Behind the Shot: Photographing Night Surfing at the Oakley Pro Bali
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As head photographer for the Oakley Pro Bali in Keramas, Indonesia this June, Russ Hennings juggled the typical challenges of covering a large, pro surf event. Joel Parkinson won the entire event, but earlier in the week, the pros hit the waves, at night, and Hennings was there to shoot the action.
Adventure: Have you shot night surfing before? Where in Bali were you shooting?
Russ Hennings: This was the first time I had shot night surfing in Bali. On my previous visits, most of my shooting ended when the sun went down. This year we had the opportunity to use stadium lighting for the Oakley Pro Bali event. The wave event was held at a hotel built next to it—the hotel was built by surfers. As surfers, we always want the best tides and conditions to surf in. Sometimes these conditions don’t exist except for at night.
A: Tell us about the lighting set-up for the event.
RH: The hotel erected two stadium-style lights aimed toward the water. I have shot in the dusk before, with the use of flashes and remote triggers, but never in the pitch black, with ambient lighting. This created an obstacle that I found challenging and fun to tackle! I chose to use only the ambient lighting of the stadium lights to light the surfers. Oakley was throwing a party at the pool of the hotel and they had a massive light show going on there. To capture all the lights from the party and create a dramatic angle from the stadium lights, I had to venture to the sea.
A: So, you shot at night, on a Jet Ski, from the sea?
RH: I asked the water patrol to do me a favor and take me out during the night. Placing ourselves in the middle of the ocean, in the dark, where people were surfing eight-foot waves, with the reef six-feet underneath us, is a calculated risk, which that put all of our years of experience in the water to the test. The result was worth every penny.
A: Where did you position yourself to get this shot?
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RH: When I went out on the Jet Ski, I first had to assess what angle would work. I was limited to my exposure and film speed, but this year I have been working with the Canon 1DX, which has a sensor capable of shooting at very high ISOs. I found myself pushing the sensor to the limit. In surfing, the action moves very quickly, so you need a shutter speed of at least 1/500. Any slower and I would get too much motion blur. The image stabilization helped counteract the rocking of the waves and the large aperture made for a bit more light coming through the glass. These elements determined the thresholds of my images and I had to see how far I could push the ISO and get a good balanced exposure; I was able to push the ISO to 12800. I have never used this setting before, but the conditions forced me to it. I was really quite happy with the results.
A: Photographing night surfing brings a fair amount of unforeseen variables. What was the most challenging thing to manage?
Being in the spot to obtain the shots I created put us in a very dangerous place. We were not able to see any of the waves coming at us in the night. There were waves breaking in all different spots and in all different sizes. Several times we were caught off guard and had to bail from our position to avoid the breaking waves. Once, a 10-foot wave almost caught us and our only escape was to ride on the shoulder of the wave to avoid flipping the ski. Being a Surf photographer, you learn to expect the unknown. Surfing is so dynamic, you have to be ready for anything to happen and when it does, your settings and composition had better be spot on.
To see more of Russ Hennings’ work, visit his website http://www.russhennings.com/