lens in the consumer market with a floating aperture is the 75-300mm f4.5-5.6. This means that at 75mm the lens can open up to f4.5, but if zoomed out to 300mm, the lens can only open up to f5.6 — losing two thirds stops of light.
3. Film Spped (ISO). The third thing affected by the light is the film. Film speeds, known as ISO, are what determine your shutter speed and aperture. Slower film (e.g. ISO 100) requires more light to be properly exposed, whereas faster film (e.g. ISO 3200) requires much less. To be specific ISO 3200 film requires five less stops of light than ISO 100 film. The full stops of film are 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, but many modern cameras (including digital) can be set at half or third stops for film speed. Slower speed films (100 and 200) would be used in high light situations, while faster speed films would be used in lower light situations. Higher speed films are also grainier than slower speed films, especially when images are blown up into large prints/files.
*Terminology note: Stops. A “stop” in camera talk is basically a change in setting for one of the three items above: shutter speed, aperture, and film speed. A full stop in shutter speed is 1/500 sec to 1/1000 sec. A full stop in aperture is f1.4 to f2.8. A full stop in film speed is ISO 100 to ISO 200. Each of these can be referred to in full, half or third stops. For example, “I opened my aperture half a stop,” or “I bumped up the shutter speed two stops.”
Applying it to Wakeboarding
So we’ve established a rough foundation for understanding photography and how to control the light coming into our camera. Let’s now take those shutter speeds, f-stops, film speeds, and the depth of field and apply it to some wakeboarding action.
Time of day: If you want your pictures to look like the ones in the magazines you’ve got to shoot at the same time the pros do. There are two times during the day to get good light: dawn and udsk. The period right after sunrise and right before sunset are referred to as the “golden hours” of photography. When the sun is low on the horizon the light is very warm, and because it is coming from the side (as opposed to straight above), it fills in the picture nicely. During the afternoons when the sun is high in the sky pictures can be very unflattering. The light source is now coming from above and casting harsh shadows across the rider’s face (and everything else), often causing the picture to appear flat because light isn’t filling the subjects as well.
Camera settings: Of course you are going to want the best looking picture possible, this starts with the film. With wakeboarding, photographers almost always use ISO 100 or 200 film – the colors are rich and the film is less grainy. These film speeds are slower so, as we now know, they require more light to be properly exposed. To do this we will stop our aperture down anywhere from f2.8 to f4 or 5.6. This is convenient because it creates a shallow depth of field, separating the in-focus rider away from the out-of-focus background. Now, because we are allowing in so much light with our large aperture, we are going to need to compensate by using a fast shutter speed, which, again is convenient because wakeboarding is a fast-action sport and you will normally want a high shutter speed to freeze the rider.
The typical setting in my camera while doing a photo shoot is usually around: ISO 100-200, f4-f5.6, 1/1000 – 1/2000 sec. This is a good place to start while starting out on wakeboarding photography. Of course, this is providing that you have good light conditions (no clouds, etc).
One of the most important things when adjusting your camera’s settings is the light meter. Every camera has a light meter built into it and most are visible inside the viewfinder. The light meter will tell you if the settings of your camera are underexposed, overexposed, or correct for the subject you are shooting. Learn how to read your light meter! Make sure that what your light meter is reading, however, is what you want to turn out in the picture. If the meter is reading off of a shadow over the water, you will slow your camera down because the meter will think it is dark. The shadow will be properly exposed and turn out quite nicely in the picture, but everything else will be blown out. If you meter off a well lit hillside and speed your settings up, the hillside will be nicely exposed, but everything else (including your subject) will be quite dark.
Angles: The best way to get cool, different looking pictures is to get out of the boat and shoot from a different angle. Pros use a variety of different angles during photo shoots: from a tube, in a chase boat, from land, in a sitting duck position, from a helicopter; or, if none of these are options, just climbing up on the tower will provide a different angle than the straight, in-the-boat shot.
From the towboat: The most common place to take wakeboarding pictures is obviously the towboat. Many times, when you’re just hanging out for a day on the water with buddies it’s the only option. Here are some suggestions about how to get good-looking photos from the towboat.
1. If you’re worried about keeping the rider in focus, shoot from the center of the boat. Once you get the rider in focus you won’t have to change it again because the rider will always be the same distance from the camera. Now you can just worry about the light, framing the picture the way you want, and timing the action.
2. Remember, the focal length of your lens will affect the depth of field of a picture. When you’re shooting from the boat with a zoom lens, f2.8 creates too shallow a depth of field — only part of the rider will be sharp in the picture. Open your aperture up to f4 when shooting from the towboat, this way the rider will always be sharp, but the background will still be soft.
3. Mix it up. Don’t always shoot horizontally or vertically — use both. Zoom in really close to shoot tight and get the rider to fill up a good portion of the frame. A lot of dead space can kill a photo.
When shooting vertically from the towboat it is usually helpful to keep perspective of the water, especially when the rider is going huge. So try to keep the rider at the top of the frame, this way you’ll still see the water at the bottom of the frame. You’ll be keeping perspective of how big the rider is going, as well as using the rule of thirds by having the rider in the top third of the frame.
But don’t think that you can only get good pictures when a rider is in the air. Just because the subject isn’t doing a trick, doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t get a good photo. Always keep your camera up to your eye and follow the rider. When shooting from the towboat you don’t always have to have the rider riding directly into the sun to use the “golden hour” of light. Using sidelight can create a strong image, as well. Backlighting/silhouetting the rider can also be very cool from the towboat.
Check out the pictures of Matt Manzari and Drew Danielo to see different ways to shoot from the towboat. The shot of Matt is pulled back to show the colors of the sunset, while the shot of Drew was shot by holding the camera over the back of the boat and on the swimstep to emphasize the size of the wake he was surfing and to get a cool, down-low angle.
The key to getting good timing on action photographs is to pan your camera with the rider. Don’t hold the camera in one spot and wait for the rider to enter the frame before firing — that’s just dumb, and really hard. Pan with the rider and keep him/her in the part of the frame you want and then fire.
Remember, these are just suggestions for shooting from the boat. You don’t have to shoot tight or vertically or any specific way at all. Mix it up, try different things and see how the results turn out. Climb up on the tower and shoot from up there if you feel like it (make sure you’re the only boat on the water and the conditions are glass, first), or hang the camera off the side or back to get it low to the water. There are thousands of ways to take pictures from a inside the towboat alone, my biggest suggestion is to not get stuck doing it one specific way. Even if you think something might not look good, take it anyway and see.
*Note: chase boat shots from directly behind the rider can be very dangerous! These shots should only be attempted with highly skilled riders and drivers. A boat doing 24mph does not have time to slow down should the rider somehow fall in its path. Please do not attempt follow chase boat shots without professional level riders and experienced boat drivers.
Framing the picture: One of the most important and underrated aspects of photography is the framing/composition. You might have gotten a great action shot of the greatest rider doing one of the greatest tricks, but if your composition sucks, then the photo isn’t going to look very good. If you can combine good light with a unique angle and compose the frame well, you will have a gorgeous photograph. Many photographers will tell you about the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds is designed to keep the subject you are shooting out of the middle of the frame, where it can seem stagnant and boring. Split the frame into thirds on both vertical and horizontal lines and you will have something that looks like a Tic-Tac-Toe game.
By using the rule of thirds, especially when the rider is not taking up much of the frame, the picture becomes much more dynamic. For an example of the Rule of Thirds, see the image of Parks Bonifay taken out on Tampa Bay. Imagine how boring this photo would look if I had put Parks right in the middle of the frame when I fired my camera — there would be a ton of sky, very little water, and almost no boat in the frame. Now I know what you-re saying, “How can I use the rule of thirds if the auto-focus of my camera is right in the middle and the rider is off in a corner?” Here’s the answer: manual focus. I know it can be tough, but with practice you will get used to it and your photos will start to look amazing. If you absolutely have to use auto-focus, many cameras have different spots you can select to be the auto-focus sensor. Try using one off to the side or a corner rather than right in the middle.
Wakeboarding is a vertical sport, so it is often good to keep some perspective in the picture that way the reader can see how high the rider is going. To do this, whether you’re shooting vertically or horizontally, you’re going to want to keep the rider towards the top of the frame. Of course this doesn’t mean you have to use the rule of thirds in every photo you take, or that you have to keep perspective of the water every time the rider you’re shooting jumps. Fortunately, wakeboarding is an action sport and intense action can often times still make for a great photo, even when it might seem compositionally bland. Keep in mind these are just suggestions. One photographer might compose a photograph differently from another as they might see a situation differently or have a different vision of what they want the final outcome to look like — maybe shooting vertically instead of horizontally, etc. This is the great thing about photography. No two photographers are the same – each has his/her own style. Much like wakeboarders have their own individual riding style, photographers have their own vision and shooting style. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try new things. The next few suggestions might help you with this.
Not all photos have to follow the rule of thirds or keep perspective. Be creative and try different things. The pictures of Daniel Powers and Clay Fletcher are two shots that don’t show the perspective of the water, but that still have some good action and visual impact.
Creativity (try something different): There are infinite amounts of ways a photographer can make an image unique. Here are a couple ideas you might want to try.
Blur: using blur can be an effective and different way to show the high-speed and intense action of wakeboarding. Slowing down your shutter speed significantly will leave the film/sensor exposed longer, thus picking up the motion of the wakeboarder. The key to getting a good frame, though, is to pan at the same speed as the rider. That way the rider is staying at the same spot in your frame while the shutter is open. The background will blur and the rider will stay fairly sharp if you get it right. Check out the shot of Matt Crowhurst from Wakestock UK for an example.
Silhouette: the silhouette is common, but can still make for a very powerful image. Personally, I’m a sucker for silhouette shots and I shoot them often. As you might know, when shooting directly into the sun your pictures can end up with lens flare — the big circles of light running across the frame. To prevent this while trying to shoot a silhouette you should use a high f-stop like f16. Keep in mind that if you’re shooting at f16 and still trying to freeze the action of the rider, you’re not letting in much light, so you’ll most likely have to bump up your ISO to 400 or higher.
Flash: using a flash can provide for some very cool, unique images. Flash can be especially great just before sunrise and just after sunset, so there is still light in the sky, but the flash is the main light source in the image instead of the sun. A flash or multiple flashes can be used in so many ways that I can’t even scratch the surface of it all with this article. The best advice with a flash is to understand how it works and affects an image, then get out there and fool around with it. My favorite way to use flash is usually from the tube with the sunset in the background. Meter your camera for the sunset so it will show up properly exposed in the photo, then just let the flash fill in the action of the rider. A note on flash: light freezes action, so if you’re shooting with a flash you don’t need to be shooting at super fast shutter speeds to freeze the rider in the frame (in fact, most cameras only sync with flashes up to 1/250 sec.)
The Background: A cool background can make a good photo extraordinary. As you’re riding around your lake, river, bay, or other body of water check out the shoreline and look for things that would look cool in the background of a photograph. Or, if all you’ve got are big houses that make for messy backgrounds and take away from the action of the rider, try shooting the opposite direction so you’re looking out over the rest of the lake, rather than right at a bunch of houses. The farther you are away from the shore you’re looking at in your camera, the smaller it will be in the photo (and the higher the rider will look above it). See the photos of Danny Harf on Tampa Bay for an extreme example.
Layers: using layers in your photo can make them more dynamic, as long as they aren't interfering with the subject too much. Check out the photos of Andrew Adkison in South Africa or Amber Wing at The Projects to see how having other elements in the photo beyond just the rider can make the image have a little more visual impact.
Off the water: just because your buddies aren't riding anymore doesn't mean you can't find a cool photograph. Keep shooting. Pay attention to what the light and shadows are doing and figure out a way to use them to make a unique picture.
Think different: this might be the most obvious, but it goes a long way. Your photography will get noticed a lot quicker if you can separate yourself from everybody else. Think of all the different ways to make a photograph unique and mix and match until you get what you're looking for. If you're at an event, go to where all the other photographers AREN'T standing so you won't have the same shots. Find different angles, use different lenses… just think different and make something cool looking. If your first idea doesn't work, try another.
Equipment: despite what you may think, this should actually be the least of your worries. Just like the brand or year of a board doesn’t make a wakeboarder, neither does the brand or year of camera equipment make the photographer. Work with what you have and master it until you feel making an investment in camera equipment is the right thing to do. Obviously you might be limited from some things if you don’t have specific items (i.e. a flash for low-light situations, or a water housing for tube shots), but that isn’t preventing you from making great pictures with the equipment you do have.
Typically wakeboarding photographers will have a range of lenses, a couple of camera bodies, a couple of flashes, and some other gizmos in their bag of tricks. But, this is their office so to speak and what they make their living off of, so they need to have all of it. Here’s a fairly typical camera bag for pros.
16-35mm f2.8 – this is a wide-angle lens. I use it for tube shots, when I-m floating in the water, or on land up close to an obstacle like a slider.
28-70mm f2.8 – this is a midrange lens. I don’t use it as much as my others, but I do use it when doing extremely close chase boat shots (i.e. 6-10 feet from the rider).
70-200mm f2.8 – this zoom lens is the workhorse of most pros. It can be used from chase boats at all angles, from within the towboat, or pretty much anywhere else.
300mm f2.8 – this is probably the least needed out of everything in a pro's bag, and isn’t found in everybody’s (including mine; I used a 300 f4 because it’s a lot smaller and easier to travel with). It is great for shooting from land, or if you want to shoot really tight from a chase boat or in the towboat.
15mm fisheye f2.8 – fisheye lenses provide unique images and can be really cool when used correctly. They are often used with tube shots, both in front of and behind the rider. They can also be used on land when up close to objects like sliders.
50mm f1.4 – this is the “standard” lens in 35mm photography (i.e. it’s about the same view as the human eye) and is popular among almost all pro photographers. I use mine regularly for lifestyle and portrait stuff. It’s faster, so shooting in low light is easier.
Flash – flashes are great for low-light situations, or adding different affects to images by using them off the camera with remotes.
Light meter – These aren’t as essential anymore with the advent of digital photography (because now you can literally just look on the back of the camera to see if you got the shot), but they are still good tools to have for the serious photographer as most are more accurate than the light meters built into cameras, which are often fooled by dark water or well-lit hillsides. A light meter is practically a must if you’re shooting slide film.
Water housing – a must if you’re going to try shooting from a tube or as a sitting duck. Cameras and water don’t mix, if they did we wouldn’t need water housings. Although Rodrigo Donoso became famous for using a couple thick, freezer style Ziploc bags and just cutting a hole for the lens to stick out a bit. It works, but can be risky.
Tube – a good tube is essential for tube shots. Don’t inflate them all the way as you want it to absorb some of the rollers you might encounter, rather than springboard you off. I enjoy the large, flat tubes without any holes in them so I can crawl around and even kneel or quasi-stand to get different angles.
When I'm shooting, these are some of the things I try to keep in mind.
- What is the light doing and how can I use it creatively?
- What does my background look like?
- What angle would be best for this situation? What angle would be different and possibly look cool?
- How can I mix things up? Shoot closer, farther back, lower down, higher up? Different lenses, different settings?
- How can I compose this to make it unique, have impact, and still be easy to read?
Have fun: Not much beats a day spent on the water. Warm weather, buttery water, hanging out with friends, listening to music, and riding are just some of the ingredients that make up the recipe we call wakeboarding. Hopefully with some of the tips and pointers written above, documenting all the fun with your camera can be a new part of the recipe. Remember to have fun. You’re not going to get magazine quality photos the first time you pick up a camera and take pictures of your buddies riding, but you’re probably going to enjoy doing it. The best way to get better at photography is to take more pictures. Film is cheap (it’s developing it that can be expensive sometimes). If you use digital your learning curve is even lower. Just keep shooting. Before you know it you might be reading your name in the corner of a full-page photograph splashed across the photo section of mag. Good luck and don’t forget to put the board on and take get your shred on every now and then!