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Adventure Photography: Tips From a Top Surfing Photographer

An often overlooked fact of adventure is that outdoor photographers are often the same calibre of athlete as the men and women they capture on film. From the early Himalayan masterpieces of the Italian mountain maestro Vittorio Sella to Ansel Adams’ striking portraits of the American West (Moon and the Half Dome anyone?), photographers have been taking us armchair adventurers into the breach from the comfort of our warm, safe homes for over one hundred years. The job is a demonic mix of physical prowess and artistic vision. Few subjects are as uncooperative as Mother Nature, so waiting for the stars to align, sometimes literally, is an almost super-natural attribute. Add human subjects to this mix and composing a photo becomes a task that would turn most lensemen into babbling piles of frayed nerves. But then, adventure photographers aren’t like other people.

One of best of this strange breed of adventurer is an Englishman named Mickey Smith, who despite being born and raised in Cornwall, has spent the last few years living on the West Coast of Ireland and documenting the local surfers’ forays into the frontiers of big-wave surfing. As a professional water photographer (someone who swims into the impact zone of big-wave surfing spots and shoots the surfers as they approach), he travels the world getting shots. But much of his best work still comes from the craggy, forbidding Irish coast in the form of surfing documentaries like Powers of Three, and Samhain. Check out the clip below to get a flavor of his intensely atmospheric style. Adventure recently caught up with Smith to find out more about his unique profession as well as what makes him tick.

How old are you and how long have you been taking photos (in general, and professionally)?

Mikey Smith: I'm 30 years old, I've been playing with cameras since I was about ten, and working professionally for ten years.

Being a water photographer combines both photographic and athletic expertise. Can you talk about what it takes to shoot big waves from the water?

In basic terms shooting in the water is a more three dimensional experience. It's encompasses both physical and mental skills at the same time. On one hand you're dealing with physical things--kicking, adrenaline, holding your breath, swimming through waves, keeping your bearings, understanding water movements, holding your position on the reef, watching for sets. But at the same time, you have to compose potential photographs, making sure your exposure and focusing is spot on, using your tricks of the trade to make your camera bite when it needs to, and documenting what you had set out to in the way you'd envisioned. There's a lot of instinct involved underneath those obvious things too. Waves break and move a lot faster when your swimming around in them as opposed to watching them from land.

It’s also a case of feeling comfortable, or at least tricking yourself into feeling comfortable. You try to keep your composure and focus, and not lose your nerve when situations get intimidating.

What are the dangers of shooting big-wave surfing from the water?

The obvious ones are drowning, and getting smashed up on the reef. Apart from that, the missions around the waves tend to be full of dodgy scenarios. You learn to adapt fast, I guess, keep a dark sense of humour and laugh it all off as best you can.

Can you list the injuries you have sustained over the last five years?

I’ve been stitched up a fair bit. I’ve snapped my upper left humerus in half. I’ve also broken my nose, gotten whiplash, and frostbite, but not all at the same time.

Can you recount a dangerous experience you have had while shooting waves in Ireland?

I could recount a few but we'd probably be here a little while! Getting lost at sea is never much fun. We've had a couple of scenarios in big waves on outer reefs (reefs located a considerable distance offshore) during the last three years where I've ended up isolated from the crew at a remote location in solid lumps (waves). The crew is looking for me, the swell is building, it’s getting dark, I'm swimming around big waves alone, miles from the nearest exit point, and they can’t find me amongst the swell lines. Those scenes can get pretty sketchy quickly. Other than that, my friends have gotten injured, one almost drowned, another broke his back, and another smashed his knee cap into five pieces.

Concerning your work in Ireland, one of the things that sets your photography and filmmaking apart is the way you are able to evoke not just waves, but the coastline that frames them. Can you talk a little bit about how you are able to capture the bigger picture while still focusing on waves and surfers?

Some of the locations I'm lucky enough to work in in Ireland are unbelievably beautiful in their own right, so I try to bring a sense of place into the photographs as well as showing the waves themselves.

I'm probably most passionate about shooting heavy waves in weird, spooky light with flares and hexagons and backdrops, and all sorts of strangeness going on -- anything that adds a touch of the surreal to the photograph. I love Those subtle little moments that are easily drifting past unseen and that are sometimes only seen by a camera shutter and remembered or witnessed through a photograph.

Can you describe some of the equipment you normally use to shoot water shots in Ireland?

In the water, I mainly work with Canon gear and Aquatech water housings. These two companies have always been the most reliable source of solid functional equipment for me. In Ireland, you’re dealing with a lot of low light and freezing conditions, so functionality and reliability are key. I used A 1dmk2, and a 1dmk4 body for photographs, along with lenses and ports ranging from a fisheye f2.8, 35mm f1.4 and a 50mm f1.4 (which is my work horse), to an 85mm f1.8, a 100mm f2, and a 70-200mm f2.8. Also, the 5dmk2s and 7ds have been incredible for filming recently, saving me burning a load of scarce cash on super 16 rolls.

That said, I still love loading up my old millican super 16 rig and using a few other weird and wonderful film bodies I can't really help dragging out from time to time.

What is the hardest part of making a living as an action sports photographer?

This is a strange subject for me because I don’t like to dwell on it to much... it can be unhealthy. I guess the hardest part is exactly that though--making a living. I make a living doing what I love, and would not change that for the world. For the most part however, I also fight for every penny just to survive. Surfing has a huge industry built around it and it makes a lot of money from the work my peers and I put into documenting the front lines of wave riding. You could argue that our imagery sustains the dream that they package up and sell.

If you were business minded, you'd look at the money and effort involved in doing what we do and just wouldn't touch the job with a barge pole. When you compare the importance of our role within the industry in relation to the risks and money involved, it doesn't balance out fairly. Doesn't even come close. In my experience at least, the surf industry can sometimes feel like a vampire that loves to drink its photographers blood, especially those putting themselves on the line working in and around heavy waves.

What is the best part about it?

However hard it might be to earn your crust, it rarely, if ever, feels like work to me. Not even in the depths of winter, when you've been in the salt for eight hours and are verging on hypothermic. It sounds cliched, but I genuinely love doing what I do. I get as excited about shooting and riding waves as I always have done, and I hope that never changes. That’s why I try not to let the money side of things come even remotely close to my motivations. I guess that’s where the industry has me over a barrel, because I'd still be doing it whether they were paying me or not.

Who or what inspires you?

My mum and my sister. They always inspired me to keep an open mind and heart and live with a grin. Also: my brothers of the salt. They are legendary lads with fire in their eyes who seem to know no fear. Finally: My brothers from my band Strays. They’re deep lads with a driven passion who connect through intense music.

Can you explain this quote: "I want to see wave riding documented the way I see it in my head and the way I feel it in the sea."

It's a personal experience riding waves. A feeling no one else knows. For me nothing else comes close, and I'm compelled to convey and try to share that awe through photographs. A wave breaks once and will never happen again. It’s a life of its own and we are privileged to share in that journey for a few seconds. The ocean is in perpetual motion, with a constant flow of energy moving through it, and has so many moods and faces. It's a positive magical environment for me. It clears my head and heart. It's taught me almost everything I know. Its surreal arena to work and play in and I want to document all of that and honour it as best I can. I'm striving to convey that beauty, that 'something' you cant explain but that makes you feel like rules don’t apply here in the wild. I think heavy waves convey something wild that’s deep and underlying and that we all recognise and connect with in some way.

Article sourced from: www.nationalgeographic.com

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