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How To Nail A Water Shot with Zak Noyle

| posted on February 14, 2012

Noyle lines up with Jesse Merle-Jones in Tahiti. Photo: Noyle

Nothing captures the intensity of a heavy wave quite like a well-executed water shot. Riddled with difficulty and danger, shooting from the lineup has a substantial learning curve, and just outright isn’t for everyone. But if you’re apt to try your hand, SURFER Staff Photographer Zak Noyle has some insight into what it takes to pull off a stellar water shot.

Shoot With The Right Lens: I typically favor a fisheye lens in the water. It allows you to get as close as possible to all the action. When you do it right, you can literally be in the barrel with the surfer. Right now, I’m using the Canon 8- to 15-mm lens but I also use a canon 70- to 200-mm F4 long lens in the water with zoom controls on my housing. For beginners, I’d recommend a 50- or 85-mm prime lens; it’ll give you just enough space to be safe and learn without being right in the impact zone.

Protect Your Camera: Essentially, a good housing will keep your camera dry and safe. There’s a lot of different housings you can get, but a good one should enable you to use all of your normal camera functions with ease. I only use SPL waterhousings; I’ve tried and tested others, but SPL is the hands-down best. I swim out in the largest surf possible and don’t want a housing that could shatter with one hit to the reef. I’ve basically put my housings through the ringer, and they still function perfectly.

Train Before You Swim: I train several times a week, including Bikram Yoga two to three times a week to help stay limber. I also do 30 minutes of cardio on an exercise bike followed by a light work out every day. It’s always a good idea to swim laps in a pool with and without fins as well.

Know Your Break: With any lineup, whether you’re familiar with it already or not, you always want to get a good handle on exactly what the waves, currents, and conditions are doing before you jump in. You’ll hear this a lot, but if there’s a lifeguard on duty, always check with them if you’re at all unsure. It’s their job to know exactly what the break is doing. I’ve had several close encounters in the water where my pride got the better of me. You need to always know your limits and stay humble in the ocean.

Line Up Your Target: Pulling off a good fisheye shot isn’t an easy thing; a foot or two too high or low, inside or outside, can make all the difference. It can make a 10-foot wave look like a 4-foot wave and a 4-foot wave look like a 10 footer. It’s all about how and where you position yourself between the wave and the surfer. I’m constantly watching the landmarks on the beach and the surfers in the water. Every spot and session is different. To pull off a good water shot, you need to know exactly how the wave is forming; you want to always be on your toes and ready to move. You need to be able to move and turn back and forward in a moment’s notice—it’s what makes the difference between a web photo for Facebook and a cover of SURFER magazine.

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  • Jeremiah Sparks

    Nice words Zak you have done well to explain on how to get a good water shot. Can you explain how you focus your camera while you are swimming in the biggest possible waves ever ? You must be a big guy to handle such challenging conditions.

    It sounds like its allot of luck, swimming, weaving, turning, when can you frame your image ?

  • fatc

    good advice but if there is any advice i would give to fellow water photogs it would be, “know how to surf, and have a good grasp on the rhythm of the ocean.” Also a good rule of thumb is, “if your going out with a fisheye, you are going to get pounded, just embrace it. oh yeah and protect your face when you think you are going to get pounded. would want a 5 to ten pound housing getting ripped out of you hand knocking out your teeth.”

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