You have to take a lot of photographs to get one good one. It’s the nature of the creative path I have chosen.
Throughout my career I have very seldom set off on an adventure with the aim of coming home with one specific photograph. The odds of going to a location and having all the key elements align for a good photograph are slim at best. Add to that the fact that I deal with nature and those odds fall off a cliff.
This year I decided things were to be different. I have a sketch book that I am constantly adding to, line drawings of concepts and ideas I have for photographs that I think would work. So rather than just showing up in a new country with my cameras, ready to document what unfolds, I started the year with a project to photograph a perfect barrelling wave, being ridden – at night.
I started working with in water flash setups a number of years ago on a trip to the Maldives. At first it was somewhat of a novelty, something to do on a tropical surf charter when the waves were good and no one wanted to go back to the boat just because it was getting dark. The results were never anything special, kind of immature, with no real look or feel that held any weight.
I knew there was something in it though, there had to be a way to get a really good photograph, lighting up a wave as the sky faded to black. And over a four-year period I trailed different equipment, different locations and different photographic techniques.
There are so many parts of the puzzle to put together to get this to work that, when you look at what’s involved, it would be easy to simply give up and just say it is too hard. Or to write the idea off as a ‘one in a million’ photograph, that you may one day just happen to ‘jag’ but in all likelihood would never happen.
I am nothing if not persistent, the one thing I never want to be accused of in life is not trying hard enough. My theory being that a lot of photographs must be taken to have any chance of one being a keeper. A million to one shot is unlikely, but one million ‘million to one’ shots gives you a much better chance of success.
So I needed to assemble a team that would give me the most chances at a million to one shot.
I recently read a book about the ‘Ten Thousand Hour Theory’ where the author explains that to achieve a level of competency at any given task one needs to dedicate about ten thousand hours towards it before they have the basic skills to really start to master it. There are others who say that 10, 000 hours will lead to mastery, this theory said that 10,000 hours allowed one to begin to consider mastery. So I needed to think who I knew that had dedicated a lifetime to getting barrelled. Had spent the time to know intimately how to ride a tube that they could do it in the dark. I then needed a wave that I knew how to photograph and had spent enough time photographing that I could read it, understand where it was going to break, sense its movement and position myself in the right spot, in the dark. We then needed a swell, the right weather, the right light and the exceptionally complex equipment setup I had built to all work at the right time.
Just to add to the ‘million to one’ factor, the window of workable light to get this photograph was around 20 minutes a day. Think about that for a second. In a 24 hour period I needed a surfer to get barrelled on a perfect wave during a twenty minute window of workable light. And one more thing, usually when photographing surf, you set your camera to shoot multiple frames at a time, maximising the chance of getting a ‘keeper’. With the equipment setup I had just one frame. So making it count was important.
When I looked at all the requirements, there was only one wave and one surfer that ticked all the boxes. The wave was ‘The Slab’ in PNG and the surfer, Andrew ‘Darty’ Dart. I have spent a lot of time in PNG over the last few years and photographed the slab from every possible angle. I know where I am on the reef almost by Braille and it breaks in the same spot almost every time. What I know about photographing it, Darty knows a thousand times more about surfing it. If you added up the entire time he has spent in the tube at this wave it would make even the best tube riders in the world stand up and take notice. Take a three second barrel, multiply that by 20 tubes per session and multiply that by a whole season and your starting to understand how intimately Darty knows this wave. Can he surf it in the dark, hell yes. But even with this knowledge and skill by the end of this project Darty was covered in reef cuts with boards all dinged up. The fact is, no matter how well you surf, this wave has a nasty habit of reminding you who’s boss in the ocean.
By November 2014 I had the equipment tested and working, with a wave and a surfer that were up to the task. I booked a ticket and flew to PNG. The trip I was booked on was actually going to a different location to the wave I wanted to photograph, however I had a few nights either side of the trip to work with. Due to the lack of swell though, that turned into one session. I came out with one photograph, not the one I wanted, but a good one that proved the concept worked none the less. I returned to Australia and all I could think about was going back to try again. So post Christmas I flew back to PNG, arriving on the PNG Explorer on New Years Eve 2014. I was meant to get there on the 29th but, thanks to a delayed flight, I had to island hop my way to the boat and it took a few days to get there, but I digress…
So I was in the right location, with the right team and the right equipment. All we needed was Mother Nature to shine on the project. Instead of providing us with the amazing waves, and perfect conditions I have come to expect from my many visits to PNG in the past, she decided to batter us with a persistent low pressure system sending enough wind and rain to make me thankful that I was already on a boat, because if I wasn’t I would probably have considered building an ark.
Still, Darty and I were persistent. Every evening I setup the camera rig, regardless of the weather and swell. If the surf was nothing but a howling onshore mess we would still be in the water, just in case it glassed off on dark and we had the chance to photograph a few waves. I had three weeks booked on the boat and time started ticking away. We were getting shots, but not what we had come for.
The decision was then made to double our usable time. We would photograph every morning as well as every evening. For the next two weeks we were awake at 4:00am and in the water shortly after that. After all, that 20 minute window for light was available both am and pm and we were going to make the most of it.
There is a saying that persistence breed’s success. I tend to agree. The notion of a ‘one in a million’ shot started to be broken down when we started getting closer to the photograph I wanted to go home with, closer to the sketched line drawing in my note book. By the second week of the charter we knew we were getting somewhere. Then, we had a result. The photograph was the first real keeper, but still it was not 100% perfect. There is a tiny amount of splash in front of Darty’s face. The conversation of retouching the image to remove the splash was brought up and promptly dismissed. We would keep trying.
And try we did, 4:00am starts and late finishes every day. Thankfully the weather had improved, the swell kicked and PNG had returned to the tropical paradise that it usually is. During this time we did get some more images, even came close to ‘the one’ a few times. But I was still not satisfied with the result. What did happen though, on a steamy afternoon, sitting in the wheelhouse of the PNG Explorer was a discussion of concepts and locations on how we could push this kind of photography. I got out my sketchbook and nutted out a few technical details and immediately something became obvious. This idea, this way of photographing was very much in its infancy. If my initial forays into in water flash photography over the previous years had been the first chapter of a book, then this trip to PNG was only chapter two, we still have the rest of the book to write and the excitement was tangible.
When the three-week stint on the PNG Explorer came to a close and we were steaming back to port we stopped off for a swim at a beautiful little island to break up the journey. While we were all just chilling out and relaxing after surfing ourselves silly over the last few days of the trip the notion of retouching the small splash out of the best image we had managed to achieve was bought up, and again I dismissed it. I feel if I went down that path I would be robbing my audience of an amazing story and cheating the ‘one in a million shot’. But more importantly I would be robbing myself of the opportunity to go back and try again.
I think if you ran this trip through several times over, most times you would fail to get the perfect photograph. But that only makes the time when it does happen even sweeter. To explain why I want to keep going it is easiest to relay a conversation that happened in the surf one morning between Darty and myself. We were both exhausted, had been up burning the candle at both ends for several days in a row, when, in the half light of morning Darty pulled into an epic tube and I got a single frame off that looked like the timing and light was right. While he paddled back past me to the take off spot I was adjusting my camera settings in preparation for the next wave. Darty smiled and said: “How ridiculous are our lives, we’re both at work right now!” As I set up for the next shot, floating in the 30 degree water as the sun started to break the horizon, I laughed to myself and realised that it really didn’t matter if we didn’t get the shot that day. Both of us were having so much fun that we, no matter what, were going to keep trying and if we did that, if we kept trying then the million to one odds would continue to swing in our favour with every wave.
Before I go I need to say thankyou to a few people. There are a lot more involved than just Darty and myself. Firstly Andrew and Jude Rigby who own the PNG Explorer are the real stars of this show, without them none of this would have been possible. Then of course there is the crew, Neil, Malakai, Nelson, Pennyais, Hilde, Irene, Joy and Johnny Switch Foot. They kept the boat running and made no bones about getting up well before their normal call of duty to ensure I could photograph in the dark. And of course the guests aboard the Explorer who allowed me to surf and photograph with them during my time in PNG.
Enjoy your day,