I've always been amazed by photographs of big waves and surf.
Back in 2003, my friend Jim Watt learned about my interest in photographing big waves, and invited me to join him on the North Shore of Oahu to photograph big waves breaking in Waimea Bay. He had gone there a few times before and worked out the right times to be there to see big waves. Like all good surfers, Jimmie followed weather, buoy, and tide reports, and gave me a ring when he figured it was a good time to come out. My assistant at the time, Mike Ready, and I flew out to Oahu and met Jim (thanks Jim, we had some good times and you were so generous with your time and conversations).
I've been to Oahu before but had not spent much time on the North Shore, other than consuming the famous shaved ices at Matsumoto's, in the surf and North Shore town of Haleiwa. There are no "big" or "name brand" hotels on the North Shore. It's about an hour drive from Honolulu, and even now, the North Shore feels much more peaceful and countrified than the city of Honolulu. That's a plus, but everything has both advantages and disadvantages.
One disadvantage was that we had no choice but to stay in a flea-ridden, seemingly dangerous set of shacks near Waimea Bay. I think it was called "Surfers Paradise"; it was not expensive, but it was not a desirable place either. Rumors abounded of an Italian photographer who had spent the past three months there, photographing surf and surfers, and had just days before had all his camera gear and even worse -- his entire bag of exposed film -- stolen. If there were bedbugs anywhere, then this place would have had bedbugs. We were careful not to show off our camera gear and managed to get some sleep. By the way, the Foodland grocery store on the North Shore is nothing short of a miraculous paradise of food and custom-made sandwiches. And the North Shore itself is incredible -- just a few short miles of beach, usually not too crowded, a small road going through it -- boasting the names of a dozen world famous surf spots.
As it turned out, I got a few decent shots from that trip, but nothing spectacular. I realized that if I really wanted to get good wave shots, I'd need to rent a room and spend more than a few days there. In November and December of 2008, I rented a two bedroom condo in the town of Wailua on the North Shore from Tom Walsh, the brother of my good friend Dan Walsh (thanks for putting up with me, Tom). This condo was on the seventh floor of a drab building in an area nicknamed "Concrete City." The entire area was depressing -- but convenient to all the famed surf spots of the North Shore. My living room was pleasant, with a view of the ocean and a nice breeze. Luckily Tom had loaned me a futon to sleep on. My friend Eric Cheng visited, I put him in the furniture-less, view-less back bedroom, and he did not bat an eye. That guy can put up with anything. I'd like to tie him up to a chair and take away anything computer or smartphone related, though, and then see him sweat!
Oh, by the way, once you are near Waimea Bay, photographing the waves could not be easier. Dozens of photographers, on days that the swell and weather is right, will gather on the north side of the road that passes Waimea Bay. It could not be easier; you just have to get the timing right. You are NOT in the water -- you are on a hill overlooking Waimea Bay, shooting the waves with a long lens. Starting at sunrise, the sun will light up the waves dramatically. I like shooting waves from the water, but there's no effing way I was going anywhere near big waves in Waimea or anywhere else. I am not stupid; like Clint Eastwood says, "a man has to know his limitations."
In 2008 and before, I knew, without a doubt, that my office and my agents would license the resulting wave images and eventually make a profit. I just needed to put in the time and money, and be reasonable with my expenses. I did not stay in the Turtle Bay Hilton at $400 per night; I rented a condo for two months for $2400 or something like that. I did not rent a convertible Mustang to drive around in; I rented a cheap compact from some place called "Car Rent 4 Less."
I did not care that there were thousands and thousands of surf and wave shots already out there, many looking exactly like the ones I was going to shoot. A big part of the business was and still is simply getting the images into distribution. I was right; the resulting images have sold repeatedly, and I've made a profit on that particular trip. Of course, that was not the real reason I went out there. Being able to spend two months on the North Shore of Oahu, and justifying it financially, was very cool...and fun.
I am sorry to say, though, that I can no longer depend on traveling to a place, taking great images, creating a photo story, and eventually making a profit on the resulting images. The business has changed completely. Just about all of my old magazine and book clients are gone.
Oh well. The surf has been up at my local beach the past week, and I had two epic days of bodyboarding in the cold waters here. I am always amazed at the big wave surfers that I saw in the North Shore and around California -- my limit is probably 6 or 8 foot waves. I get plenty scared, with good reason, around even those relatively small waves.