I feel that some things are meant to be and you just have to trust your instincts and go for it when the unexpected happens. I had a trip with my wife booked for Maui for the end of November to early December and I had the intention of bringing less gear than normal so we could have a relaxing vacation together. That said, when packing I still managed to sneak a Nikon Z 7, Z 6, D5, Ronin S, Drone and an assortment of lenses including my new 500PF that I was very excited to be able to get for this trip into my luggage. My hope was to be able to capture some good windsurfing, surfing or whale images at some point, so I was prepared, but I had no plans and no expectations.
We arrived late evening and the next morning we went downtown Paia near where we were staying to a coffee shop and my wife noticed that there was surfing on the TV, and it was live, and happening a 30 minute drive from where we were at the famous JAWS surf break (a.k.a. Pe’ahi). Wow… I was shocked, because the perfect mix of conditions to make "Jaws" break is rare, usually happening about 5 to 8 days a year, with some years having as few as 2 days, because the break has to be large enough to get over the reef. When it does go off, some of the top surfers in the world fly out for a Big Wave surf competition which happened to start that morning while we were having our coffee. Suffice to say we took those coffee’s to go, hopped into the car, quick gear up at our accommodations and off to Jaws. There we found a police officer at the entrance who told us they cancelled the competition because the waves were too big and someone got hurt. I decided to go anyway and drag my wife with me by foot down an extremely muddy 2km road just to get to a viewpoint where we could even see the waves and if anything was still going on there. Trust…that’s what I kept telling myself as I tried not to bail into the deep slick red mud with all my gear. We passed many people who had fallen in and just gotten covered and were turning back. My wife had only sandals and had to go bare foot in spots so I forged ahead for her to catch up, I was literally jogging with all my gear on the dry spots to get there as quickly as I could. My lovely wife understanding and supporting my passion, as I definitely had some making up to do later on in the trip!! I arrived, somehow without falling in, albeit many close calls, covered in mud to about my knees. Sure enough the competition was on, the waves were the biggest I had ever seen and there were some of the best surfers in the world riding them! That coupled with my new Z 7 and 500PF I was in photographic paradise and it was go time!
Gear Tips for shooting Extreme Sports
On any trip, you never really know what to expect. So bring extra memory cards, lens wipes and charged batteries in case you need to hit the ground running. New mirrorless gear is smaller, lighter and more travel-worthy than ever. Nikon’s new PF lenses provide mind-blowing quality with weight and size savings. If you really want to go light without compromising quality it might be worth trading up. Make sure you have a comfortable, rain resistant backpack to keep your gear safe and I recommend a waterproof foldable dry bag to fit over your pack and a small one that you can fit your camera and lens in and wrap around your lens and clip to protect from saltwater spray when shooting.
Lately I have been enjoying back focus more and more to ensure precision on the mirrorless cameras. In this scenario the surfers would come into frame very quickly so I would prefocus with back focus on a wave cap at the approximate distance of where I expected the surfer. I would then use back focus to zero in on the surfer and follow once they appeared in frame. If there was too much water spray I would sometimes take my thumb off back focus and continue to follow the subject so the autofocus wouldn’t get confused and jump, then lock on again when I was in the clear. I also use a combo of single point AF and dynamic area AF point and precompose my image with the focus point where I want my subject to be in the frame. With sports photography I usually leave some negative space in front of the subject to show a sense of motion. Here I had to factor in what compositions balanced the energy output of the surfer with that of the waves at their maximum. It can take some practice to master back focus, focus point adjustment and the trigger all together but thats why we practice, so we can nail the shot when we have the opportunity.
The actual break for Jaws is quite far away, even though I climbed down the cliff part way for different elevations to shoot from, so you need a long lens to get great shots. Most of my images in this article were captured with my Nikon Z 7 and 500mm PF lens with or without my 1.4X Teleconverter which paired extremely well with the lens giving me 700mm to work with. For capturing the speed of the athletes, freezing the water and reducing any shake with such a long focal length I was shooting at 1/2000sec and above. Most of the time I tried to shoot at 1/3200sec when there was enough sunlight to ensure everything was crisp.
Virtual Horizon and Stability
I can’t stress enough to try and get your image right in camera to avoid having to crop in and lose megapixels in post. I love that the mirrorless cameras have heads up display options so you can see a virtual horizon overlay through the viewfinder. If you have a DSLR, you might have other options to show virtual horizon in your meter display area. If you train your awareness to see this meter while shooting and focusing on the subject you can get perfect horizon lines every time. You can also turn the grid on in your viewfinder to help you line things up. I personally always prefer the grid to the default camera settings without it. Another good sports photographer technique is to put your camera on a monopod or tripod and use a video head or one that you can lock the side roll and just enable up-down and pan movement. That way you can level your tripod, lock the roll to line up with the horizon and pan side to side or up and down only. This can also help reduce arm fatigue with a big lens and significantly reduce camera shake.
Exposing for the Highlights
When you have waves or snow make sure you expose for the highlights. It would be a shame to be capturing these amazing waves, but have no detail in them. In this case the subject being much darker than the white caps of the the wave could fool your meter and overexpose the waves. You can compensate for this manually like I do or use exposure compensation or try highlight-metering option available on many new cameras. In the field it can be tough to evaluate if you have overexposed highlights. For that reason I turn on highlight display in my playback display options and in image review see what areas are flashing out of gamut or blown out details. A few specular highlight flashes are good, but if a majority of your wave is flashing no detail, then exposure compensation of some kind is necessary.
Get it right in-camera! At sporting events there is usually some break time in-between sets, etc. That’s perfect time to evaluate your images and tweak your sharpening, saturation, contrast, clarity, exposure and white balance. Zoom in to 100% in your viewfinder if you are mirrorless or back of screen if DSLR and take some time to ensure your settings are optimal and that will save yourself hours in post and ensure you got it right, right now.
Whats the moral of this story? Opportunity + Preparedness + Trust In the Moment = EXCELLENCE.