Surfing the Street: learning a new dance

Fumbling. Awkward. Nervous. Uncomfortable. I’m out of my element. I feel like I’ve been dropped into the middle of a dancefloor and I’m the only one who isn’t moving to the music. My flailings sometimes look OK, but really, I’m all over the place. Where am I?

Interesting? Maybe. What I’d call a good photo? Not really.

I’m taking photos on a busy street. I hardly know what I’m trying to do, let alone how to achieve it. Waves of people – a tour group here, a surge from a tube station there – push me around. Overwhelmed, I find a calm spot, put my camera back in my backpack and sit down for a breather. I feel disappointed, but no-one is judging me. I’m alone in an ocean of humanity.

For someone who has spent the past eight years in and around the real ocean, street shooting shouldn’t be such a problem. I’m not going to get dumped onto the sand, or worse, a coral reef. I can’t drown. Water isn’t going to flood my camera. Why is it so hard?

I was chatting to a new friend the other day and tried to explain the feeling of surf photography. While I was never an expert (some of the blogs linked right have seriously good surf photography on them, or check out the likes of Trent Mitchell or Ray Collins) I was starting to get the hang of what it took to take a good shot.

One of my favourite surf shots… so many colours, all converging down the line.

It’s far from easy. Coming to grips with the many faces of the surf zone takes years. A good water shot requires the physical fitness to swim in big waves (dragging a camera housing), the right settings, a knowledge of when and where to shoot, perfect timing and often a link up with a rider. When out in the surf, you need to dodge rogue waves, fight for position against currents and, often, hang your arm out into the barrel for so long that you get dragged over by the wave and smashed. I’ve had whole sessions where I only managed to get in the right spot once or twice because of these issues!

When things go right, the time and frustration is worth it.

Facing all those challenges started to become second nature. Sure, I never pushed myself too hard in big swells, but I never needed to. Naively, I thought that the skills I’d learned would help me when the time came to have a go at street photography. The similarities are striking, on the surface at least. Both surf and street shooting are dynamic, with almost all elements out of the photographer’s control. The light is variable and tricky, the subject is part of a chaotic, moving environment and the difference between a good shot and a throwaway can be a split second.

A tenth of a second later and this shot would be a blank mess.

If only life were so simple! Firstly, an empty wave can be as evocative and beautiful as a rider shot. Not so in street photography: people are everything. In the surf, boardriders are normally more than happy for a camera to be pointed at them; after all, they’re out to have fun. Sticking a camera in the face of a stranger on the street, who could be anywhere from happy to suicidal, is a different ball game.

The best ‘street’ shots capture those fleeting moments of emotion or tell a story; they can be intensely personal, so there’s a whole ethical dimension to wrestle with. That’s in addition to learning how to move in a street – in the same way thousands of hours in the surf has taught me instinctively how to negotiate a churning impact zone, it’s only by getting out there that I can hope to learn a new photographic craft.

I’ve got a long way to go. My footwork is clumsy and I barely know the steps I need to take. Hopefully, by the end of the year, I’ll be able to share some photos unlike any I’ve taken before: stories that tell of life, and living, with real people in London.

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Categories: photos, Problems, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Surfing the Street: learning a new dance

  1. I heard a National Geographic photographer (forget who)once say that when photographing animals or street scenes, he would choose his background, and then let the subject “walk into” it. That way you at least have control of something.

    Amazing surfing shots!

    • Thanks – yes, I think that’s one of the things I will need to think about. What do I want to actually take photos OF – look for a scene where it might happen, and be ready when it does.

  2. John

    Interesting how challenging the seemingly simple can be! Have you seen the finalists in the 2010 Nikon-Walkley Press Photo Awards? Apart from great pics, some comments by the photogs have some relevance to your thoughts. If interested, have a look at http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/galleries/gallery-e6frecgc-1225939137155.

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