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Surf shoot experience

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I had been eyeing projects where I could go into the water with a camera for a while. I had been looking to do a mini documentary about free divers, wild swimming or similar. Shooting a surfer was on that list too.

The “Mindset” documentaries for Create Health are to become a series of six. We’ve had Wanda Summers, an ultra-marathon runner with a broken back, 20-year old Millie, who has a rare genetic disease called cystinosis; and now we’re adding Chris Hignell, a racing driver, blind in one eye. Two further films are currently in production.

The fourth film in the series features Llywelyn Williams, a surfer from Abersoch, North Wales. At the age of sixteen, Llywelyn was hit by a car skateboarding into the village he grew up in. He lost a leg, but was determined to get back to surfing. He now is England’s number one in Adaptive Surfing and represents Wales in the ISA World Championships.

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I was assisted by Create’s art director Joe on this shoot, and we left on Sunday for a five-day trip. The drive up to Abersoch was an adventure in itself. We had torrential rain in Bristol and the first part of the 200-mile journey it was tough going on the motorway. It was going to be a long drive. More delay occurred when, after a quick stop for provisions, the car battery died on us. Green Flags came to our rescue an hour later and jumpstarted the car, but the rest of the trip we were anxious about the car not starting. Every time I turned the ignition Joe and I would look at each other and mouth a little prayer, especially on the more remote locations of our shoot.

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The closer we got to our destination, the better the weather became. Once we reached Snowdonia National Park, the sky was clear and Llywelyn texted ahead that we should come down to the beach as soon as we arrived in Abersoch. He was going to be out in the water. The conditions were great – not what we’d expected of North Wales!

We soon spotted Llywelyn’s crutches, wedged upright in the sand, providing us with the landmark we needed to locate him on the sweeping sand beach of Pwllheli. Empty, off-season beaches are my favourite. It felt great to be out there. We met Llywelyn when he came out of the water half an hour later, had a meal at the local pub and made a plan for the shoot based on the latest weather forecast.

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The shoot

There are a lot of shots in Llywelyn’s film, but for now I’ll just focus on the surfing as that’s what was new to me. Our first shoot day, the Monday, brought the right conditions, so out surfing we went.

Camera choices

I’d looked into what I could use to film a surfer in the sea and I’d spoken to an expert about taking my Sony FS7 into the water. This would give me the best quality picture and a consistent one with the rest of the piece too. I had been advised against this though, as it would turn the camera into a ‘projectile’ after a few waves. Housing for this camera is expensive as well. I’ve got Canon Log enabled on my 5D Mark IV, so that became a good alternative even though previous experience using this camera to film wasn’t all too great. I didn’t really have a choice.

Underwater camera housing, on a budget

When it came to housing I had to make do with a splash bag. There was no budget to get anything better. I ended up going for a EWA-Marine U-B as it was the only brand and model I could get at short notice. There’s not a lot of choice when it comes to specialist kit like this. It’s essentially a stiff plastic bag with a base and a protruding lens extension in which the lens clips into a ring to hold it in place in front of the window it shoots through. The U-B model has quite a short one with a maximum diameter of 77mm, so I couldn’t use my Canon 24-70 or 16-35 lenses. I had to go with a prime, my widest being a 28mm f/2.8, which is a vintage model and used to be belong to my father. The focus ring feels a bit loose, it’s all a bit light and plasticky and it’s not an L-series which means it’s not weather-sealed, but it seemed the best option, initially. The U-B splash bag has a ‘glove’ that gives limited access to the shutter button.

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Challenges - the conditions

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One thing I had been worried about was being in the sea for long periods of time. It was November and I expected it to be cold. I hadn’t been swimming for quite a long time, especially in the sea. That turned out to be OK though, probably thanks to the endurance training I was still on and definitely because of the 5mm O’Neill Psychotech wetsuit and flippers I was wearing – kindly provided by Abersoch Watersports.

What was interesting is that I started feeling ill on day two and the surfers put that down to my body reacting to the sea water I had swallowed. Luckily it passed quickly and I was OK a day or so later.

Challenges – the splash bag

There were a few challenges getting the surfing shots from the water. The first one was finding the correct way to get the camera in the bag, clipping the lens in and setting it up so I could use the controls. The second one was condensation. The lens fogged up the moment the bag touched the cold seawater. Joe had to open the bag, making sure no water entered it, clean the area between the lens and the window and sealing it all up again whilst trying to keep the temperature difference between the beach and the sea as low as possible. We used a bag of silica gel to help with the humidity levels inside the bag.

Challenges – getting the shots

Then there was the actual shooting itself.

Filming on the 5D is done in Live View, so you need to be able to see the screen on the back of the camera to frame the shot. View angles are a challenge and so is the thick, wet plastic in front of it.

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I tend to shoot with wide apertures, but in this case I knew my chances of nailing the shot would significantly improve if I had more depth to play with, so I shot between f/12 and f/16, using an ND filter to just take the top off. I didn’t want my shots to have a video look, but I really couldn’t risk going for all out cinematic and match the apertures to what I was doing on the FS7. I could have done with a polariser filter as well, but there was no way that was going to work in this setup.

Focusing. The only option was autofocus as you can’t actually turn the focus ring on the lens. I had to use the auto-focus button through the thick plastic of the bag, using the centre focus mode whilst aiming this on Llywelyn. Sometimes I accidently hit the water or the rocks behind him instead and the shot was ruined. You have to remember I was treading water and on waves at the same time.

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Waves!

Speaking of waves, I had not expected them to be so high! Technical issues aside, the swimming part was super hard. I got tossed around, pulled under, knocked over, pushed in the wrong direction all the time and I was in the water for hours on end. I swallowed a lot of seawater.

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The waves also caused another major issue. I think the EWA-Marine bag would have been fine in calm swimming conditions, but getting hammered by big waves is not what it seems to be designed for. I tried to shield the bag from the impact of the waves, but the lens got knocked out of the attachment ring more than once. This meant I had to swim, wade and stumble back to Joe on the beach, so he could snap it back into place (with the risk of water entering the bag and the aforementioned condensation issues) before I had to go back in, find Llywelyn and attempt to get more shots. Exhausting and frustrating.

It’s fascinating how surfers can read the sea and predict the quality of the waves and where they will go. Llywelyn often directed me to a specific spot in the sea and if he caught the wave he would ride it straight at me. I have to admit that waiting for the right wave was quite frustrating for me. There was a lot of hanging back and when Llywelyn got a good wave, I had trouble framing, focusing and not drowning and I fudged up a lot of good opportunities.

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Another chance

We got another chance of getting some surf shots on Wednesday and put what we learnt in practice. I put my 50mm f1/2 L on the camera this time and we put the camera in the bag whilst it was still cold when we left early in the morning. It went slightly better, even though the waves were even bigger than on Monday.

The conditions were perfect for aerial shots and we got some nice footage to compliment the in-water shots with too.

Conclusion

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All in all, shooting the surfing part of this project was harder than expected. It was a great experience and I learnt a lot though. It had always been something I wanted to do.

Thanks to Joe Ruddock for helping out and shooting the behind-the-scenes shots of me. Canon 5D Mark II raw files provided. Edits by me.

Watch the full film here.